Ten ways you could be leaving money on the table - and how to avoid it
Some moments, like paying taxes or doing household repairs, invite the opportunity to get back more money than we think. Don't overlook these opportunities to get the cash you deserve.
Imagine withdrawing a large sum of cash from the bank, setting the tall stack of bills aside, and simply walking away. While most of us in our right minds would never do such a thoughtless thing, even the most financially responsible among us may "leave money on the table" every day without knowing it.
Take a look at these top 10 ways we miss out on money before you lose another cent.
Leaving Unclaimed Tax Refunds
Would you believe that on average, a self-filer in the U.S. may leave $460 on the table during tax season? Unclaimed tax refunds are commonly overlooked. It could be that you had an incorrect address on your tax return, or that you may have relocated, and your refund was delivered to your previous address. Some filers may also inadvertently list the wrong withholdings on their tax forms.
The best solution is to check with the Internal Revenue Service to see if you have any money owed you, and adjust your tax filing to maximize your refund each year.
Not Using Credit Cards or Under-Using Your Rewards
If you don't have a credit card, get one. If you have one in your wallet, use it — responsibly, of course. Having a revolving line of credit keeps your credit current and can help improve your credit score, meaning lenders will be more likely to grant you low interest rates on everything from auto to mortgage loans.
Also, don't overlook your credit card rewards. You may be passing up everything from free flyer miles to car rental insurance and points good toward all sorts of purchases.
Not Maximizing Your Employer's 401(k) Match
Your employer may offer its own 401(k) plan that you can use toward your retirement savings, but are you getting the most out of it? Many companies offer a matching plan — contribute a minimum amount, and they'll match the amount you set aside each paycheck. Contribute too little to your plan, and while you'll save money, you'll lose out on what's essentially free extra money from your job.
Double-check with your employer or human resources representative to see what the 401(k) match is; if you're allotting less than the company's percentage, you may want to consider raising your contribution.
Wasting Energy in Your Home
"Close the door, you'll let the heat out" is actually one expensive saying. Indeed, the average American home wastes 10 to 15% of energy costs due to improperly sealed windows, says Richard Apfel, president of Skyline Windows, in an article from the Credit Solution Program.
Your best bet is to hire a professional to check your house's insulation; while it may cost a bit up front, it'll save you for seasons to come. Some budget-friendly, DIY methods include caulking window frame gaps or using plastic film over them, or switching your furnace filters regularly. Don't forget to turn off lights when you leave a room, and use energy-efficient appliances, when possible.
Letting Food Spoil
It's hard to tell how long the food in your fridge, on the counter, or in your kitchen pantry will last — for proof, consider those bananas that can't seem to stay fresh for more than a few days. Even if you're diligent about saving money when you shop for groceries, you may be wasting money by letting your food spoil. According to statistics from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American wastes about $529 in food per year.
One trick is to chop up your fruits and veggies and freeze them; this will preserve them, so you won't have to throw them in the trash and buy new produce. Or, try juicing or pureeing these items for your next breakfast or dinner. It'll save you money in the long run.
Mismanaging Your Smartphone Data
In these tech-savvy times, people want access to the quickest, fastest smartphones around, but you may indeed leave money on the table by having mobile data you don't require. Some experts warn that if you use an unlimited plan, you might be buying more than you need — about 48% of AT&Tunlimited-plan subscribers don't use more than 300MB of data per month, according to Consumer Reports and mobile intelligence company Validas.
Checking your data plan with your cell phone provider should be your first course of action, but don't forget those daily savings; for instance, switching your phone from 3G or 4G to Wi-Fi modewill allow you a free network connection where they may be one.
Racking Up ATM Fees
ATMs are ubiquitous and a convenient way to get cash without waiting in line at the teller window — but use too many that are out of your bank's network, and you could be wasting more money than you're withdrawing. A few dollars here, a few dollars there can add up over time.
The folks at The Motley Fool recommend planning ahead with your ATM usage; always visit an in-network machine to avoid those fees. Consider online-only banks, many of which reimburse for ATM fees. It's a great way to keep money in your pocket — where it belongs — and not on the table.
Buying Name Brands Instead of House Brands
Groceries, toiletries, household products, medicine: We rely so much on those trusted name brands, but we're often wasting money by not opting for the store brands. Why is this? Many store-branded products are made by the name-brand manufacturers, and relabeled at a lower price. Check the ingredients list; it's often the same exact product, only cheaper.
Failing to Negotiate
We always hear how important it is to put on our negotiating gloves when visiting the car dealership — it's almost a tradition. But did you know that you can negotiate for other services? Too often, we take our phone bill, utility bill, auto insurance, and even our apartment rent at face value; we accept the price and simply pay it.
Call your providers. Don't be afraid to ask for a lower interest rate or monthly payment you feel you deserve. Be cordial and polite, and express that you've been a good, loyal customer. You may be surprised at how much money you can save when they respond favorably!
Trying Too Hard to Save
Sometimes, our attempts to save can result in losing money where we didn't intend to. We'll put off those minor car repairs to save a few bucks, until something major breaks and we're saddled with a huge bill. We'll delay those visits to the dentist until it's time to pay for those cavities we let set in. Or sometimes, we'll buy things we don't need simply because they're on sale.
The solution here should be intuitive: Spend your money wisely on the needs that count — when they count — and you'll save money in the long run.
This article first appeared at DealNews.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best personal finance bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.