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Are you one of the millions of Americans who wishes you could cut expenses and increase your income? Perhaps you recently (or not-so-recently) were laid off, had a child or found yourself at the receiving end of a nasty, budget-busting bill. Most of us have experienced at least one of these events. Did you have a nest egg to rely on? Did your employer provide you with paid maternity or paternity leave? For many, the answer to both questions is no. Without a financial safety net, what do you do when you’re faced with a loss of income and spiraling expenses?
About seven years ago, I found myself in this predicament. I was working part-time as a consultant when my husband was laid off from his full-time job as a technical trainer. We had some savings, but not the recommended amount, so it was an extremely stressful time for us. He received unemployment benefits and I was fortunate to be in an upswing with work, but still the loss of his full-time paycheck was devastating.
In addition, we lost our very affordable insurance coverage, which was replaced by considerably pricier COBRA coverage. With three children – and one with a seizure condition and developmental delays – we had no choice but to continue my husband’s employer-sponsored plan. My oldest son’s monthly prescription bill alone would have been more than $1,000 without that insurance.
After the initial panic subsided, we took stock and knew we had to make some changes. While my husband pounded the virtual pavement looking for a new position, I devised a plan to stretch our remaining income while reducing or eliminating expenses. Certain payments that were fixed - the mortgage and school tuition - could not be adjusted. However, there was plenty of wiggle room in other areas, particularly in our steep monthly grocery bill.
Please note: some of the steps I took may not be feasible to every situation or geographic location, but they're worth considering as they may spark an idea that is workable for your specific situation. If you have unique recommendations, please leave a comment at the end of this blog post and share your experience with our readers. Information is power!
Step 1: Cut Expenses
#1: Review your auto insurance coverage.
You may be able to increase your deductible and reduce your payments. This was one of the easiest changes I made. We use State Farm and their website makes it quick and easy to adjust both your deductible and coverage. If you have questions about coverage, consult your auto insurance agent before making any changes.
#2: Do you need 1,000 channels?
Consider changing cable plans or cutting the cord altogether. This one was a fight with my husband and three boys, for sure, but we eventually compromised with basic cable until our situation improved.
These days, companies like Netflix and Hulu offer great deals on monthly access (less than $10/month!). Amazon Prime members also have access to some great programming and it’s free with membership. In addition, if you’re an avid movie-goer, Redbox awards Text Club members with specials and a free Redbox movie every month just for joining. If you’d be content with the basics, consider investing $10 or so in an antenna. You’ll likely receive eight channels using this method. Don’t worry: now that channels are digital, the reception is far better than what bunny ears used to deliver!
#3: Sign up with coupon sites.
Select those that offer the best selection of discounts for what you typically purchase. It can be time-consuming to go through some of the sites, so pick a handful of your favorites and stick with them. We turned this task into a family challenge each week to see not only how much money we could save, but how many meals we could plan (and enjoy!) based on the coupons that were available.
#4: Join loyalty programs for discounts, perks and early access to sales.
Target offers Red Card members a 5% discount on everyday shopping plus extra discounts throughout the year. Customers can link an existing debit card or apply for the credit card version of the Target Red Card. The Red Card discount can also be applied on top of using Target and manufacturer coupons or when “Cartwheeling.” Bonus!
Some loyalty programs are based on points. Walgreens uses this type of system in their Balance Rewards program. Points are earned based on dollars spent. The trick to maximizing the benefits here is to buy what you use, but only when it’s on sale or you have a coupon that brings the price down. Walgreens is a convenience store and pricing generally reflects that. Big box discount stores like Target and Walmart, or even your local grocery store, are likely to have the same item at a lower price. However, if a sale or coupon can level the field, consider making your purchase where you can earn points. Balance Rewards members are also offered additional perks throughout the year like opportunities to earn bonus points and special discounts as a thank you for joining and maintaining a membership.
Make a habit of reviewing Walgreen’s weekly and monthly ads to plan your purchases. With a little effort, I was usually able to earn $50 in rewards over a couple of months of spending. That extra income helped me keep my brood in vitamins and Airborne (both pricier purchases) while on our downsized budget.
#5: Read local grocery ads and do the math.
I found it helpful – and yes, I geeked-out just a little bit doing it – to shop at each of the stores convenient to me on consecutive weeks. I made the same purchases each time to see where I would find the most bang for my over-stretched buck. Every household has staples and I used ours to find the least expensive store to buy them. I also checked out Amazon Pantry to see what kind of deals were available for the products I used most. However, I found Woodman's and Walmart were the most consistently lower-priced stores in my area and to this day, that's where I shop.
In some cases, it may pay to automate repeat purchases. In our household, that means peanut butter and dog food for starters. Sites like Amazon Pantry and Chewey.com offer subscriber discounts if you schedule a certain number of products over a period of time. In some cases, products ended up being 15% cheaper using this method. And because I’m a Prime member, shipping is free when I use Amazon’s service. (Chewey.com also offers free shipping if you spend a certain dollar amount. Sites with area brick and mortar stores offer similar discounts with no shipping charge if you pick up your purchase locally.)
#6: Find out if there are farmers’ markets in your area.
Farmer's markets are a great place to purchase really fresh produce at a price that does not reflect the middleman’s cut. In addition, you may also be able to score some fabulous deals if you show up near closing. Some growers will give away or sell steeply discounted produce that would otherwise go to waste.
#7: Still paying for a gym membership?
Consider giving it up in exchange for neighborhood walks/runs, in-house strength training (you can purchase inexpensive free weights, a medicine ball or resistance bands at places like Target and Walmart), or online fitness classes available on YouTube.
#8: Get your freebie on!
There are many places to find freebies these days if you don’t mind doing a little bit of leg work.
All kinds of free stuff:
Free beauty products:
Get free food by subscribing to newsletters or downloading an app. Restaurants may reward new members when they sign up, on their birthday or on their membership anniversary with freebies like a free entrée (with the purchase of a second entrée), free appetizer or something smaller like a dessert, coffee, bagel or taco. Check the fine print to find out what perks you can expect!
California Pizza Kitchen
Buca di Beppo
Steak ‘n Shake
Baskin & Robbins
These are some of my favorite restaurants but is by no means an exhaustive list. Check out preferred spots in your own neighborhood and see what kind of food freebies you can score!
Step 2: Generate Income
#1: Hold the mother of all garage sales.
This activity requires Mother Nature’s cooperation, but can be worth it if done with planning and organization. A garage sale has the potential to generate extra cash, keep you busy and declutter your home. Items that tend to do well at garage sales (at least in my experience): baby paraphernalia and clothing, children’s clothing and toys, and computer or camera gear.
It’s important to draw attention to your sale. Stores like Walmart and Target have a good selection of garage-sale signage (or materials to make your own) at reasonable prices. Post neat, bright and easy-to-read signs in a perimeter around your neighborhood and near busy intersections; ask to post fliers in any local buildings with community information boards; and consider placing an ad in your local paper. In my town, it costs $30-40 for a week-long ad that appears in print and online. This is a necessary investment to attract those who are actively searching for particular items or frequent garage sales.
#2: Not into garage-saling?
Try selling unwanted or unused items through social media. I belong to a group on Facebook that is dedicated solely to posting local-area items for sale.
#3: Buy discounted unused or partially used gift cards.
Cardpool.com and Giftcardgranny.com (among many others) sell gift cards at a discounted rate. The discount varies by store and may be for in-store or online use (read the details carefully before buying!). A Target gift card may be discounted by as much as 5-5.5%. If you used a discounted Target gift card to buy groceries in conjunction with “cartwheeling” and in-store or manufacturer coupons, your savings could be substantial.
#4: Do you use a credit card?
If you don’t already have one, consider applying for a Discover card (or another with a similar rewards program). My son, a college student, opened a Discover card about five months ago so he could start building up his credit history. In that time, he’s earned nearly $50 in their cash-back program. You have to wonder what the rewards would look like for someone using it to make larger or more frequent purchases for a family! Of course, this assumes that person would use the card conscientiously, make consistent payments, and not spend beyond his or her means ….
#5: Seek out remote work and freelance gigs.
Sites like Ratracerebellion.com are dedicated to listing current, legitimate opportunities from companies you’ll know (like Anthem, Humana, Amazon and many more). Check out www.onlinesurveysbyajbc.com for more information and consider signing up for our Ultimate Guide to Work-from-home Job Leads, a free resource for anyone interested in finding a full- or part-time work-from-home position or as-needed freelance gigs.
#6: Consider signing up for online paid surveys and focus groups.
There are many out there, like Harris Poll and Nielsen (among others), that are legitimate market research companies with extensive experience in the field of consumer research. For more information on this topic, read my blog post that details the background of several companies and discusses the do’s and don’ts of paid online surveys. Sign up and participation should ALWAYS be free and you should never be asked to submit sensitive information. Payment may be in cash, gift cards or points earned, depending on the site and activity. Consider signing up with more than one company to maximize the number of invitations and types of surveys you receive.
#7: Find a safety net.
Having trouble covering monthly expenses? Modest Needs, a nonprofit organization, provides small grants to deserving, self-sufficient individuals. You can apply for a grant to catch up on expenses rather than resorting to a payday loan company, which will cost you more money down the road.
Loss of income and sudden, unexpected expenses are stressful, unnerving events that may cause panic and depression. You can fight through it by being proactive and taking steps to stabilize your financial situation. Look at your situation from both sides (expenses and income), form a plan and stick to it until you achieve your desired outcome. Taking control of your situation not only puts you on course to change your circumstances but also puts you in a better frame of mind to weather the storm.
Stacy LeFevre writes about work-from-home opportunities, current events and anything else she finds interesting or frustrating for Onlinesurveysbyajbc.com, the online arm of A. J. Baron Communications.
A J Baron Communications has been in business since 1994. Over the last two decades, AJBC has evolved from providing virtual support services to small businesses and independent contractors to developing and executing internal research projects for companies of all sizes. AJBC also consults with organizations interested in starting or improving a telecommuting program and consumers seeking traditional work-from-home employment or legitimate paid survey opportunities. For more information about AJBC or work-from-home opportunities, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest or learn more here.
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