This is an excerpt from Dollar Scholar, the Money newsletter where news editor Julia Glum teaches you the modern money lessons you NEED to know. Don't miss the next issue! Sign up at money.com/subscribe and join our community of 160,000+ Scholars.
Growing up, I never had a store-bought birthday cake. You know the ones that are stacked in the display case, with messy cursive writing, plastic balloon toppers and that delicious-yet-slightly-chalky-tasting icing?
My grandmother, who for years owned a sweets shop where she made wedding cakes professionally, always baked birthday cakes for me and my brothers. We could pick the flavor — chocolate, yellow or marble — and a design she’d carefully illustrate on top with the use of a KopyKake projector. One year she even drew Nick Jonas on mine.
In my family, birthday cakes were just one of those items you didn’t buy. Oma always had it covered. Why would we pay extra for something if we didn’t need to?
Now that I’m older, I’m realizing that concept extends to other stuff, too. Take generic medicine, for example. If the ingredients are the same, I don’t need to spring for a name brand. Basic ibuprofen works just as well and at a fraction of the cost, so I can skip the costly Advil.
To that end, I asked experts to help me round up 20 items I (and probably you) are spending money on that we shouldn't. There are exceptions to everything, of course, depending on your own personal situation and priorities, but speaking generally, here is…
A Big List of Things You Shouldn’t Pay For
ATM fees. You can avoid surcharges simply by planning ahead. Either visit an ATM affiliated with your bank or use your debit card to get cash out at the grocery store. Alternatively, get a checking account with a financial institution that will reimburse you for ATM fees.
Books, according to financial coach Lauren Greutman. Most libraries now have extensive collections of e-books that cardholders can check out online and get delivered “right onto your Kindle or iPad,” she says — “that’s one thing people can stop buying right off the bat.”
Your credit report. Under federal law, you’re able to request one free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) every 12 months. Right now, due to the pandemic, you can request one every week. Visit annualcreditreport.com.
Credit monitoring. The aforementioned credit reports won’t actually provide you with a score. If a number is what you seek, don’t get fooled into paying for a credit monitoring service. Sites like Credit Karma and Credit Sesame will generate a score — and keep an eye on your financial activity — for free. Greutman says your credit card may also offer a credit monitoring service free of charge.
Bottled water. Americans spent a whopping $36.3 billion on bottled water in 2020. Don’t join that crowd — do as Greutman recommends and get a reusable water bottle. It’s better for the environment, too.
Certain cleaning supplies, like the solutions that get the gunk out of garbage disposals and Keurig machines. “Vinegar and water do just fine,” Greutman says. Add baking soda to that list, and you’ve got a combo of items that will help you clean pretty much anything. Even clothes.
Unused subscriptions. The average American has five retail subscriptions that add up to $37.73 a month. If you’re among them, and you’re using all of your accounts regularly, OK. But chances are you have a subscription or two you’ve forgotten about (free trials that turn into monthly payments are especially sneaky). “Putting a little reminder in your calendar once a month to be like, ‘Hey, self, check your Apple subscriptions and then go through and delete anything you're not using,’ is really critical,” says Erin Skye Kelly, author of Get the Hell Out of Debt.
COVID-19 tests. The federal government recently launched a program that will deliver free rapid tests to Americans. Request yours by clicking here or by calling 1-800-232-0233. (Also, if you end up buying more independently, your insurance should reimburse you.)
A background check for a job. Sometimes employers ask applicants to pay for their own background check. There’s not actually a federal law against this; however, states like California and Louisiana expressly prohibit it. Legal or not, it’s a sketchy practice that could end up costing you money and the job.
Spotify Premium. Greutman suggests you “just suck it up and listen to the ads” on the free edition of Spotify and/or Pandora. YouTube playlists can be a good workaround to let you listen to music for free, too.
Unitaskers. Good Eats’ Alton Brown famously hates fancy kitchen gadgets that only perform one job. Meat claws? Just use forks. Margarita machines? Get a blender. There are a few exceptions, like rice cookers, but you get the idea. Multipurpose is the move.
Fancy clothes. Greutman says dressing for events like New Year’s Eve or a wedding can be an expensive trap. “Don’t go buy something just to wear it once and have it sit in your closet,” she adds. Save money by opting for a service like Rent the Runway, where a one-time rental of this $598 floral gown is just $90.
The bottom line
There’s a lot of stuff I’m paying for that I don’t need to. Kelly says it’s good to constantly re-evaluate the items I’m buying and make sure I’m spending mindfully.
“It's so boring, so not sexy, but it's the $4 [charges] that are killing you — here, there and everywhere,” she says.