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Published: Sep 13, 2016 27 min read
Woman doing her home finances
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No one wants to go into debt. Unfortunately, keeping those red marks out of your ledger is easier said than done. After all, the typical American will pay an average of $279,002 in interest over their lifetime. (You can calculate your personal lifetime cost of debt here.) Luckily, there are plenty of steps you can take to avoid living in the red. Here are 50 smart spending habits, budgeting tips, money-saving strategies and more that can help you stay out of debt.

1. Make Shopping Lists (& Stick to Them)

Before heading out to run errands, write down what you need. If it’s not on the list, don’t buy it. Cutting back on impulsive purchases can help keep your spending in check.

2. Talk About Money

Even if one person in a relationship tends to handle financial matters, it’s crucial for both people involved to know what’s going on. Take time to chat about your financial goals, priorities and struggles so you can help each other stay on track.

This tip goes beyond love and money: Talking to your peers about something you all deal with — money — can expose you to new ways of thinking about personal finance or help you find answers to questions you never knew you had. Others’ experiences can be immensely educational.

3. Read About Money

No one knows absolutely everything there is to know about personal finance — it’s a massive topic. Plus, things change. No matter what you’re interested in or have questions about, there are a lot of quality resources available on everything from budgeting to investing to getting out of student loan debt and everything in between.

4. Maintain Good Credit

A good credit score can save you on everything from interest rates on loans and credit cards to cable TV subscriptions, cell phone plans and insurance policies.

If your scores are currently looking stellar, you can maintain good standing by paying all your bills on-time, keeping your debt levels lowand adding a mix of credit accounts as you can afford to. If your credit is looking rusty, you can improve your scores by paying down big credit card balances, limiting new credit inquiries and disputing any errors on your credit reports.

5. Use a Budgeting App

There are plenty of apps out there that can help you establish a monthly budget based on how much money you have coming in and what you typically put your dollars toward. These apps will keep you on top on how you’re doing over the course of the month and let you know if you’re going in the red.

6. Try Sticking to Cash

You can’t overspend cash — once that $30 in your wallet is gone, it’s gone. So you can spend it on one dinner out or you can buy groceries that will give you a week’s worth of lunch. That’s up to you.

7. Make Coffee at Home Instead of Stopping at the Shop

This one can be a big challenge — your favorite coffee shop’s menu is so much more elaborate than what your Mr. Coffee or Keurig at home can do. But even cutting back on your shop visits a couple times each week can give your bank account some extra breathing room.

8. Turn Off Instant Online Ordering

Having 1-Click or a similar service turned on with your Amazon or other online account sure makes it easy to order the latest book in your favorite series or those new shoes you just don’t feel you can live without. But that’s the problem, right? It’s just too easy. You see something you like and one easy click of the mouse or tap of your finger and — boom — just like that, the item is at your door. Problem is, this quick and easy purchasing tool can really damage your budget if you aren’t careful. Giving yourself a few more steps to make an order happen can give you a moment to decide if you really need another pair of Toms or not.

Read: The First Thing You Must Do Before Paying Off Debt

9. Unsubscribe to Emails That Alert You of Sales

Your closet is full of T-shirts and shoes, but when that email comes in practically shouting at you about a deal, how can you refuse? So, you head to the store and before you know it, you’ve used your plastic for the T-shirt featured in the email, as well as a couple others that were just too cute to pass up. You have the discount coupon, so it’s all good, right? These purchases may be OK and even fun every once and awhile when your wallet allows, but had you not known of this sale, you may not have ventured to the store. Imagine if this happens every time you get one of these emails. Save yourself the temptation (and the inbox space) and unsubscribe.

10. Cancel the Memberships You Don’t Use

Do you remember the episode of Friends where Chandler tried to quit the gym? He decided it was finally time to stop letting $50 come out of his bank account every month for a place he hadn’t been to in almost six years. Whether you’re not using your gym membership or you only use one streaming service versus all the ones you’re paying for, it’s a good idea to look at the subscription fees you’re paying and see if there are any you could eliminate.

11. Visit the Library Instead of Buying Books

Your library card is probably the only plastic in your wallet that won’t hurt you, no matter how many times you swipe it at the register. If you don’t have one, or the one from your childhood expired, consider getting a new one. Libraries are full of books and movies you can borrow for free, helping cut down on your online spend.

12. Remember the Wi-Fi

It’s a good idea to always connect to your home and office Wi-Fi to reduce your cell phone’s data usage. Doing so can you avoid getting hit with hefty overage fees on your bill. And you also may be able to take advantage of reputable free Wi-Fi hotspots. Just make sure the network you’re hopping on is secure. You don’t want to risk having your identity stolen.

13. Pay Your Credit Card Balances More Than Once a Month

It can be all too easy to rack up credit card debt, given how simple it is to swipe your plastic and not think about those purchases until the very end of the month. But to avoid running up a balance you can’t pay off in full, consider paying your balance down every week or even every day from a linked debit card account. Note: this helps you reap the benefits of a credit card — rewards points, better fraud protections, etc. — without having to carry debt and pay extra in interest.

Read: Can a Debt Management Plan Hurt My Credit?

14. Tell Your Credit Card to Holler at You

You can also ask your credit card or debit card to let you know when you’re about to do something costly. Many issuers let cardholders set up spend alerts that will text or email them when they’re bumping up against their credit limit, about to miss a payment or have even have made a purchase over a certain amount. These alerts can be extremely helpful when it comes to monitoring your spending — and they can also help you readily spot fraudulent activity. Just imagine getting an alert about a $300 purchase while you’re at home watching TV half-asleep.

15. Remember to Redeem Your Credit Card Rewards

It’s important to note that credit card rewards can incentivize overspending, which makes them an iffy choice for someone trying to avoid debt. That being said, rewards credit cards can help you save money by way of cash back or some sort of redeemable points or miles. Just don’t forget you have them. Some rewards expire if you don’t use them. Even if they don’t, it’s important to check up on how many you have from time to time. Racking up a ton of points is only worthwhile if you actually redeem them at some point.

16. Prioritize Credit Card Payments

If you do wind up carrying balances on a bunch of credit cards, you may be able to pay your debts down faster by prioritizing payments. Make the minimums on all your cards, as a missed payment can wreck your credit, but put more money toward the card with the lowest balance or the one carrying highest the annual percentage rate. The former can be a great motivator, while the latter can keep your debts from snowballing. You can calculate how long it will take you to pay off your current credit card debts here.

17. Use Your Credit Card’s Price Guarantees

Oh no! You bought that thing that you absolutely couldn’t resist only to find it much cheaper elsewhere. You could be in luck if you used your credit card. Many credit cards come with price protection plans if you overspend on an item. Just read the fine print of your agreement, and provide the necessary documentation (some require advertisements.)

18. Tap Your Credit Card Warranty

Sometimes a thing goes on the fritz seconds after the store warranty expires. If you bought it with a credit card, again, you might be in luck. Some credit cards can double the life of your warranty up to a certain amount, meaning, you can replace the appliance or fritzy thing and not have to tap your savings.

19. Get a Side Gig

In case you haven’t heard, the gig economy is real and thriving. These days, savvy side hustlers are earning some dough by sharing their rides, starting a blog, running tasks for others, bidding for freelance work — you name it. If spending less isn’t curbing your debts, you may want to consider taking on a side gig to generate some extra income.

20. Sell Your Stuff

Looking for another way to generate some other dollars to stay out of debt? There are plenty of apps and websites out there that can help you sell your gently used clothing or start your very own online consignment shop. Bonus: these digital boutiques can help you recoup some cash on all those designer duds you bought back in your less frugal days.

21. Buy Used

When you’ve added something to your shopping list, think about first looking for it at a thrift store or an online retailer that sells used goods. Just remember that not all things are good to buy secondhand (like car seats, for example) so do a little research before paying for someone else’s cast-offs.

22. Ride Your Bike to Work

Car maintenance is expensive. Cars themselves aren’t cheap either. Bicycles, while they do require maintenance, are much cheaper. (The gear, while not cheap, is cheaper than a vehicle, as well.) Bike commuting, even just a few days a week, can help you cut back on transportation expenses, and as far as exercise goes, it can be less costly than a gym membership.

23. Take More Trains & Buses

A monthly transportation pass can save you hundreds in daily taxi-fare. Case in point, cab fares in New York City start with an initial charge of $2.50 the minute you sit down, and rack up 40 cents for each 1/5th of a mile while an entire subway ride around the city (to your heart’s content) is $2.75. Some locations offer various train and bus options, and map apps make it easy to plan and time your commute and see when service is laggy.

24. Get Into Goal-Setting

It’s a lot easier to make decisions with your money when you know what you’re working toward. Need a down payment for a house? Then maybe now isn’t the time to buy a new TV. Trying to get your retirement savings on track? Perhaps a 3-day vacation makes more sense than a weeklong one.

25. Learn to Say 'No'

If you’re having trouble keeping down costs of socializing, maybe you need to re-evaluate how often you go out. (You don’t have to go out to socialize, either.) That might mean declining a wedding invitation, staying in a little more than you have been or just saying no to another round of drinks — you simply can’t say yes to everything when you have limited resources.

26. Have an Entertainment Budget & Stick to It

To help you say “no,” consider an expense budget that you’re comfortable sticking to. Then plan accordingly. Fun ways to cut back could mean movie nights in with friends and popcorn, spacing your drinks with glasses of water or walks with friends along the beach or on walking trails. An added benefit: exercise stimulates pleasure centers in our brains.

27. Understand a Want Versus Need

There’s a fine line between a want and a need, but not everyone knows it. That’s because we often confuse the things we want — a new car, Marc Jacobs lipstick — with things that we need, such as money to cover our mortgage or keep the kids fed. Still, it’s important to take the time to understand your wants versus needs. Once you do, you’ll find that your spending comes into focus — and so will the way that you think.

28. Look for Freebies

Your local park district, neighborhood association or community organization probably has a list of free events in your area. Ask your friends about their favorite loyalty programs or consider signing up for the one your favorite retailers offer — if nothing else, know that your birthday will probably get you some freebies at some places you frequent.

29. Never Shop Hungry

Sad but true: When you’re starved, you end up buying everything you see just because it sounds good. People may spend more money online or in a store if they’re hungry while they shop, confirmed University of Minnesota researcher and assistant professor of marketing, Alison Jing Xu, who studied the subject. Moral of the story: Don’t shop when you’re hungry.

30. Bring Your Lunch to Work At Least Once a Week

Sure, going out to get lunch every work day gives you an opportunity to stretch your legs and see the sun. But all those chopped salads and sushi lunches can really add up over the course of the year. Think about: if you spend just $10 a work day on you mid-day meal, you’re looking at a total annual cost of about $2,600 (give or take holidays and your vacation.) But brown-bagging it at least once a week can bring that total down by over $500 and you can save significantly more if you shave off another day or two.

31. Meal Plan

Planning out your meals each week can keep you from busting your monthly food budget and save you time. After all, deciding to cook up a week’s worth of chili on Sunday night can easily keep you from calling out for pizza and wings on Thursday … and Friday … and Saturday … and Sunday.

32. Get a Slow Cooker

Everyone knows eating leftovers is a great way to save. But if you want to go pro, consider getting a slow cooker. Not only will your pork roast (and chili, and stew) taste like manna from heaven, you’ll find yourself thinking twice about going out thanks to all those fun recipes.

Read: I Can't Afford My Whole Loan Payment. Should I Make a Partial Payment?

33. Learn Some Delicious Recipes With Beans

Beans are much cheaper than meat when it comes to adding protein and texture to a meal. Good bean burritos, casseroles or hearty lentil stews can last for days and save you mega-bucks at the grocery store. To tempt your tastebuds, web surf for some recipes with many four-star reviews. If you find cooking beans intimidating, check out online cooking videos of your favorite recipes. Canned beans and split lentils can be easier to prepare (others may require soaking) but check the salt content if you’re trying to lower your sodium intake.

34. Join a CSA

In a Community Supported Agriculture, members pay fees upfront to receive weekly shares of seasonal fruit and vegetables sourced directly from local farms. The produce often comes at a much cheaper cost than what you’ll find in grocery stores, and it tastes super fresh.

35. Buy Generic & Store Brands

You already know the value of clipping coupons and checking store sales. But do you opt for generic or store-brand products when making the rounds at your nearby grocery store? If not, perhaps it’s time to give it a try because the value of these products can be just as good, if not better, than pricey brand name. Bonus: You’ll save a few dollars to boot.

36. Repurpose Meats

Turkey sandwiches, brisket quesadillas, turkey tetrazzini … yep, there are a lot of ways to make use of leftovers you probably don’t know about. You can scrap together steak soup or turn that leftover Thanksgiving turkey into turkey enchiladas or turkey salad. Who said leftovers are boring?

37. Bring Your Own Bottle of Wine to Dinner

When you’re headed out to dinner with your crew, instead of ordering bottles of wine, call ahead and see if you can bring your own. You may have to pay a corking fee, but you won’t have to worry about the markup on the wine itself.

38. Stay on Top of Your Health

Staying healthy may not seem like it can help keep you out of debt, but it can. Putting your health at the top of your priority list can mean you don’t have to make any non-preventative visits to the doctor, which, in turn, means you avoid the hefty medical bills that could come along with them. In fact, reports that the average cost of a 3-day hospital stay is around $30,000. Sure, insurance may cover part of that, but remember: you still have to pay your deductible.

39. Don’t Trade in Your Phone Just Because There’s a New Version

It can certainly be tempting to be first in line at the store when they announce a new phone or other fancy new gadget. But do you really need it? If your current phone is still in good shape, consider setting that money aside and waiting until you truly need the new one.

40. Quit Smoking

Yes, we know — it’s easier said than done. But maybe this will be motivating: the average price of a pack of cigarettes in the U.S. is $6.28, according to That means, if you smoke a pack of 20 cigarettes each day, you’ll save almost $50 each week. That’s $2,292.20 after a year. Imagine the vacation you could take just because you stopped smoking!

41. Put a Freeze on Casino Visits

The 23 casinos along the Las Vegas strip earned more than $72 million in gaming revenue in fiscal year 2013, according to a study by the University of Las Vegas. They aren’t in business to lose money, so the odds are likely stacked against you. If you absolutely need to gamble, consider doing it with cash and leave your credit cards at home (cash advances on credit card carry high APRs that start accumulating immediately). If you find yourself driven to gamble, ask yourself what you’re really trying to achieve.

42. Don’t Buy Too Much House

What may seem like a few thousand dollars more for a bigger house can add up due to the interest charges over the life of a 30-year mortgage. Figure out how much you need, and search for a house that you can afford. Even if you don’t have children, it’s prudent to check school system ratings of where you’re planning to buy, as they’re usually linked to your house’s appreciation. Check out do-it-yourself videos for adding upgrades to things such as patios, to save even more. Don’t be in a hurry to furnish your house completely immediately, as these are things that can be fun to buy as needs arise.

43. Head to Auctions & Estate Sales

You can score some great deals on furniture and more at online and on-site auctions and estate sales in posh neighborhoods. Check newspapers and the web for listings. Some neighborhoods have regular auctions at auction houses and storage units. Also check sites such as eBay for deals. Tip: when heading to a live auction, arrive early at on-site locations and you might be given an opportunity to inspect merchandise ahead of time. Always decide the highest price you will pay for an item before an auction begins, and plan your budget before heading anywhere.

44. Auto-Draft to Savings Each Month

By setting your checking account to auto-disperse a set amount into your savings and retirement accounts each month, you’ll be forced to save in the most painless way possible. It’s much harder to manually put away money when you know there are so many things you’d prefer to spend it on. Start with a moderate amount and gradually increase it. If you get a raise, try to increase it a little more before spending the excess or upgrading your lifestyle. Try to save at least six months of living expenses, and put away 20% of your salary toward retirement. But always make sure that payments and checks don’t bounce due to lack of funds.

45. Research Salaries When Searching for a New Job

They say the best time to earn more money is when switching jobs. Websites such as Payscale and Glassdoor can tell you what your skills are worth. Save salary negotiations for the end of the job interview process, after you’ve learned about the other benefits, but have a number in mind and use your research of salary ranges for your position to back it up. Then consider asking if your desired salary is possible.

46. Get a Housemate

OK, we all like our privacy. But having a housemate (or two) can split the cost of rent, household utilities and cut down on chores. Studies show it can also can expand your friendship circle, increase your opportunities for romance, ease loneliness, boost happiness and help you lose weight if you’re both dieting. Just establish boundaries, shared budgets, cleaning responsibilities and schedules before moving in together to keep the peace.

47. Sign Up for Loyalty Programs

Loyalty programs are everywhere these days, but some of them really pay off in terms of offering customers perks just for shopping like they normally would. Bloomingdale’s Loyallist, for instance, offers members a $25 reward card every time they reach 5,000 points, while Starbucks hands sippers a hefty two Stars for each dollar spent. You can check out more excellent store loyalty programs here.

48. Ask for a Lower APR

If your credit card’s annual percentage rate is blindingly high, consider picking up the phone and asking for a lower rate. (Hey, it never hurts to ask, and not asking is an automatic no.) Even if the customer rep seems annoyed, it can prove worthwhile given the extra money you’ll be paying on interest. And who wants to lose that? (Note: This request may result in a hard inquiry on your credit report, which can ding your credit score, so make you can handle the small hit first.)

49. Learn the Art of the Bargain

Sometimes the easiest way to get a bargain is simply by asking for it. If that doesn’t work, you can try other strategies like deciding what you’re willing to pay in advance (and not paying more) and making a low offer on the product in question. Not happy with what they’re offering? Don’t be afraid to walk away and find a better deal elsewhere.

50. Do it Yourself

Replacing your roof: Bad idea. Painting your apartment: Sure, why not? Sometimes you can save serious money by taking things into your own hands. That goes for more than just home improvement. From repairing your faucet to painting your nails, the more that you tackle, the more that you’ll save.