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3 Budgeting Tips to Keep You in the Black

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When money's tight, a good budget can mean the difference between having a few extra bucks at the end of the month and scraping by on ramen noodles until your next paycheck comes. Yet how can you make sure your budget can pass the test of tough times? Follow these simple budgeting tips, and you'll stand a much better chance of having some money left over every month.

1. Stop paying bank fees.
Banks have become the kings of nickeling and diming. Whether it's monthly maintenance fees just for having a checking account or the myriad tack-on charges you'll pay for everything from overdrafts and credit card late fees to using the wrong ATM, it's easy to watch a lot of your precious cash move from your account straight to the bank. Even worse, banks are striving to increase those fees, with Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) , Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) , and Regions Financial (NYSE: RF  ) among many banks that looked into plans to raise fees on their customers.

But as many people discovered during the Occupy Wall Street protests, there are many ways you can avoid bank fees. One is simply to stop doing the things that incur extra charges. But you may have better luck looking for banks that aren't as draconian about their fees. For instance, while free checking is getting harder to find among big banks, smaller local banks and credit unions often offer more attractive deals.

Do the same thing with all your banking relationships, whether it's your mortgage, car loan, or other accounts. The more fees you can eliminate, the better off your budget will be.

2. Be smart about smartphones.
It's easier than ever to find "free" smartphones. But keep this tip in mind: Before you take home your brand-new toy, be sure you know what you're getting into.

If you buy a phone through major carriers AT&T (NYSE: T  ) , Verizon, or Sprint (NYSE: S  ) , you shouldn't look at the take-home cost of the phone as the true cost. By committing to a two-year contract, you can easily find yourself paying $100 or more each and every month for voice, texting, and data. Add that up, and your "free" smartphone could cost you $2,000 to $3,000 just over the next two years. Moreover, even once your contract is up, it can be difficult or even impossible to switch to another carrier with your existing phone.

It can actually make sense to pay more upfront for your smartphone in exchange for lower monthly payments. With services like Virgin Mobile and Cricket, you won't get that nice subsidy that turns a $400-$650 device into a "free" smartphone, but the monthly savings will more than make up the difference in less than two years.

3. Check the Internet before you buy.
Smart budgeting means spending as little as you can for what you need. When it comes to shopping, the Internet has become a valuable tool, and you can save a lot if you use it well.

Nowadays, when you shop at a physical store, you'll often pay a little extra for the convenience of getting to take home your purchases right away. But if you don't actually need something right this second, the savings you'll often find from Internet retailers will give you a nice discount.

It used to be that shipping costs ate up most of those savings. Recently, though, more companies haven begun offering free or discounted shipping for certain orders. That can leave your budget in much better shape.

Take these tips
Sticking with a budget is hard work. But by doing simple things, you can stay within your budget and still get everything you want.

Bank fees may be bad for your budget, but they're great for Bank of America and other banks. But investors in B of A have suffered big losses over the past five years. Find out whether the banking behemoth will get back to its winning ways in the Fool's premium report on Bank of America, in which our top banking analysts look at prospects for the company. Click here and get your report today.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger sticks to the budget. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger. He owns warrants on Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America and Wells Fargo. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Wells Fargo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy never lets you get into the red.

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