4 Instant Money Savers

We're celebrating Financial Literacy Month in numeric style. Follow our crash course on maximizing your portfolio and finances with The 10 Essential Money Lessons.

Go ahead and enjoy your daily latte. Splurge on iTunes. Spoil your pet with gourmet treats; wash your hair with organic shampoo, indulge in whatever little treat it is that brightens your day.

No, we're not advocating wanton spending in this Financial Literacy series. What we are doing is showing you how to smartly save money without resorting to extreme penny-pinching and excruciating denial. Today's lesson is how to sanely pursue savings.

In other words, don't sweat the small stuff just yet.

Sweat the big stuff first
Which would you rather pocket, 20% off a $50 purchase or 20% off a $500 one? No-brainer, right? Yet too many people wear themselves out chasing down pocket change and let the big-ticket stuff slide.

We'd much rather you spend your energy on the big stuff that really pays off -- the 20% of line items on your budget that counts for 80% or more of your spending -- things like your mortgage, cars, travel, insurance, and anything that's a four-figure line item in your budget.

What's with the 80/20 split? We shamelessly stole it from Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, whose 80/20 Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of life's effects come from 20% of its causes. So 20% of your computer's programs consume 80% of its memory; 20% of salespeople generate 80% of sales; 20% of citizens earn 80% of the country's income.

The Motley Fool spin on the 80/20 principle is this: 80% of money-saving results can be achieved by tackling just 20% of your expenditures. Here are a few pointers on being an efficient tightwad (and we mean that in the best possible way) with links to articles detailing the process in more detail:

  • Slash your car insurance costs by 15% or more simply by raising your deductible from $500 to $1,000. (That's $100 savings on your premium if you pay $700 annually to cover your wheels.) For even more discounts, call your insurer and start bragging about the things that qualify for further rate adjustments. Simply purchasing all your insurance from the same company can get you a volume discount, worth an additional 5% to 15% in savings. Travelers (NYSE: TRV  ) , Allstate (NYSE: ALL  ) , and Mercury General (NYSE: MCY  ) all offer discounts when you buy two or more types of insurance. If you insure your car with a different company or have an umbrella liability policy elsewhere, ask what kind of deal you can strike by giving your home insurer all your business.
  • Pad your next paycheck with next year's tax refund. Free up $200 extra each month to invest (or pay off your debt) by adjusting your withholding now instead of getting a $2,500 tax refund (last year's average) from the IRS. See "Get a $200 Raise Right Now" for directions.
  • Stop over-paying Wall Street ASAP. Have you looked at your investment fees lately? (We know that the actual performance information is probably much more of a distraction.) Still, it's easy to pay more than what you should. Let's compare two identical mutual funds. One charges 0.5% on your S&P 500 tracker and the other 0.18%. FYI: That's three times as much. Spending your lunch hour doing the research is worth it: A $10,000 investment (earning 8% annualized returns) earns about $622 more in the low-cost fund after 10 years -- $8,165 more after 30 years. Don't stop with your IRA, take a look at ways to save in your 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plan, too.
  • Phone in a favor from your cable company: Our resident expert on this topic -- Ellen Bowman (TMFKabellen) -- has been ringing up discounts with Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA  ) every three to six months over the past two years. "Your mileage will vary depending on the customer-service rep you get, your particular provider, and the phases of the moon," she says, "but I've always been able to reduce my bill somewhat just by asking." Others have reported similar experiences with competitors like Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC  ) , Dish Network (Nasdaq: DISH  ) , and DirecTV (NYSE: DTV  ) .

Voila! You've saved potentially thousands of dollars from just four targeted cost-cutting moves. That leaves plenty more time to tackle some other expenditures hiding out in your budget.

Keep on savin'
Free online budgeting tools like Mint.com (a Motley Fool partner) and QuickenOnline.com give you an instant snapshot of your spending and saving. Pinpoint your 20% and earmark a few hours to cut those costs.

Warm up by checking out all the ways we found to save $2,000-plus in one month during our Fiscal Fitness boot camp.

Be sure to check out the other articles in this financial literacy series: Discover some essential numbers, peruse our list of must-read financial books, and eavesdrop on some juicy investment discussions

In the mood for more financial know-how? Check out the rest of our 10 Essential Money Lessons.

Stock news, financial commentary, and your daily dose of Foolishness: Get plugged in to The Motley Fool on Twitter!

Dayana Yochim's profile won't cost you a dime to read. For a really pricey bit of copy, read The Fool's disclosure policy. We're still paying the lawyer's bills for that one.


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