5 simple steps to take this month that will save you an extra $500

ByJames Dennin

There's a reason your morning coffee brings you so much more pleasure and satisfaction than dropping a few bucks into your savings account: Our brains are wired to prioritize spending money on purchases we can relish right now versus long-term goals, like buying a home, that we won't enjoy for years.

You know you should save more money. But maybe couponing and deal-hunting is not your thing — or feels like a waste of time. You might not be wrong: It's not always the best idea to put tons of effort into getting a discount. Average hourly U.S. earnings are a little more than $26 an hour; if you have to spend longer than 60 minutes to save less than $26, you arguably would be better off just picking up extra work and paying full price.

So, other than working more or penny pinching, what can you do to save serious money each month? Here are five moves that require very basic adjustments: some can even be accomplished in a single afternoon, perhaps just a day. Together they can save you more than $500 each month. 

That's thousands of dollars a year for your nest egg — or for an extra vacation.

1. Switch to a cashback credit card 

Travel perks are enticing, but to get the most from travel reward credit cards you typically need to spend a lot of cash to actually win out. According to one analysis, you'd need to spend $8,600 a year on travel — more than double what is typical — to come out ahead of a person with a cashback card.

How much you'll save with a cashback card depends on a few factors, like how much you spend, your credit score, and whether you carry a balance, since interest on your debt will quickly eat up any financial benefits of the card.

If you don't carry a balance and have typical spending, you can expect to get benefits between $300 and $500 a year on most cashback cards, which typically offer 1% or 2% cash back on all purchases. 

Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Spend a lot of your money on a certain category or store? Cards like the Discover It card or the Chase Freedom offer up to 5% cash back on rotating categories — like dining out or groceries. Amazon and Visa also offer a card to Amazon Prime members that give you 5% back on anything you buy off Amazon. The average Amazon Prime user spends more than $100 per month, which means the typical Prime customer gets back about $5 monthly. 

Want to make your spending pay back even more? If you shop online, you should always check if any purchases are eligible for rebates on sites like Ebates. If it's stuff you're buying regularly, you could rack up decent savings: Users report getting in the ballpark of a $25 check every few months. 

Potential savings: $40 a month

2. Become one with the planet 

The average U.S. utility bill is about $240 monthly per a 2015 survey, though costs vary widely depending on where you live. Electricity costs alone can set you back more than $110 a month, per the Energy Information Administration.

Cutting that bill without changing your lifestyle is easier than you think. Painting your roof white, for example, can reduce your annual cooling costs by about 40% on average, or a little less than $10 a month according to Bankrate. On a similar note, the EPA estimates that a programmable thermostat turned to the right settings can save about $180 annually, or another $15 a month. 

But one of the easiest ways to reduce your energy costs? Simply unplug all your electronics when they're not in use, or make use of surge protectors. According to some estimates, as much as a quarter of your total energy usage gets sucked up by turned-off-but-plugged-in electronics and appliances, so eliminating that waste would potentially reduce your bill by about $27. 

Potential savings: $52 a month. 

3. Re-think your ride 

For many families, car upkeep can be a huge household expense, with even small cars costing about $6,500 per year to cover gas, insurance and repairs.

Luckily, these expenses are pretty easy to trim. Money estimates you can save about $150 per month through simple moves that include keeping tires inflated and heating and idling to a minimum — and avoiding over-aggressive driving.

Learning basic skills so you can DIY easy repairs or maintenance — like rotating tires and replacing air filters or wipers — can add another $20 to $30 to your monthly savings.

Shopping around your insurance is another big money saver: One NerdWallet study found that customers who compared rates saved about $859 per year on their quotes, or another $71 monthly. Finally, consider carpooling — which can save you another $60 a month or so on gas alone.

Potential savings: $300 a month 

4. Out-smart Uncle Sam

About two-thirds of Americans take the easy way out on their tax bill, opting for the standard deduction, a deduction you can take no-questions-asked. But more people should consider saving receipts and itemizing their deductions. 

It requires a little year-round effort but can save you big: in the thousands of dollars, especially if you can get a little creative. A deadbeat roommate can be a deduction, for example, if you declare them as a dependent. So are costs like education transportation expenses, moving costs, certain medical bills, and even your gas or cab money spent on visiting the doctor.

Don't think it's worth the effort to itemize? There are still ways to save on your tax bill that you might not know about. Fewer than 20% of respondents in a 2016 Student Loan Hero survey knew, for example, that you can get a deduction without itemizing — and even if someone else paid on your behalf. If you earn less than $80,000 you qualify for at least some of the deduction, up to $2,500 in student loan interest, alongside the standard deduction. This can save you by up to $625 annually if you earn less than $65,000.

Indeed, retirement plans like the one you get through work can also reduce your taxable income and thus your tax bill. And depending on what bracket you're in, depositing $100 a month into a 401(k) reduces the size of your paycheck by only $60 to $80 monthly, according to CNNMoney. Contributions to individual retirement accounts can lower your taxable income as well. 

It'll be a couple decades before you can actually spend that extra $20-$40 per month, but then again, saving a little extra for retirement is never a bad idea.   

Potential savings: $92 a month 

5. Get a better bank

There's a good chance you're overpaying your bank. The average household spends about $290 a year in bank fees, including ATM fees for simply accessing cash, a figure that shocked six in 10 respondents in one survey

A separate analysis from NerdWallet found that typical checking account fees — maintenance fees, ATM fees, and overdraft fees — adds up to about $1,000 over the course of a decade, nearly $10 a month. If you incur even a single overdraft fee, median $27 a pop, your fees are going to be even higher.

Eliminating these costs from your life requires thinking about your spending habits. Maintenance fees can typically be avoided, for instance, by keeping a minimum balance above a certain amount: usually around $1,500.

If that's hard for you, you'll want to consider an account with no minimum balance, like the Capital One 360 or the Ally Bank Interest Checking account, both of which get high marks for fees (although lower marks for APY, which is how much interest the account will earn). Capital One's 360 also has a unique overdraft policy — instead of a flat fee, you can opt to pay a reasonable rate of interest on the amount you're overdrawn. 

Another option to consider is switching from a bank to a credit union, which generally boast much higher customer satisfaction marks than banks do. The drawback is that they serve highly specific constituencies and it can be hard to find one that you're eligible for. Fees are generally lower in these accounts, as are the interest rates on loans. MyCreditUnion.gov can help you find a credit union in your area that you're qualified for. You should also consider a bank that pays a relatively high yield on savings or checking: Earn 3% interest on $5,000 annually, and that's an extra $12 a month you didn't have before.

Finally, if the toothpaste is out of the tube and you've already incurred charges? It never hurts to phone in and speak to a representative at your bank about having the fee waived

Potential savings: Between $10 and $50

Taken together, the above savings could be $500 or even more. So take a weekend to think through your options — and start saving right away.

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