Five smart ways to maximize your budget starting today

AJ & KJ: With a fresh start to the new year, here are some ways you can stretch the value of your dollars just a little bit more. Most of these are so simple, you’ll probably wonder why you haven’t done this before. With this year just beginning, sit down with your budget and see which of these options you could adopt for your family to stretch your bucks just a little bit further in 2015.

Buy in bulk and store smartly
Whether you’re trying to plan for just yourself, you and a significant other, or an entire family, buying in bulk can be the best way to stretch the value of your dollars.

One example of when we did this recently that was an AWESOME find was our recent fruit purchase at Sprouts. They were doing a special on fresh berries for very cheap, so we did what we always do when something is heavily discounted – we buy a TON! We probably spent about $70 on fresh fruit alone, and you’re probably wondering how we didn’t have so much of it go to waste since berries are obviously (pretty quickly) perishable. Angela laid out the berries on several baking sheets in one layer and threw them in the freezer. After about a day or two, we essentially had individually flash frozen berries that could then be pilled into ziplock bags for future use. A month later, we’re still filling our smoothies with the fruits of our labor (pun intended!).

Also, anytime chicken, steak, pork, you name it, is heavily discounted, we buy about as much as we can. Then, as soon as we get home, we portion out the food into individual ziplock bags and store it in the freezer, so we don’t have to thaw the whole package when it comes time to actually use it.

The key to success with buying in bulk is knowing what you typically pay for specific items prior to buying large quantities of it. Even when we don’t need something, I’ll stock up on it because it will ultimately save us money though at times it can feel like I’m a food hoarder!

Track your expenses
If you’re not tracking your expenses, how will you be able to identify ways to trim your expenses? The answer is you generally can’t! So, jump on the bandwagon for Mint.com, Quicken, or any of the other expense tracking sites to find one that works for you and your family to keep you on track.

For us, the wheels come off of our bus completely when we’re not properly tracking our expenses. We each manage expenses in a different way, so we can compare notes on what’s already hit the accounts vs. what is still left to hit in that month to ensure we’re staying the course.

Credit cards with rewards points
We’ve recently reassessed our credit cards that we use to see if there is a way to maximize our purchases. It ultimately came down to making a few changes to the cards we have on hand.

We now are utilizing the Fidelity American Express credit card where we can earn 2% back on ALL purchases. Sure, Amex isn’t approved everywhere, but it’s now our main go-to card for purchases. Previously, we used the Chase Freedom card where you would get 1% cash back on all purchases, but 5% back on certain rotating categories. Then, you would get an additional 10% bonus on your rewards each year. After 2015, Chase is no longer going to be offering the 10% bonus, plus, the rotating 5% categories are seldom how we actually spend our money, so it’s really not all that great of a card for us anymore since the card only ends up offering just slightly more than 1% on average.

Fortunately too, we found another card through American Express that offers 6% back on supermarkets and 3% back on gasoline with 1% back on other categories, and despite it’s annual fee, it’s worth it for us based on our home’s expenses in these categories. Not all credit cards with an annual fee are worth it, so you just have to run the numbers and see how your family spends money to know if it’s worth it. The key is first tracking your expenses, so you can be able to easily do this assessment!

This is something that Kirby manages for us, as I have a hard time keeping up with which expenses can be maximized on which cards. It’s SO worthwhile to get your credit cards to work for you, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and it’s not a set it and forget it approach.

We only recommend products that we feel strongly about, so for more details on these cards, please contact us. We can send additional details on these cards. With the the regular Amex with the extra grocery rewards, you can get a $150 bonus after spending $1,000 in the first three months (plus it will help support our blog a little bit) – win/win!

As a final caveat, don’t get a credit card unless you will be paying it off in full each month. Carrying a balance is a surefire way to eliminate ALL of the rewards benefits in an instant.

Grocery rewards
Join your local grocery store rewards programs, and read the fine print! Our preferred grocery store is Tom Thumb, and their Just 4 U program is excellent and super easy! You can pre-load coupons to the card for instant savings the next time you’re at the grocery store.

Also, Tom Thumb (and a lot of other grocer stores) offer 2-5X rewards points for gasoline by purchasing gift cards. We’ve not yet found this AS valuable – unless they’re doing an additional discount on gift cards – since we use Cardpool.com quite religiously, but it’s something on our radar nonetheless.

Use Cardpool.com
If you haven’t checked out Cardpool.com, then you should head on over there ASAP. We’ve spent a lot of money through them throughout this last year for a lot of our major projects and expenses, and we’ve saved TONS of money on items we were going to spend on anyways. The key (with this and with all gift card discounts) is to only purchase items you would normally buy! Don’t use it as a way to spend extra money when you’re at [insert store name here] if you weren’t going to spend the money anyways.

This site is a great way to stretch the value of your dollars too. Plus, if you got a gift card that you know you wouldn’t want to use, you can sell it to them and put the money to better use.

Aside from Home Depot gift cards, we typically purchase e-gift cards that we turn around and use within the same day for online purchases we’re already planning to make. It’s definitely an extra step and if you think you might be returning the items it can be a little annoying because then you will mostly receive your money back in the form of store credit, not ideal. Several of the retailers we shop with have more than a 6% discount on them and when you tack on other discounts and coupons you can find through sites like Retailmenot.com, maximizing online purchases is fast and can save really significant amounts.

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