You may pride yourself on your ability to stick to a well-strategized budget, but even the most disciplined of spenders fall prey to stealth spending traps that waste money.
Here are five ways you may be wasting your money without realizing it:
1. Paying more for 'healthy' processed foods
The key to ensuring a return on your investment when it comes to healthy living is understanding how to separate real value from clever marketing ploys so you don't waste money.
If you select products based on labels like “natural,” “made with whole grains,” “pesticide-free,” or even “antibiotic-free,” you’re wasting your money.
According to Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices, with the exception of three regulated and legitimate food labels “USDA Certified Organic,” “No antibiotics added," and "Never ever given antibiotics), other “health food” labels are unregulated, and their claims unsubstantiated.
Even similar phrases like “antibiotic-free,” “free range,” and “hormone free,” aren’t verified by any governing body.
Don’t assume that all brands in the organic aisle are worth their cost, either. Nutritionist Kimberly Snyder reveals that “a number of organic brands have large corporate parents fighting Proposition 37” (an issue on California’s November ballot which includes revamping truth in food labeling standards), “including Naked, Odwalla, Kashi, Morning Star Farms, Larabar, Muir Glen, Silk and Horizon.”
2. Being lax about home energy use
Richard Apfel, president of Skyline Windows, says that the average home in the U.S. wastes 10-15% of energy costs through improperly sealed windows.
There are low-cost solutions to reduce energy bill waste, whether you rent or own your home. For example, Apfel suggests placing a piece of paper in the window frame, and closing the window. “If you can pull out the piece of paper without tearing it, you've got an air leak that can be inexpensively remedied with some silicon caulk.”
If you still feel a draft after caulking, he suggests sealing the window with clear plastic films, available at hardware stores. For less than $10, “the plastic creates an insulating air pocket that can cut heat loss by 25 to 40%.”
Switch furnace filters regularly to ensure efficient air flow, and close vents in rooms you don’t use, and keep the thermostat down in the winter if you don't want to waste money.
EnergyStar experts say that doing laundry using warm or cold water instead of hot can also reduce energy outputs by as much 90%. Use the spin cycle on its most powerful setting before moving clothes to the dryer, to reduce drying time — and your energy bill.
3. Not managing your smartphone
Our collective reliance on apps, cloud computing and online connectivity has led to much greater costs for services we once lived quite happily without that can be a big way to waste money.
To keep technology costs in check so you don't waste money, make it harder to access unnecessary services. Regardless of your carrier or platform, smartphones have the capability to switch from “3G to “Wi-Fi” so you’re not accessing your data plan when it could be tapping into a free Wi-Fi network.
Similarly, change email settings to “manual” to eliminate a constant data push of new messages to your inbox. Use charges also accrue rapidly when using turn-by-turn navigation, streaming music, video files, and social media surfing.
The Wireless Smartphone Satisfaction Study by JD Power & Associates revealed that 67% of smartphone customers have downloaded social networking applications and report spending more than 100 minutes per week on them. It also found that 69% spend an average of 81 minutes per week playing games on their device.
By changing your settings, you may reduce the some of the instant convenience your phone provides — but you’ll also eliminate “surprise” overage charges and won't waste money.
4. Assuming small deductions don’t matter
There are many opportunities to reduce the amount you owe in taxes, aside from contributing the maximum to your 401(k) retirement plan ($17,000 in 2012 for those under 50 years old), and taking advantage of pretax health care spending accounts your employer offers so you don't waste money.
If you pay someone to prepare your taxes, for example, their fee is tax deductible. If you’re paying interest on student loans, a portion of that is deductible, too. If you donate clothes to charity, drive to a location in order to volunteer, or sponsor someone else in a charitable race or event, that cost is deductible.
If your job requires you to travel or visit alternate locations outside of your normal commute, you can deduct the mileage and related costs, as long as you weren’t reimbursed. Even gambling losses can be taken as a tax deduction provided you made income on some bets. When it comes to tax deductions, more knowledge means more money in your pocket.
5. Buying a daily deal based on want
Even an 80% off “deal” is a way to waste money if it’s not actually addressing a budgeted expense that would otherwise cost you more.
Some businesses offering daily deals may not have the infrastructure to provide the service you expect. Groupon’s policy even warns that it “can occasionally be difficult to secure an appointment [with a vendor] within the first few weeks after being featured.”
If you’re expecting a certain outcome for a bargain price, you could be setting yourself up for a poor experience that will ultimately waste money.