By Andrea Woroch
401(k) account owners received a boost last week when the IRS announced contribution limit increases to the popular retirement savings plan. Account holders can now potentially put $18,000 to their 401(k) in 2015 (depending on company caps), up from $17,500 in 2013. Consumers who are 50 or older can even add an additional $500 toward their catch-up contribution, allowing for up to $24,000 in annual savings starting next year.
While it would be wonderful to take advantage of this, it’s unrealistic for many Americans to contribute anywhere close to the max allotment. If you’re struggling to stretch your paycheck and save for retirement, it’s time to reevaluate and trim your expenses so you can put the excess toward your future.
Cutting back isn’t easy, so here are 10 simple ways to stretch your paycheck so you can contribute more to your 401(k).
1. Avoid unnecessary fees. It was recently reported by FeeX, a website that tracks consumer fees, that the average American spends $155,000 in useless fees over a lifetime. While some fees are tough to avoid, others simply require a little effort and forward-thinking. ATM fees, for example, are easily ditched when you request cash back after a debit card transaction. For more useless fees and how to avoid them, consult my recent article on the topic.
2. Adopt savvy shopping skills. Being a smart shopper doesn’t mean you have to spend hours clipping coupons or scouring the Internet for deals. Paying full retail price for everything from clothes to electronics to home goods is unnecessary with tools like CouponSherpa.com, which offers free and easy access to online, printable and even mobile deals.
3. Cut cable costs. With HBO’s recent announcement that non-cable subscribers will be able to access their content in 2015 via online streaming, it’s possible the movement toward a la carte TV is picking up momentum. The average cable bill is over $100 per month, with researchers from NPD Group suggesting that will increase to $200 by 2020. The many streaming alternatives available to you via Netflix, Hulu and even Redbox can help you keep up with your favorite shows without sacrificing retirement savings.
4. Switch to prepaid. Close to half (46 percent) of cell phone users pay $100 or more per month for their mobile plans, with overall monthly costs increasing over 30 percent since 2009. Consumers are increasingly irritated by these exorbitant costs, which is why prepaid plans are growing in popularity. If you haven’t looked into these alternatives, now is the time. Sprint users should check out Ting; their average user pays just $21 per device for a plan that uses Sprint’s network. Verizon users can look into PagePlus, which offers unlimited talk and text plus 1 GB of data for less than $40 per month.
5. Be a student for cheaper services. Pricey services like hair care and massages can be fetched for a much better price when you’re willing to be a student. Students training to be a professional hair stylist or masseuse need people on which to practice their skills. Training sessions are supervised and are either offered at a major discount or completely free. Look for schools in your area and contact them for more details.
6. Check clothing care labels. The cost of dry cleaning varies by garment and region, but one article suggests the service can cost up to $1,500 per year. This is an expense that can be completely avoided by reading clothing care labels before buying. You have to factor in the cost of care when evaluating any purchase, and clothing is no exception. If your workplace requires formal attire, consider an at-home dry cleaning kit like those provided by Dry-el and Woolite. Otherwise, always use coupons for cleaning, making sure to check daily deal sites like Groupon for available vouchers.
7. Dine out less. The average American household spent $2,625 on dining out last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Removing takeout, restaurants and your weekly latte altogether would make for a sad existence. However, cutting that amount by a third is doable, and allows for an additional retirement contribution of over $70 per month.
8. Stop smoking. According to a study conducted in 2011, spending on tobacco accounts for 0.8 percent of the average American household budget. While this may not seem like much, it represents a larger chunk that spending on milk and fresh fruit combined. The study goes on to say that a pack-a-day smoker living in New York spends $4,000 per year on tobacco and related products. Quitting this habit not only saves your health, but could make a significant impact on your retirement savings.
9. Eat the food you buy. The National Resources Defense Council calculates Americans waste an average of $529 worth of food each year, or close to $45 per month. Cultivate smart grocery shopping habits by using weekly circulars to plan shopping lists. Oh, and embrace leftovers — bringing last night’s dinner to the office for lunch will help you cut down on your fast food habit, which apparently cost Americans $117 billion in 2013.
10. Don’t get “brandwashed.” Consumers often associate cheaper prices with inferior quality, which is why many of us reach for pricier name brands displayed in pretty packaging. However, private labels have come a long way over the years and many stand up in quality to the big brands while saving you 30 to 60 percent. From prescriptions to groceries to household cleaners, consider switching to the generic ore store brand to reduce overall spending.
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Andrea Woroch is a nationally-recognized consumer and money-saving expert for Kinoli Inc., who helps consumers live on less without radically changing their lifestyles. From smart spending tips to personal finance advice, Andrea transforms everyday consumers into savvy shoppers. She has been featured among top news outlets such as Good Morning America, NBC’s Today, MSNBC, New York Times, Kiplinger Personal Finance, CNNMoney and many more. You can follow her on Twitter for daily savings advice and tips.