“You guys have the worst hold music.”
I’ve uttered that phrase countless times since last spring. Banks. Airlines. Insurance companies. Car dealerships. I’ve heard enough Muzak to fill a lifetime of elevator rides.
Everyone at Consumer Reports began working from home when the coronavirus pandemic swept our area. First, I went on a cooking spree, whipping up confit tomatoes and a Peruvian stir-fry called lomo saltado. Then I began to tackle the pile of bills and mail on my dining room buffet. You know, the credit card come-ons, the offers of a lower mortgage rate.
Financial matters have always overwhelmed me, so I put them off—a bad strategy. But I decided I could now do my regular work while on hold with customer service using my landline, taking work calls on my cell.
It was as boring as it sounds. But so far I’ve saved or recovered thousands of dollars, mostly from refinancing my mortgage. I lowered my interest rate by almost a point with no fees or closing costs. It took only about a dozen phone calls.
I also spent almost an hour suffering Delta’s hold music to demand a refund for a flight canceled due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. I armed myself with CR’s advice on how to get your money back. Turns out I didn’t need it. A customer service agent said sure right away when she finally answered.
I called AmEx to ask why it slapped on a fee for a two-days-late payment. What, no grace period? And why such high interest? It refunded the fee and cut my interest in half. And I transferred the debt I’d been carrying on another credit card, for two destination weddings I had attended, to a no-interest card from another bank. I plan to pay that off before interest kicks in.
Next up? Getting new home insurance quotes and taking an online defensive driving course to lower my car insurance. Happily, the top of my buffet has returned into view. You can cut through your clutter and save a small fortune too by taking the following advice from CR’s experts.—Mary H.J. Farrell
1. Use Your Tech Tools
Get More Music for Less Money
People used to buy CDs; now they sign up for music-streaming services. These services aren’t terribly expensive—Spotify costs $10 a month, or $15 for a family plan. But if you have specialized tastes, such as classical music, you can end up subscribing to multiple services and paying a lot more.
One way to get around that is to use the free versions of music-streaming services—most have one. Usually you have to put up with ads, and you might have to listen to playlists or stations with the kind of music you like, instead of choosing individual tracks.
There are lots of ways to combine paid and free services, but here’s one great approach:
Start with Amazon Music Prime. You may already pay for Prime but fail to take advantage of all the music it provides. Music Prime offers 2 million songs on demand and ad-free—that’s plenty for many listeners, though far fewer tracks than with other streaming services. But let’s say you don’t want to pay anything additional for music. Start with Amazon and add the free versions of these two services.
Idagio. This is geared toward classical music. It’s built for the genre from the ground up, designed for track titles that get complicated because of factors such as conductors, soloists, and individual movements in a larger piece. You can listen to Idagio’s recommendations and playlists curated for different themes and moods without paying a dime, or stream the entire library free in a web browser. Idagio recommends music based on your taste as you use it and has features to help you explore composers and performers you may not have listened to much before.
YouTube Music. The app lets you upload up to 100,000 of your own audio files and stream them from other devices. So if you have your own big music collection and want to access it from anywhere, the free version of YouTube Music can help.
Cut the Cord for $25 a Month
Just a few years ago, almost anyone could cut the cable cord or satellite TV and save money by signing up with what we at CR called cable-replacement streaming services. These services, such as Sling TV, offer local channels plus dozens of cable channels, such as CNN and HGTV, for around $30 a month. But just like cable, prices for these services have been steadily rising; many now cost $50 a month or more.
Now, thanks to the entry of some giant media conglomerates, there are several new streaming options that will let you spend about half that and still get access to a surprisingly robust assortment of broadcast channels, cable networks, TV shows, movies, and original series. Many people also want Netflix or Amazon Prime; if so, add those fees into your total TV-watching budget. CR has lots of details on this strategy for inexpensive cord-cutting, but here’s the quick version.
Start with CBS All Access, which provides tons of sports, including NFL games on CBS’ schedule and Super Bowl LV, plus content from other Viacom properties, such as BET, Comedy Central, and movies from the Paramount library. Oh, there’s also “Star Trek.” A lot of “Star Trek.” Monthly price: $6.
Next, add Disney+, now home to Lucasfilm (“Star Wars”), Marvel Studios (“Black Panther”), and Pixar (“Toy Story”), as well as 20th Century Studios (“The Simpsons”) and the lion’s share of National Geographic. You can get Disney+ for $7 a month, but we think it’s worth paying for a bundle that includes Hulu (lots of broadcast channels) and ESPN+ (sports). Monthly price: $13.
Last, sign up for the ad-supported, paid tier of Peacock, from NBC Universal. You’ll get NBC shows, Universal movies, sports (including the Olympics), and original programming—plus shows from Bravo, Syfy, Telemundo, USA Network, and Universal Pictures. Monthly price: $5.
We listed only a fraction of all the entertainment this three-part package provides. If you do the math, you’ll see the actual total price is just $24, leaving you with an extra buck for popcorn.
Make Saving Automatic
Thirty-seven percent of Americans have stepped up their saving during the pandemic, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey. That’s in part because there have been fewer opportunities to spend on activities such as concerts, travel, or eating out.
This underscores a crucial principle of how people behave financially—to make savings happen, you often need to be pushed into it, or find a way to push yourself.
“That’s why 401(k) plans are so effective at getting people to save—the employer signs you up and the money is deducted from your pay, so you don’t even miss it,” says Meir Statman, professor of finance at Santa Clara University in California.
If you don’t have an employer retirement plan, you can go into your bank’s account settings online or via its app to create your own automatic savings program, by shifting a regular amount from your checking account to a savings or brokerage account. Even if you must start small, you can gradually increase the amount over time.
Some banks, including Bank of America and Chime, the latter a company that partners with banks and provides online banking services, offer programs that let you round up expenditures to the nearest dollar and stash the difference in a savings account. A number of financial apps offer similar round-up features.
2. Save on Energy, Water, and Repairs
Home Maintenance To-Do’s
Shut off hoses. And also insulate indoor pipes that run along exterior walls, to help avoid a burst pipe. Pipe insulation costs pennies per foot, but a burst pipe and the cleanup that comes with it can cost $5,000 or more.
Check your roof. Look for leaks and loose shingles before they become a big problem. It costs about $8,000, on average, to replace a roof, according to Home Advisor, an amount that can climb far higher if you need to replace sheathing or framing as a result of a long-neglected leak.
Clean your gutters. Clearing leaves from your gutters is crucial every spring and fall, but you’ll pay a pro about $150 to do the job. You can carefully clear your own gutters on a ladder, or if you feel unsafe, look for a telescoping gutter-cleaning tool that attaches onto a garden hose or leaf blower.
Fix leaks in toilets, faucets, and showerheads. Old and worn washers and gaskets are frequently the cause of faucet leaks.
Take shorter showers. And avoid taking baths, which use more water.
Skip prerinsing dishes. Your dishwasher is designed to get rid of the debris; just make sure you scrape off the extra food.
Run full washer loads. And pair like with like: towels in one load and sheets in another.
Turn off the faucet when you’re brushing your teeth or shaving. But keep it on while washing your hands so that you’re not touching a potentially germy handle.
Don’t flush floss or tissues in the toilet. Throw them in the trash instead. Plus, you’ll save money on plumbing bills.
Don’t hose down your car. Use a bucket and sponge instead.
Sweep your driveway rather than using a hose on it. And, really, it’s okay to have a little debris on the driveway. It’s not like it’s your living room.
Install a smart thermostat. This connected device can automate heating and cooling. You can save as much as 10 percent a year on heating and cooling by simply turning your thermostat back 7° to 10° F for 8 hours a day from its normal setting, according to the Department of Energy.
Skip the range and use your small appliances instead. For example, cooking a meatloaf in a full-sized electric oven for an hour costs 24 cents, but cooking it in a toaster oven for the same amount of time costs 11 cents.
Don’t keep the fridge door open. Plus, let leftovers cool (for no more than 2 hours) before putting them into the refrigerator so that it doesn’t have to work extra hard to cool hot food.
Run your dishwasher at night, when many utilities offer cheaper rates. If you’re not a night owl, you can program it to start when you’re sleeping.
Use a high-spin speed in your washer to save time and money on drying. And make sure you clean the dryer lint filter before every load to improve air circulation.
Plug air leaks around the house. This will prevent losing cooled or warmed air. And take advantage of the sun by opening your curtains on cold days, but close them on warm days when it’s sunny.
Time Your Big-Ticket Shopping
When your referigerator breaks, it’s time for a new one. But if your kitchen renovation is still a few months off, you can often score decent savings by waiting for the best sales to come around. CR tracks prices of many of the products we test—including big-ticket items like large appliances and TVs—to determine when during the year the discounts are deepest.
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3. Save When You Shop
Save More Than $1,000 on Groceries
The average U.S. family trashes $1,500 worth of food each year. Here’s how you can cut back on that waste.
Be date savvy. Confusion over best-by/use-by/sell-by dates causes 20 percent of food waste, according to the Food and Drug Administration. “It’s easy to think they mean ‘throw out on this date,’ but they have nothing to do with safety,” says Amy Keating, a CR nutritionist. “They’re just a manufacturer’s estimate of the window for best flavor or quality.” Even some perishables, like milk and eggs, may be perfectly fine for days or weeks past the date.
Make a meal plan and a shopping list. Whatever you’re cooking, make a list of ingredients you need, plus any staples, to save time and avoid impulse purchases.
Don’t be swayed by deals. You won’t save by buying the 2-quart container of berries if you can’t use all before they spoil. And you often don’t have to buy multiples to get “2 for” or “10 for” prices.
Buy from supermarket bins. This is an especially good move if you need just a little of an ingredient for a recipe.
Extend the life of fruits and veggies. Some produce does better in high-humidity conditions, some in low, and some shouldn’t be refrigerated at all. On many refrigerators, humidity in the crisper drawers is adjustable. The following division will help maximize freshness. (Learn the best places to store other foods in the fridge.)
• Low-humidity drawer: apples, berries, grapes, mushrooms, peppers, and—once ripe—avocados, melon, peaches, and pears.
• High-humidity drawer: broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, and leafy greens.
• Don’t refrigerate: onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and winter squash.
Rescue on-the-edge foods. Wilted greens and rubbery carrots can be revived by soaking in cold water. Cut away bruises on fruit, then slice and freeze. It’s safe to eat newly sprouted potatoes that are still firm if you remove the sprouts, as well as moldy hard cheese if you cut off the mold and 1 inch around it.
Freeze leftovers that you won’t eat in three to four days. Soups, sauces, even cooked poultry can be frozen. “Use airtight, moisture-proof wrapping material, such as heavy-duty foil, freezer paper, or freezer-weight bags,” says Elizabeth Andress, a professor and food-safety specialist at the University of Georgia and director of the National Center for Home Food Preservation. (Learn more on how to keep leftovers delicious and safe.)
Pay Less for Rx Meds
High drug costs pose such a problem that 15 percent of Americans have skipped filling prescriptions to save money, according to a recent CR survey of people who had a medical bill in the last 12 months.* Before you take that step, try these ideas.
Use your insurer’s “preferred pharmacy.” Some pharmacies have arrangements with insurers to offer low prices on meds. Using out-of-network pharmacies could cost much more, says pharmacist Brian Caswell, owner of Wolkar Drug in Baxter Springs, Kan., and president of the National Community Pharmacists Association, which represents independent pharmacies.
Ask the pharmacy for its lowest possible price. A CR secret shopper investigation found that doing so can net more savings. Some pharmacies will also work with you if you face financial hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis, Caswell says.
Find generic drug discounts without using insurance. Websites such as GoodRx and RxSaver are good places to search for discount coupons you can use without insurance. A membership service, ScriptCo, could be helpful if you regularly take a medication and live in certain states. Sign up for an annual ($120) or quarterly ($45) membership and it will deliver drugs at wholesale prices, potentially saving you hundreds of dollars a year. To see whether it’s available where you live, go to scriptco.com.
*June 2020 CR nationally representative survey of 1,267 adult U.S. residents who had a medical bill with out-of-pocket costs in the past 12 months.
4. Money Moves
Trim Your Car Insurance Premium
Many factors affect your car insurance rate, from how much coverage you choose to your credit score and driver profile. Even so, there are ways to cut costs, including these four.
Don’t pay for miles you aren’t driving. If you’re driving less than you used to, ask your insurer whether you qualify for a low-mileage discount. Or opt for a pay-per-mile plan. This requires sharing information about your driving habits. Safe drivers who don’t travel much can save up to 50 percent on premiums.
Seek savings on coverages. Raising your comprehensive and collision deductible from $500 to $1,000 can lower your premium by 13 percent. On older cars, consider canceling collision, comprehensive, or both altogether if they cost more than you would recoup if the car were damaged or stolen.
Ask about additional discounts. You might be eligible for untapped discounts, including ones for anti-theft features on your car, affinity group membership (such as an alumni association or union), the completion of a defensive-driving training course, or for bundling your home and car insurance. Some carriers give discounts for prepaying premiums, signing up for automatic billing, or using paperless billing.
Switch carriers. Loyalty may not pay. In our 2018 Auto Insurance Survey, we found that among the 22 percent of CR members who told us they’d switched insurers in the past five years, 62 percent said they’d found a better price. It’s legal in some states for insurers to collect data about your shopping habits to gauge how sensitive you are to price and raise your rates accordingly—regardless of what car you drive or how safe a driver you are. If you’re shopping around, check out a smart way to save on car insurance.
Keep Tabs on Your Credit Score
Your credit score can help you save, especially if you are applying for a mortgage or other loan. The higher your score, the lower the interest rate, which could save you thousands of dollars.
The FICO credit score is the brand used by most consumer lenders, so focus on it. FICO scores usually range from a low of 300 to a high of 850.
To get the best mortgage rate, you will probably need a score of at least 740, which is considered very good; a score of 800 or more is exceptional.
“Someone with a fair credit score might pay three-quarters to a full percentage point more for a mortgage than someone with a very good credit score,” says Keith Gumbinger, a vice president at HSH Associates, which tracks the mortgage market.
According to FICO’s loan savings calculator, a borrower with a 640 credit score might pay $1,807 a month on a $400,000 30-year fixed mortgage and a borrower with a 740 score might pay $1,628 a month. That adds up to $64,000 more over the life of the loan for the borrower with the lower credit score.
Improving your credit score typically takes time because you need to show a history of on-time payments, as well as avoid using too much of your available credit. Those factors alone account for two-thirds of the FICO score.
Still, there are three main steps you can take to improve your score.
Avoid canceling any credit accounts or opening new ones, which can hurt your score, says Jay Abolofia, a certified financial planner in Weston, Mass.
Pay down outstanding balances. And make all payments on time.
Review your credit report periodically and fix errors you find. You can get free reports from the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—through AnnualCreditReport.com.
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the December 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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