Common Money-Saving Mistakes That Can Cost Big Bucks


Thrifty shoppers are always looking for ways to save money whenever possible, whether by cutting weekly or monthly spending, or by stretching your dollar through sales and coupons. But take heed, because some common efforts to save actually result in wasting money. Changing the way you shop, switching to a different financial service, and more — all under the guise of saving — can often be more detrimental than you might think. Instead, think twice and avoid these common pitfalls. (See also: 10 Things You Do to Save Money That End Up Costing You More)

Switching Banks

Why You Think It Saves Money: "Why am I paying all these bank account fees? I'm going to switch banks for a free checking account and more ATMs."

How You Can Overspend: Despite last year's fervor for Bank Transfer Day, switching banks can be costly. You can easily incur overdraft fees from un-posted or pre-written checks and from transitioning automatic bill payments and direct deposits. New deposit requirements or availability policies can result in low-balance fees while you learn how to maintain "free" checking accounts.

Smarter Saving: Find a bank that offers free checking with no requirements and a ready-made bank "switch kit." Keep your old checking account open for several months until you are certain all automatic payments and checks have cleared.

Spending for Rewards

Why You Think It Saves Money: "I get cash back for things I buy anyway, so put it on the credit card."

How You Can Overspend: According to a recent Nilson Report, average monthly spending on a non-rewards credit card totaled $465; with rewards, it reached $890. Clearly, it's easy to feel compelled to spend more when you think that you're earning rewards. But be careful, balances carried over can quickly eclipse rewards as you'll have to pay off interest on your principle balance. Personal finance experts warn, also, that mental accounting weakens with credit card spending. You'll likely have a harder time keeping track of what you're charging than if you were paying for everything in cash.

Smarter Saving: Stick to your shopping budget and always pay off credit card balances before their due date. For rotating rewards categories, spend only in those higher-paying categories (for example, 5% on groceries vs. 1% on gas). Search for a reward credit card with no rewards expiration dates and no annual fees.

Sharing Your Max Monthly Payment

Why You Think It Saves Money: "The salesman will stick to my monthly payment budget if I tell him what it is."

How You Can Overspend: Rather than offering you the best price for an item (paid for in installments, like a car or loan), salesmen often try to bloat the package cost so that it reaches (or goes slightly over) your max budget. If they know you're willing to spend a certain amount each month, you can bet they won't opt to undersell you.

Smarter Saving: Stay focused on cutting the overall price of your purchase so that you'll end up with a lower monthly payment. Don't let salespeople pack any extras into your plan.

Shopping at Warehouse Clubs

Why You Think It Saves Money: "Everybody knows that buying bulk results in a lower cost per unit."

How You Can Overspend: Not every item at a warehouse club like Sam's or BJ's Wholesale is a great deal; many are bundled and packaged specifically for the warehouse clubs. So even though you're buying a cellophane-wrapped crateload of regular-size items that appears to be cheaper overall, you may not be saving much per unit in the end. Instead, you've succumbed to an expensive impulse buy that you might not actually use completely.

Smarter Saving: Know your grocery store's regular and sale prices, as well as the package sizes of items you buy in bulk at warehouse clubs. Then, do the math to compare the unit price to confirm savings. Make a list of only those warehouse items that save you money and stick to it.

Outlet Shopping

Why You Think It Saves Money: "They sell last season's brand names at a lower price."

How You Can Overspend: Not everything at the outlets is of the same quality you'd find at a full-price department stores. In fact, manufacturers often produce cheaper goods specifically for outlet stores. Moreover, there are plenty of outlet stores online, and many of them will frequently offer additional promotions that beat the savings of shopping at the traditional, brick and mortar outlets.

Smarter Saving: Be sure to compare outlet prices with department store prices, and learn the differences between designer or brand name items. When considering an item, look at the fit, stitching, fabrication, and embellishments, as this is where manufacturers tend to cut costs on producing outlet goods. At department stores, you'd do well to shop end-of-season clearance sales and can save a bundle with stacking store coupons.

Using a Prepaid Debit Card

Why You Think It Saves Money: "My paycheck gets deposited directly onto the card so I can automatically use it and avoid bank fees!"

How You Can Overspend: The ads makes prepaid debit cards sound easy, but don't fall prey to their marketing without understanding the swipe/usage or reload fees. These can end up costing more than a "free" checking account with a debit card.

Smarter Saving: Read the fine print on these offers and be sure to read through the fee chart. You should consider a free checking account with no requirements instead; it will help you learn to budget your money and track spending better.

The trick is not to act impulsively when employing new ways to save money. Think carefully about the actual costs of your purchases and savings attempts, especially if "saving" costs you upfront.

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Guest's picture

Shopping for bulk items anywhere can be tricky. Don't assume that a multi-pack offers a better deal than the same items purchased separately at any store. Target has become notorious for levying a tax on people who can't calculate unit cost - their bulk-packed items are regularly much more expensive than the same number of individual packages.

Guest's picture

Interesting post that challenges some 'common wisdom' that we often buy into. With regard to rewards cards, your point that average monthly spend increases is probably accurate. The nuance here is that many people with rewards cards simply move other spending to their rewards card that they were previously paying with cash, a check or debit card.

I agree it would be a problem if a person's net spending increased (lets go out to dinner, after all we get points) vs. simply using the card to pay the utility bill, car insurance or fill-up at the gas station that would have happened anyway.

The key is paying it off in full at the end of the month because running a balance makes for very expensive points or miles.

Guest's picture
brista people actually CHOOSE to use prepaid debit cards? I think they're fine if you're 15 or if it's gift card money but that's about it. When I worked retail, they forced us to put our paychecks into prepaid debit cards. It was the stupidest thing ever.

Guest's picture

I love these tips! People can save so much money just by avoiding common money misconceptions like these!

Guest's picture

I love this article! People don't realize the hidden costs that are out there.
Sometimes a bargain is not a bargain.

Guest's picture

I dont know anyone that would willingly offer up their maximum monthly budget total. If you are in negotiation with a sales person, that would probably be the dumbest thing you could do. And it's not surprising that when people believe they're receiving rewards on their credit card that they would spend a good amount more then if not. And good advice using it to pay for higher percent rewarded items like groceries rather than gas.

Guest's picture

These are great tips! I kind of felt that wareshouse clubs weren't always the best deals. I think there are great deals that can be found at a Sam's Club or Costco, but you are right, a lot of the items aren't really cheaper than some of the deals you can just find in regular stores or Walmart. In addition, the warehouse clubs require a paid membership and don't accept coupons.

Sally Stretton

Guest's picture

Amen to the point about warehouse clubs not always being a good deal. Buying a 50 pack of check mix at one of these big stores is not necessarily a good deal. When you go to these places, buy specific items that you want and compare to regular retail stores. you may be surprised how much money you are not saving. Another thing that makes me mad about warehouse clubs is the fact that you have to buy a membership for the privilege of shopping in their store.