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Ask Belle: Tips for Shopping on a Budget

Hi Belle!

I’ve been a loyal reader for over a year now – I love your blog! I recently moved from DC to SF (so basically from a really expensive city to a really really expensive city) and I trying to save up for my first big-girl condo. It would be great to see a piece about shopping on a budget, your experience with Ebates, and any other helpful tips you might have for ladies in my same position. Thanks so much!

Mia

Ebates. For those of you who are not familiar with the site, Ebates is a rewards site that pays your between 2% and 26% cash back on your online purchases.  All you do is visit the site, select the store you want to shop (they have all your favorites) and use the link to connect.  If you don’t return your purchase, your cash back is credited to your account and every quarter you receive a payment to your PayPal account.

To maximize your savings, you need to BUY EVERYTHING online.  I buy household goods like dish soap from Drugstore.com (5%), my fashion and news periodicals from Magazines.com (26%), my clothes from every online retailer under the sun and my contacts from Vision Direct (8%).  You can also use Ebates at retailers like Amazon and Gilt, so you can search for the best deals while earning cash back.

The most I’ve made in savings in a quarter is about $300.  In fact, I was saving so much with Ebates, that when I learned there was a service that would put my cash back toward my student loans, I switched to Upromise.  I’ve already put several hundred dollars toward my government loans, and since I can link the account to my grocery store rewards card and my debit card for trips to participating restaurants, it’s the better choice for me.  But if all you’re looking for is cash back, definitely give Ebates a try.

Ebates has the most retailers, and the fact that they offer Amazon and Gilt, keeps me coming back.  And I love when they offer double savings at certain retailers, esp. during the Nordstrom Anniversary sale.  If you’re diligent about shopping for EVERYTHING online, you’ll save a surprising amount of money.

Also, because companies like Teleflora give 15% cash back, you have no reason not to give your Mom or significant other flowers.

Want more advice about how to shop on a budget?  See you after the jump.

Clothing Allowance. If you’re trying to save for a house or just add a few pieces to your closet without breaking the bank, you need to know how much you can afford to spend each month.  I always start by subtracting my essential expenses including contributions to my savings account from my total take home pay.  Then, once I know how much is left over, I go to the ATM and take out the ‘walking around money’ that I need for the month in cash.

Lastly, I set aside a certain amount of money for clothing, tailoring, makeup, waxing and haircuts.  Typically, I set aside 15%.  This money goes into a separate savings account.

When I buy clothes, pay for haircuts or got to the tailor, I pay with my credit card.  Then, every month, I pay off that card.

This method is something I came to over time, and it really works for me.  It helped me rebuild my credit after college and, because I use a rewards card that offers frequent flier miles, I reap a dividend that saves my money on travel.  But most importantly, this method allows me to save up for big purchases like a new bag or a great new coat.  And it keeps my spending in check, because if there isn’t enough money in the account to cover the purchase, I know that in advance and don’t buy the item.

Make Saving a Contest.  When I was on the Hill, I was desperate to curb my spending and stop splurging on things I couldn’t afford.  I didn’t have the best money habits in college, and I needed to learn to do better.  So I created a game where I tried to go for a day without spending money, then two days, then a week, and so on. The longest I ever made it without buying something other than food and Metro was 79 days.

The game gave me a better perspective on what I needed vs. what I wanted.  It also gave me a real confidence boost to keep up with a financially healthy habit, and when the spending break ended, I was always shocked by how much “extra” money I had or how much debt I was able to pay off.

Now, I’ve kept the game alive by doing spending-free weeks.  The third full week of every month is my no spending week.  If I need to save up for a trip or a big purchase, I’ll add a second week.

Shop on Schedule.  A friend of mine adopted a ‘no spending’ calendar to get her budget on track.  Instead of taking off a week, she can only shop on Mondays and can only eat meals out on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.  This way, if she knows she needs to order something or go to the store, she has to do it on Monday.  She says it cuts down on impulse shopping and gives her time to think about what items are really worth the money.  It also allows her to budget over the course of the week for purchases the next Monday.  And since she gets paid on Friday, she doesn’t get sucked into the payday spending sprees that she used to do.

There are a lot of great ideas online about how to make a budget, set aside money for clothing/makeup/hair, and create incentives and goals that work for you.  So do a Google search and get started on your savings plan today.

LEAVE A COMMENT

    19 comments

  1. Julie says:

    Fantastic article! I follow several of these idea myself–but I particularly like the idea of putting all of my fashion purchases on their own card, that way I can clearly see how much I’m spending.

    Also, I’ve never tried ebates before, but I’m intrigued!

    Style by Joules

    June 3, 2013/Reply
  2. Little B says:

    This is really helpful – thank you for sharing!

    June 3, 2013/Reply
  3. Shelley says:

    Sometimes I try things on in person at the mall and then buy them at home using ebates to get the best deal and avoid having to return anything. Ebates is great!

    Shelley

    June 3, 2013/Reply
  4. Lady Lawyer says:

    Awesome tips! I’ll definitely be checking out Ebates.

    I use Mint.com and a Mint app on my phone to help monitor my spending. It shows credit card purchases, loan payments, my 401K savings, anything you want to link up to it. It is really good and gives me weekly updates on my spending. I have a monthly budget and Mint tells me when I’ve gone over in certain areas. The downside is a) giving all your financial info to a third party and b) not all credit cards and banks sync with Mint. One of my credit card purchases doesn’t come up, so I know I can “hide” purchases from myself on that specific card.

    I also put all my fashion purchases on one card. I have a credit card through one of my favorite retailers, so I get a lot of reward points which = more dollars to spend on their clothes. Same idea as reaping the benefits via dividend miles or cash back. And I pay that off every month, too.

    June 3, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Mint was a little much for me. I hated all the annoying alerts, but LearnVest does much of the same without the emails.

      June 3, 2013/Reply
      • Elizabeth says:

        I know how to do this on outlook (I’m sure gmail does it too and I just haven’t been able to figure it out). But I created a folder for all my mint.com emails. Now all those emails bypass my inbox and are immediately stored in their own folder. I’ve done this with several senders – they all go to their folder not the inbox and I have a specific time set aside to review them.

        June 3, 2013/Reply
      • Jenn L. says:

        I like how it lays everything out on the site, but I, too, hate the alerts. I get alerts directly from my cards, I don’t need them from you. I’m going to try to see if I can edit alerts so they only come for specific events.

        June 4, 2013/Reply
      • tnm says:

        you can change the frequency of the alerts on mint.com. i have mine set to weekly emails and you change the alerts for specific accounts too, such as “send me an alert when my account goes below X dollars.” that helps.

        June 4, 2013/Reply
  5. TheEsocialite says:

    I’ve been reading for awhile (since i moved from Petworth to Capitol Hill) but this is the first time I’ve commented. This information was invaluable and I’m going to try to incorporate some of the ideas into my everyday life. Thank you for sharing your challenges and triumphs.
    xo
    @breaellis
    WHAT I WORE: tip to toe!

    June 3, 2013/Reply
  6. KMM says:

    Great advice, Belle! Do you have any advice for offsetting or avoiding shipping costs from purchasing through online retailers?

    I use the website Hukkster, which alerts you when items you have marked go on sale. In combination with Ebates, I have saved a ton.

    June 3, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      I usually just search for a promo code for free shipping. You find one about half the time. I also try to buy from retailers who offer it free. Drugstore has free shipping over $25, and Zappos, Piperlime and others offer free shipping and free returns.

      June 3, 2013/Reply
  7. teachersbudgetwithloans says:

    hey belle…. suggestions for a discount site for refilling the calrisonic brush and soap?

    June 3, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Skinstore.com it’s 20% off.

      June 3, 2013/Reply
      • teachersbudgetwithloans says:

        thank you!

        June 4, 2013/Reply
    • Pancakes says:

      Also, whenever Drugstore.come has a 20 or 30% off deal on beauty, it generally is valid on Clarisonic items.

      June 3, 2013/Reply
  8. K says:

    I will throw in another mention for Ebates. I never make a purchase without going through the website, and I love that all promo codes for my favorite places can be found in 1 spot. I combine Ebates rewards with cash back on my credit card for max results.

    June 3, 2013/Reply
  9. Becca says:

    My Skymiles card has a program Skymiles Shopping where I can get extra miles per dollar (I think the most I’ve gotten is 5 miles/$ and it includes retailers like Nordstrom and Drugstore.com).

    June 3, 2013/Reply
  10. Katherine says:

    I had a negative experience with eBates (bought a $1000+ bag through the site and they claimed they had no record of the transaction) so I switched to FatWallet. Same concept. Just throwing it out there as another option. What really helped me when I took a big pay cut a few years back was to set up a budget, which consisted of (i) tracking and recording every penny (literally every penny) that I spent for a few months, (ii) breaking my spending down into categories – most are monthly, some are annual/semi-annual, (iii) set dollar amounts for each, and (iv) continue to record every penny on at least a daily basis. This way, I know approximately how much I will spend in a year and I added a page in the spreadsheet dedicated to income (base+anticipated bonuses), so I have a very accurate estimate of how much I will save each year. There are other pages for splurges/fun stuff, tracking my savings and investments, etc. I know this is too compulsive for many but it works so well for me. The key is coming up with a system that works for you.

    June 4, 2013/Reply
  11. Elena says:

    Another vote for Fatwallet (they don’t usually have Amazon however). I started using them since they have really good deals and forums on electronics but then branched out into clothes and everything else. They also have Overstock if you get furniture/kitchen items etc. I’ve used them for 5 years and never had a problem. They even have a little reminder when you go to a site to note down what you’ve purchased so if there is a problem you can track down your cash back owed

    June 4, 2013/Reply