5 realistic ways to save money, according to experts

Saving money doesn't mean sacrificing quality of life; in fact, it can be a way to improve it.

  • U.S. household debt reached an all-time high in 2018, a year that also saw a severe drop in the personal savings rate.
  • While the internet propagates many untenable ways to save, experts agree that small changes to our lives can result in large paybacks.
  • These five ways to save money can lead to improved health and living a little greener.

The internet is replete with advice on how to save money, but it can be difficult to find information that's right for you. The FIRE movement promises that prudence will lead to retirement in your 30s, but its critics argue that such a path is only accessible to the economically elite. Then there are the attention-grabbing methods that clog your social media feed: recycling pet hair for pillow fluff, making your own toilet paper out of junk mail, and extreme-couponing your way to a truck-load of free Pop-Tarts.

While these methods may ultimately save you money, none of them are necessary (or appealing) and they can sacrifice quality of life. But there are less sensational, far more realistic ways to go about saving money. To find them, we simply need to reevaluate everyday spending habits to locate our psychological blind spots. Thankfully, scientists and experts have taken the time to locate these blind spots for us, quantifying exactly how much money we're leaving on the table without a second thought.

Credit cards are financial leeches

For many the monthly credit card statement is treated like any other utility bill. They pay the minimum balance and then don't think about it until the following month. This approach, however, makes the charge card little better than a financial sink hole.

How much can it cost you to fill it in? Imagine you owe $7,000 with an interest rate of 15 percent. Paying $300 a month, it'll take you 28 months to pay off the debt. In the end, you'll pay $328 more than the principal—assuming you don't take on additional debt during that time.

The more you owe, the more you pay. If you owe $20,000 a month at 15 percent interest, and pay $1,000 per month, it will take you 24 months to pay it down. The debt will ultimately cost you $3,158 more than the original cost of the items and services.

Of course, $1,000 is a lot to set aside per month, but it's necessary. Paying only the required minimum payment covers the interest alone. This leaves the principal untouched, allowing it to continue generating higher and higher costs.

"Credit card debt is the stain on millions of Americans' finances that doesn't scrub off easily, if ever," said Kimberly Palmer, NerdWallet's credit card expert. "High interest rates combined with expenses that continue to outweigh income mean that some households are unable to fully rid themselves of debt and, in fact, continue to take on more."

Palmer's statement may conjure images of welfare queens on shopping sprees, but such stereotypes are hardly accurate. One survey discovered that "nearly two-thirds of Americans with credit card debt most typically rack it up due to emergency expenses, like car repairs or medical bills, or to daily spending, like groceries or utility bills." Corroborating this, a NerdWallet study found that while income growth has outpaced inflation, increasing by 22 percent since 2008, medical expenses have risen even faster (33 percent since 2008).

If you want to improve your finances, make filling in this money sink your top priority. After paying it off, or significantly down, take the money you would have spent on monthly payments and put it into a rainy-day account. This will help you from building up the debt as aggressively next time you go to the doctor.

(If you want to calculate how long it will take you to clear your personal debt, you can find a credit card payoff calculator here.)

Exercise trims more than your abs

\u200bResearch has shown that regular exercise can help you save money by cutting your healthcare costs

(Photo: Pixabay)

Research has shown that regular exercise can help you save money by cutting your healthcare costs.

In a New York Times/CBS News poll, nearly half of respondents agreed with the statement that affording basic medical care was a hardship. Out-of-pocket expenses have risen, forcing many Americans to compensate with debt. This includes credit card debt, as we've seen, but also borrowing against their home.

It's a miserable truth in the United States that people must choose between their well being and financial security. Of course, if you need to go to the doctor, do so. To help you save on those visits, you should exercise regularly.

A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association compared the workout habits of American adults with their medical expenses. People who exercised regularly—roughly 30 minutes a day, five days per week—cut their medical costs by an average of $500 per year compared to non-exercisers.

The windfall was even larger for people with preexisting conditions. Exercisers with cardiovascular diseases (CVD) spent an average of $2,500 less on medical bills than non-exercisers with CVD.

"This study gives us even more solid evidence that physical activity has a significant effect on health," Dr. Jorge Plutzky, director of preventative cardiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, told the Men's Journal. "Exercise brings many different forces into play that can benefit you, such as weight loss — and it's amazing what can happen when you lose even just a little weight. Blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammation all go down. You just can't put all those benefits into a pill."

Driving costs down

Walking, running, and biking are great ways to get exercise. Not only will these activities help you stay healthy, they'll cut down on another major financial burden, your car.

A 2018 AAA study found the average cost of owning and operating a new vehicle was $8,849 per year. Small sedans and hybrids cost the least ($6,777 and $7,485, respectively), while large sedans and pickup trucks cost the most ($9,804 and $10,215). The depreciation was shown to be a massive value sink as well, amounting to 40 percent of vehicle-owning costs.

"The secret to minimizing depreciation costs?" said John Nielsen, AAA's managing director of Automotive Engineering and Repair, in a statement. "Keep your car for a long time and keep it well-maintained or even consider buying a quality, pre-owned vehicle."

You can claw back that annual $9,000 simply by owning one fewer vehicle. You can further cut expenses by using public transportation, performing routine maintenance, driving at moderate speeds, and only buying premium gas if your vehicle requires it.

Reducing car use is a good way to go green, too. The American Public Transportation Association cites public transportation as saving the U.S. "4.2 billion gallons of gasoline annually" and reducing "the nation's carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons annually."

The value of a home-cooked meal


(Photo: USDA/Flickr)

The convenience of snagging a fast-food lunch hides a hidden costs. Not only is it not healthy for you, but it costs significantly more than packing your own lunch.

Busy schedules lead us to dine out for the convenience factor, but this convenience costs the average American a surprising amount. A Visa 2015 lunch survey found that Americans who eat lunch at a restaurant twice a week spent $1,043 a year, plus expenses for the other three days. Americans who brown-bagged it spent slightly more ($1,704) to eat five days' worth of lunches.

And the expense of dining out is increasing. According to the NerdWallet study, "the cost of buying food away from home has gone up 27 [percent] since 2008, outpacing the growth of the U.S. median income." Planning your meals in advance not only cuts down on these oft-ignored costs, but also allows you to be more judicious in the foods you eat.

Coffee out is another great place to save. Crunching the numbers, Coffee & Conservation found that brewing a 12-ounce bag of specialty coffee at home costs you around 50¢ a cup. A Starbucks 8 oz. drip coffee will cost you roughly four times that amount. And let's be honest, few of us enjoy Starbucks for their drip.

"You might opt to keep some of [life's] extras, which is totally fair, but getting clear on what counts as a necessity can help you really enjoy your discretionary purchases more," personal finance blogger Desirae Odjick told NBC News. "You don't need a latte, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy one—and if you know it's a treat, as opposed to what you buy without thinking about it because you need it, you'll probably enjoy it more."

Understand the psychology of supermarkets

\u200bThe modern supermarket is a psychological maze designed to keep you inside and spend more. To save money, stick to a specific list and limit your time there.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The modern supermarket is a psychological maze designed to keep you inside and spend more. To save money, stick to a specific list and limit your time there.

TV shows tout the massive savings of extreme couponing, but in the long run, sales and coupons cost you. They're designed to get you in the store, where you will spend more money on premium-priced items. And these sales are often on items you wouldn't have purchased in the first place. Sure, you got 50 boxes of Pop-Tarts for free, but how many Pop-Tarts are required to meet Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs? The answer is no Pop-Tarts.

Beyond the so-called deals, supermarkets are laid out to tempt your brain into purchasing more than you need. Endcaps push sales front and center. Samples slow you down and add entertainment value. Staples like eggs and dairy are placed in the back, forcing you to schlep through the entire store. Even the aisle layout is designed to keep you in the store longer, increasing the chance you'll buy just one more item.

To save, shop less. Go to stores less often, spend less time there, and make a list beforehand. This will offer fewer opportunities to spend money on things you don't need. After all, if you don't wander down the soda aisle, you won't place that tempting Coca-Cola bottle within arm's reach.

Calculating the list's costs and bring that exact amount of cash can also help prevent overspending. And never go shopping hungry. Eat a snack at least.

Another way to save is to ignore brands. Our brains associate reward with specific brands, with aggressive marketing intensifying that relationship. However, name brands (aka private label goods) tend to sell at a higher price than store brands despite not providing any added quality.

"The neuroscientist Read Montague demonstrated that merely seeing a Coke label was enough to activate the brain's pleasure centers without even taking a sip, by elevating the levels of dopamine, a naturally occurring chemical produced by the brain that signals feelings of reward," writes Douglas Van Praet, author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. "The way we plan future behavior is based upon present feelings that signal future expectations: The more rewarding it feels, the more likely we are to engage in that activity."

Consumer Reports studies have shown that store brands are less expensive than national brands by about 25 percent, and their testing has revealed no significant quality difference (though some store brands are superior to others). Their surveys have also shown that the majority of store brand buyers are satisfied. The reason for the cost distinction? You're paying to supplement the name brands' fierce marketing campaigns.

This article has focused on short-term money goals, none of which is complete without long-term planning. Budgeting, investments, insurance, retirement savings, and rainy-day funds all need to be considered for a well-rounded approach to one's household finances. But these tips—along with others like using the library, conducting an energy audit, or learning to do your own home repairs—can help you claw back some of the savings that go unnoticed every day.

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Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

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  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
  • Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
  • The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.

Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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