Money Saving Products I Use
As the founder of a personal finance blog that has been around for over 5 years, I always get asked questions like, “so…what credit card do you use?”, “what mobile phone plan is the cheapest?”, “what is the best online checking account?”, etc. As a result, I’ve been pushed to do a TON of research and testing in order to be a credible resource on financial products and services.
So I decided to not let all of that research go to waste, and compiled a “best of” list of my favorite money-saving financial services and products, by category. I have used or currently use all of these products or services and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to my friends, family, & readers. Consider it a 20somethingfinance.com cliff notes on how to save money.
For full disclosure, please note that some of the links below are affiliate links and I will earn a commission if you purchase through those links (at no extra cost to you). I have a strict policy of only recommending products or services I have used personally or have come highly recommended from readers. If I recommend something that sucks, nobody wins. Also, please do not spend money unless you feel it’s for something you really need and will help you reach your financial goals.
I have become a rewards card hacker and a big believer in using different cards for different situations to get the most cash back rewards. I have listed a few of my favorites below, but also put together a comprehensive credit card guide to help readers research and find the cards that best suit their needs.
- Grocery: The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is the best grocery rewards card out there, and this is the single biggest card expense for most people. This is my favorite card, because it offers up 6% cash back on purchases at US supermarkets on the first $6,000 per year (for me, this has included Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Meijer, and Kroger). I got $435 cash back my first year using the card. It also offers 3% cash back at US gas stations & select US department stores, and 1% cash back on other purchases. You can get all of the cash back in the form of statement credits. It also is currently offering an opportunity to earn 100 reward dollars, redeemable for a $100 statement credit, after you make $1,000 in purchases with your new card in the first three months. Plus, get one year of Amazon Prime after you sign up for a new membership with your Card and meet the spending requirement in the same time period. There is an annual fee of $75, but for a 2-person family, I came out $300 ahead on groceries alone, vs. a 1% cash back card. I use this card personally for all supermarket purchases.
- Gas/Domestic Travel: The TrueEarnings® Card from Costco and American Express gives 3% cash back at US gas stations (for purchases up to $4,000 per year (and 1% thereafter), 2% at restaurants & for eligible travel, & 1% cash back on other eligible purchases, including at Costco – which comes back to you in the form of an annual reward coupon. The 2% at restaurants is great for when I’m traveling. Plus, it’s an AmEx card and Costco membership card (saving you room in your wallet), with no annual fee for Costco members. American Express also has great perks, which I highlight in my Costco American Express review.
- Cash Back Rewards Hacking Card: The Barclaycard Upromise World MasterCard® is the best rewards hacking card at the moment. You can earn 10% or more cash back on eligible online purchases through Upromise, 4% cash back at thousands of participating Upromise dining restaurants, 3% cash back on eligible gas purchases at Exxon or Mobil locations, 2% cash back on eligible movie theater locations, 1% cash back on all other purchases, you start with a $50 cash back bonus after first purchase, there is no annual fee, and there is a 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months.
- Balance Transfers: The Discover it® card is a well-rounded cash back card with a ton of perks and a really fair fee structure. No annual fee. No overlimit fee. No foreign transaction fee. No late fee on your first late payment and they don’t increase your APR for paying late. Cash back includes 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in online purchases through December 2013 with free and easy sign-up. And 1% cash back on all other purchases. There is also 0% Intro APR on balance transfers for 18 months. And they even give you a free FICO® credit score on your monthly statement.
Credit Scores & Credit Monitoring:
- Credit Karma: Credit Karma is a 100% free way to get your Credit Score at any time, and check it as often as you like – no strings attached. You get a free TransUnion credit score, VantageScore, auto insurance credit score, and home insurance credit score. It’s safe, with no catch, and no credit card required. Check out my Credit Karma review for more info. Credit Karma has also started offering 100% free credit monitoring, while competitors are charging $15/month+.
- Annualcreditreport.com: Annualcreditreport.com is a government-mandated website that allows you to get 3 free credit reports annually – one from each major credit bureau.
IRA (Roth & Traditional):
- TradeKing: I house a Roth IRA & Traditional IRA with TradeKing. There are no annual fees or inactivity fees (if you make 1 trade per year or have a minimum balance of $2,500 or more) and trades are only $4.95 each. Customer service is great and research tools are too. Check out my TradeKing review for more info.
Discount Broker (non-IRA):
- OptionsHouse: OptionsHouse is the cheapest discount broker with trades that are only $3.95 each. Accounts are free to start, and you can get 100 commission free trades when you create a new account.
- Betterment: I haven’t personally used Betterment yet, but many friends have and really like their take on investing. Betterment will choose and invest in very low cost index funds (from Vanguard and iShares) and charge customers a percentage of total assets (varies from 0.15 to 0.35, based on your asset total) on top of the Vanguard and iShares ETF’s they include in their portfolio. There are no trading fees, which makes re-allocations and dollar cost averaging much cheaper. It’s very hands-off, responsible, passive investing – you give them the money, they do the rest. I’ve written more about Betterment here.
- Loyal3: Loyal3 is not so much a discount broker as it is a direct stock purchase plan platform. The best part? Free stock trading (buy and sell) in dozens of popular stocks! You can add to your position slowly over time without the fear of trading fees eating in to your returns. Completely unique and innovative.
- Vanguard: If you are interested in low-cost passive investing, Vanguard has a number of commission free ETF’s through their brokerage.
Free Checking Account:
- EverBank Yield Checking: $0 monthly fee, no debit card fee, zero ATM fees (and they reimburse on other banks fees if your balance is over $5,000), interest-bearing account with a 1.25% 6-month bonus rate.
- Capital One 360: $0 monthly fee, 38,000 free ATM’s, and a $50 sign up bonus.
Online Savings Account:
- Discover Bank: no maintenance fees and they pay a very competitive interest yield to you. Discover Bank was voted the best online savings account of 2011 by Money Magazine.
- Liberty Mutual: I have shopped around, but Liberty Mutual is usually 30-50% (HUNDREDS) cheaper than other auto insurers for me. Your mileage may vary, but definitely check them out and ask for multiple policy discounts & discounts for being an alumni of your university. They also have accident forgiveness, low mileage discounts, and OnStar discounts.
Home Insurance & Renters Insurance:
- Liberty Mutual: As noted above, I’ve found Liberty Mutual’s auto insurance to be much cheaper than others. With multiple policy discounts, it’s also advantageous to have my home insurance with them as well. I only pay $400 for my home insurance via Liberty Mutual. Every time I get a quote elsewhere, it’s usually at least twice as much. Ask for multiple policy discounts & discounts for being an alumni of your university. Let them know you have deadbolts and smoke detectors – there are discounts for those.
Health & Life Insurance:
- eHealthInsurance: The health and life insurance options available are pretty extensive and prices can vary wildly based on age, gender, and health history. You need to shop around, and ehealthinsurance.com is a great place to do it. I found my term life insurance plan there and have looked for HDHP’s there too.
Auto & Home Loans:
- LendingTree: Based on your credit scores, the loan amount, and location, loans can vary widely. LendingTree.com works with a large number of lenders so that you can compare and get the best rates and conditions.
- Turbotax & H&R Block: There are a lot of other junk products out there that you should stay clear of. Both Turbotax & H&R Block are great tax software programs that I have used and would recommend. I’ve found H&R Block to be slightly cheaper than Turbotax.
- Mint: Mint.com is a 100% free budget planning software that consolidates all of your financial activity into one graphic-enhanced web browser interface.
- Budget planning spreadsheet: This is a monthly budgeting spreadsheet that I created and use personally to this day to manage my budget. Free to copy from Google Docs.
Mobile Phone Plans:
- Tracfone: If you like to keep things simple, and are able to get by on minimal minutes (by pairing w/ VOIP or you just don’t use that many minutes), you can pay as low as $7.50 per month for a plan with Tracfone. They are the largest discount operator and they run on Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile’s networks. Check out the phones that offer triple minutes for life to boost the value.
- Republic Wireless: If you want a more advanced phone that uses Android, the cheapest unlimited data/text plan with call time is through Republic Wireless. You get unlimited data, text, and voice minutes for $19 per month. Republic can do this because they’ve optimized their phones to connect to wi-fi networks, when available, and Sprint’s network when not.
VOIP (landline phone):
- Ooma: Ooma is a VOIP device that offers free VOIP home phone service forever (you only pay local taxes). It’s every bit as good or better than a digital voice service through your ISP, but much much cheaper. Audio quality is excellent & the features are awesome. Unlike MagicJack, you don’t have to have your computer on to use it. Simply plug in any standard phone into the unit, which plugs into your modem, and you’re good to go. It pays for itself within a few months and then you never have to pay for phone service again! Check out my Ooma review for more.
Cable TV Replacements:
I calculated the lifetime cost of cable TV, and at a 6% return it’s over $1.1M (far more than most will ever save for retirement, sadly)! Be smart, and replace it with a combination of the following to get more great entertainment than you’ll ever be able to consume in your waking hours at under $20 per month:
- Roku: a nifty little streaming device optimized to stream Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and 750+ channels in 1080p HD on your television! It costs less than $100, and there are no monthly fees.
- Netflix: there’s still no better/cheaper way to stream movies and binge watch your favorite TV shows. $7.99 per month (either streaming or DVD), and first month is free.
- Digital antenna: Pick up 1080p HD digital TV with a good ole fashion antenna to get CBS, FOX, ABC, NBC, PBS, and other channels that broadcast in your area.
- I’m a big fan of the Samsung Chromebook. At $249, it’s an absolute bargain. As most everything is in the cloud these days, this machine will suit the needs of 90% of the population as a primary laptop device. It’s super small and light 2.4 lbs. (the Macbook Air is 3 lbs.), has wifi, Bluetooth, USB 3.0, no fan (it uses phone hardware and keeps cool), 6.5 hour batter life, 100 GB of Google Drive storage, and even 12 Gogo in-air wifi passes (a $168 value). And it’s well built. An absolute bargain! Here’s a full review on it.
Modem/Router (Wipe Out your Modem Rental Fee!)
Money Saving Green Devices:
- Lux Digital Thermostat (7-Day Programmable): A great touch-screen Energy Star digital thermostat at a good price. Vs. a non-programmable, it’ll save you $180 per year. They also provide a huge convenience factor in that you don’t have to mess with the thermostat every time you go to bed, wake up, go to work, or get back from work. And all the CO2 savings is good for the environment.
- Belkin Energy Conserve monitor: is a nifty little device that tells you how much energy each of your electrical devices is using. You plug it into the wall and then your device into the monitor to get the readout. The goal in using the device is to figure out how much that electrical item is costing you if you keep it plugged in (on or off). Standby powered appliances are a bitch. This device will actually tell you exactly how much money you are wasting with each device. And how much CO2 as well. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to wasting energy.
- Belkin Conserve Energy Saving Power Strip: A surge protector that allows you to control if your TV peripherals are getting electricity. You simply plug your TV into the control outlet and if your TV is off, it shuts down standby power to the other outlets so they aren’t draining energy while your TV isn’t even on. If it’s on, it turns on standby power. It could save you $67 per year.
- Delta Low Flow Showerhead: A 2.5 gallon-per-minute (gpm) unit can literally save a family of four $260 per year in heating costs alone vs. an older 5.5 gallon unit. That’s a whopping 640% ROI in one year! Not to mention the positive environmental impact. The Delta low flow showerhead can switch between 2.5 gpm and a super economical 1.8 gpm. I own it and love it.
- GE Water Filtration System: If your water smells or tastes not so great, get this system. I’ve used it, and it works. I calculated that the cost of bottled water can be more than $1,000 per year more than tap water. That’s ridiculous! This system will save you serious money in the long run.
- GE 26-Watt CFL’s: If you don’t have a CFL in every light or lamp by now, you’re losing money. Replacing 6 incandescent bulmbs would save you $65 per year in lighting costs.
- A New Air Filter for your car: A clean air filter in a car can save up to 10% in fuel costs. If you propose to change the filter yourself, you can save someone the typical $35-40 that mechanics charge for the part and labor. Not sure if you can do it? It’s easy. Here are instructions on how to change a car air filter. Cost: ~$10. Cost Savings: ~$250/year (Assumptions: Average miles driven/year by Americans is 15,000, average mpg is 20 mpg, $3 per gallon cost, $2,250/year in total fuel costs).
Bike Commuting & Recreational Cycling:
I wrote a post on bike maintenance 101. Every serious biker should own the following gear to be able to repair and maintain their bike:
- Bike pump: rubber is porous and air molecules will escape at high pressure over time. You need to refill them periodically, even if there are no visible leaks. Make sure you get a pump that can work with both presta and schrader valves.
- 1-2 extra tubes: matched to your tire size (which is listed on the side of your tire).
- Chain lubricant: make sure you use an actual lubricant and not a de-greaser solvent like WD-40.
- Bike wheel rim tape: inside your bike wheel, you will find little screws for the spokes. You must cover these in tape or with a plastic strip to prevent tube puncturing. Measure the inside rim width to match up to the tape width.
- Wedge pack: fits comfortably under your saddle, and can hold all of the following.
- Multi-tool: that includes that includes screwdrivers, wrenches, etc., and allows you to make any adjustments on the fly.
- A tire lever tool: to help you get the tire off the of the wheel and back on, in the event of a flat. A bike mechanic turned me on to Quik Stik – and I will not go back to any other lever.
- Tube patch kit: these are cheap, but you can make your own. They consist of a piece of sandpaper, rubber cement, and patches – and when used properly, can seal tube leaks and holes.
- CO2 inflator: to re-fill your tube with cartridge air when you get a flat on the road.
- C02 cartridges: keep 2 in your pack.
- A tiny spool of duct tape: because it’s duct tape – why wouldn’t you?
If you’re a bike commuter, you’ll benefit from:
- A good helmet: this one can’t be beat for its $20 price.
- flashing bike lights (white in front, red in back)
- reflective leg bands: one-size-fits-all. Cheap. They can keep your pants out of your chain (and prevent annoying grease stains). And they improve your visibility through color and reflection.
- a pannier, basket, or a rear bike rack and rear rear pannier, to haul your clothing/laptop/accessories.
- bike fenders: because nothing is worse than biking to work in the rain.
Health & Exercise Products:
I’m not a doctor, but here are two cheap products that keep me away from expensive chiropractor, physical therapist, and massage therapist bills:
- high density foam roller: This $20 piece of foam works miracles. Check out my own personal story on how I came across this.
- Body Back Buddy: An awesome little investment that is essential for anyone who puts stress on their back or sits at a desk all day.
- Tennis Ball: A simple tennis ball is a killer back tension release tool if you roll over it.
I’m also a fan of getting rid of your gym membership. The following products will pay for themselves in 6 months of gym membership dues:
- Chin/Pull-up Bar: there’s nothing that gives you quite the upper body workout of chin and pull-ups.
- Weighted Vest: a good rule of thumb for those in good shape is 20-40 lbs. for females and 40-60 lbs. for males (if you get a vest that allows you to add/subtract weight, even better). Wearing a weighted vest makes every exercise instantly incredibly more challenging.
- Yoga Mat: I use a yoga mat for ab crunches, stretches, and planks to prevent myself from getting bruised from my concrete floor. A good yoga mat can last you a decade or longer. Some form of padded mat is essential to any home gym setup.
- Ab Core Wheels: Ab crunches tend to work out the middle and upper abs. Planking tends to work out the lower and middle abs. But it’s also nice to have something to work out lower, middle, and upper all-together in one motion.
- Dip Stand: This clever device allows you to do tricep dips, bodyweight rows (kind of like a horizontal pullup), chest dips, and more.
- Buy Online: Buying glasses online is SOOOO much cheaper than buying from an optometrist. Check out my post on how to buy glasses online, and keep in mind that you can use your HSA or FSA on eyeglasses. ZenniOptical.com is my favorite online store for eyeglasses. I recently purchases a few high quality pairs for just $25 each!
- Hostgator: Web hosting at Hostgator starts at only $3.96 per month – which provides a service that is more than sufficient for anyone just starting out. It is what 20somethingfinance launched with. Hostgator has great customer service – they are always quick to respond and live chat is always available, with short wait times. If you have a website with a lot of traffic, check out their VPS service, which is what I use now.