By Liz Pulliam Weston
Lots of us long for shortcuts through the complexity of our lives. In previous generations, newspaper columns like "Hints from Heloise" helped homemakers find those shortcuts; as technology blossomed, people started talking about "hacks" or "life hacks" as ways to make our computers -- and ourselves -- more productive.
The phrase "money hack" is relatively new, but essentially means a shortcut or a clever way to solve an everyday money problem. Money hacks can also be ways to wring more out of common financial transactions.
Penny hacks from heavenThe four-penny hack. Want to reduce the number of pennies you lug around? Then always make sure to have four of them in your wallet. That way you'll always get silver coins back in change, rather than more pennies.
Let's say your bill at the drive-through is $4.86. Hand the cashier a five-dollar bill and a penny, and you'll get a nickel and a dime in change. If your bill is $2.29, offer the fiver and four pennies; you'll get two bills and three quarters back
More fun with pennies. Did you know post office stamp machines accept pennies? You probably don't want to spend half the afternoon plugging in all the copper in your change jar (way to hog the machine, dude.) But you can empty your pockets there occasionally. Now, if I could just remember what we use stamps for . . .
Even more fun with pennies. This is the last one, I swear, but if you're looking for a really cheap souvenir, keep your eyes peeled for a penny-pressing machine. My eagle-eyed 4-year-old rarely fails to find one at a tourist attraction. For just two quarters and a penny, she can hand-crank out an elongated, squished copper souvenir stamped with an image depicting the attraction we're visiting. For a few bucks more in the gift shop you can buy a little book to display all your squished pennies. Such a deal . . . and yes, for those of you worried about currency-defacing laws, penny pressing is legal, at least in the U.S.
Bargaining powerSqueeze more out of your online purchases. Bookmark some deal-finding Web sites and check them before making any purchase online (or any big purchase offline, for that matter). Sites like MyBargainBuddy.com, AbleShoppers, dealnews and many others alert you to bargains on the Web, and include coupons for many sites. I buy a lot online, especially at the holidays, and I can't remember the last time I wasn't able to find some sort of coupon, at least for free shipping or 10% off. Also bookmark comparison-pricing sites like MySimon.com and Google Product Search to make sure the deal you're getting is as good as it sounds. I keep all my bookmarks in a folder called "Shopping," which helps me find them quickly. You'll find even more hacks in "The Web's best shoppers."
Leverage the competition. Right now, there's a free-for-all among television, Internet and phone service providers in most major cities. Many companies want to provide you with all three services, or at least wrest you away from one of your current providers.
Take advantage of those offers you get in the mail or by e-mail by asking your current service providers to match the deals. With one phone call, I got $18 knocked off my high-speed Internet access, thanks to one of those offers.
I had to do slightly more negotiating with my television provider. I pointed out the competition was offering a nice package of channels for just $40 a month for a year and asked them to match it. At first, they offered to discount our $78 monthly bill by just $10. I said something to the effect of, "Well, that's nice, but I was hoping for better." My phone rep put me on hold for five minutes, then came back with a package of discounts that shrank our bill to $47 a month, which included some free premium channels and two TiVo subscriptions. Some aspects of the deal will expire in a few months, but I hope to have another offer from the competition to use as leverage next time.
What if you see your current provider offering a great deal, but they won't let you have it because you're not a new customer? Call up the competition and ask what they'll give you to switch. Write down the details, then call back your service provider and ask them to match it. Make it clear you're willing to decamp, and chances are good you'll be able to wrest at least some savings from them. Luring new subscribers is expensive, so most companies have customer retention policies that you can use to your benefit. If not, you can always take advantage of the competitor's offer.
Plastic high financeThe credit card hack. If you pay your credit cards off in full every month (which you do, right?), you can give yourself an interest-free loan of a month or more on major purchases simply by charging big-ticket items right after your card's closing date.
Let's say your statement typically closes around the 20th of the month. You charge your big-ticket item the day after, the 21st.
The charge doesn't show up until the next month's bill, and you typically have 10 to 15 days from the closing date to pay it, effectively giving you a 30- to 45-day interest-free loan. (You'll want to confirm the closing date, since they can change month to month, but typically that just takes a visit to your card's Web site or a call to the 800 number.)
Your Money poster "frrrpants" takes this hack a step or two further by using three credit cards.
"Make sure their statement closing dates are evenly spaced throughout the month, say on the 1st, 11th, and 21st of the month (many cards do allow you to specify your closing date if you ask). Delay major purchases until the day after a card's statement closing date, and then use that card for the purchase."