It's possible to save tens of thousands of dollars by using a few savvy --but simple—strategies. When we offered savings makeovers based on the strategies in my book SAVE BIG: Cut Your Top 5 Costs and Save Thousands, hundreds of "GMA" viewers wrote in. For my first "GMA" Savings Makeover, I found $46,993 in savings for the family. My second makeover netted $188,852 in savings! After that big one, I vowed that next I would make over a family with significant debt to show that even for people in that tough situation there are smart moves you can make to get out from under the bills and SAVE BIG.
Robin Shoblock of East Windsor, New Jersey, was the ideal candidate because she and her husband are normally financially solid, but a series of setbacks had put them in debt. Her husband, Gary, had been laid off from his job in pharmaceutical sales because of the recession. This came right after Robin quit her job to pursue her dream of getting a college degree at last. All this for a family that expanded from four people to seven a few years ago when Robin's sister died and the Shoblocks took in her three kids.
"I'm sure if you ask the kids, they'll tell you that there's been a lot of stress in the house," Robin told us. So I set out to reduce their stress --and their bills.
Strategy #1: Shop around for tech providers = $2,280 savings
First, I shopped around for cable, phone and Internet providers for the Shoblocks. I asked them if they would consider canceling cable altogether for the maximum savings, but the Shoblocks are huge sports fans, so they told me, essentially, "no way." They've been through a lot, so I decided to try to find a way for them to save money but keep that little pleasure.
The Shoblocks were paying $178 a month for a bundle that included cable, home phone and Internet -- and I just knew we could do better. By taking advantage of an introductory offer for new customers at a competitor company, I found them savings of $2,280 over the next three years! It took me about half an hour of comparing Internet speeds, channel lineups and so on.
It's the kind of move anybody can make. You just have to commit a little window of time to the task, buckle down, and go for it. Another option is for the Shoblocks to take the offer I found them back to their current carrier and see if the company will match it.
Strategy #2: Shop around for medical procedures = $3,980 savings
You can also shop around for medical procedures, but few people think to try. Robin's doctor wants her to get a routine colonoscopy. That's expensive and the Shoblocks have to satisfy a high deductible before their health insurance kicks in, so this is their own money we're talking about.
Even if you have a low deductible, it's worthwhile to get the lowest possible price on medical procedures because many health insurance policies, instead of charging a flat co-pay, require you to pay a percentage of the cost, called "coinsurance."
It's also beneficial to keep costs down, because you want to stay away from the "lifetime maximum" amount of money that your health insurance will pay over the years. So, we called 10 facilities near Robin's house and found one that was $3,980 less than the rest!
"Wow, that's not necessarily good news because I don't want to get it," Robin joked. "Now I may have to!" This was no fluke. There are dramatic price differences between testing facilities for things like MRIs and CT Scans too. It was another hour-long task and if you think of your savings as your "earnings," it's like making $3,980 an hour. Nice!
Strategy #3: Check into student loan forgiveness = $17,500 savings
Robin and her daughter Jill both just graduated from college -- a huge accomplishment -- and huge debt. But Robin plans to become a teacher, and didn't realize the government will forgive $17,500 worth of her student loans if she works in an underprivileged school. Teachers who spend at least five years working in a designated Title 1 school can qualify to have their Stafford loans forgiven.
Robin doesn't have to do this now, but could take advantage of the opportunity at any point in her career. "There are a lot of challenges, but, I think, a lot of rewards," Robin said. There are also Perkins loan forgiveness programs for teachers. Mark Kantrowitz, founder of the indispensable financial aid website FinAid.org, points out there are loan forgiveness programs for people who plan to pursue other types of careers as well. He catalogs the possibilities on his site, which is a terrific resource.
Strategy #4: Refinance your car loan = $1,995 savings
Most people know you can refinance your mortgage but don't realize it's possible to refinance your auto loan. And most people know credit unions are a great tool, but don't realize they themselves can join. Here's how those two secrets come together to help you SAVE BIG.
Often you can do better on your car loan than the interest rate you were sold at the dealership. Robin and Gary Shoblock were paying 10 percent interest on a five-year auto loan. That adds up. Various institutions now do car loan refinances, but credit unions have made it a specialty of sorts, delighting in scooping up a little business at the expense of big banks. You see, credit unions operate on a non-profit basis, so they don't have to strive to make more, more, more money for their shareholders every year. Instead, they focus on their customers and can afford to offer them loans at very competitive rates.
In the Shoblock's case, that meant refinancing their Ford Escape at 7.5 percent through McGraw Hill Federal Credit Union.
That will save them $1,995 over the next four years! Better yet, auto refinances don't require all the paperwork and closing costs that mortgage refinances do. As long as your vehicle is on the newer side and you don't owe more than it's worth, it's a viable option. Not a member of a credit union? Never fear. You don't have to work for the company or organization that originally established the credit union. These days there are all sorts of ways to become a member. Check out the website FindACreditUnion.com to find one you can join.
Strategy #5: Use savings to pay credit card debt = $9,679
The Shoblocks reluctantly racked up some credit card debt while Robin was in school and Gary was looking for a new job. (After a few months, he found a great one, by the way!) But they had one thing going for them in the credit card debt battle: a small savings account -- if I could get them to use it.
The Shoblocks were clinging to their savings account in case of an emergency. I tried to impress upon them that credit card debt IS an emergency. If your savings account is earning a measly 1 percent interest while your credit cards are charging a whopping 30 percent interest, that's just bad math. It's like barricading your front door to protect the family heirlooms, while thieves are walking out the unlocked back door with them.
On the other hand, you can instantly "make" 29 percent by using your savings to pay off your debt. I always say take that sure savings over the possible emergency. You may not even have an emergency, and if you do, that's what you can use your credit card for. In the meantime, you'll have saved thousands in interest.
Despite using my most persuasive arguments, the Shoblocks, like many people, felt really uncomfortable giving up that little nest egg. "I'm not totally sold right now," Gary said when I presented the strategy. "I would have to think about it."
But here's the thing: the Shoblocks were making only the minimum payments on their credit cards, so they were bleeding interest payments and at that rate it would take them decades to pay off those debts. I came up with a compromise. By using just two-thirds of their savings to pay off the very worst credit cards, they will save $9,679 in interest. It's hard to argue with that level of savings. And there's a bonus: by substantially paying down their credit card debt, they will almost instantly raise their credit scores. The improvement will show up as soon as the new, lower balances are reported to the credit bureaus.
Strategy #6: Roll balances to low interest credit card = $7,122
To tackle the rest of the Shoblock's credit card debt, I once again turned to the unsung heroes at the McGraw Hill Federal Credit Union. They approved the couple for a low interest balance transfer credit card. The introductory interest rate is 0 percent. Can't beat that! And the permanent interest rate thereafter is an excellent 9.9 percent interest. Two things to look for in a balance transfer card: some banks offer low introductory rates but then stick you with exorbitant balance transfer fees. This card had neither. And some banks offer low introductory rates, but they are not fixed. The 9.9 percent McGraw Hill Platinum Card rate was guaranteed.
The Shoblock's had been paying about $500 a month just to make minimum payments on all their cards. With the worst cards paid off, we figured they could afford to put $600 a month toward their remaining cards -- just $100 more. But, wow, what power that extra $100 has at these low rates. "You will get those cards paid off in a grand total of only 11 months," Danielle Lipari, Financial Services Consultant at McGraw Hill Federal Credit Union told the Shoblocks. And get this: by aggressively paying down their balance rather than making minimum payments, the Shoblocks will save another $7,122 in interest. "Sign us up," Robin exclaimed.
Strategy #7: Refinance into an Adjustable Rate Mortgage = $55,203 savings
With all the turmoil in their lives, the Shoblock's normally solid credit score took a hit, so they couldn't get approved to refinance their house at a big bank. They were stuck with a mortgage at 6.85 percent even though rates have come down substantially. But credit unions have the flexibility to go beyond peoples' mathematical scores and look at their situations.
When McGraw Hill Federal Credit Union's underwriters looked at the Shoblock's finances, they could see that they had accrued some debt, but also that they always paid their bills on time and never missed a payment, despite their troubles. So the credit union approved them for a new mortgage -- the hardest kind of loan to get!
"We approved you to refinance the balance into a 10/1 adjustable rate mortgage at a rate of 4.75 percent, zero discount points, no origination fees," Lipari told the Shoblocks. "Are you kidding me," Gary asked. "Is this candid camera?" In a 10/1 ARM, the first number, in this case "10" means the loan will be fixed for ten years and the second number, "1" means it will adjust every one year after that.
Adjustable rate mortgages got a bad rap during the bubble years, because so many people signed up for them not realizing that if their rate adjusted upward they would no longer be able to afford the monthly payments. But the initial interest rate on an ARM is lower than that of a fixed rate mortgage, so you can save big money if you know you are going to sell before your ARM adjusts. The Shoblocks plan to downsize into a smaller home once all the kids go to college. That will probably be in the next three to four years, but this loan gives them some cushion -- 10 years at a fixed interest rate before it adjusts. The new mortgage will save them a welcome $429 a month, loosening their tight purse strings. Better yet, it will save them $55,203 over the next 10 years. "I'm speechless," Robin said. "It's just so hard to come up with ways to thank you guys for your help."
WEB EXTRA TIPS
Here are three more savings strategies I found for the Shoblocks that we didn't get to on GMA –and that might work for you.
Strategy #9: Switch cellular providers = $1,168
As a family of seven -- with three teenagers -- let's just say the Shoblocks use a lot of cellular services. They were getting a pretty good deal on wireless because Gary got a discount through his employer. So I wasn't able to find them any great savings by switching to a different plan at their existing provider. But the Shoblock's contract was set to expire in a couple of months. So I had the innovative website FixMyCellBill.com look at other carriers for them. FixMyCellBill.com, also known as MyValidas.com, is a website where you upload your cell phone bill and special software analyzes thousands of providers and plan variables that our human brains just can't process. The website determined that the Shoblocks could get the exact same features they enjoy now, but save $1,168 a year by switching carriers. "It's a real relief," Robin said. "I always walk around saying 'I hate the cell phone bill…I think everyone would be a lot happier."
BONUS: Right now, GMA viewers who want to try the FixMyCellBill service can get 20 percent off by entering the promo code "SAVE BIG."
Strategy #10: Do volunteer work for student loan money = $4,725
It was easy to find ways for Robin Shoblock to make a dent in her student loans because she trained to become a teacher and the federal government has several loan forgiveness programs to encourage good teachers to enter the field. But could I find some help for her daughter Jill, who also just graduated and doesn't really know what field she wants to enter yet? Yup! For Jill I found something called the VISTA program, which stands for Volunteers In Service to America, and is part of the government's Americorps program. Any college graduate who volunteers in an approved position in a low income neighborhood for 1,700 hours can receive $4,725 toward their student loans.
"It's definitely something I could do," Jill Shoblock said.
Strategy #11: Stockpile groceries when they're on sale = $4,160
The Shoblocks figure they spend $140 a week --$8,320 a year—on groceries. That's not as much as they used to when the kids were younger and home all the time but still a substantial sum. Robin said she didn't have time to get serious about couponing but that she definitely wanted to put a dent in that grocery total. So I suggested stockpiling, where instead of buying groceries when you need them, you buy them when they are at their lowest price. And then you buy enough to get you through until the next sale. All you need to do is clear out a closet or stick up some extra shelves in your garage and you are in business. You can stockpile everything except fresh produce and eggs. You can even stockpile milk and cheese if you have enough freezer space.
If you make a commitment to only buy groceries when they are at least half off, you are well on your way to cutting your grocery bills in half. It can be hard to know when a sale is just lukewarm or truly hot, but these days there are websites to guide you. CouponMom.com is a free site that tracks grocery store sales in most states. TheGroceryGame.com is another helpful site that charges a small subscription fee, but covers some stores that the CouponMom site does not.
Both sites tell you what is on sale at your local store each week, what percentage off the discount is, and whether there are manufacturer coupons you can pair with the sale for even bigger savings. Learn to tailor your meals to those sale items instead of buying groceries at random and you will SAVE BIG.
CLICK HERE to learn more about SAVE BIG by Elisabeth Leamy, ABC News consumer correspondent.
CLICK HERE for more savings resources available on Elisabeth Leamy's website.