Ten ways the Web can help thrifty families

Growing up online

The number of Web sites promising to help families save money has grown almost as fast as the number of Americans who need to trim their budgets. Unfortunately, not all of those Web sites deliver on their promise. Many of the Save! Save! Save! Web sites actually have something to sell. Some even charge for things like credit reports that families can get free.

Parents, of course, need to save time as well as money. These 10 tips are designed to give you maximum control over the money you have.

1. Make a budget. Lots of Web sites help you track your money. At www.mint.com, for example, you can enter passwords for bank accounts as well as credit cards, making it possible for the site to categorize and track everything you spend. If that seems like overkill, check out the budget forms available at www.frugalliving.about.com, a Web site that has tons of tips about living well with less.

2, Look for structural savings. So-called"fixed” expenses aren’t nearly as fixed as they used to be. At www.lowermybills.com and www.bankrate.com, you can compare rates for utilities, credit card companies and even mortgage lenders. Use www.saveonphone.com to untangle the complicated packages offered by cell phone companies or www.billshrink.com to compare credit card deals.

3. Control discretionary spending. If you’re serious about sticking to a budget, don’t even visit sites like www.overstock.com and www.woot.com. You’ll be tempted to spend money on things you may not need. The same rule applies to so-called"deal” sites where"Only 2 Left At this Price!” tags may trigger impulsive spending.

4. Do your homework. Before making any purchase over $25, check a price comparison site like www.pricegrabber.com to find out what the item"should” cost. If you’re trying to save money on an auction site like Ebay, visit www.honesty.com first so you’ll recognize bargains when you see them.

5. Be smart when you spend online. If the going price for something is beyond your budget, put what you’re willing to pay into www.pricespider.com and let its bots e-mail you when they find a deal. Then look for coupons at coupon sites like www.retailmenot.com or www.couponmountain.com. Avoid shipping charges with the codes at www.freeshipping.org. And register your purchase on www.priceprotectr.com. It will send you an e-mail if it spots the product at a lower price and many retailers will refund the difference.

6. Eat for less. Cutting your food budget means spending less on the food you buy and choosing recipes that get maximum nutrition per dollar. Like many other grocery sites, www.mygrocerydeals.com lists the specials at local stores after you’ve registered and provided your zip code. This site also lets you search for online coupons, check nutritional information and even search by item so that, for instance, you’ll know who has the best deal on peanut butter. For frugal recipes, try www.cheapcooking.com, a Web site that doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, just hearty family-friendly recipes.

7. Save on energy. Energy prices may fluctuate but the best strategy is to cut consumption. To make your home more efficient, take the time to work through the calculations at The Home Energy Saver (http://hes.lbl.gov/). To be sure you are getting the best price on gasoline, visit the price data map at Fueleconomy.gov.

8. Indulge in free stuff. If you were dependent on retail therapy to improve your mood, it’s time to make the switch to freebie hunting. At sites like The Absurdly Cool Freebie Finder (www.absurdlycool.com) and Hey It’s Free (www.heyitsfree.com), you’ll find all kinds of things you never knew you wanted. Of course, nothing is truly free. In some cases, there will be shipping charges. In others, you’ll give up contact information. Either way, you’ll pay less for your consumer high.

9. Bypass cash. The Internet has made it much easier to swap things you don’t want for things you need. Freecycle.org lets members post both"Have” and"Want” listings. Dignswap.com sets up exchanges between women who have things they don’t wear in their closets. At www.Swaptree.com, registered users can trade books, videos, games and other items.

10. Learn tips and tricks. Saving money doesn’t have to be a grim business. You can, for example, recruit the kids to search for coupons and give them a percentage of what they help you save. Or you can visit www.thriftyfun.com, a lively site filled with craft projects that can be made from odds and ends most people already have on hand. Or you can get the e-mail newsletter from www.stretcher.com, a Web site that’s been collecting ideas about getting the most from every dollar since 1996. At www.frugalvillage.net, a community of moms share their ideas about thrifty family management.

The point of being thrifty now is to have more of what you want later. Parents, in particular, have compelling reasons to save. Although no Web site can tell you how much you"should” be saving, visiting these Web sites will provide encouragement and inspiration. At the very least, you’ll know you’re not the only family trying to do more with less.

Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. If she missed your favorite money-saving Web site, let her know at www.growing-up-online.com.

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