A Poor Grad Student's Guide to Money-Saving Resolutions-- For the New Year or Any Time of Year

With Christmas, Hanukkah, and other winter holidays drawing to a close, it's the time of year that many of us start thinking about preparing our New Year's Resolutions. As a grad student living on a limited income, I like to make specific resolutions that perform a dual purpose; whether slimming your waistline or doing your part to aid the environment, here are some simple steps for giving your wallet a boost on your way to self-improvement.

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Idea #1: Get Healthy!

According to the National Association of Health Underwriters, Americans spend an average of $7,800 a year on health care. You can reduce this number by making a New Year's Resolution to get healthy-- and even see an immediate return on your efforts by following these specific suggestions:

1) Get in the Kitchen
While high-priced organic and gourmet options help perpetuate the myth that it's expensive to eat healthy, it's actually much cheaper to do your own cooking than to eat at restaurants (even fast food) or buy pre-packaged foods. The same cash that could get you a few ounces of potato chips-- with all the added salt and fat-- will buy you pounds of potatoes. Try baking them, for a fiber and vitamin rich alternative to chips or fries.

2) Brown Bag It
While you're in the kitchen, try setting aside tomorrow's lunch. Taking a sandwich with lean meat and whole grain bread to work or school with you is a heck of a lot cheaper-- and better for you-- than going through the drive-through or grabbing something from the vending machine every day.

3) Drink More Water
This is something most people could stand to do to improve their health and appearance, and feel more energetic. As an added bonus, you save calories and money by drinking water in place of sugary soft drinks and juices. Ordering water every time means never paying for another drink at a restaurant, and keeping a pitcher with a filter in the refrigerator means you can enjoy a cold, refreshing glass whenever you like, practically free of charge.

4) Quit Smoking
This resolution is easier said than accomplished, but the benefits to your health-- along with the savings on health and life insurance-- are enormous. Additionally, a pack-a-day smoker who kicks the habit will save an average of $2,000 each year, making this an extremely smart financial choice.

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Idea #2: Go Green

As time goes by, it seems like more and more people are concerned about the state of the environment. While some greener options-- like environmentally friendly cleaning products-- can unfortunately be more expensive, there are many, many things you can to do benefit both the environment and your pocketbook:

1) Switch to CFLS
Since they use 75% less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs, switching to CFLs (Compact Flourescent Bulbs) can save you a lot on your energy bill. Making the switch also means buying and changing light bulbs far less often, and while older CFLs commonly had an odd curlicue shape and a bit of a harsh glare, more traditional-looking covered versions and soft light CFLs are now commonly available in stores. Oh, and while you're at it...

2) Turn off the lights!
Mom and Dad were right: You'll save on your energy bill-- and pump less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere-- if you turn off the lights when you leave a room. Also, be sure to turn off TVs, computers, and other electronic devices when you're not using them. You can even unplug items like toasters when you're not cooking with them, since some electronics continue to draw power, even when they're not turned on.

3) Don't throw out your old clothes, movies, electronics, and books-- Sell or trade them instead
Sites like Ebay and Half.com offer popular means of doing this, or you could try checking out local consignment stores. In my midwestern town, Half Price Books is willing to give me a modest return on old textbooks, paperbacks, DVDs, and even VHS tapes and magazines. I also occasionally sell infrequently worn clothing and other unwanted items to a local consignment shop. While I certainly don't get all my money back, it's a better return than I'd get from throwing it away-- or keeping it around to clutter up the apartment. Or, if selling is too much hassle for you, sites like Paperbackswap.com and BarterQuest let you trade goods and services. You can mail in a previously read book in exchange for a new one or arrange any number of other trades.

4) Use public transportation
By taking the bus to class, I save literally over a hundred dollars a month on parking alone. I also save on gas and can feel good about making an earth-friendly decision. While waiting for the bus can be a bit of a pain sometimes, letting someone else drive me to school and work gives me extra time for reading or relaxing that I wouldn't have if I was behind the wheel each morning. Or, if you don't have conveniently available public transit, you can achieve similar benefits-- and maybe even turn some acquaintances into friends-- by carpooling when possible.

Two More Options

1) Go Generic
Store-brand products are usually far cheaper than their brand-name rivals. Sometimes, they even use exactly the same ingredients. Check the labels on medicines and food to see if there's even a difference between your favorite name brands and their generic spin-offs.

2) Follow Your Favorite Brands on Social Media Sites
By following restaurants, stores, and other popular companies on websites like Facebook, you can often find deals in your Newsfeed. Some might even be coupons, codes, or other bargains exclusively available to the brand's followers. So why miss out on a good deal?

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