A richer 2012: A monthly guide to maximizing money

NEW YORK (AP) ? It’s time to pencil some savings into your 2012 calendar.

Throughout the year, there are a variety of steps you can take to pocket some extra cash, whether it’s booking airline tickets a month in advance or setting aside tax-free wages to pay for health care costs. In many cases, these are actions that can result in ongoing savings that add up over time.

The problem is that these moves typically require a degree of planning, even if only a minimal amount. And when you’re juggling work and the daily tasks of life, such opportunities have a way of sitting on the backburner until it’s too late to act.

To ward off another year of missed chances, below is a guide of simple money-saving moves you can make each month in the year ahead. Scan through it now to see whether there are any particular dates or actions you want to flag, and keep the list handy as a reference.

You may discover you’ve been leaving free money on the table for years.



?DEBT: It’s a perennial New Year’s resolution, but there’s extra incentive to pay down your debt right now. Cash still isn’t earning much interest sitting in deposit accounts, with the average rate for a one-year CD clocking in at just 0.35 percent, according to Bankrate.com. So if you’re sitting on any extra savings, consider using it to knock off any accumulating credit card debt.

?TAXES: To make the most of your taxes, designate an office folder or kitchen drawer where you can keep receipts and other necessary paperwork. A common roadblock when filing returns is a lack of documents to claim deductions.

?COLLEGE: Families with college-bound kids will want to get their taxes squared away early. The income and asset figures from the returns will be needed to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which should be completed as soon as possible after Jan. 1. An early application improves the chances of receiving aid from multiple sources. To fill out the form, go to www.fafsa.ed.gov .


?SPENDING: Flowers can become a big part of your Valentine’s Day spending, especially if you procrastinate. If you plan on sending a bouquet, start browsing websites early to avoid inflated delivery charges on last-minute orders.

?CREDIT CARDS: Sweeping credit card reforms have banned a number of misleading billing practices. But the new rules don’t set guidelines on rewards programs, which cardholders often fail to use to their full potential. Take a few minutes to understand the caps, expiration dates and redemption process of your program; a few tweaks to your spending habits could boost the cash back rewards or points that you earn.

?ENTERTAINMENT: If you realize you haven’t seen any of the Oscar nominated films even though you’ve been paying for premium channels, it might be time to trim your cable package. The trial offers you were given when first signing up may also have expired.

?ENTERTAINMENT: While you’re at it, commit to a cap on how much you’ll spend on online entertainment each month. It’s easy to lose sight of how much you’re spending when all you have to do is click “buy.”


?TRAVEL: If you’re planning a spring break, remember that the best time to book a flight is four to six weeks before traveling; prices for any given flight are generally highest in the few weeks just before and after that time frame. Airlines also offer the most sales on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

?SPENDING: As you store away your cold-weather gear, make a list of any items that need to be replaced for next winter. Then hit the clearance sales ? and avoid impulse buys by shopping only for items on your list.


?TAXES: Don’t panic if you haven’t filed your taxes yet. You have until October if you file for an extension, but you’ll need to pay any taxes that are due.

?BANKING: In honor of Earth Day, check to see if you can save a few bucks by opting for e-statements. The monthly service fee for a basic checking account at U.S. Bank, for example, is $6.95 when customers opt for e-statements. If customers opt for paper statements, however, their monthly fee is $8.95. And while you’re making tweaks to your bank account, consider setting up automatic bill pay to guard against late fees.


?SPENDING: If you’re dining out on Mother’s Day, go online to see if there are any deals available at your mom’s favorite restaurants. Start with sites such as BiteHunter.com and Restaurant.com; if your mom is a fast food junkie, try EatDrinkDeals.com.

?HOME: Before the weather gets too hot, consider investing in a more efficient air conditioner to save on energy costs. Keep in mind that getting a unit that’s too powerful for the space you’re cooling can be just as wasteful as getting one that’s too weak. The recommended capacities for various room sizes can be found at www.energystar.gov .

?COLLEGE: If you’re the parent of a high school sophomore or junior, start planning a tour of college campuses this fall. Think about coordinating the visits with another trip and try to get in as many nearby campuses as possible to minimize travel costs.


?SPENDING: If you have multiple wedding ceremonies to attend this summer, think about where you can cut corners. This could be as simple as limiting how much you spend on new clothes or teaming up with others to buy group presents.

?HOME: It’s National Homeownership Month and interest rates on mortgages should still be near record lows. If you’re still not sure whether you’re ready to become a homeowner, check out the renting versus buying calculator on the website of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, http://1.usa.gov/jqvLIT .

?HOME: Homeowners should check whether it’s worth refinancing. The general rule of thumb is that the new rate should be at least about 1.5 percentage points below your current rate. Otherwise the closing costs may not make the savings worthwhile.


?INVESTING: The mid-year checkup on your investment portfolio is even more critical in times of market volatility. You want to be sure that market gains and losses haven’t knocked your mix of stocks, bonds and cash out of balance. If you don’t have a financial planner, consider rebalancing with the help of an online portfolio tool such as Morningstar.com’s Portfolio Manager or one offered by Quicken.com

?HEALTHCARE: If you’re inspired by the Olympics set to take place in London, check whether your employer offers any discounts for health club memberships or programs.

?COLLEGE: This is the time of year that families apply for private student loans to bridge funding gaps for college. When evaluating the options, be sure you understand whether the loan has a variable interest rate and what the options would be if payments can’t be honored. The rates and terms on private student loans are far less forgiving than on federal student loans.


?SPENDING: Several states offer tax holidays for back-to-school items on a designated weekend. The timing varies by state, but tax holidays usually start early in the month. If your state had a tax holiday last year, it may run again this year. The Federation for Tax Administrators offers a list of this year’s dates and qualifying purchases at http://www.taxadmin.org/FTA/rate/sales_holiday.html .

?TRAVEL: It’s time for a little number crunching. Set aside an hour or two to review your summer travel and recreation expenses. See how much your vacation ended up costing, compared with how much you intended to spend. Make a note of unexpected expenses you could have avoided and file it away for next summer.


?COLLEGE: The rise in college costs has far outpaced the rate of inflation; tuition and fees alone are an average of $17,000 a year at public universities. In honor of National College Savings Month, consider setting up a 529 college savings plan for your child. These work like 401(k) accounts and let families invest in the market and withdraw money tax-free to pay for education. Each state offers its own plan; families can invest in plan from any state they like, but there are often tax benefits to picking one from home.

?SPENDING: The holiday shopping season is rapidly approaching. Keep spending in check by starting to pay down debt and mapping out a budget.


?HEALTHCARE: Open-enrollment season arrives in workplaces across the country. Many companies have been tweaking their benefits to keep pace with rising health care costs, so make sure you’re still signed up for the plan that best fits your needs. Also consider opening a flexible spending account for health care costs. These accounts let workers set aside tax-free wages for items such as copays and medications.

?HEALTHCARE: Don’t forget to evaluate how much you spend on medications. Over-the-counter drugs are as much as 50 percent cheaper at Target and Wal-Mart than at local supermarkets, according to Consumer Reports. The big box retailers also charge $4 for a 30-day supply of many generic prescriptions, or $10 for a 90-day supply. Other chains, such as CVS and Rite Aid, offer similar programs.


?INSURANCE: As you start to review your expenses for the past year, check whether you can cut your auto insurance payment. You may not need as much coverage if your car has aged and depreciated in value since you first signed up for coverage. A clean driving record since then may also qualify you for a lower rate.

?TAXES: Start thinking about the year-end moves to lower your tax bill for 2011. For example, consider maxing out contributions to your retirement accounts.

?COLLEGE: It’s time to have a money talk with new college graduates. The six-month grace period on student loans for May graduates is coming to an end. To make sure your child’s credit record remains clean, help work out a budget to juggle payments, rent and living expenses. Graduates who are still looking for employment should investigate their deferment options.


?SPENDING: You don’t have to brave the crowds even if you haven’t gotten around to your holiday shopping. Check out the hundreds of retailers that participate in Free Shipping Day in the middle of the month at www.freeshippingday.com . Don’t forget to tap into social media sites of retailers to stay on top of special sales.

?GIVING: If you plan to give to a charity during the holidays, be sure the group you’re donating to is appropriately qualified before making a donation. Remember that charitable contributions can only be deducted if you have receipts to back them up. Further guidance is available on the IRS website at http://tinyurl.com/36syn7 .