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Saving money in the online banking and shopping era

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Ebates sends you a Big Fat Check simply for shopping at your favorite stores online. Ebates sends you a Big Fat Check simply for shopping at your favorite stores online. Ebates Logo

Online banking has all but made the checkbook register obsolete. You can check your balance on your smartphone, view it online or even print it, but the lost science of registering debits and credits hasn’t gone away, and it shouldn’t.

The importance of logging your debits and credits hasn’t changed. They still teach it in middle school family and consumer science courses, but fewer people stick with it. My sister still keeps her checkbook register up-to-date despite writing two checks per month for rent and utilities. Everything she buys with her debit card gets logged in the checkbook register, and it’s no surprise she’s better with money than her brother who doesn’t -- until now.

Log Your Debits and Credits

I don’t write checks. I pay my rent in cash and my bills online. I setup automatic payments for all my bills, so I never spend time with my money. This is a big mistake. It’s the number one easiest way to save money according to CNBC guest contributor Brittney Castro. Just sitting down with your money once per week to monitor debits and credits and budget for the week can put you in a better place financially.

If you’re like me and don’t have a checkbook but want to log your debits and credits on paper, you can print blank registers here. I’d rather use my phone to manage my money. I am logging my debits and credits on my iPhone using the Spending app. It’s also available for free on Android devices. It allows you to log debits under the following categories: eating out, clothes, entertainment, fuel, general, gifts, holidays, kids, shopping, sports and travel. You can also add a category of expenses and income. I added my Airbnb income for example.

You can view your debits and credits over the week, month or year. The best part is, turning your phone sideways reveals a pie chart of your expenses. This way you can see what’s costing you the most money and where you can start saving. Hit the cash flow tab and a graph reveals your income, so you can see those weeks you took some time off from work, or in my case, hosted more or fewer Airbnb guests. This is much more helpful than a checkbook register because it allows you to more easily see where you’re wasting your money. I’m a sucker for eating out, but since I’m new to my city, I think it’s only natural to be trying restaurants to see what you like and what’s worth the money you’re paying. Still, if I want to save money, I’ll have to cut out some of that spending.

Open an Online Savings Account

Using the Spending app to budget for your week or month isn’t the only way to better manage your money. It takes a lot more than monitoring your debits and credits to reach your financial goals. After I get my check today, I’m heading to my bank to withdraw some money to put in an online savings account. Remember those days your money in your savings and checking accounts actually made you money? Well, those days aren’t all gone. You just have to do more research and move your money around more often. Luckily, Jeff Rose has already found the top online saving account interest rates for you. Some online savings accounts require a large deposit to open the account, but many can be started for as little as $25, and while 27 cents doesn’t sound like much, it’s still 27 cents you didn’t have before, and will be a few bucks by the end of the year.

Cut Transportation Costs

Cutting your transportation costs is the easiest way to save money if you commute 12 miles or so to work everyday like me. I intend to start riding my bike to the bus stop to save even more money this summer, and, eventually, I’ll do the entire 25-mile commute on my bike to get in great shape. But the gas rewards card is a thing of beauty. I keep two of them on me at all times, so regardless of what gas station is nearest I have a way of earning points and saving money. That moment after you swipe your card and the screen on the pump reads “We’re lowering your prices,” or “Use $2.96 in rewards?” I get all warm and fuzzy inside. It feels like you’re cheating the system, and speaking of…

Take Advantage of Rewards Programs and Rewards Credit Cards

Sign up for every free, rewards program you can find. My favorite is Ebates, which I’ve been using for almost 10 years. During that time I’ve been paid $113.72 just for shopping at my favorite stores online. You can even install an extension for your browser, so anytime you happen upon a store that’s an Ebates partner it will ask you if you want to enable Ebates cash back. Just click the button and you’re on your way to free money for every purchase you make.

Another extension I’ve attached to my browser is Honey, which scours the internet for coupon and promo codes that apply to the store you’re visiting. It’ll tell you how many coupon and promo codes are available for that store, for what they can be used, and allow you to save money on your order right there and then. There’s no need to open a new tab and search those ad-happy coupon and promo code search engines anymore. Just install Honey.

If you travel a lot, open an Expedia account and start earning rewards points worth airline miles and discounts on hotel rooms and car rentals. You can even find discounted tickets for activities on your trip. The other day I was offered a free flight if I booked a hotel along with my flight through Expedia. I don’t book through anywhere but Expedia now, because Ebates gives me 10 percent cash back on top of any discounts I get with my rewards points.

If you travel for business, a travel rewards credit card will probably be a good thing to have in your wallet. Nerd Wallet has put together a fine list of the best available travel rewards credit cards, but if you intend to apply, be sure to note whether the credit card has an annual fee. If you travel enough to accumulate enough miles to use during the fee-free, introductory year, you can jump ship after just one year and move to another travel rewards card. If not, just pick one that doesn’t have an annual fee.

Finally, the most rewarding and money-saving rewards program and credit card are with the same company: Amazon. I buy a lot of books, technology and vinyl records. Most of my birthday and Christmas gifts are purchased on Amazon. In fact, I just sent my mom her Mother’s Day gift using Amazon (they do gift wrapping for $4 if you’re wondering and include a short, personalized message on a card). I also sent my sister her birthday present using Amazon, and neither of those gifts cost me a dime. Here’s why:

I got hooked on Amazon at a young age. I was really into Ebay when I was in high school, but when some of the items I purchased came with defects and weren’t returnable, I started using Amazon pretty regularly. I’m pretty sure the first credit card for which I ever applied was my Amazon Rewards Visa Credit Card through Chase.

My new, shiny Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Credit Card came in the mail just a few weeks ago. Since I’m an Amazon Prime member, I get five percent cash back on every Amazon purchase to be used on future Amazon purchases. I also get two percent back on purchases at restaurants, gas stations and drugs stores, and one percent back on all other purchases. While the interest rate is high, it doesn’t matter because I pay it off each month. So that’s how I ended up taking care of my sister’s birthday and Mother’s Day without spending a dime of my own money.

I cannot stress how rewarding Amazon Prime has been for me. I became a member when I was a sophomore in college because I was tired of paying way too much for textbooks at the bookstore. Instead, I managed to save a ton of money buying them on Amazon and had them shipped in two days for free thanks to my Prime membership, so I rarely fell behind in classes because I didn’t have a textbook. I even made a bunch more than most of my classmates selling my textbooks because I used Textbook Wheel, now First Class Books, instead of selling them back to the bookstore. Never buy textbooks from or sell textbooks to your university bookstore. We live in a global economy. Your campus is not the best place to get the books you need for classes or the money you need to celebrate passing your classes.

I’m just now taking advantage of Prime Pantry -- Amazon’s online store for mostly non-perishables. Here’s a breakdown of what I got:

The best part is all of it will be delivered for free to my apartment within four days. The real value is I got to compare prices from the comfort of my computer desk and didn’t have to stand in line at the grocery store checkout. Oh, and did I mention that my Amazon Prime membership includes video streaming of movies and shows and free, two-day shipping on any Amazon warehouse-fulfilled item?

So keeping a checkbook register is all well and good, but the internet and smartphones allow for so many more ways to save money, whether it’s by logging your debits and credits, transferring money to an online savings account that actually pays interest, saving money through online rewards programs or buying the things online you already buy at the store. Welcome to the online banking and shopping era and enjoy the savings.

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