'Life hacker' who earned 10 million credit card points: 3 ways to save money when inflation is high

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If you feel as though you can't keep up with rising prices, you're not alone. Three-quarters of middle-income households (those earning between $30,000 and $100,000 a year by this definition) say their income is falling behind the cost of living, according to a recent survey from insurance firm Primerica.

But if inflation is eating into your budget, the answer isn't necessarily eating less avocado toast. Or drinking fewer lattes. "I saw somewhere that if I cut out my daily coffee, I can reduce my happiness by 10%," says Amy Richardson, a certified financial planner with Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium.

There are ways to reduce your budget without making yourself miserable, says Chris Hutchins, a self-titled "life hacker" and host of the "All the Hacks" podcast, who in 2019 cracked 10 million credit card points.

"The biggest one for me is looking at where you spend most of your money and figure out how to get a better return or erase the expense," he says.

Below, Hutchins and other financial pros offer three tips for "hacking" your budget without giving up the stuff you love.

1. Get cash back where you spend the most

It's worth examining how inflation is affecting you personally. "I'd urge as a starting point to do a customized budget calculation that breaks out inflation into subcategories," says Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning at Morningstar.

You may find that your personal budget is inflating in ways that differ from the headline numbers. Spiking fuel prices are a large piece of overall inflation, for instance, but won't bust your personal budget if you don't have a car, Benz points out.

One way to alleviate the burden of some of your most common expenses is to add a rewards credit card, says Hutchins. "If you're spending a lot on dining or groceries, there are cards that will give you an outsize multiple on that spending," he says.

If you choose a card that offers robust cash back on groceries, you can take your rewards even further by buying gift cards to other retailers at the grocery store, Hutchins adds. "You still get your four points, and now you managed to knock down the price of what you're spending at Bed Bath and Beyond."

2. Don't settle for quoted prices

If good things come to those who wait, cheaper prices come to those who ask. "It's not a secret that you can call your cable and cell service providers once a year and they'll likely give you a better rate plan," says Hutchins.

Hutchins has expanded his negotiating tactics to virtually everything he buys online. "I always pull up the live chat and say, 'I'm going to buy this thing, is there anything you can do on the price?'" Recently, he says, the representative sent him a link that refreshed his cart, which then showed a significant discount on the item.

Can't negotiate for a better price for something expensive you need to buy? See if you can find or even purchase a coupon, Hutchins says. "Say you're renovating and need to spend a lot of money at Home Depot. There are websites where you can buy Home Depot coupons online," he says. "I needed to buy patio furniture and bought a 15% off coupon for $2."

3. Pick off 'low-hanging fruit'

The easiest expenses to cut are the ones you don't even know you have, such as ongoing subscriptions. "You may find you're paying for a streaming service that you don't watch much anymore," says Benz. "Those monthly fees are low-hanging fruit."

If you don't feel like poring over your credit card statements, consider adding an online service such as TrueBill or Trim that help you keep track of what you're paying for on a monthly basis. Paid versions of these services allow you direct them to negotiate rates and cancel subscriptions on your behalf.

What's better than keeping money you didn't know you were spending? Claiming money you didn't know you had. Think of it like finding $20 in your coat pocket, but on a potentially much larger scale. States have billions in unclaimed property, including uncashed paychecks, forgotten insurance policies, old bank accounts and stocks and bonds that never made it to your current brokerage account.

If you live in one of 40 participating states, you can search for any unclaimed property of yours at MissingMoney.com, managed by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, or find your state's site at NAUPA's unclaimed.org site.

"People in their 30s or 40s may not find much because they haven't had time to accumulate," Hutchins says. "But a lot of my followers checked for their parents, and it was like, 'Wow, I found all this money.'"

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