Personal Finance $ave Me

  Friday, 2 May 2014 | 9:34 AM ET

Why a $100 Mother's Day bouquet won't cut it

Picking a Mother's Day bouquet for Mom's exacting style and financial standards is no easy feat.

The average U.S. consumer will spend $184 on Mother's Day, up 7.5 percent from last year, consulting firm Brand Keys projects. But there's a lot of variation. Men will spend close to $215 for their wives and mothers, while women will spend $153.

If you're not careful, the bulk of that budget could be blown on flowers. Taxes and fees included, a quality bouquet could easily cost upwards of $100.

(See the above video for some of the best tricks to cut the cost of a florist bouquet.)

A fast way to save is to call a local florist (or at least, local to Mom, if she doesn't live nearby) instead of ordering online, said Paul Goodman, president of Floral Finance Business Services, a consulting firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Delivery and service charges might be half as expensive as those online, at $7 or $8 per order.

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  Friday, 25 Apr 2014 | 8:25 AM ET

Here's how parents can be happy campers

Sending your child off to summer camp can be an easy choice, but picking the right one? Much tougher.

There are more than 2,400 camps nationwide, with weekly fees ranging from under $100 to more than $1,500, depending on the kind of camp (day or overnight) and its programs, according to the American Camp Association. "There's a lot of diversification within the camp community," said chief executive officer Peg Smith. "We're constantly trying to keep track of the trends."

Don't choose by the cost alone, said Chris Thurber, founder of CampSpirit.com. "Camp is very much a situation where price does not necessarily correlate with quality," he said. "It behooves parents to do some research on the camps they're interested in."

Consider which have activities your child might enjoy. (See charts below for some of the most popular at day and overnight camps—and how easy they are to find.) Then talk to the camp for a sense of daily routines and structure to see if it's a good match for your child's personality and age. Picking the wrong camp in those regards can be an expensive mistake, if it means your child is miserable, he said.

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  Friday, 18 Apr 2014 | 2:00 PM ET

Extreme strategies to earn airline miles

To get a free airline award seat these days, it's time to get creative.

Road warriors racking up miles for elite status have been getting hammered by changes to frequent flier program terms. So have leisure travelers patiently collecting enough for that rare "free" ticket. Delta, United and, most recently, American, have all announced program changes this year that alter the number of miles required for various award seats: A few are getting cheaper, while many others get pricier. In some case, the changes almost double the cost.

Read MoreAs the mile gap widens, new frequent flier loyalty tactics

If you're not a road warrior, taking a few of their tricks can help you earn enough miles for a free ticket, faster—and limit the effect of program inflation. After that, consider swapping your loyalty to a different kind of program.

Check out the video for tips on three popular strategies. Here's how to make these six worthwhile:

Tactic: Mileage runs

"My wife and I had dinner in China once so we could make American executive platinum status," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com. Taking a flight solely for the miles is still popular, he said, although some airlines are starting to thwart the practice by awarding miles partially on fare class rather than miles flown. Less-frequent travelers aren't likely to find a mileage run pays off: It's an expensive way to get a few thousand miles, if you're not gunning for even more valuable elite status. But still, it's worth checking for airline mile bonuses to see if a planned trip could net a few thousand extra miles.

Tactic: Credit card churn

Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com, knows some frequent fliers who sign up for several new cards each year to nab the bonus miles. This tactic is a little dicey—consumers risk dinging their credit score with a succession of new credit inquiries and subsequent account closures. Plus, issuers aware of the tactic have added fine print limiting the bonuses to new cardholders only, and requiring the account stay open for a set period, he said. Still, an airline credit card (as in, one) or a general rewards card with a good point-transfer program can be a smart tactic. Many offer bonuses of up to 50,000 miles, and waive any annual fees for the first year.

Read more: Has American Express Platinum lost its luster?

Tactic: Buying miles

If you're not sold on other tactics, this avenue can be enticing. It's sometimes worth it, but you have to do the math first, said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. Skip offers at check-in or at the airport to double or triple miles earned. They're typically the worst deals, he said. Road warriors usually look online, where issuers have better bonuses—as much as a 100 percent bonus on miles earned. Even then, the offer may not be worth it. Miles are worth about a penny each at redemption, but purchase offers usually price them at three times that. The pricier the flight you'll redeem them for, the more likely a purchase is to work in your favor.

Read more: Save money by planning your summer vacation today

Tactic: Paying bills

Once you have a miles-earning card, using it for regular bills—like your cellphone, mortgage or even federal taxes—can net extra miles on purchase you'd normally pay with cash or a check. Approach this with caution, however. Many vendors, including the IRS, charge you the 2 to 3 percent processing fee that the credit card issuer normally picks up. "That kind of negates the value," Kelly said. Even if the transaction is fee-free, paying credit card interest would also more than offset the value of any miles earned if you can't pay the balance in full each month. Not for you? For upcoming graduation, wedding and other gifts, sub cash gifts for gift cards—you'll earn miles for the purchase of each card.

Tactic: Shifting cash

This hack gets a little complex. Some fliers use their miles-earning credit card to buy reloadable bank gift cards at various retailers, earning miles for that purchase, Seaney said. Then they use the gift card to buy a money order, and put that cash right back in their account (or spend it on bills, as above). A few dollars in fees can net thousands of miles: One site, MightyTravels.com, netted 6,000 points for $12.50. "It's like the equivalent of extreme couponing," he said. The catch: Too many big transactions could trigger possible fraud alerts on your card.

Read more: 8 Ways to profit from spring cleaning

Tactic: Stacking bonuses

An easy one for less-frequent travelers to follow: "When you buy anything online, shop through the airline shopping mall," said Hobica. Each purchase at favorite retailers earns you miles with your preferred airline, even if you don't have a miles-earning card. "They have retailers high and low, everyone from Wal-Mart to Saks Fifth Avenue," he said. "You can get thousands and thousands of miles a year." All on purchases you'd (hopefully) make anyway.

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  Friday, 4 Apr 2014 | 8:00 AM ET

Save money by planning your vacation today

Memorial Day is still nearly two months away, but scoring a beachfront summer rental is a lot easier—and cheaper—for vacationers able to plan ahead.

Vacation rental sites say their early bird users tend to book about 90 days out, meaning summer spaces are already starting to fill up. On HomeAway.com, "a little over half [of owners] are already half-booked," said Jon Gray, senior vice president of HomeAway Americas. (See chart below for average prices in some of the more in-demand locales.)

Read MoreProof that Americans are a bunch of workaholics

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  Friday, 28 Mar 2014 | 8:32 AM ET

Home improvements with the most bang for the buck

Cleaning up on spring home improvement projects requires more effort than many homeowners anticipate.

Remodeling tends to pick up as the weather improves, and this year is no exception. During the second half of 2013, the National Association of Home Builders' Remodeling Market Index, which measures how busy contractors are, was at its highest level since the spring of 2004.

When the report was released in late January, remodelers were expecting an even busier spring, with more saying they had been called to bid on a job or were already committed to a project.

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  Wednesday, 19 Mar 2014 | 10:21 AM ET

Homebuyers eager for spring real estate price thaw

Consumers planning to jump into the real estate market this spring will need to reassess pricing, whether they are looking to buy or sell.

The spring real estate market has been off to a slow start, but experts foresee plenty of pent-up demand that could heat up the market as warmer weather arrives. Earlier this month, a report from Zillow.com found that 10 percent of U.S. renters say they would like to buy a home within the next year.

In February, asking prices were 10.4 percent higher than a year earlier, according to Trulia.com. Even without a bidding war in play, buyers have less leverage to negotiate lower prices. That, combined with stricter borrowing limits from lenders, could mean buyers have a smaller budget than anticipated, said Michael Corbett, a real estate expert with Trulia.com. Before starting a house hunt, secure pre-approval from a lender. "Otherwise, you'll end up looking at houses that aren't in your price range, and putting in offers that won't fly with the bank," said Corbett, author of "Before You Buy."

(Read more: As rates edge higher, mortgage applications slip)

—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @Kelligrant and on Google.

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  Thursday, 13 Mar 2014 | 8:26 AM ET

Spring break escapes that avoid the college crowds

With yet another round of winter in the East, it can seem awfully tempting to escape somewhere warm.

One look at prices, though, and it's clear you're not the only one with that idea. Demand is up for spring airfares this year, with domestic tickets costing $442, or 15 percent more than last year, according to Travelocity.

(Read more: Warm weather travel spikes as ice, snow return)

Travelers looking to escape the cold and avoid the crowds of families and college students celebrating their spring breaks will need to take evasive maneuvers. Hopper.com suggests avoiding the weeks of March 16, April 6 and April 13. That's when more school breaks are scheduled—and prices are as much as 28 percent higher.

It also pays to be flexible on your destination. While many spring breakers are headed to Mexico and the Bahamas, Fly.com reports that some of the best airfare deals right now are to places that cater less to those crowds (and college budgets), including Turks & Caicos (as cheap as $337 from New York), and Maui ($422 from San Jose). For those who can take an extended break, fares to Milan run as cheap as $619--about $200 less than to other parts of Italy and other Mediterranean destinations.

—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @Kelligrant and on Google.

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  Wednesday, 5 Mar 2014 | 9:24 AM ET

How to avoid overpaying for daily-deal discounts

If you want to drive a race car, scale an ice wall or learn circus acrobatics, buying a daily-deal voucher is, increasingly, the way to go. But getting the advertised 50 percent off isn't that easy.

Consumers have gotten used to looking for daily-deal vouchers, which means businesses have had to get creative with the terms to make money off the offers. A 2012 Rice University study found that 61.5 percent of businesses running daily-deal promotions made a profit from doing so, up from 55.5 percent in 2011.

One of the big secrets: The discount might not really be so steep. Before buying in, check the business' site and social media feeds for new-customer deals, coupon codes and other regular promotions that could undercut or even beat the daily-deal price.

Package deals may include extras (such as a dinner and coat check with those sold-out show tickets) that push the price higher than another shopper might pay.

—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @Kelligrant and on Google.

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  Tuesday, 25 Feb 2014 | 8:00 AM ET

Why spring is the best time to buy a fall wardrobe

For shoppers watching the runways, spring may be one of the best times to hunt for fall fashion bargains.

Spring fashion weeks in New York, Milan and other cities provide a window into designers' lines for fall, and experts say many of the trends parallel what's in stores now as well as on the clearance rack.

"There's already lots of spring merchandise coming in," said Connie Wang, senior global editor for Refinery29.com. "All of [last] fall's merchandise should be on sale."

Take shearling coats, which pop up on the runways at Coach, Alexander Wang and Ralph Lauren, among other designers.

"It's the one coat every trendsetter will own this fall," said Jeanine Edwards, editorial director of SheFinds.com.

Sites such as TheOutnet and Gilt have on-trend takes for as much as 70 percent off, such as a $2,250 3.1 Phillip Lim jacket reduced to $899.

Other easy clearance buys, per Edwards' and Wang's observations: Large-patterned plaids, hemlines that fall between the knee and ankle, and deep green or icy blue hues.

But while shopping clearances can yield better prices on pieces you'll wear for several seasons, it can be financially risky.

"Buying six months ahead, you aren't entirely sure what trends are going to stick or not," Wang said. Splurge on a hot item that doesn't make the cut, and you may not get enough wear to justify even a lower cost.

"Don't spend a lot unless you're excited about how it looks on you," she said.

—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @Kelligrant and on Google.

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  Tuesday, 18 Feb 2014 | 9:52 AM ET

Finding hidden values on a luxury cruise

With no end to winter in sight, travelers itching for a vacation to warmer climates may find that now is an excellent time to book.

Cruise fans call January through March "wave season," and it's often when cruise lines offer their best deals of the year. CruiseCritic.com managing editor Colleen McDaniel said usually anything under $100 per night is a good deal. But savvy shoppers can often snag deals under $75 per night, and occasionally, under $50.

If you're interested in a luxury cruise line, however, getting the best values requires looking for something other than price cuts. Luxury lines' offers trend more toward free or discounted airfare, extra excursions, onboard credit or included gratuities, which can be just as valuable.

(Read more: Travel trend: 'Get me somewhere warm now')

—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @Kelligrant and on Google.

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About $ave Me

  • Spending money is easy. Finding ways to make the most if it requires smart thinking and strategic planning. CNBC.com Consumer Reporter Kelli Grant brings her expertise to the table to help viewers get an edge when it comes to putting their cash to work and making good financial decisions.