using a fan can save energyMy great-grandmother reused aluminum foil, washed plastic bags and created a tub full of bubbles from the tiniest sliver of Ivory soap. For those who grew up during the Great Depression, conservation was a way of life — and I am grateful for every penny-pinching lesson she taught me. 

Today, my friends and family tease me for being extremely frugal, but I no longer consider that an insult. My grandma’s Depression-era strategies have carried me through lean times. Now it’s time for you to take a deep breath and focus on small changes that will offer big financial relief. By the time our economy catches up, you’ll have enough green stashed away to make this moment a blip in history.

Here are my tips to curb consumption and cut costs:

Kill the AC. Note that I didn’t type, “Turn the thermostat down.” Save the air-conditioning for the real dog days of summer and open those windows instead. Ceiling fans are a great investment because they require much less energy. If your home is ceiling-fan challenged, hit the hardware store for a collection of oscillating fans. I learned about their splendiferous powers in college, when I spent two years in an AC-free Atlanta dormitory — that’s not a typo.

Clip coupons: With a 50-cent coupon, your favorite brand of toothpaste may cost less than the generic version. Also check company websites for discounts and specials. Some even allow you to register for monthly discounts via e-mail.

Go generic: There’s nothing wrong with being loyal to one brand. But plenty of generic products do the same job. Check out grocery store brands of toiletries, over-the-counter medication and cleaning products. You may not be able to tell the difference. My favorite whole-wheat cereal is actually the grocery store version, which can cost up to 50 cents less than the real thing.

“Follow” your favorites: Link to your favorite restaurant, dry cleaner or coffee shop through Facebook and Twitter. Many offer discounts or tips on upcoming specials.

Know the code: Before you make another purchase, check sites like RetailMeNot.com, CouponCabin.com or CouponMom.com for discount codes or coupons for the items you buy most. This step can lead to free shipping or two-for-one offers. Keep coupons handy in your reusable shopping bag. Place that bag in your car so you don’t forget it! (More tips on that in a previous column.)

Buy in bulk: Save time, money and shopping trips by ditching the small, single-serving items and shop in bulk. A large box of laundry detergent costs less per ounce than its pint-size counterpart. The same method applies to light bulbs, toothpaste or dog food.

Try pay-as-you go plans: Drop the gym membership and consider drop-in classes. (Unless, of course, you are one of those annoying people who actually works out regularly.) Find gyms that offer drop-in specials on slow days. I’m a fan of $5 Wednesday night Pilates classes in my ’hood. Shop around online for specials at a gym near you.

Follow the money: Get serious about tracking your expenses by signing up for free online banking. Also, consider a free online money-management tool such as Quicken, Pocketbook or Mint. Each provides a one-stop site for tracking credit card expenses, mortgage payments and investments. I recently joined Mint.com; the user-friendly site allows me to set budget goals and monitor my progress. Its iPhone app would have made my list of favorites, but I had trouble registering my bank. Once everything was set up, I got to chart my expenses in real time. Let’s just say, I spend enough money dining out to open my own restaurant. That’s one area where I still have room to trim, and knowing is half the battle.

Bring your lunch: I admit, it’s not my favorite money-saving tip. (Note my love of dining out.) But a brown-bag lunch, at least once a week, saves money over time. In a previous column, I featured cool lunch box gear to kick-start the effort.

Embrace the power of the pack: Drop workday woes at your front door, grab the leash and take your dog for a daily 30-minute walk. This proven stress reliever burns calories, strengthens your heart — and helps the dog get some much-needed exercise. Consider this an investment in your health, as well as your dog’s good behavior. (Who wants to hire a dog trainer?)

Eat what you buy: Stop throwing money away by committing to eat what you buy. Turn your grocery list into a menu for the week or the month. With this strategy, it’s easier to figure out what items should be removed from the grocery list. (If you didn’t eat avocados last month, what makes you think this month will be any different?)

Barter: As a parent, you probably have bartered for babysitting service among friends and neighbors. Keep that momentum going by bartering among friends and local businesses you frequent. I’m friends with a professional photographer who needs help with her website. I’m making the web updates in exchange for a photo session with my nephew.

Strip the services: Streamline your monthly bills by cutting unneeded services. Addicted to a cable TV series? Cut the premium channels and watch the show at your own pace online or on DVD. If you have a cellphone, it’s probably a waste to have call waiting and voice mail on your landline.(By the way, why do you still have a landline?) Cut those phone extras and you could save about $20 in federal taxes and fees each month.

Ask for a better deal: Ask your cellphone provider and cable provider if they are running any specials. It also pays to ask, “What can I do to lower my monthly bill?” They want your business, so many will tell you if lower rates are available. The same applies to your credit card company. If you’ve made monthly payments on time, call and ask for a lower interest rate. If they don’t budge, call back in six months and ask again. If you get nowhere, transfer your balance to the card with the lowest rate.

Consider raising your deductible: Raising your auto or homeowners insurance deductible by $500 can lead to a lower monthly bill. Just make sure to set aside that extra $500 in your savings account.

Care for the car: Protect your investment by maintaining scheduled oil changes, top off all car fluids and check the tire pressure. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, underinflated tires waste millions of gallons of gas each year.

Volunteer: Embrace Mother Nature Network’s goal to “improve your world.” During these tough times, your skills could be a precious asset to a local nonprofit group. Helping others also can bulk up your resume. VolunteerMatch.org and DoGood.org are two popular sites that will help match your interests with a worthy cause. Remember the words of Herman Melville, “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”

Related on MNN:

Photo of fan: Jupiterimages