Painless ways to cut the budget

Hopefully your family hasn't personally experienced a job loss or pay cut in this gloomy economy, but chances are you know someone who has. Even if you feel relatively removed from this recession, saving money is on most everyone's mind, thanks to the dismal headlines. But there comes a point when you feel you can't cut anymore. If you've reached that point, try my favorite ways to save painlessly.

Use coupons. A single coupon for 25 cents hardly seems worth the trouble of locating the scissors. But, added together, consumers saved $2.6 billion last year according to the Promotional Marketing Association. Hate to clip them? Use child labor. My 5-year-old enjoys cutting out the coupons I want (even the ones I don't).

Coupons are also heading online in a big way.
I check manufacturer and retailer web sites for printable coupons before heading out to shop. Sign up to receive e-mails from stores and brands you love and the deals will come to you. Or visit any number of coupon sites such as RedPlum.com and SmartSource.com. I hoard coupons for products I always use and wait until there's a store sale, then stock up. For more, try HotCouponWorld.com, CouponMom.com, and TheGroceryGame.com.    

Understand store loyalty programs.
I know. Who wants to carry yet another card in her wallet? But if you frequently visit a certain drugstore or restaurant, for example, the perks that come with the plastic card are typically well worth the trouble. One of my favorite programs is the CVS ExtraCare rewards program. Get yourself a card and you'll earn ExtraBucks for prescriptions, products, and a percentage of what you spend each year. ExtraBucks can be used like cash at CVS. Match ExtraBucks deals with store coupons and it's easy to walk away with items that are essentially free. I swear I'll never pay for toothpaste, Band-Aids, or shampoo again.

The program is kind of tough to understand at first and is not for the brand loyal, but my
Star Tribune colleague John Ewoldt and I interviewed an ExtraBucks guru on our Dollar Duo show. Visit Startribune.com/dollarduo for the straight scoop.

Make your credit card pay you
. Most credit cards have reward programs offering cash back, points, or airline miles. If you're like me and prefer to charge your household's needs and pay them off in full at the end of the month, reward programs can be lucrative. Two sites for comparing cards are CardRatings.com and LowCards.com.

Before picking out a card, think about what kind of a credit card user you are. Some cards, such as the American Express Blue Cash card, work best for those who charge thousands of dollars every year. Hungry families should look for a card with cash back on groceries or restaurant purchases. Want to save for your baby Einstein's college? Consider the new car from Fidelity Investment that deposits
2 percent of your total purchases into a 529 plan.

Shoppers who carry a balance should skip the rewards, which typically have higher interest rates. No perk will make up for paying higher finance charges. Another important mention: In this economy, creditors are scaling back their rewards programs and raising interest rates and fees at the drop of a hat. That's why it pays to read the messages your credit cards send you, no matter how teeny-tiny the print.

Kara McGuire, a mom and
Star Tribune personal finance columnist, blogs at Startribune.com/kablog.