How to Save Money at Your Desk in the Next Hour

As you read this, you’re likely sitting at a computer with internet access, or perhaps a mobile device of some time. You have a little slice of free time, so you’re seeking out some thoughts on money management or on life.

Instead, why not use this lazy hour to do something at your desk that can help you save money? Here are nine great suggestions for doing just that.

Find a better primary bank – and sign up
I’m often shocked to find that most people seem to be very unhappy with their primary bank. They’re charged unnecessary fees, don’t earn much interest, and are greatly inconvenienced by the customer service or the ATM network. These factors are not only an annoyance – they cost you real money that adds up to large sums over time.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are many banks out there with great customer service, large fee-free ATM networks, no ridiculous fees to simply maintain a checking account, and offer interest on even basic checking accounts. I use ING Direct’s Electric Orange checking, for example, after having abandoned checking and savings accounts with a particular large national bank, and that switch has saved me $50 a month per month in the years since the switch.

Shop around for a new bank. There are a lot of options besides ING – look at HSBC Direct, Everbank, FNBO Direct, and E-Trade are all good banks that have strong customer service, keep the fees from draining your money, and offer interest on the checking. Don’t base your decision solely on interest rates, though, as those vary quite a bit over time – instead, do some Google searching to find reviews on all the banks and keep a careful eye out for customer service comments.

Many banks allow you to sign up for both checking and savings services online, so if you decide to go the full nine yards, you can actually begin the process of transitioning to a new bank right at your computer.

Set up an automatic savings plan
While it’s a great idea to have a full-service bank for your primary checking, for many people, it’s good to have a savings account set aside for emergency funds or other specific savings goals. While I typically use a savings account at my primary bank for my emergency fund (because it’s easier to access), I usually hunt primarily for the best rate when I’m saving for a specific goal (like an appliance replacement).

One good place to do just that is with SmartyPig. Not only do they offer a strong interest rate if you set up an automatic savings plan with them, they also toss in discounts from specific retailers if you meet your savings goal. So, if you need to replace a washing machine in the next several months, set that up as a goal with SmartyPig, earn a good interest rate as you save, and get a discount on the item itself when you reach the goal. I’m currently using SmartyPig to save up for a replacement television by socking away just a few bucks a week.

Another great way to find a high-interest savings account purely for setting some cash aside is Bankrate.com’s savings account yield rate listing. It allows you to see the highest rates available nationwide for savings accounts – and since customer service and ATM access and other factors aren’t as much of a concern with a simple savings account, it can be a good idea to simply seek out the highest rate (though that can change over time – you should compare rates again every once in a while).

Read your grocery store’s flyer and prepare a meal plan and shopping list
It’s so easy to set up a meal plan and make a shopping list, yet many people skip it and head to the grocery store cold. Just a few minutes of prep work can save you quite a bit of money and also make your shopping trip shorter – and there’s no easier place to do it than right in front of your computer.

Visit the website of your grocery store of choice and download their weekly flyer. Browse through the flyer and identify a few interesting items that are on sale, and use those items as the backbones of the meals for your upcoming week – make a list of the meals, in fact. If you need help, use a recipe database like RecipeSource to fill in the blanks. Then, from that list of meals, make a grocery list that includes all of the items you need. You can create both the meal plan and the grocery list on your computer’s text editor or at Google Docs.

When you’re satisfied, print off the list and head to the grocery store. Shopping by grocery list is not only faster than wandering the aisles, it’s also cheaper – your eyes are on the list and scanning the shelves for specific items, which means you’re much less likely to be tempted by impulse buys. That saves you time and money in the store.

Do some strong research for an upcoming major purchase
Whenever you make a significant purchase – and I view significant as being anything over $20 or so – you owe it to yourself to do a bit of research into that purchase, whether it’s merely to make sure you’re buying exactly what you want or making sure you’re getting the right price. Doing this, though, can be a bit time consuming. Here are a few tips to get you started.

ConsumerReports.org is worth it (for me). I use Consumer Reports as the starting point of many of my major purchases (and an awful lot of my minor purchases, too). I use their data as the starting point for purchases and as a good indicator of the relative quality of a given item compared to the competition. You can sign up for the service for just $2.16 a month.

Hit Twitter Search and Technorati for specific comments from real users. Both of these tools reveal what real people are saying about specific items and companies.

Send some emails. Contact your friends and see if they have any recommendations on specific items and item categories.

Sign up for a swapping service
I enjoy watching movies and I especially enjoy reading books. Sure, I can use the library for these things, but I have to remember to return them and I can’t make my own markings on the books if I want to. I prefer to have a copy of my own to hold onto if I find long-term value in it, but I also like to have the flexibility to get rid of the item if I don’t want to keep it over the long haul.

So what do I do? I use PaperBackSwap to trade books by mail and SwapADVD to do the same thing with DVDs. It’s easy – just sign up, indicate ten books or DVDs that you’re willing to send to other people, and you receive two credits that you can use to request that books (or DVDs) be sent to you (they cost one credit each). When someone requests one of your books, wrap it up, send it out (it costs about $2), and you’ll get another credit. The end result is that you can swap DVDs and books you don’t want for DVDs and books you do want for about $2 a pop, which is a lot cheaper than buying them.

I’ve been using both services for years and I’ve had nothing but success with them. When I want to watch or read something new, those sites are my first stop – there’s nothing better than clicking a few times and getting the book or movie you want in the mail without paying a cent.

Set up a “deal monitoring” page
A while back, I wrote about a clever trick I use for automatically finding Amazon deals on my Google home page. That’s just the start – you can use the Google homepage to automatically find all sorts of deals you might be interested in using the same FeedSifter + iGoogle trick described in that article.

Follow certain Twitter search terms. Go to Twitter Search, type in the search terms you want, do the search, then note the “Feed for this query” link over on the right. You can put that link into iGoogle and automatically see those results on your iGoogle homepage.

Follow certain deal blogs. You can simply follow the feeds of good deal blogs as well, like MoneySavingMom, or filter their postings using the feed filtering trick I described above.

Keep a list of links to deal sites. Other deal sites like FatWallet do not offer a feed that you can track, so you may want to make a list of these bargain sites and include them on that page.

Doing all of these things enables you to see tons of bargains and deals at one glance when you open your web browser. It takes some time to set up, but once it’s working, you can see tons of deals very quickly any time you want.

Start a “deal” blog
If you want to carry that “deal monitoring” idea a bit further, why not set up a “deal” blog? You can easily start such a blog at Blogger to share the best deals you find with others. Just share the deals that seem to appeal to you the most along with a bit of commentary and you’ve started something that others might want to follow, plus you’re quite likely to discover tons of new deals via comments and people connecting with you. Put up an ad or two and you’ll earn a bit of money in the process.

A blog is a great way to share the things you discover with others, meet new people, and earn a few cents. Combining it with deal tracking is a great way to combine a money-saving hobby with a money-earning one.

Set up a Roth IRA
Many people out there think they should be saving for retirement, but it seems like a huge obstacle. How does one even get started on something like that? The truth is you can actually get started right at your desk. Many investment houses have Roth IRA plans that are easy to sign up for – all you need is a web browser. From there, you can set up a small automatic contribution from your checking account into that Roth IRA. This is exactly how I signed up for my Roth IRA through Vanguard.

The first step is to make sure a Roth IRA is right for you. Are you eligible for a retirement plan through your work and, if so, do they provide matching contributions into that plan? If that’s the case, it’s worth signing up for their plan just to get the match. Is your income under the limits for a Roth IRA? If you earn less than $100K, you’re fine, but if not, you’ll want to check the eligibility rules. Also, are you currently earning significantly more than you expect to bring in in retirement? If so, then the Roth IRA might not help you in terms of taxes – look for a normal IRA for your savings, or see if there is a 401(k) or 403(b) plan available at your place of employment.

Who should you invest with? There are a lot of different investing houses that offer Roth IRAs – do some research yourself and read the opinions of others. I use Vanguard for mine and I couldn’t be happier.

What should you invest in? For most people, a simple “target retirement” index fund is the best choice. It automatically balances your retirement savings for you, keeping you aggressively in stocks when you’re young and moving you to more stable bonds and cash as you grow closer to retirement. Most investment houses offer “target retirement” options.

Once you’ve made up your mind, though, signing up for a Roth IRA is actually quite easy. Just fill out the online forms, set up an automatic deduction from your checking account, and watch your retirement savings begin to build up.

Dig into your community calendar
Bored? Don’t know what to do this weekend? It’s likely that your community has quite a few free events going on this weekend, some of which might be of interest to you. Visit your town’s website – and the websites of towns near yours – and see what’s on the community calendar. Free concerts, free community festivals, cheap meals, and countless other things might be in the offing right under your nose – and it’s well worth a few minutes to find them.

Good luck!