Uh-Oh … Are Americans Raiding Their Piggy Banks?

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Consumer spending increased 1% from March to April, the biggest increase in more than six years, according to a Reuters report on new Commerce Department data. In very basic economic terms, a jump in consumer spending can be a good thing: It can show that people are confident they’ll make ends meet without having to squirrel away their paychecks, like some people might do if they’re worried about losing their jobs.

Before you get too excited about Americans’ recent urge to splurge, there’s another statistic you should know about, and this one’s a little bit of a downer. At the same time consumer spending increased, Americans’ savings decreased, from $809.4 billion in March to $751.1 billion in April. That’s a $58.3 billion drop. That indicates Americans aren’t spending more because they’re earning more; rather, they’re spending more by choosing to save less or even tapping their savings to make purchases. (Personal income increased 0.4%, and disposable income increased 0.5%, while spending increased 1%.)

Put another way: The average personal savings rate dropped from 5.9% in March to 5.4% in April. There are a lot of opinions on how much people should save, but probably the most common rule of thumb says to put away 10% of what you earn. If that’s what people are working toward, they lost a little momentum last month.

But these data are complicated. There are advantages to both saving and spending. Perhaps some of the people who diverted savings money to spending money last month did it so they could purchase something they’ve needed for a while, like a new car or a more energy-efficient appliance that could end up helping them save money.

Ideally, you don’t have to shortchange your savings goals to buy things you need, because building a sufficient emergency fund can be crucial to your financial health. Say you lose your job or come down with a sudden illness — having enough money saved up to cover your necessities after an unexpected financial change can help you avoid going into costly credit card debt or missing payments, both of which could seriously damage your credit. (You can keep tabs on your credit by getting a free credit report summary, updated monthly, on Credit.com.) So, if you’re spending some of the money you should be putting toward your savings, thinking you’ll make up for it later, you may be putting your financial stability at risk.

More Money Saving Reads:

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7 Ways to Shop Like a Chef & Save

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If you’re looking to save money on groceries, chances are you’re already clipping coupons, looking for point-of-sale discounts and buying in bulk any items that you use frequently. But if you want to up your game, the following professional kitchen tips can help you eat better, waste less food to spoilage and reign in your food budget while also making the entire shopping experience easier and more enjoyable.

1. Plan a Weekly Menu … & Stick To It

Chefs never go to the market or order supplies for their restaurants without a plan, and neither should you. So before you head to the grocery store or farmers market, make sure you also have a plan in place by creating a menu for the entire week. Not only does this keep your shopping on point, but knowing ahead of time what you’re going to have for dinner every night can be incredibly helpful when you’re tired. You’ll never again have to come home and wonder what you’re going to make, or if you even have anything to cook. And because you have options at home, you’ll be less likely to order take-out or head to a restaurant on a whim.

You can start the planning process each week by looking at what is already in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Are there items that need to be used right away? If so, create a meal plan around those items. If you’re not terribly creative in the kitchen, try entering a few items from your refrigerator and pantry into a Google search and see what recipes pop up. Have some chicken, cannellini beans and cheddar cheese? Boom. You’ve got the foundation for a white chicken chili.

The important thing to remember is to plan every meal for the week and build in some flexibility. If, while shopping, you stumble upon an ingredient you really want to try and you’re unfamiliar with it, see if you can substitute it for something already on your list. Or just plan to create a bonus dish for one of your meals.

And by all means, schedule a night or two for take-out or eating out. It’s good to get out of the kitchen sometimes.

2. Think Seasonally

Buying what is in season is a great way to save money and add variety to your diet. Sure, you can get blueberries in December, but they’ll typically cost you a lot more than they will when they’re in season in North America in June and July. Instead of blueberries, consider what’s in season. In this case, citrus fruits and late-season apples, and get creative with their preparation.

3. Frequent Farmers Markets

Seasonality is in its full glory at farmers markets, and more frequently than not, what you’re buying was raised or produced nearby, meaning there’s no middle man and limited shipping, which helps keeps costs low.

You’re also more likely to stumble upon foods you might not have eaten or cooked before, or at least a variety of that food you haven’t seen, and that’s great news if you’re an adventurous cook (or eater who knows an adventurous cook!).

The USDA estimates there were more than 8,000 farmers markets operating in the U.S. in 2014, so chances are there’s one near you.

4. Visit Local Farms & Food Businesses

If you stumble upon a farmer, wine maker or other purveyor at your local market that you just really love, plan to visit their farm, vineyard or place of business. Many of these businesses welcome visitors and some even provide tours of their facilities where you can learn more about their practices.

By getting to know your local farmers and food purveyors, you can easily get a heads up on what products they’re particularly excited about as the new season approaches, and you might even get a discount for being a valued customer.

5. Shop Early in the Morning

Most stores stock overnight or early in the morning, so you’ll get the absolute best selection if you get there early. That’s especially true for farmers markets, which can quickly sell out of popular items.

6. Skip Dry Goods – Have Them Delivered Instead

Even if you don’t have the storage space to buy in bulk, buying your toilet paper, paper towels and even cereal and canned goods online and having them delivered can make a lot of sense and save a lot of money.

Online retailers typically sell items like toilet paper, paper towels and household cleaners more cheaply than your local grocer. Buying these items online also cuts down on the amount of time you have to spend in the grocery store, and you can schedule these deliveries so they come at regular intervals — monthly, semi-monthly, etc.

7. Eat While You Shop

Most stores offer tastings while you shop, and you should really try to take advantage. Why? First, those items are typically being offered at a discount. Second, it could introduce you to a whole new world of flavors, even if you think you might not like it.

If you do happen to find something you really like, use the tip from No. 1 above and see if you can substitute it for something already on your list, or plan a bonus dish so you and your family can experience a little culinary adventure.

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