Part of spending smart is taking advantage of discounts and values we already paid for.
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IN THIS PACKAGE
- It's not too late to seek aid for college costs
- Shareholders are real victims
- Congressional action on 401(k) plans
- Inexpensive advice can often have limits
- The savings game
- The Leckey file
- Getting started
- Spending smart
- Can they do that?
- Taking stock
- Discount Vacation Packages
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Other examples are an industry organization or your local chamber of commerce. They're good for professional networking, but they might also offer access to group health insurance if you're self-employed. Your credit union or employer may have discounted tickets to amusement parks and concerts. Your mutual fund company might have useful financial planning tools on its Web site and offer a discount on tax-preparation software. Membership at a zoo in your hometown might provide free admittance to other zoos around the country.
Below are four common memberships and some lesser-known privileges members are probably eligible for. They might save you hundreds of dollars. All these groups have extensive Web sites that describe benefits for their members, including some perks that are based on the Internet.
-- AAA. Annual fee: $38 to $81 for basic membership, depending on region of the country. Known for towing service, hotel discounts, and free maps and travel guides, AAA has 49 million members in North America. AAA can be a good place to book your trip, not just plan it. "AAA is the single largest full-service travel agency in the country," said auto club spokesman Mike Pina. "AAA last year sold $3.6 billion in travel."
Exclusive AAA deals with Hertz rental cars and Disney amusement parks are especially valuable, Pina said. Other perks vary. For example, a member booking a cruise through AAA might receive a free cabin upgrade, he said.
AAA also offers a credit card, auto loans, money-market accounts and certificates of deposit, all with competitive terms.
And it offers a variety of insurance, as well as advice and services for car buying. You can stop by any AAA branch office to obtain traveler's checks for free. Retail discounts include 30 percent off at LensCrafters, 20 percent off FTD flowers and 10 percent off at Target and Payless ShoeSource. The AAA Web site (www.aaa.com) has an online tool for tracking maintenance on your family's vehicles.
If you're a member of AAA, use its towing service and roadside assistance instead of one through your auto insurance. Consumer Reports found that using your insurer's service, even if the breakdown didn't involve an accident, could raise your insurance rates. You don't need both, so cancel your insurer's towing service.
-- AARP. Annual fee: $12.50. Known as the primary lobbying and information organization for people over age 50, AARP boasts 36 million members. For the price of a cheap magazine subscription, you do, indeed, receive AARP The Magazine and AARP Bulletin and all the other benefits of membership. They include discounts on insurance, as well as on travel and Internet access. More than 3,200 chapters offer driver safety courses and tax preparation help. AARP even offers its own mutual funds, which are open to all investors, not just members. One of the big benefits is the Web site itself, at www.aarp.org, where besides useful information, you'll find out about such discounts as 20 percent off at Reebok stores, 35 percent off AARP book titles through BarnesandNoble.com and 4 percent off Home Depot gift cards bought through the AARP Web site.
-- Warehouse clubs. Annual fee: $40 to $50. Under such names as Costco Wholesale Corp., Sam's Club, and BJ's Wholesale Club, these stores offer wholesale-like prices on a variety of supermarket items and merchandise. But did you know they offer services too? They often provide discount vacation packages, insurance, check printing, film processing and photo printing. Some offer deeply discounted eyeglasses and prescription drugs, even diamond jewelry.
BJ's, for example, offers discounted gasoline at the 88 service stations it operates. It offers home heating oil in eight Northeastern states. It offers custom embroidery, custom-built sheds and discounts on home-security systems. You can even use the club to buy a car for you with its auto-buying program.
Members have more ways to save than they may realize, said BJ's spokeswoman Sharyn Frankel. "They come and do their weekly grocery shopping, their stocking up and their general merchandise buying, but they'll find even more value in their membership with all of the additional services BJ's offers them," she said.
-- Credit cards. Annual fee: Some charge $35 to $100, in addition to interest charges if you carry a balance. Most Americans have credit cards, but many don't realize all the fringe benefits they have. Many perks revolve around insurance for car rentals, travel cancellations, travel accidents, airline luggage losses and hotel burglaries. When traveling abroad, paying by credit card is likely to yield a better currency exchange rate than cash or traveler's checks.
Another common perk is an extended warranty on items purchased with the card. Check your agreement or call the customer phone number on the back of your card and ask what benefits you're eligible for.
These four are only examples. The point is to get the most out of all your memberships.
Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa., a Tribune Co. newspaper. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For additional discussion on spending wisely, see the Spending Smart blog at http://blogs.mcall.com/spendingsmart/.