Living on a budget 

Chances are, your budget is tighter than it used to be, with everyday expenses such as groceries and medical costs jumping considerably during the last year. But experts say the rising prices should give consumers all the more reason to be a little more flexible this summer.

In the Bay Area during the last year, grocery prices, energy bills, out-of-pocket medical care and alcohol each shot up between 5 percent and 6 percent in one of the nation’s most expensive areas to live, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And, financial experts say, the costs will likely hit a peak this summer.

Fortunately, there are plenty of options available in the Bay Area that will save you cash — if you’re willing to try something slightly different from your normal routine, financial experts say.

You can sidestep pricey gas pumps by ditching your single-commuter car and taking advantage of two San Mateo County programs: $60 carpooler gas cards and free "try transit" rides on BART and Caltrain.

More and more of the region’s residents, experts say, are also jettisoning the grocery store for one of the 30 or so farmers markets in San Francisco and San Mateo counties to save money on food.

Allen Moy, assistant director of the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association, said farmers sell fruits and vegetables cheaper and often haggle with their customers to find a price that works for them.

"A lot of stuff is cheaper at farmers markets than at the grocery stores," said Zach Chastaine, 18, of Half Moon Bay. "It’s very convenient, and it’s a lot of fun. I come as much as I can."

Judy Pearson, of San Mateo, said she has begun doing "the little things" to save money during tough economic times, including walking to nearby locations such as the Laurelwood Shopping Center instead of driving.

"It’s great exercise, too," she said.

There’s no law against having fun on a budget, either. Go to happy hour at a local bar instead of a club, experts say. Try a free local concert or show instead of shelling out big bucks at a movie theater or major venue. Skip the pro-sports spending extravaganza in favor of a local athletic event.

Through interviews with several local and national experts who have spent more than a century combined helping people save money, The Examiner has discovered other cost-saving ideas, many of which are presented here.

mrosenberg@sfexaminer.com

Bay Area by the numbers

From 2007 to present

2.9%: increase in overall prices

5.3%: increase in transportation prices

14.5%: increase in gas prices

5.5%: increase in grocery prices

5.1%: increase in alcoholic beverage prices

4.4%: increase in out-of-pocket medical costs

2.2%: increase in apparel prices

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor

Letting loose

There are dozens of watering holes that offer cheap, half-priced and sometimes free drinks and appetizers during happy hours.

Bay Area establishments with happy hours

SAN FRANCISCO

» John Colins: Monday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m.; beers $3, well drinks $4, free snacks

» Nova Bar & Restaurant: Monday to Friday, 3 to 6 p.m.; draft $3, well drinks $4, wines $5

» Hog Island Oyster Co.: Monday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m.; pints $3.50

» Fior d’Italia in San Francisco: Daily, 4 to 6 p.m., beers $2, well drinks $2.50

PENINSULA

» YaYa Cuisine in Burlingame: Monday to Friday, 4 to 6 p.m., free appetizers, $1 off cocktails

» Astaria in San Mateo: Daily, 4 to 6:30 p.m., drinks and appetizers half price

» Terrace Café and Bar in Millbrae: Daily, 4 to 5:30 p.m., $1 off drinks

» Half Moon Bay Brewing Co.: Monday to Thursday, 3 to 6 p.m., $1 off drinks, $3 Tuesday beers

Hot spots

There are hundreds of events taking place this summer, many free (or cheap) and family-friendly.

SAN FRANCISCO

» Museum of Modern Art, de Young Museum, Asian Art Museum and Legion of Honor: First Tuesday of every month is free

» San Francisco Zoo, California Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium: First Wednesday of every month is free

» Yerba Buena Gardens: Free opera, arts, concerts, dances, theater and children’s programs

» Fillmore Street Jazz Festival: July 5-6

» San Francisco Theater Festival: July 27

PENINSULA

» Music and Movies on the Square in Redwood City: Thursdays and Fridays

» Music in the Park in Burlingame: Sundays in July

» Shakespeare in the Park in San Mateo: August

Feeding the family — and yourself

More than anything, economists stress that with a little work, you can essentially still eat well at a fraction of the cost.

Tips to save money on food:

» The most expensive products in grocery stores are at eye level

» The smaller the store, the more expensive the food

» Be a kitchen fixture and cook — it’ll save you on costly packaged and processed foods as well as eating out

» Make your own coffee at home and avoid the $4 daily coffee

Several well-known farmers markets

SAN FRANCISCO

» Ferry Plaza: Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturdays 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

» Alemany Boulevard: Saturdays, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.

» U.N. Plaza.: Wednesdays and Sundays, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

PENINSULA

» Serramonte Shopping Center (Daly City): Saturdays 9 a.m.-1 p.m.

» Burlingame Avenue (Burlingame): Sundays 9 a.m.-1 p.m.

» Veterans and Maple (Redwood City): Wednesdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

» Laurel Street (San Carlos): Thursdays 4-8 p.m.

Summer travel

Farecompare.com Chief Executive Rick Seany and bestfares.com Chief Executive Tom Parsons say fliers need to shop for bargains more than ever.

Tips to save money on airfare:

» Fly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, or Saturday as a third option

» Avoid flying on Sundays

» Connecting-flight surcharges are $21, but airlines might charge premiums for nonstops

» Take the first flight out in the morning, after lunch or following dinner

» Avoid checking luggage or find airlines with free checked bag service

» Some airlines have agreements allowing flyers to switch flights without a cancellation fee

Get the most distance with every dollar

A panel of three national financial experts offers their top ideas for tightening your budget.

Liz Pulliam Weston

MSN Money personal finance columnist and author of "Easy Money"

» Call your telephone or cable provider and say you’re switching to another company; they’ll likely match a competitor’s deal or offer one of their own.

Jaci Rae

No. 1 best-selling author of books about saving money, including "Shop for a Day with Jaci Rae"

» Go on a shopping trip with neighbors and friends, buy in bulk and split the costs and items. Try the Google "mystery shopping" service to find out how you can actually buy food and other products at no cost to you, or get paid to do it.

Lynnae McCoy Founder of beingfrugal.net

» Become a vacation-home sitter by using the Web to search for owners who want to lease their vacation homes for a portion of the summer. Arrange a night when everyone brings over food instead of burdening the host with the cooking costs.

About The Author

Mike Rosenberg

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