PAY DIRT KARA MCguire

After writing about the Karnowskis -- a family reworking their finances for the arrival of triplets -- I received helpful suggestions from readers about how to pinch pennies. As I read the responses, I found myself making note of a website here, an idea there.

No, I haven't a big announcement to make. But I am concerned about the economy and will absorb any reasonable money-saving tips that I can get. My bet is that many of you feel the same way.

Here are a few suggestions for wringing excess expenses out of even the tightest budgets -- whether you're preparing for a growing family, dealing with a job loss or trying to inflate that cash cushion just in case.

Several of the best ideas came from Christina Brown, also known as the Northern Cheapskate (www.northerncheapskate.com).

She's traded her career as an academic adviser to be a full-time mom whose new job includes not only taking care of her 2-year-old and 10-month-old sons, but also stretching dollars. "As my toddler says, 'Daddy makes money, mommy saves it,' " she said.

Tweak your insurance. Raising deductibles on her car and home insurance put $30 per month in Brown's pocket. I saved about $100 annually by switching from monthly payments of my insurance premium to annual payments. Only you know if you are disciplined enough to save the lump you'll owe your insurer each year.

Clip coupons, print coupons, use coupons. Coupons are everywhere -- online, printed from in-store kiosks, and inevitably heading toward cell phones. Yet of the $300 billion in coupon savings in 2006, shoppers saved just $2.6 billion, according to the Promotional Marketing Association.

Brown saved more than $122 in April and received a lot of free baby supplies and toiletries through coupons and "using the Internet as a tool to get coupons and find deals." No doubt it takes time, but Brown insists it doesn't eat up more than a few hours per week and is worth it.

One of her favorite sites is couponmom.com, which helps you match your coupons with store sales to maximize dollars saved. Redplum.com is another destination.

Also keep in mind that some retailers will accept expired coupons, and more are beginning to accept legitimate online coupons without giving you a funny look.

Surf and sign up. Brown visits several sites regularly that alert her to free samples and other deals. The blog freebies4mom.com offers hints about where to find free samples of cereal, toothpaste and other items that appeal to everyone. Another of Brown's frequently visited sites is www.afullcup.com. I could have spent all day ordering up free stuff if I didn't have a deadline to meet and a headache from surfing the Web for too long. I also like www.fatwallet.com.

Another suggestion is to visit the websites of brands that you like. Search for samples and coupons and sign up for e-mail newsletters, which often contain special offers. Again, you could spend all day doing this. The question is, would you want to?

Earn points to read e-mail? Warning, you will get a lot of spam if you try this next idea, so open an account dedicated to deal-hunting, Brown suggested. At www.mypoints.com you will find a loyalty program that basically sends e-mails to you asking you to jump through hoops to earn points. For instance, sign up for eBay and make a bid on an item and you'll earn 500 points. Take a survey, earn 50 points. Brown has earned a free $10 iTunes gift card and enough points to take the family out to eat.

You can also earn points with Mypoints.com if you use it as a shopping portal. A similar site is www.ebates.com; shop online and get cash back.

Bone up on the topic of cheap. Several readers, including Janelle Fast of Big Lake, Minn., suggested the Tightwad Gazette series of books by Amy Dacyczyn. She'd start with book No. 3. Brown recommends Everyday Cheapskate columnist Mary Hunt's books, as well.

Check your rates. The Federal Reserve lowered interest rates by a quarter point Wednesday, to 2 percent. If you're among the 50 percent of credit card users who carry a balance from month-to-month, now's a good time to call your credit card companies and ask for lower rates, or search for balance-transfer offers with no interest rate or low ones. Of course, creditors can raise rates when they want to, regardless of what the Fed does. But it's worth a try. Use www.lowcards.com, www.creditCards.com, or cardratings.com to pinpoint the best card for your situation.

Homeowners who have home equity loans and some equity in their properties might want to shop for a new rate on this debt as well.

Milk the rebate offers. Several grocery stores across the country, including Cub Foods and Rainbow, were dishing out $30 bonuses if you use your stimulus rebate (bring along a bank statement or printout for proof) to purchase $300 gift cards. I can't wait to take advantage of this sweet deal. Where else can you get a 10 percent risk-free rate of return on your money? If you can afford it, tying up your stimulus check in grocery gift cards is about the best short-term investment around.

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or kara@startribune.com. Continue the money-saving brainstorming: www.startribune.com/kablog.