Crunching the numbers: Smart ways to stretch your dollars and ease the cost of living

Balancing the budget is the hardest it’s been in two decades. Discover why and, importantly, what you can do to make your money go further right now.

When it comes to the cost of living, we’re in the middle of a perfect storm.

Combine the aftermath of a global pandemic with the impact of overseas conflict and the devastating effects of the recent floods here at home, and the end result has been an increase in the price of goods and services – otherwise known as inflation.

Caused by a few different factors, including demand outstripping supply, inflation has also had a knock-on effect for interest rates, which in itself has added to living costs.

No surprises then that a recent survey by consumer advocacy group CHOICE discovered a record 93 per cent of households said they had seen their bills rise over the past 12 months.

And, worryingly, Suicide Prevention Australia’s first-quarter Community Tracker showed almost half of all Australians reporting elevated distress from cost of living pressures – a significant increase from the previous quarter.

To help your money stretch further across a list of living costs – including food, fuel and electricity, which are three key pressures identified by CHOICE – we asked the experts for their tips and tricks.

How to save on food

A simple way to start finding savings is comparing apples with apples when you’re choosing between similar food products.

“Unit pricing – that small text underneath the main price – is a great way to compare brands and sizes to make sure you’re reducing the money you spend at the supermarket,” CHOICE editorial director Marg Rafferty says.

Unit prices break down the cost of a product into standard units of measurement, such as per 100g. “When we asked shoppers to pick between products without unit pricing, only 60 per cent of shoppers picked the best-value deal,” Marg says.

Switching to supermarket home-brand products is also wise.

CHOICE’s latest basket survey found savings of up to 40 per cent are possible.

Research also shows buying groceries online can save you more than$1300 a year thanks to fewer impulse buys.

CHOICE savings spokesman Liam Kennedy has other tips, too.

“Avoid pre-cut fruit and vegetables, which can cost up to five times as much per kilo and also leaves you with a lot of excess plastic to deal with,” Liam says.

“We also suggest shopping small and often if you can, rather than doing larger, less frequent food shops, which can lead to fresh produce going to waste.”

That is key, given we throw away more than 30 per cent of the food we buy, wasting both resources and money.

Learn more about reducing food waste at

Make your fuel go the extra mile

“Fuel price apps can help you find the cheapest petrol and there’s a review of which apps are most accurate and easiest to use on the CHOICE website,” Liam says.

He says it also helps to plan the use of your car, to avoid doing lots of short car trips.

“Cars use up to 20 per cent more fuel when the engine is cold, so try to do all of your errands in one go,” Liam suggests.

And when you’re driving, be savvy about how you use the air conditioning.

“Turning it on can increase fuel consumption by up to 10 per cent, so driving with the windows open instead could save fuel – unless you’re travelling over 80 kilometres per hour,” he says.

“Then, an open window will actually cost you more due to drag, so turning on the air conditioning may be more fuel efficient at faster speeds.”

How to cut energy costs

“Making sure you’re using your appliances efficiently is a good place to start,” Liam says.

“Examples include running full loads in your washing machine, which will use less power than running two half loads.”

Other suggestions include using cold water for washing cycles; keeping filters on driers and air conditioners clean; and, if you do use them, setting the temperature on air conditioners to 26 degrees in summer and ducted heating to 18 degrees in winter; and making sure your fridge isn’t too full and has plenty of space around it.

“Switching appliances off at the wall can save you hundreds of dollars over the course of a year, too,” Liam says.

You can also head to (or if you live in Victoria), which is a free energy price comparison service you can use to search for a better energy plan.

“Alternatively, try to renegotiate with your power provider by asking if they can offer you a better plan,” Liam suggests.

Best ways to save on beauty

“Look for products that can multitask – for example, it’s more than OK to use your day cream at night and even under your eyes,” The Wellness Group founder and GMC Cosmedical Clinics co-founder Madeline Calfas says.

“And remember, you can get some really great products at a reasonable price, so don’t assume if it’s in the ‘more affordable’ range that it isn’t any good.”

Madeline also cautions against being talked into spending when you don’t need to.

“There’s nothing worse, and more wasteful, than having a bathroom cabinet filled with half-used products,” she says.

When it comes to in-clinic treatments, Madeline suggests asking your therapist how long you can stretch your treatments out and trying to find treatments that target a variety of issues.

For example, laser therapy can be effective on blood vessels and capillaries, and can also treat pigmentation “and gives a lovely collagen boost as well,” she says.

And discuss your budget with your therapist.

“I expect my patients will have a budget and if you make me aware of what it is, then I can do my best to make sure you get value for your money while addressing your concerns,” Madeline says.

“I want you to walk away happy, not stressing over buyer’s remorse – communication is key and any therapist worth your hard-earned cash should have no problem respecting that.”

Keep your health and wellbeing on track

Results of a recent survey show 15 per cent of Australians are skipping medical appointments, while 10 per cent have recently dropped or reduced their private health insurance in a bid to keep costs down.

“Health insurance is a significant monthly expense,” CHOICE health insurance expert Uta Mihm says. “And with premiums increasing each year, it’s important to have the best-value policy for your needs.”

A health insurance comparison tool is available at and it may be particularly useful if your current policy is gold tier.

“CHOICE has investigated the most expensive gold policies in each state and discovered that switching to the cheapest equivalent gold policy could save $600 to over $1300 per year – even greater for couples and families,” Uta says.

Madeline, who is a registered nurse, naturopath and nutritionist, says it’s also worth brushing up on your insurance extras and taking advantage of them, with surveys showing two in three Australians aren’t using their extras cover effectively, letting an average of $1300 go to waste each year.

“Naturopathy was removed (from private health insurance cover) in 2019, but a lot of health funds will still offer some cover for nutritional consultations,” Madeline says.

She also suggests discussing your budget with healthcare practitioners.

“If budget is an issue, I’d rather we look at key supplements, as necessary, rather than spend money on a test that could likely wait until later,” Madeline says.

“Likewise, if you can’t afford supplements, I’ll try to find one or two that are most beneficial for you right now.”

Other ways to save on costs include switching to generic medications and shopping around for the best price on prescriptions.

For mental health care, on top of the 10 Medicare-rebated psychology sessions you are entitled to each year, you can find free digital mental health resources provided by trusted service providers at

Cost of living checklist

As well as taking steps to make savings across specific expenses, you might like to consider these suggestions that could help relieve financial strain:

Make a budget

This will identify where your money is going and where you might be able to find savings.

Use the budget planner at

Contact a financial counsellor

These skilled professionals provide free advice to help you sort out your money – visit to search for a counsellor near you.

Be upfront if you can’t pay a bill

Contact the service provider to discuss options – simply letting bills become “overdue” may harm your credit score.

Seek help if you’re struggling with debt

To help you get back on track, contact the National Debt Helpline at or call 1800 007 007.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can also call Mob Strong Debt Help on 1800 808 488.

Need someone to talk to? Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit; alternatively, call Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or visit

Discover more ways to make your money go further:

Written by Karen Fittall.