Editor's note: Clark Howard, the Atlanta, Georgia-based host of a nationally syndicated radio show, is host of a television show designed to help viewers save more, spend less and avoid getting ripped off during these tough economic times. The show airs at noon and 4 p.m. ET Saturdays and Sundays on HLN.
Clark Howard says it's smart to cut back and save, but sometimes being cheap doesn't pay.
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Over the last several years, we as Americans became "negative net savers" -- a fancy term used by pointy-headed economists to say that we spent more money than we made. In fact, our savings rate was at negative 2.7 percent as recently as four years ago.
Now, however, the trend seems to be reversing. We actually saved five percent out of every dollar of disposable income in January, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).
Wow, a whole nickel out of every dollar. Thomas Jefferson would be proud! Sure, it's not the "dime on a dollar" rule of thumb for savings that I rave about, but it's a start. Watch Clark talk with an amazing saver »
The truly noteworthy thing here is how we're saving this much-heralded five percent. Where exactly are we cutting back to satisfy our newfound hunger for pinching nickels?
The BEA's numbers show that vehicles and fuel expenses account for nearly two-thirds of the savings. That category alone has seen a $115.2 billion decline compared with January 2008 numbers. Americans are riding their vehicles until the wheels fall off.
The second largest category where we've cut back on is eating out, which is down $55.7 billion from last January. After that, we're also trimming the budget on clothing, jewelry, alcohol and more.
In most recessions, the sales of alcohol do very well as people try to drown their worries in a bottle. I'm not so sure that behavior itself has changed, but this time around, people are trading down in their drink of choice.
For example, fancy wine drinkers may be switching to Trader Joe's lines of Charles Shaw wines (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck, for their $1.99-$3.49 per bottle price). Beer drinkers, meanwhile, are skipping expensive and exotic microbrews in favor of cheaper choices.
Of course, there are other ways to save a nickel without having to trade down or go without. Many people are simply becoming "do-it-yourselfers." This trend has also been called insourcing -- when you do something yourself instead of paying someone else to do it.
Some marketers have seized on insourcing to great effect. For example, Target recently ran an ad campaign that aimed to reinvent the store's image for these new, leaner times.
Consider this: The ailing retailer has always positioned itself as an affordable splurge over the years. But suddenly, any kind of splurge is seen as irrelevant in today's economy and Target's sales are suffering.
So their recent ad campaign was all about the "new." A circular I saw showed the "new" room service (store brand orange juice and cereal served at home); the "new" personal trainer (using home exercise equipment instead of paying for a gym membership); and the "new" restaurant (eating at home) -- all things that can be pricey, but are now being repositioned on the cheap in an effort to boost sales.
Insourcing is making direct inroads into the home too -- quite literally. The Wall Street Journal's Weekend Journal recently reported on "closet boutiques" where women are now opening up their homes and closets to strangers in order to sell unwanted designer clothes.
Closet boutiques are typically advertised on Craigslist. There were 715,000 postings in February -- more than double the amount last year at that time.
For buyers, a closet boutique offers the opportunity to pick up designer threads at a tiny fraction of their new cost. But a word of caution for sellers: You'll almost certainly have some questionable characters coming into your home. Store away all your valuables, and make sure you have enough eyeballs on hand to ensure that people don't wander around your home with sticky fingers.
In other DIY (do-it-yourself) moments, The Washington Post recently reported that sales of sewing kits at Wal-Mart are up 30 percent in just the last few months. People are mending their own clothes instead of paying a tailor or seamstress to do the same.
And let's not even mention all the botched dye jobs that hairdressers are having to work with from women (and some men) who tried to take matters into their own hands.
Sometimes, it doesn't pay to be cheap!