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Originally published Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 8:03 PM

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A look back at 2012’s top spending tips

Readers provide unusual and entertaining advice.

Chicago Tribune

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Tiny print that tricks consumers, stuff that used to be free but isn’t anymore, and gadgets you can install on your car to reduce auto-insurance premiums.

We have even explored why men don’t buy vegetarian and why we spend less cash with crisp bills.

Here is some of the top spending advice from 2012, based on reader feedback, how unusual the advice was and our own favorites.

• Diamonds. Buying diamonds takes research, but it’s mostly about the four Cs: cut, color, clarity and carat. If you want the most bang for your buck, pay most attention to cut. More sparkle from a superior cut might mean you can get away with a smaller, less-expensive diamond.

• Complaining. That’s easy, but complaining well to a company takes know-how. One of the best ways to get help is getting a real person on the phone, which means navigating frustrating phone trees. Several websites, including GetHuman.com and DialAHuman.com, give advice on reaching specific companies, providing phone numbers and secret strategies to bypass automated phone systems.

Tactics for bypassing a phone tree include staying silent, refusing to respond to the system’s prompts and speaking gibberish to get transferred to an operator.

• Telematics. Telematics relates to voluntary auto-insurance programs that give discounts based on electronic monitoring of driving habits. Devices attached to your vehicle can measure how many miles you drive, when you drive, how fast you go and how hard you accelerate, brake and corner.

The idea is that cautious drivers who travel fewer miles should pay lower insurance premiums because they’re less likely to be in an auto accident. The big downside is relinquishing privacy — allowing your insurer to compile all that information about your driving habits.

• Mouse print. Tiny print is the catch, the gotcha, the bait-and-switch. “FREE BOX OF CORN FLAKES ... with purchase of a box at regular price.” Many readers responded with their own mouse-type peeves.

“My belief is that whatever the bold print announces, the fine print taketh away,” one reader wrote.

Some were especially annoyed with downsized food products — keeping the price the same but putting less in the package. “I remember when a pound can of coffee actually had 16 ounces in it. Now it’s around 12 or 13 (ounces) to a pound can of coffee,” one reader wrote.

• Medicine cabinet. Many people are overpaying for medicines and personal-care items. Supermarkets might occasionally have sale items, while warehouse clubs probably have decent prices any time, but with less variety. But chain drugstores are the best place to shop for pain relievers, allergy medications, toothpaste and contact-lens solution. That’s because of lucrative loyalty rewards programs at Walgreen’s, CVS and Rite Aid. They’re worth checking out.

• Bikes. Like new cars, new bicycles depreciate dramatically the moment they leave the shop. So buying used can be a better value. Refurbishing an older bike to a safe and comfortable condition is relatively simple and cheap. Resources for do-it-yourself repairs include Bicycling magazine’s website, www.bicycling.com/maintenance, and YouTube videos.

• Simplify. How do you harness the desire for material things without feeling deprived? Ask yourself, when is enough, enough? What’s the dollar figure at which you feel you earn enough? How many pairs of shoes are enough?

Too often the answer isn’t a number. The answer is “more,” which means you can never be content. Brainstorm a list of what’s truly important to you. Then open your calendar and your checkbook or credit-card statement. How did you spend your time and money during the past few months?

The answer is evidence of what has been important to you in the past. What will you make important for the future? To gain perspective before making a big or complicated purchase, ask yourself how it will affect your life in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years.

• Burglar alarms. Buying a home-security system and the alarm monitoring that often goes along with it can be a thorny purchase, fraught with such perils as wildly differing prices, high-pressure sales tactics and unfriendly contracts. Get several quotes for both system installation and monitoring, perhaps starting with companies rated highly by Angie’s List or Consumers’ Checkbook.

Remember, you don’t have to stay with the same monitoring company that installed your system.

Cheap and effective alternatives to a home-security system include quality deadbolts on doors, substantial window locks and motion-sensor lighting outside — even getting a dog.

• Reuse. Reader ideas included using emptied cereal bags for storage. Another said she repurposes olive oil bottles as bud vases. Our suggestions included not only using dryer sheets more than once, but using them as wipes for the kitchen and bath. Our favorite? A bacon-scented kitchen candle made by pouring bacon grease into a tin can and inserting a cloth wick.

• Free. Readers seemed to like reminiscing about things that used to be free that we pay for today.

The point is to re-examine what you pay for and determine what’s worth it and what’s not.

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