Discount diva: how to live it up for less

Living large on a low budget.

Want to live like the 'other half'?

I often dream of massages, new clothes, gourmet dinners, good wine and a do from the designer hair boutique (hairdressers and salons are so passé these days).

Problem: I have champagne tastes on a cheap sparkling wine budget.

So how do I stretch my dollars further? Is it possible to live like royalty on a (not-quite) pauper's salary? Enter my seven-day bargain-hunting challenge, in which CHOICE sends me on a coupon-, sale-, special- and freebie-splurging odyssey. My goal: live it up big, but spend little.

Saving money on my bills

CHOICE has long argued the "lazy tax" is costing Australians buckets of cash. Generally I'm pretty good at minimising regular expenses; I long ago rolled all my superannuation into one account, I don't auto-renew my car insurance (I saved around $116 this year by taking out a new policy instead), and last year, after my Telstra $49 plan expired, I went on a plan that costs me just $11 a month, saving almost $500 per year.

But even CHOICE journalists such as yours truly can sometimes fall into the habit of going with the flow. When that flow comes in the form of dollars flowing all the way out of my pocket and into someone else's, it's time to take stock.

Saving money on energy bills

I've not compared electricity and gas prices for years. I've been with the same company since I last moved, yet for a long time I felt the price I was paying was far from the best deal on offer. Sure enough, when I hunted around for a better deal, I was surprised to find I could save quite a bit.

Top tips for saving on electricity and gas

If you want to make your money stretch further, it's worth getting out there and negotiating.

Check you're getting the best rate. You can easily compare energy plans by heading to Energy Made Easy, an Australian government website that allows you to check the offering of all the gas and electricity retailers offering services in your area.

Ask your retailer for any discounts they can offer you, such as a discount for paying on time or signing up to a contract.

Saving money on my credit card

While I've long since ditched bank accounts with account-keeping fees (a no-brainer, considering there are loads of low-fee or free bank accounts out there), my credit card has an annual fee that I've (begrudgingly) paid for the past decade. Despite the fact that there are free credit cards out there (I have one of those too), I've held on to my paid card because of its included travel insurance. But since I'm travelling less nowadays, I figured it was time to lose it before my annual fee ticked over again. I rang up the bank and explained why I wanted to cancel, and lo and behold, they were willing to refund my $89 annual fee. Five minutes on the phone well spent!

Top tips for saving on banking

Savings at the supermarket

The weekly shop can get out of hand and really blow the budget if I'm not careful. This week, I'm shopping like a ninja – hunting down every bargain, karate-chopping brand loyalty and visiting both Coles and Woolworths to make sure I track down groceries at the cheapest price. And I'm not falling for any of the supermarket's tricks (and according to our exclusive investigation, there are loads of them!).

This week's shop is a big one – I've got some friends coming over on the weekend and I'm out of quite a few staples. But with washing powder, dishwashing liquid, toothpaste and packaged goods on an everlasting sale rotation, there's no need to pay full price for many items. I may have spent a little more time at the shops (not so long that I needed to pay for parking, though), but I end up saving around 30% off full price.

If only supermarket bargain hunting were an Olympic event. I'd like to think I'd have a chance at a podium finish.

Top tips for saving at the supermarket

  • Rotate supermarkets to take advantage of savings, and check out Aldi, Costco and online competitors like GroceryRun for a range of good deals.
  • If you don't have a Woolworths Everyday Rewards card but want to buy something that's on special for members only, ask the cashier to scan in one of their spare cards at the register.
  • Some items are regularly on sale and can last for ages in your cupboard or pantry, including laundry detergent, shampoo, pasta and packaged foods. Start looking out for specials on these items a few weeks before you're due to run out.
  • Always check the unit price. Just because something is on sale or in a bulk package, doesn't always mean it's the cheapest option.
  • Don't be tricked into buying multiple items just to get the cheaper price. When you see a multi-buy offer, for example three bags of pasta for $3, that just means you have to buy a minimum of three bags to qualify for the unit price of $1. So if you actually only need four bags of pasta, buy four, not six.
  • If an item scans in at a higher price than it should, you can get it for free so long as the supermarket has signed up to the Scanning Code of Practice.

Beauty savings

A haircut, colour and blow dry at an exclusive salon can set you back hundreds of dollars. So it is with a great degree of excitement (though not without trepidation) that I look into hair modelling. At first I'm sceptical – I'm no Heidi Klum – but a fellow CHOICE staffer (with great hair) tells me about the world of free haircuts offered on Gumtree by apprentices. The idea of putting my head into the hands of students seemed a little daunting, but I'll do anything for a good story.

In the end, I stumble across Element Hair, an exclusive Sydney salon offering a free cut, colour, foils, and blow dry by a senior stylist. It normally costs around $300, which is more than I've ever paid for a haircut! The catch? The hairdresser is a potential new hire, so I'm part guinea pig, part adjudicator. Two hours later, I emerge with luscious locks and designer tresses. Not too shabby, especially considering it was free.

On the subject of apprentices, you can also score bargains on facials, waxing, manicures and massages at beauty colleges. I'm not game enough to put my sensitive skin on the line, but I do get a $30 one-hour remedial massage at one such clinic in Sydney.

When it comes to professional beauty, a make-up artist can charge a hundred dollars for the full treatment. But head to your closest department or beauty store and you may just find they're happy to demonstrate their products for free. You might find a product you like more than your usual, and you get to see how the pros do it. I visit a Napoleon Perdis boutique and walk out with a complete make-over, and my wallet none the lighter.

And speaking of beauty, I realise I'm about to run out of mascara halfway through the week. Luckily, I head to my go-to online beauty store, Strawberrynet, and snatch up a Clinique High Impact tube for just over $26 – a pretty good deal, as they retail in Australia for $38.

Buying discounted clothes

Speaking of going out, I need a new dress to wear. Now, I could drive all the way to the nearest department store and spend time and money parking and trying on dress after dress (and to be fair, chances are I could get a good deal there, what with all the sales around). But I choose to go online instead, my preferred method of clothes shopping, and check out what's on offer on ASOS and The Iconic.

ASOS is a bargain-hunter's dream. You just sign up to their mailing list, then wait (usually not very long at all) for a discount code to arrive in your email. This must be the only week Asos doesn't send me a coupon code, but The Iconic is having a free three-hour shipping promotion. I find a heavily reduced dress (around $50 instead of $130), and it's at my door a mere two hours later.

Entertainment on a budget

Entertainment eats up a significant chunk of my monthly budget. From catching a flick at the movies to dinner and a show, I'm a big fan of getting out and about. But entertainment isn't cheap.

Thankfully, there are plenty of easy savings to be made. As the daughter of a librarian, I'm a frequent borrower of books, e-books and movies from my local council's library. But what about something a little more frivolous? This week I've been expressly told to seek out the very best. But don't worry, I'm not going to pay full price.

Getting cheap movie tickets

First stop: the movies. Now I know what you're thinking – who's going to pay $20 for a movie ticket when you can legally stream it for a fraction of the cost? Especially since CHOICE has found that going to the movies in Australia is much more expensive than it is overseas! The thing is, I enjoy the experience of sitting in a cinema, surrounded by popcorn munchers, shushing the teenagers giggling behind me and exchanging knowing glances with my fellow grown-ups. It's the vibe.

The last time I paid full price for a cinema ticket was … never. I source my ticket discounts from various places, including the Entertainment Book, member discounts with a health insurer and special offers available to members of various cinema movie clubs. This week, I pay $11 instead of $19.50 – my friend has a Telstra mobile, and their partnership with Event Cinemas entitles this discount diva to a saving of almost 50%.

Last-minute theatre tickets

So you're after something a little more high-brow than the latest Hollywood blockbuster? Well this week, so am I. And if, like I am, you're willing to wait to the last minute, you too could be attending Mojo at the Sydney Theatre Company on a two-for-one deal.

The secret is Lasttix. I've subscribed to many a weekly deal newsletter in my day, but hands down my favourite email comes from these folks. They purvey unsold tickets to all sorts of things at the last minute – from concerts to plays to shows – sometimes at 50% off.

Dining out on a budget

Since I've got a new outfit, I wouldn't mind pairing it with a gourmet meal, complete with lobster, the king of crustaceans. "Come on now", I hear you say, "you can't get good lobster on the cheap". And a week ago, I would have agreed with you (actually, I would have said "not without a touch of food poisoning".) I was wrong: with nary a mornay in sight, I indulge in 11 courses of Japanese delights (including lobster tail) at The Rocks Teppanyaki. Full price: $160. I pay $69.

This black magic is courtesy of group-buying site Groupon. I've recently investigated the potential pitfalls when it comes to group buying sites, so I'm confident that I've found a good deal. But there is a downside that I don't anticipate: it may be another few years before I get lobster again, and now I know what I've been missing out on. Perhaps I should've gone to the local RSL instead.

Buying cheap wine online

Wine. It's delicious – and apparently the red stuff can be good for you in moderation. But unless you're drinking from a box (and there's a time and place for that too, no judgment), you'd be forgiven for thinking you won't get much change from $20.

Enter online wine merchants, including Vinomofo, GraysOnline and Wine Market. It turns out you can get quite the bargain, especially if you're willing to buy in bulk and take a punt on a mystery case. I try my luck and it's a good thing I do – $90 for a case of Black Market Gewürztraminer on Vinomofo, which I discover is a delightful vintage from one of my favourite wineries in the Orange region.

Top tips for entertainment savings

  • Before you buy anything in an online clothing store like ASOS or The Iconic, check their social media pages or search online for any coupon codes – they'll often knock an extra 10–30% off their prices for fans.
  • Create a new email address for special offers and sign up to a bunch of mailing lists and loyalty programs. You can then check the email when you're looking for a cheap night out without having your regular inbox clogged up.
  • Check reviews for a restaurant, play or concert before buying a voucher. There may be a reason they're resorting to a group-buying site or last-minute ticket reseller, and you don't want to waste your money on a performance or service just for the sake of it.

What Zoya bought

Amount paid Full price Saving made
$221.95 $320.22 $98.27
Haircut, colour, blowdry 0 $310 $310
Credit card annual fee 0 $89  
Massage $30 $90 $60
Movie tickets $11 $19.50 $8.50
Wine $99 $300  $201 
Dinner at The Rocks Teppanyaki $69 $160  $91 
Mojo at Sydney Theatre Company $101.50 $195.50  $94 
Dress $49.95 $129.95  $80 
Mascara $26.12 $38  $11.88 
Makeover 0 $100  $100 
TOTAL $608.52
$1752.17 $1143.65