RISMEDIA, July 17, 2008-(MCTcourtesy of C. Buck) - Everywhere you turn, it seems there’s another pinch in the pocketbook. From gas to groceries, everyone’s getting hit by higher prices.

To help stretch your dollars, here are five places to look for savings:

1. Bundle Up. If you’re dealing with separate companies - and separate bills - for your cable TV, phone and Internet service, think about bundling up. Many companies offer reduced rates if you purchase all three services at one time. There’s even a website, www.bundlemyservices.com, that offers tips and comparisons for more than 20 companies nationwide.

You can call your local phone or cable TV provider and ask about lowering your rates by combining services. Take advantage of special deals and limited-time deals.

One warning: If you sign up for a limited-time offer, be sure to call and cancel or renegotiate before the rates jump back up.

2. Auto Insurance. If you’ve been with the same insurance company for years, it can pay to shop around for a better rate. In California, the state Department of Insurance website (www.insurance.ca.gov /0100-consumers) offers a handy calculator that allows you to get general comparisons on basic annual premiums from dozens of auto insurance companies.

“It gives you a ballpark idea of how much insurance rates vary,” said Insurance Department spokeswoman Molly DeFrank. “It really does pay to shop around.”

A similar calculator is available online to show sample rates for homeowners (including renters and earthquake coverage), long-term care and supplemental Medicare insurance. Or call the Department of Insurance’s consumer hotline at (800) 927-4357.

(Note: In all cases, the rates are not firm quotes but a general comparison of sample rates.)

3. Credit Cards. Here are two ways to save, depending on whether you carry a credit card balance.

If you’re trying to pay off a monthly balance, pick up the phone. With so many credit card offers flooding mailboxes these days, there’s lots of competition. Ask your current card company for a lower rate, and if you get rebuffed, call again in another month or so, advises one credit card expert.

“This is one place where persistence pays off,” says Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com, a website that offers comparison rates of about 1,300 credit cards nationwide.

On a $5,000 balance, for instance, if your interest rate is lowered by three points-say, from 18% to 15%-you’ll save about $12 a month, or $144 a year. If you’re paying off the balance at $100 a month, you’ll knock off 15 months of payments and save $1,500.

Perhaps the biggest savings of all is sometimes the hardest: whittle down your credit card debt. Pay more than the monthly minimum to avoid paying excessive interest over the long term.

If you don’t carry a monthly balance, consider getting a credit card that pays you. Lots of companies, from Southwest Airlines to Home Depot to Golden 1 Credit Union, are dangling rewards cards to customers. Typically, for every dollar you charge, you accumulate points toward merchandise or services.

“Pick a passion, an interest, a hobby and chances are there’s a rewards card that applies,” said Hardekopf, noting cards for NASCAR, Toys “R” Us, bookstores, home improvement stores, hotels and airlines. There’s even a credit card from Fidelity Investments that lets you accumulate dollars for a 529 college savings plan.

Some cards, like Discover More, offer cash back.

When choosing a rewards card, it’s crucial to look at the terms and conditions, especially on how to accumulate and redeem rewards, says Hardekopf. Some companies post it automatically to your account once a year; others require you to call in to request your cash back or risk losing it.

For quick credit card comparisons, go to www.lowcards.com. And to see how long it’ll take you to pay off that credit card debt, go to: www.cardtrak.com/tools.

4. Major Purchases. Most of us don’t want to be shopping for a new fridge or washer/dryer, but if the old one dies, you have no choice. As with any major purchase, it pays to do some comparison shopping. Pick the model and features you want, then call or go online to compare prices at several appliance stores or retail outlets.

Also, check the manufacturer’s website, such as www.kitchenaid.com, to locate discounts and rebates that might not be available in the store.

Another option: Some retailers, like Sears, have warehouse outlets where they sell discounted merchandise for anywhere from 20% to 60% off regular retail. Typically, it’s returned merchandise, discontinued models or those with slight dings or nicks-cosmetic blemishes that don’t affect the appliance’s durability or performance.

Thinking about buying an extended warranty for that new dishwasher or dryer? According to Consumer Reports, it’s not necessary. Unless you sleep better knowing you have extended coverage, most of the time the repairs won’t outstrip the cost of the policy.

5. Treasure Hunting. OK, it’s not really treasure but there may be a stash of cash just waiting for you to uncover. We’re talking about unclaimed property-old savings accounts, utility refunds, dividend checks, product rebates and other money that is rightfully yours. In many cases, long-ago deposits are sitting dormant in banks or safety deposit boxes.

In California, financial institutions must turn over all dormant bank accounts, safety deposit boxes and the like that have gone untouched for three years or more.

It’s a big piggy bank waiting to be tapped. The state is sitting on about 8 million unclaimed property accounts worth $5.3 billion, according to the state controller’s office. Last fiscal year, a record 328,920 accounts were returned to individuals, nonprofits and businesses, up from 276,512 the year before.

“Especially in times like this, we are doing everything possible to put those unclaimed properties in the hands of those they belong to,” said spokesman Jacob Roper.

To see if you have unclaimed riches, contact the controller’s office at (800) 992-4647 or go online at www.ClaimIt.ca.gov, which also provides information in Chinese, Spanish and Tagalog. You can search for yourself, friends or family members.

And if you’ve moved frequently or lived in other states, go to www.unclaimed.org for a state-by-state listing of where to hunt for unclaimed property.

Happy hunting!

Alexandra Zega, Realtor