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By Vicki Lee Parker

RISMEDIA, Oct. 13, 2008-(MCT)-A big part of being a savvy consumer is managing your career well. Seldom do we tie the two together, but they are intricately intertwined.

Just as we look for ways to save and maintain our household budgets, we should also evaluate our skills and talents and make sure we are using them to their fullest earning capacity. Sometimes to do so means making some tough career choices.

As I pursue new ventures, I plan to continue writing about and advocating for consumer rights. But it’s a good time to look back and share the top lessons I’ve learned in the past three years.

– Haggle. This is by far my favorite. It has helped keep more money in my pocket than any other. This is a skill I had to practice. But having mastered it, I have used it whenever possible–with plumbers, movers, store clerks, car dealers, banks and credit card companies. I’ve learned that most things and services are way overpriced and, of course, negotiable.

– Check for discounts. There are hundreds of discounts out there, and you’re bound to qualify for one or more, whether it’s because of your age, where you work, that you’re in school or in the military, or simply that you belong to certain organizations such as AAA.

– Complain more. Don’t let it slide when businesses mistreat you and fail to deliver what they’ve promised. Take names and numbers. It may require making several calls. But if more people complain about poor service, things can actually change. Remember, there are Web sites where you can vent, including Consumerist, and

– Read the fine print. Stop blindly signing agreements. Take time to familiarize yourself with the terms you are agreeing to.

– Do your homework and get second opinions. So often I have interviewed people who are upset because a contractor, mechanic or the like took advantage of them. When I ask, “Did you check out the person first?” the answer is often no. Check references and make calls. It can be time-consuming, but the cost of not doing it is high.

– Get help. Give up the notion that you can do everything yourself – taxes, financial planning, lawyering. Don’t get me wrong, I still advocate doing it yourself-Internet resources and software make it possible-but we can’t do it all. It’s important to know when to get a professional.

– Save for a rainy day. This latest economic downturn is a testament to why you should always save and have enough money to cover at least three months of living expenses. Losing a job or having to go on medical leave is stressful enough. Don’t add an empty savings account to the mix.

– Plan for retirement. It is coming.

– Shop online more. Over the years, a number of readers have bragged about the great deals and bargains they have found online, especially eBay and Craigslist.

– Maintain your car. I used to tease my sister for taking her car in for maintenance checkups. I thought greedy mechanics were taking her for a ride. But when she drove her Honda for nearly a decade after it was paid for and was still able to trade it in, I thought differently.

© 2008, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.