Connect with us

Politics

Experiments in Fast Image Recognition on Mobile Devices – ReadWrite

Published

on

feature detection and matching for image recognition


Our journey in experimenting with machine vision and image recognition accelerated when we were developing an application, BooksPlus, to change a reader’s experience. BooksPlus uses image recognition to bring printed pages to life. A user can get immersed in rich and interactive content by scanning images in the book using the BooksPlus app. 

For example, you can scan an article about a poet and instantly listen to the poet’s audio. Similarly, you can scan images of historical artwork and watch a documentary clip.

As we started the development, we used commercially available SDKs that worked very well when we tried to recognize images locally. Still, these would fail as our library of images went over a few hundred images. A few services performed cloud-based recognition, but their pricing structure didn’t match our needs. 

Hence, we decided to experiment to develop our own image recognition solution.

What were the Objectives of our Experiments?

We focused on building a solution that would scale to the thousands of images that we needed to recognize. Our aim was to achieve high performance while being flexible to do on-device and in-cloud image matching. 

As we scaled the BooksPlus app, the target was to build a cost-effective outcome. We ensured that our own effort was as accurate as the SDKs (in terms of false positives and false negative matches). Our solutions needed to integrate with native iOS and Android projects.

Choosing an Image Recognition Toolkit

The first step of our journey was to zero down on an image recognition toolkit. We decided to use OpenCV based on the following factors:

  • A rich collection of image-related algorithms: OpenCV has a collection of more than 2500 optimized algorithms, which has many contributions from academia and the industry, making it the most significant open-source machine vision library.
  • Popularity: OpenCV has an estimated download exceeding 18 million and has a community of 47 thousand users, making it abundant technical support available.
  • BSD-licensed product: As OpenCV is BSD-licensed, we can easily modify and redistribute it according to our needs. As we wanted to white-label this technology, OpenCV would benefit us.
  • C-Interface: OpenCV has C interfaces and support, which was very important for us as both native iOS and Android support C; This would allow us to have a single codebase for both the platforms.

The Challenges in Our Journey

We faced numerous challenges while developing an efficient solution for our use case. But first, let’s first understand how image recognition works.

What is Feature Detection and Matching in Image Recognition?

Feature detection and matching is an essential component of every computer vision application. It detects an object, retrieve images, robot navigation, etc. 

Consider two images of a single object clicked at slightly different angles. How would you make your mobile recognize that both the pictures contain the same object? Feature Detection and Matching comes into play here.

A feature is a piece of information that represents if an image contains a specific pattern or not. Points and edges can be used as features. The image above shows the feature points on an image. One must select feature points in a way that they remain invariant under changes in illumination, translation, scaling, and in-plane rotation. Using invariant feature points is critical in the successful recognition of similar images under different positions.

The First Challenge: Slow Performance

When we first started experimenting with image recognition using OpenCV, we used the recommended ORB feature descriptors and FLANN feature matching with 2 nearest neighbours. This gave us accurate results, but it was extremely slow. 

The on-device recognition worked well for a few hundred images; the commercial SDK would crash after 150 images, but we were able to increase that to around 350. However, that was insufficient for a large-scale application.

To give an idea of the speed of this mechanism, consider a database of 300 images. It would take up to 2 seconds to match an image. With this speed, a database with thousands of images would take a few minutes to match an image. For the best UX, the matching must be real-time, in a blink of an eye. 

The number of matches made at different points of the pipeline needed to be minimized to improve the performance. Thus, we had two choices:

  1. Reduce the number of neighbors nearby, but we had only 2 neighbors: the least possible number of neighbors.
  2. Reduce the number of features we detected in each image, but reducing the count would hinder the accuracy. 

We settled upon using 200 features per image, but the time consumption was still not satisfactory. 

The Second Challenge: Low Accuracy

Another challenge that was standing right there was the reduced accuracy while matching images in books that contained text. These books would sometimes have words around the photos, which would add many highly clustered feature points to the words. This increased the noise and reduced the accuracy.

In general, the book’s printing caused more interference than anything else: the text on a page creates many useless features, highly clustered on the sharp edges of the letters causing the ORB algorithm to ignore the basic image features.

The Third Challenge: Native SDK

After the performance and precision challenges were resolved, the ultimate challenge was to wrap the solution in a library that supports multi-threading and is compatible with Android and iOS mobile devices.

Our Experiments That Led to the Solution:

Experiment 1: Solving the Performance Problem

The objective of the first experiment was to improve the performance. Our engineers came up with a solution to improve performance. Our system could potentially be presented with any random image which has billions of possibilities and we had to determine if this image was a match to our database. Therefore, instead of doing a direct match, we devised a two-part approach: Simple matching and In-depth matching.

Part 1: Simple Matching: 

To begin, the system will eliminate obvious non-matches. These are the images that can easily be identified as not matching. They could be any of our database’s thousands or even tens of thousands of images. This is accomplished through a very coarse level scan that considers only 20 features through the use of an on-device database to determine whether the image being scanned belongs to our interesting set. 

Part 2: In-Depth Matching 

After Part 1, we were left with very few images with similar features from a large dataset – the interesting set. Our second matching step is carried out on these few images. An in-depth match was performed only on these interesting images. To find the matching image, all 200 features are matched here. As a result, we reduced the number of feature matching loops performed on each image.

Every feature was matched against every feature of the training image. This brought down the matching loops down from 40,000 (200×200) to 400 (20×20). We would get a list of the best possible matching images to further compare the actual 200 features.

We were more than satisfied with the result. The dataset of 300 images that would previously take 2 seconds to match an image would now take only 200 milliseconds. This improved mechanism was 10x faster than the original, barely noticeable to the human eye in delay.

Experiment 2: Solving the Scale Problem

To scale up the system, part 1 of the matching was done on the device and part 2 could be done in the cloud – this way, only images that were a potential match were sent to the cloud. We would send the 20 feature fingerprint match information to the cloud, along with the additional detected image features. With a large database of interesting images, the cloud could scale.

This method allowed us to have a large database (with fewer features) on-device in order to eliminate obvious non-matches. The memory requirements were reduced, and we eliminated crashes caused by system resource constraints, which was a problem with the commercial SDK. As the real matching was done in the cloud, we were able to scale by reducing cloud computing costs by not using cloud CPU cycling for obvious non-matches.

Experiment 3: Improving the Accuracy

Now that we have better performance results, the matching process’s practical accuracy needs enhancement. As mentioned earlier, when scanning a picture in the real world, the amount of noise was enormous.

Our first approach was to use the CANNY edge detection algorithm to find the square or the rectangle edges of the image and clip out the rest of the data, but the results were not reliable. We observed two issues that still stood tall. The first was that the images would sometimes contain captions which would be a part of the overall image rectangle. The second issue was that the images would sometimes be aesthetically placed in different shapes like circles or ovals. We needed to come up with a simple solution.

Finally, we analyzed the images in 16 shades of grayscale and tried to find areas skewed towards only 2 to 3 shades of grey. This method accurately found areas of text on the outer regions of an image. After finding these portions, blurring them would make them dormant in interfering with the recognition mechanism. 

Experiment 4: Implementing a Native SDK for Mobile

We swiftly managed to enhance the feature detection and matching system’s accuracy and efficiency in recognizing images. The final step was implementing an SDK that could work across both iOS and Android devices like it would have been if we implemented them in native SDKs. To our advantage, both Android and iOS support the use of C libraries in their native SDKs. Therefore, an image recognition library was written in C, and two SDKs were produced using the same codebase. 

Each mobile device has different resources available. The higher-end mobile devices have multiple cores to perform multiple tasks simultaneously. We created a multi-threaded library with a configurable number of threads. The library would automatically configure the number of threads at runtime as per the mobile device’s optimum number.

Conclusion

To summarize, we developed a large-scale image recognition application (used in multiple fields including Augmented Reality) by improving the accuracy and the efficiency of the machine vision: feature detection and matching. The already existing solutions were slow and our use case produced noise that drastically reduced accuracy. We desired accurate match results within a blink of an eye.

Thus, we ran a few tests to improve the mechanism’s performance and accuracy. This reduced the number of feature matching loops by 90%, resulting in a 10x faster match. Once we had the performance that we desired, we needed to improve the accuracy by reducing the noise around the text in the images. We were able to accomplish this by blurring out the text after analyzing the image in 16 different shades of grayscale. Finally, everything was compiled into the C language library that can be used with iOS and Android.

Anand Shah

Ignite Solutions

Founder and CEO of Ignite Solutions, Anand Shah is a versatile technologist and entrepreneur. His passion is backed by 30 years of experience in the field of technology with a focus on startups, product management, ideation, lean methods, technology leadership, customer relationships, and go-to-market. He serves as the CTO of several client companies.

Politics

5 Ways To Better Reach Your Audience

Published

on

Brad Anderson


Attempting to reach your audience is difficult, as the internet is full of information, and consumers are flooded with the constant noise of advertising, social media, and email. It can be intimidating for a company to get its message heard over the noise. However, with a bit of care and planning, you can successfully reach your target demographic and interest them in your product.

Maybe you’re a new business with a great product and want to know how to drive traffic to your site. Or perhaps you’re established but have something fresh and exciting to offer, and you need to know how to spotlight it. Maybe you’re interested in learning how to reach a whole new demographic and are unsure how to do that.

To reach out to a new audience online, keep your existing customers interested, or drive conversions, you need to plan your content strategy and SEO carefully. It’s not enough just to launch a product website, announce it on social media, and wait to see what happens. Instead, you’ve got to find a way to amplify your voice.

Initiating a Strategy

Content encompasses everything you use to communicate information to the world: social media, graphics, written communication, and your website itself are included in this category. Your content strategy and SEO should tackle the questions: Who am I trying to reach, What do I need to tell them, and How am I going to do that? MarketMuse’s extensive content strategy guide notes that an effective content strategy outlines business goals and aligns with SEO.

Depending on your company’s scale, you may want to hire someone to help you develop a strategy, manage a team of writers, designers, and developers, and keep an eye on metrics to ensure your messaging is on target and getting the results you need. However, be aware that it can take six months or more to gain traction and that there are some questions you’ll want to ask when hiring an SEO expert.

Here are five steps you can take today to ensure that you successfully communicate about your brand to reach your intended audience.

1. Identify who you want to reach

Regardless of company scale or team size, an effective content strategy begins with research and planning. This step can be time-consuming but is so important. It’s the foundation for building your overall content strategy.

The first rule of content is: know your audience. Who are you trying to talk to and why? Get as specific as you can in this step. For example, identify an age range, gender, if applicable, socioeconomic status, and interests. It is sometimes helpful to create an avatar or character to represent your target market and talk specifically to that person. If you nail your demographic, your message will carry.

Once you know who you’re targeting, make sure what you’re saying to them makes sense. For example, promoting your retirement savings 101 blog cluster and planning tools will not be effective if your language and approach only appeal to a 60-year-old.

2. Sell a lifestyle, not a product

This is one of the trickiest elements of content marketing strategy for any company to master. But, first, it’s important to remember that content isn’t about directly promoting a product or about making a sale. At least, not overtly.

Content strategy is about building relationships and offering something your audience values and needs: information. If your information is solid and you get it in front of the right people, you will build trust and drive conversions over time. It’s helpful to think about strategies employed by large brands – especially what they don’t do.

Athletic shoe companies don’t bore you with all the technical specs of their product; they show you an image of athletes running fast or thriving in their sport. They let you imagine yourself succeeding in the same way. Similarly, the best tech companies don’t talk about RAM or GPUs in their ads. Instead, they show you how sleek you look with the latest gadget. They show you how much that gadget will simplify your daily tasks.

If you work too hard to tell your audience about the details of your product (which may be exciting and important) in your content marketing, you’re going to bore them and lose them.

3. Make sure your content is on point

Great content isn’t necessarily about volume. If what you’re offering is sound, you don’t have to drone on forever. For example, we’re all annoyed by recipe blogs that make you scroll through five pages of irrelevant nonsense to get to what’s of value to you: the recipe.

If you want to avoid being the next recipe blog cliche, ensure your writing and graphics are clean and clearly communicate the data or insights you want to highlight. Plan social media posts to be playful and fun and get to the point right away. Attention spans are minimal when people are scrolling.

Your written content (emails, blogs, website copy) should be clean, clearly written, and well structured. Organize your site to include a search feature, ensure it is responsive to various devices and has multiple easy-to-find navigation options. The key is to eliminate the need for your audience to work to find what they want.

4. Use your digital tools thoughtfully

To ensure your content rises above all that noise online, you absolutely need to include SEO in your content strategy. This is where brands can get a little intimidated, confused, or overzealous, however.

SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is not as esoteric as you might think, but it takes time, research, and effort to implement correctly. SEO can include keywords that help ensure your page shows up in search results, your website’s design and security, and your site’s responsiveness to different screen sizes.

So, what does that mean? Well, the answer to that may vary, but a few essential points will put you on the right track. First, you want to ensure you’re not basing your content strategy on SEO considerations and keywords.

The result will be that your content feels shoehorned around obvious keywords (because it is) and won’t offer much value to readers. Maybe you’ll appear in search results, but that won’t do anything for you once people click on your page and decide there’s nothing valuable. At that point, you’ve lost trust. You may also lose those initial clicks as search algorithms constantly evolve.

The key is ensuring you are offering quality information to your target audience. Make sure that information is clear and that your website is navigable, and then find ways to work in keywords naturally. Also, don’t be afraid to use social media to toot your horn.

5. Post often and repurpose content

In addition to optimizing your website and content, you’ll want to plan a solid social media strategy and use appropriate posting techniques to boost your web traffic and conversions. The good news is that not everything you post has to reinvent the wheel. For example, it is ok to repurpose the same link with slightly different messaging.

It’s also important to remember to post on different platforms for different reasons. If you’re trying to talk to a Gen Z demographic, you’re probably not going to be successful if your entire social media presence is based on Facebook. You might look at Instagram or TikTok instead.

As with blog and website content, you’re not going to be effective if you simply post ad copy on social media. Instead, find innovative and fun ways to draw your audience in. Make them laugh. Tell them how to solve a problem. Teach them a new skill.

And don’t forget to update your blog copy, too. For example, you might have a blog that predicts the best crypto investments in March. You can create an updated version in April without starting from scratch.

If you take the time to do your homework, develop a solid plan, allow your strategy appropriate time to work, and measure results (and use those to revise your plan, and so on), you have a solid foundation for your content marketing presence. Make sure your content is tailored to the right audience, easy to read, easy to navigate, and actionable, and you can’t go wrong.

Image Credit: Karolina Grabowska; Pexels; Thanks!

Brad Anderson

Editor In Chief at ReadWrite

Brad is the editor overseeing contributed content at ReadWrite.com. He previously worked as an editor at PayPal and Crunchbase. You can reach him at brad at readwrite.com.

Continue Reading

Politics

Connected Medical Devices are Revolutionizing Health Care

Published

on

How Are Smart Thermostats Making Homes Greener? - ReadWrite


The Internet of Things (IoT) may be about to transform almost every aspect of people’s lives. Health care is one industry already seeing significant adoption of IoT technology. Connected medical devices are helping doctors and nurses remotely monitor patients, access health data, and conduct follow-ups online. As a result, IoT in health care could revolutionize the industry over the next few years.

How Does the Health Care Industry Use Connected Devices? 

The Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) includes various devices used inside and outside health care facilities. In most cases, these items provide a few of the same benefits — including streamlined treatment, reduced risk of error, and greater availability of critical data, like information on patient vitals.

Smart Patient Monitoring Devices

One popular application of IoT in health care is the smart patient monitor. This device continuously collects health care information from a patient, including data on heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and blood oxygen levels. 

These devices help make patient health data more accessible to doctors and nurses inside facilities. A patient’s medical team can quickly and remotely check their vitals from a hospital workstation or a secure device anywhere in the world. The smart patient monitor can also alert staff if someone’s vitals exceed safe levels.

Smart health care wearables and remote patient monitors allow doctors to continue tracking patient vitals without requiring them to remain in the facility. In addition, people who have been recently discharged from the hospital may bring smart patient monitors with them, allowing them to send important health information to doctors without having to return to the hospital for a follow-up. They can also access this information and get a valuable window into their post-release health.

The patient and their doctor can discuss any concerning health information over the internet using a telemedicine video call solution. The doctor can also immediately recall the patient to the hospital if the monitor suggests their health is in danger.

Various IoMT patient monitoring devices exist, ranging from large machines built for hospital settings to lightweight health-tracking wearables people can take with them wherever they go. 

Specific use-cases for IoMT monitoring technology include general-purpose smart patient monitors, motion sensors that track the progression of Parkinson’s disease symptoms, and mood sensors that can help doctors manage a patient’s mental health.

Smart Infusion Pumps and Medication Delivery Devices

Correctly dosing and delivering medicine is essential for patient treatment. However, medication errors remain a common challenge in many medical environments. These mistakes can cause serious injuries or adverse reactions that can lead to death.

The IoMT can help prevent medication errors by streamlining the dosing process and delivering IV medicine.

Smart infusion pumps are medication delivery devices that use innovative technology, barcode readers, and drug information libraries to reduce risk when administering IV medicine. The health care worker will designate an area of use — like the adult ICU or NICU — which will automatically configure the pump based on needs. The clinician will then select the medicine they need to administer from an internet drug library, select a concentration and configure the pump’s dose.

Information from the drug library will help prevent some of the most common medication errors — like dosing mistakes and combinations that may lead to health problems.

Some pumps may require that the clinician scans the drug using a barcode on its packaging rather than choosing one from a list.

Most pump systems incorporate a few safeguards that will help reduce the frequency of medication errors. For example, the pump may include the height and weight information of the patient receiving a drug, helping ensure they receive the appropriate dose.

The pump system may also include information on average drug concentrations and dosing units. As a result, it can double-check with health care workers to ensure an unusual dosage is correct, potentially preventing medication errors. 

Smart Device Scanners

Manufacturers will often use laser marking to create a unique device identifier (UDI) codes on the surface of connected medical devices like orthopedic implants and medical instruments. They provide a wealth of information about the marked device — including the specific version or model number.

Under current regulations, the manufacturer must provide this code in plain language and a machine-readable format.

Smart medical scanners can read the second version of the UDI instantly, draw on relevant information from cloud-based databases and update records. This makes them a powerful tool for conducting inventory, determining an instrument’s specific model or lot number, and verifying the plain-language portion of a UDI.

These devices are connected to the internet, so they can also be used to update cloud-based records as they scan automatically. For example, hospitals that maintain an online database of critical medical instruments can use a smart scanner to update it with new products.

In practice, these scanners can also make it much easier for health care organizations to comply with traceability requirements. For example, clinicians can use information from the UDI to quickly verify the model number, expiration date, and recall status of a medical instrument or device before it is used.

Clinicians that locate faulty or expired equipment can quickly remove it, ensuring it won’t be used for a procedure. 

Smart Pills, Capsules and Medications

New smart pills and capsules can help patients take their medications regularly. They are outfitted with special sensors that activate when they hit the acid in a patient’s stomach. They then communicate with a wearable medical device — like a patch on someone’s chest — signaling that the pill has been taken. 

The wearable device that receives the signal can automatically generate a log or report showing the medication was taken successfully. 

The connected medical device can also track other information — like the patient’s activity and rest times.

The first smart pill approved by the FDA was Abilify Mycite, which contains aripiprazole, an antipsychotic used to treat conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Patients with these conditions may struggle to remember if they’ve taken their medicine, but missing a dose can cause adverse reactions — including nausea, lightheadedness, anxiety, and a return of symptoms associated with the mental health condition the aripiprazole is meant to treat. 

The smart system can help patients track their medication adherence and review patterns when they take their medicine.

Smart pills are not widely used yet, but they may soon help patients and health care providers improve medication adherence and track home-usage. 

Future smart pills may also provide additional functionality. For example, those containing onboard sensors could help doctors track a patient’s core temperature, detect intestinal bleeding, or keep tabs on gut health. Many of these pills already exist in an experimental capacity and may become commercially viable by the end of the decade.

The Future of Connected Medical Devices and IoT in Health Care

Connected medical devices can make providing effective health treatment much easier. The right one can streamline care, reduce error risk, and simplify record-keeping.

IoT in health care is growing fast over the next few years. According to Fortune Business Insights, the market may be worth as much as $187.6 billion by 2028, up from just $41 billion in 2020. As a result, new applications of smart medical technology may become widely available.

For example, it may also become standard for health care facilities to adopt connected robots, like those used in Italian hospitals during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently used IoMT devices — from smart monitors to smart pills — will likely become much more common over the next few years as the market expands and health care facilities look to adopt devices that make daily work easier.

Image Credit: Provided by the Author; National Cancer Institute; Unsplash; Thank you!

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technical and industrial journalist. She regularly covers stories about how technology is changing the industrial sector.

Continue Reading

Politics

How to Stop Inflation from Deflating Your Savings

Published

on

Free Your Money: Strategies for Keeping Your Money In The Best Place Possible - ReadWrite


No, you aren’t imagining things. Everything costs more than it did before, and these higher prices make it hard to balance the budget while saving and thinking about retirement. But you can stop inflation from deflating your savings!

In April, the Bureau of Labor released the latest data from the Consumer Price Index (CPI), revealing inflation’s steady creep upward hasn’t stopped yet. The rate of U.S. inflation climbed to a whopping 8.5% in March, marking this spike as the most significant increase in the cost of living in 4 decades.

You aren’t alone if you’re struggling to handle prices at their 40-year high. Nearly half of Americans (45%) polled by Gallup last year admitted inflation caused financial hardship at a time when the CPI was just 6.8%. Moreover, of those that reported facing difficulties, 10% revealed their challenges impacted their standard of living.

While the Federal Reserve claims inflation’s bubble will pop soon, experts anticipate the CPI won’t fall below 4% by the year’s end. That means you can expect another year of high inflation bumping up prices.

Is your budget ready? If not, don’t panic. Instead, keep reading to understand more about inflation and what you can do to protect your savings.

Inflation: An Overview

Inflation is not a product of the pandemic, although it may initially seem that way. On the contrary, between lockdowns and labor shortages — and now the Russia-Ukraine crisis — the past 3 years have kept inflation well-fed.

These special circumstances allowed inflation to grow to dizzying heights, but it’s been around a lot longer than COVID.

Have you ever heard your dad tell you a story about buying a bag of candy for a nickel, only for your grandfather to chime in to say he bought the same thing for a penny? They aren’t just yearning for the good old days of their youth. That’s inflation at work.

Inflation is an economic principle describing how the prices of goods and services generally increase over time. Another way to think of it is how your money — or what’s called your purchasing power — decreases in value as time goes on.

Usually, inflation only increases by around 2% each year. And if you’re lucky, your employer matches this increase with an equivalent raise. This zero-sum game means a lot of people may not notice inflation. Sure, things cost more, but you also earn more, so it all evens out.

The problem with today’s record-breaking inflation rate is that prices are climbing far too fast for wages to keep up. While employers have been handing out raises, a survey shows they averaged 3.4% in 2021, less than half of today’s current inflation rate.

With inflation and wages out of balance, you may notice how your dollar doesn’t stretch as far as it used to before the pandemic. Each expense takes up more of your very finite budget as a result.

Americans Are Living Paycheck to Paycheck

Now that everything costs more, many Americans are feeling the financial crunch. According to CNBC, nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) live paycheck to paycheck today. This isn’t necessarily new. In fact, survey after survey has revealed people have been living this way for nearly a decade.

If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, most, if not all, of your monthly income goes towards making ends meet. With your income tied up with bills, you may have practically no cash for anything else.

Your Paycheck May Not Go As Far — But Don’t Deflate Your Savings

It’s hard to keep up with your savings goals when you live like this. You might even hit pause on savings altogether. And without contributing to savings, Americans increasingly turn to credit cards and short-term personal loans for help in an emergency.

CNBC reports that 56% of Americans could not handle an unexpected $1,000 expense with savings. Most of those without savings would charge credit cards or ask a loved one for some help. But others would go into debt and borrow money online via short-term personal loans to cover unexpected expenses.

While credit cards and short-term personal loans function as emergency backups in unexpected cash crunches, they’re meant as temporary stopgaps for singular expenses. Moreover, borrowing money won’t solve the issue that high inflation is an ongoing problem that will long outlast most cash advances and personal loan terms.

More still, debt can add to your money troubles. If you’re already living paycheck to paycheck, you may not have the cash available to repay your personal loan on time. Late fines and extra interest are soon to follow.

Updating Your Budget with Inflation in Mind

Americans point to high costs preventing them from saving as much as they want, regardless of whether they rely on credit cards or short-term personal loans as crutches.

Unfortunately, there’s no telling just how long high inflation will hang around. Still, one thing is for sure: a higher-than-normal inflation rate will affect prices for the foreseeable future.

Higher prices are the new normal, so it’s time to tweak your budget, updating it for another expensive year. Let’s dive into how you can do that.

1. Make a List of Priorities

When things are tight, you need a plan of action to understand your next move. So sit down and write out your list of priorities. These expenses are the absolute essentials you need to pay each month to keep a roof over your head and food on the table.

Besides housing costs and groceries, this list may include insurance payments, utilities, basic household items, and toiletries. In addition, the minimum payments for personal loans, cash advances, and lines of credit also belong on this list. These minimum payments will help you avoid late fines, extra interest, and credit damage.

This list shows the bare minimum for what you need each month. It serves as a good reminder of what you need to pay first before moving on to other things.

2. Cut Discretionary Expenses

As judge, jury, and executioner of expenses, you should be looking to slash non-essential spending until you have more wiggle room in your budget. Then, the unnecessary expenses (i.e., those you don’t need to lead a safe or comfortable life) should be on the chopping block.

Which expenses didn’t make it on your list of priorities? It can be daunting to say goodbye to the fun things in life, but it’s easier to let go knowing it won’t be forever. You can reintroduce the non-essentials when you start to feel less pressure.

To help you get started, here are some discretionary expenses you can cut:

  • Streaming services: If you have multiple streaming subscriptions, pare them down to the one you use most often.
  • Subscription boxes: While the average subscription box doesn’t cost a lot, it may be too much if you’re living paycheck to paycheck. Put them on pause until you have more wiggle room in your budget.
  • Gym memberships: The average gym membership costs about $600 a year. You can pocket that change by switching to a free at-home workout.
  • Takeout: According to The Fool, the average American spends $2,375 on takeout a year. If you eat out multiple times a week, you stand to save a lot by eating at home.
  • Alcohol: Happy hours after work and wine with dinner add up. Going dry can help you free up more cash for bills.

Finding it hard to say no when you’re out and about? Apply the 30-day rule. In other words, wait for 30 days before you commit to the purchase. A month is long enough to take the wind out of your sails, revealing the splurge for what it is: a waste of money.

3. Automate Savings

Even at this time, savings are an essential part of your budget. It can help you weather unexpected emergencies, reducing how often you tap into credit cards and short-term personal loans.

Admittedly, saving through high inflation is challenging, so you might want to ignore the usual advice to save 3 to 6 months. But, that’s a goal for another day.

For now, save as much as you can to get started, even if it’s just $10 a month at first. Financial advisor David Ramsey suggests lowering your goal to $1,000 when you’re first starting out.

4. Tweak Your Phone and Internet Package

Having a phone and access to the Internet is as close to essentials as possible nowadays. You might need them for work, or it may be the only way you can contact the outside world. So cutting these expenses for the sake of saving money just doesn’t make sense.

If you’re on an unlimited plan, consider downsizing to a cheaper plan with strict data and talk limits. Be careful not to exceed these limits to ensure you aren’t penalized. You stand to save even more each month if you can stomach a prepaid contract.

5. Update Your Insurance

Like your phone and Internet packages, insurance is another essential with some wiggle room. But first, you’ll want to do some research. Go online to compare other insurance companies to see what they offer. Then, when talking to your current provider, you can leverage this info to know if they’re willing to match the competition.

Another thing you can leverage is your loyalty. If you’ve been with the company for a long time, bring this history up while talking to your provider. They might be willing to cut you a better deal knowing you’re thinking about jumping ship.

You may also get a better deal if you’re willing to bundle your life, home, and auto insurance under one company.

6. Eat Better for Less

Putting food on the table has never been more expensive. But, unfortunately, you can’t precisely cut groceries from your budget!

Meat and dairy have been some of the hardest-hit items in the grocery stores, with bacon, eggs, and beef taking most of the brunt. Now that bacon is 26% more expensive per pound than last year, you might think twice about including it on your breakfast plate.

Plant-based eating promises some financial savings at the grocery store, especially if you stay away from costly prepared meat replacements. Instead, focus on tried-and-true cheap ingredients like lentils and rice.

Following a meal plan is also another great way to keep your spending in check at the supermarket. Make a list of meals you want to eat every week, adjusting your plan for weekly flyers and coupons.

7. Use Less Energy

Your utility bills are taking a bigger bite of your budget, like electricity, water, and gas cost more. According to the Guardian, utility prices in the U.S. rose by 33% last year.

Reducing energy consumption across these utilities can help you control runaway expenses.

One of the biggest things you can do to save is set your thermostat according to the Department of Energy’s recommendations. These tips can help you save as much as 10% of your annual heating and cooling costs.

Summer: If you have an air conditioner running, set it to 78°F when you’re at home. Try increasing the temperature as high as you feel comfortable when you’re out.

Winter: During the cooler months, try to keep your thermostat to 68°F while you’re at home, reducing it even lower when you’re at work or in bed.

8. Reduce Your Fuelling Costs

Between inflation and the Russia-Ukraine crisis squeezing the American fuel supply, drivers can expect to spend more at the pumps. If you can’t reduce how often you’re behind the wheel, you should download an app like GasBuddy to find the lowest gas prices in your area.

More often than not, this ends up being Costco, but they don’t get a membership just to qualify for their gas. So you probably won’t save more at their pumps than what it costs to become an annual member.

Another way to keep your driving costs low is by using gas station loyalty cards so that you can redeem points as often as possible. You can also consider carpooling with local friends and colleagues to share the burden of driving.

9. Learn How to Negotiate

The art of negotiation is a hard-earned skill that can do wonders for your budget. Depending on your strategy and your creditor’s policies, you can push out due dates to take the pressure off your budget and reduce what you owe.

If you aren’t sure how to persuade big companies, check out this script for guidance. When it comes to medical expenses specifically, ask if they offer a financial plan that offsets your costs. In many cases, healthcare businesses are willing to give you a discount if you offer to pay the reduced amount in full immediately.

10. Investigate Financial Assistance

Let’s face it — juggling all your bills as inflation nudges them higher, and higher is hard. Sometimes, not even your best attempts at negotiating bills and saving money at the grocery store will be enough to help you balance your budget.

Reach out to a free credit counseling organization for advice. They can provide more significant insights into how to shrink your budget. But more importantly, they can direct you towards government assistance programs that help you offset the burden of your living expenses.

The Takeaway for :

Although inflation is beyond your control, there are ways you can get back in the financial driver’s seat. As prices continue to rise, your budget is your most crucial resource throughout it all. You can refer to this spending plan to understand your priorities and focus on areas of your spending that need work.

You can reduce your monthly spending and save more, whether it’s unnecessary splurges or excessive fuel spending. Keep these tips in mind for the rest of the year.

But more importantly, know that you aren’t alone in facing these prices. There are resources you can fall back on for more guidance if you can’t balance the budget, no matter how hard you try.

Published First on Due. Read Here

Image Credit: by Pixabay; Pexels; Thank you!

Due

Know exactly how much money you will have going into your bank account each month. No tricks, no gimmicks. Simple retirement for the modern day human.

Continue Reading

Copyright © 2021 Seminole Press.