Whether it’s losing weight or breaking a bad habit, New Year’s resolutions are a time-honored tradition. For those hoping to clean up their finances or put away more money for retirement this year, the best place to start is by cutting all unneeded expenses that can whittle down a budget.
“January is the perfect time to sit down and look at all the expenses you’re paying,” says Tracie Miller-Nobles, certified public accountant and member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ National CPA Financial Literacy Commission. Once you’ve done that, it should be easy to identify which expenses are ripe for reduction.
[See: 12 Ways to Be a More Mindful Spender.]
While some services, such as Billshark and BillFixers, promise to negotiate lower rates for you, the fees can be significant. With Billshark, for instance, you have to fork over 40 percent of the savings to the company. Meanwhile, BillFixers takes half. Instead of sharing the savings, you could do the legwork yourself and skip the fees.
Here are 10 bills to start slashing for the new year.
Cable. Cable is the low-hanging fruit, given the many ways to watch shows on the cheap or for free. An old-fashioned roof antenna will get you over-the-air channels at no cost, while streaming services such as Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and YouTube TV may provide movies and live programming at a significantly lower cost than traditional cable.
If you can’t bear to give up cable, another option is to call your current provider and ask for a discount. “You’re in a good position to negotiate once you’ve come to the end of your contract and your monthly fee is about to increase,” says Courtney Jespersen, consumer savings expert for personal finance website NerdWallet.
Mobile phone service. Finding cheaper mobile phone service can also be easy nowadays, as many carriers have moved away from contracts. Smaller cellphone companies may run on the same networks as major providers, meaning they offer the same level of coverage at a reduced cost.
However, before switching, Miller-Nobles says to be sure you’re making an apples-to-apples comparison. “Sometimes you’re looking at the rate and not reading all the other fees,” she says. Make sure there aren’t any startup costs or add-ons that could raise your monthly bill.
Gym membership. At the start of a new year, many people are buying gym memberships, but now could be the time to unload the one you signed up for last year. Rather than renewing your contract, let it lapse if you haven’t been consistent about working out in the past 12 months.
While the weather may not be conducive for walking in much of the country during the winter, videos on YouTube or other sites make it easy to exercise from home for free. If you prefer to use gym equipment, check with your health insurer or workplace to see if a free or reduced-cost membership is available as a company wellness perk.
[See: 6 Ways to Treat Yourself on a Budget.]
Recurring charges. From automatic shipments of cat food to membership in an auto club, there is no end to the type of recurring charges you may be paying. Indeed, you may have forgotten about many of them, but now is the time to identify which companies automatically bill you every month. “The best way is to go back and look at the last three months of credit card and bank statements,” Miller-Nobles says.
Then decide which of those services are needed and which can be eliminated. In particular, watch for items that may duplicate services. For instances, you may be a member of the auto club for roadside assistance, but that service may also be a perk of your credit card or car insurance.
Insurance. Speaking of insurance, the market is competitive, which means it’s a good idea to check quotes. Even if you haven’t had any claims, your rates could be affected by events happening elsewhere. “Floods in Houston can affect insurance rates,” says John Gajkowski, a certified financial planner with Money Managers Financial Group in Oak Brook, Illinois.
A company that heavily insured an area hit by a natural disaster may be raising rates while other insurers are holding steady. While you can do some initial comparison shopping for insurance quotes online, be prepared to spend some time on the phone talking to agents as well. Don’t forget to ask if there is a discount for bundling your home, car and life insurance.
Credit cards. If you carry a balance on your credit cards, you could be spending hundreds, if not thousands, on interest charges each year. Fortunately, many cards offer introductory rates that can lower interest or even bring it down to zero temporarily if you transfer a balance. Just check for balance transfer fees first to make sure the savings are worth any cost, and be wary of potential pitfalls. Once a balance is transferred, discontinue use of the old card to avoid adding to your debt. Also, keep in mind that new credit inquiries can negatively affect your credit score.
Other loans. Mortgages, car loans and personal loans may all be refinanced for a lower rate as well. While refinancing a car loan or personal loan can be a relatively easy process, mortgages are more involved. However, a mortgage refinance has the potential to save you the most money. As with credit cards, check for any fees and make sure the savings justify the expense.
Utilities. You can’t eliminate utility bills, but you can reduce them. “Utility bills are inherently difficult to read,” Jespersen says. If you see line items you don’t understand, call and ask for an explanation. Some utilities tack on fees for optional services such as appliance repair plans that can be easily removed.
Utility bills can also be reduced by being smart about energy usage. Winterizing your home to reduce heat loss can drop utility bills, as can employing tried-and-true strategies such as turning off lights and turning down the thermostat at night.
Internet. Internet access is essential for many people, but you may not need a separate, pricey plan. Some people find it cheaper to set up a hot spot through their wireless carrier. This allows you to connect to the internet on a laptop or other device using your phone’s 4G data plan. Another money-saving option is to bundle internet service with cable and a home phone line.
Beyond that, don’t pay for service you can’t use. “For instance, when my internet has outages, I call and ask to be refunded for that period of time,” Jepersen says. “If I didn’t ask, I wouldn’t automatically get the credit.”
[See: 8 Big Budgeting Blunders – and How to Fix Them.]
Dining out. Although not a single monthly bill, dining out is an expense that can break many people’s budgets. Miller-Nobles notes the AICPA has a lunch savings calculator on its 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy website. It shows that packing a $3 lunch 20 times a month, rather than buying a $10 lunch, could save a person more than $7,700 during the next four years if the difference is invested.