In continuing celebration of Financial Literacy Month, my GRS contributions throughout April are covering basic techniques to raise your financial awareness. We've previously touched on the topics of debt and income. Today we'll tackle two of my favorite tips for ensuring conscious spending.
Purge your subscriptions
Subscriptions, even small ones, can sneak up on you. Every time you sign up for another recurring payment, you're locking in a portion of your income. You're tying up a specific segment of your budget.
Of course, some subscriptions are beneficial or desired. I'm not claiming all subscriptions should be avoided; however, it's important that we understand the nature of subscriptions. By nature, subscriptions make you less aware of the recurring purchase. Rather than reevaluate a purchase every month, a subscription ensures that you're charged regularly and obtain access to a benefit. Whether or not you're actually getting a benefit is another story.
In the first couple of months of a subscription, we may still find ourselves using and enjoying the benefit. But 60, 90, or 365 days down the road the situation may be different. After the puppy love phase wears off, we may not be receiving the same benefit from our recurring purchase.
Many of us forget to reevaluate our subscriptions, so we end up paying for several months (or longer) of extra payment with very little benefit. We stop reading the magazine, stop watching the extra channels, or stop renting the bonus movies. The appeal of subscription-based services are high, but in many cases we'd benefit from a more conscious, a la carte approach.
Here are some tips for evaluating your subscriptions:
- Create a list of any opt-in subscriptions. Many forms of media operate in this manner: magazines, newspapers, movies, television, blogs, and insider information outlets. Look for items in your budget where you pay $X/month in order to have access to X items for free. The banking industry has many subscription-based services, as well. Check your rewards programs, “protection” offerings, and credit monitoring services.
- Eliminate any subscriptions you no longer benefit from. If you aren't using the subscription, cancel it immediately. Who cares if you have another free month left? You aren't using it, remember? If it's no longer returning value, stop subscribing to it. Purge!
- Free isn't really free. Even free subscriptions can have a cost. In addition to money, there will be some services that may tax your time and energy. These can be even more costly! Also, be especially wary of those subscriptions that bring clutter into your life. No benefit, no subscription.
- Check the a la carte options. For any remaining options, check for alternatives to your subscription. Compare your real usage and run the numbers. For example, many people are shifting away from cable to new options like Netflix and iTunes, where you can buy specific shows, movies, or events individually. Others are using blogs and online media to replace traditional newspapers. Don't assume the subscribing to a special plan yields better savings. Compare your options.
Stop blindly signing contracts
Our society loves contracts. They've become a routine part of our financial lives. In some situations, contracts are not only necessary, but beneficial. But, like subscriptions, we can easily go overboard and trap ourselves in some sticky situations.
Once again, the problem with contracts comes with our assumptions. We assume that cell phones require a two-year commitment, that renting requires a minimum of a year-long lease, or that any gym membership will be accompanied by a lengthy contract.
In reality, there are many alternatives. You can often negotiate the terms of the contract, save money and avoid contracts by paying in advance, or consider alternatives to the idea altogether.
Here are a couple recent examples from my own life:
- Upon returning to the U.S., Courtney and I wanted to rent, but didn't want to make a year-long commitment (we still want to be relatively mobile). Upon finding a decent house, we applied some basic negotiation tips and discovered the landlord was willing to take $50 less than the advertised rent. Instead, we offered (while pointing out our strengths) to pay the full amount of rent, but asked for no deposit and a 6-month lease that would then go month-to-month. The landlord happily agreed. While we still entered into a lease, this was far better for our specific situation and was a small price in order to gain substantial flexibility.
- After looking at several gym options, we couldn't find a decent one that didn't require a contract. This pushed us to purchase a set of resistance bands and dumbbells, and led us to research body-weight exercises that we could do at home. In the past, it would have been easy to cave in and sign; however, we're much happier and more flexible with this alternative to an expensive gym contract.
- Over the past 18 months, both Courtney and I have had pay-as-you-go cell phone plans. They've worked completely fine with no problems. Upon returning to the U.S. we caught cell phone fever. Knowing better, we signed contracts on our new iPhones. While I love my iPhone (and it allows me to run my business on the go), this was a recent example of a completely unnecessary contract that we're now tied into. The last two months, we've had billing issues, which required time and stress to get cleared up. :-(
Once again, let me point out that there are many instances where signing a contract can be beneficial to the consumer. For example, signing a long-term lease means that you won't have to go through any rent increases that may exist in shorter-term leases. Just ensure you only sign contracts on the most essential needs in your life.
Chances are you won't be ditching all your subscriptions and you'll still have plenty of contracts in your life. But the key is to review your subscriptions on a regular basis and constantly search for alternatives to lengthy, restrictive contracts.