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How to Slash Your Bills: 4 Steps to Paying Less Each Month

in Joan's Posts, Money Basics

Note: This is a post from Joan Otto, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.

There are tons of great resources online about how to reduce any particular bill. The Simple Dollar has a great one on 40 Ways to Reduce Your Monthly Required Spending by doing things like insulating your doors and turning off lights when you’re not using them.

I’m a big fan of creating habits like those – especially now that Chris and I have some serious debt-busting momentum built up, these are the “little things” that help us stay on track.

But the fact is, unless you’re incredibly careless right now, turning off the lights and installing a low-flow showerhead aren’t going to save you $50 a month.

And if you’re currently paying only the minimums on your debt, like we were just a couple of years ago, you need to free up chunks of money to hit those balances with. Same goes if you’re trying to build up your savings – you want to hit it in sizeable chunks if possible, right?

That’s where reducing your costs at the source comes in. Here’s a four-step process that I used to knock off more than $125 a month from our bills – all of which now goes toward debt repayment!

1. Make a list of what you pay.

G.I. Joe says knowing is half the battle, right? It’s just like when I talked about facing up to our debts – having a list of where the money’s going is the first step. At this point, we’re mostly concerned with regular monthly costs.

  • Utilities: Gas, water, electricity, oil, trash, sewer
  • Technology: Cable, internet, phone
  • Memberships and subscriptions: Gym, home security, movie services, weight-loss services, mail-order products
  • Insurance: Car, homeowner’s, life, health
  • Revolving debt: Credit cards, mortgages, loans, car notes, lines of credit

I would encourage you to apply the steps here to tackling ALL these categories. I’ve talked about insurance before in detail, and we dig heavily into that and revolving debt (and negotiation skills!) in You Vs. Debt.

But today I’m going to focus on ways to tackle the first three types of accounts specifically – the ones you can most quickly knock down!

So make a list. Get out your calendar of bills – or whatever other system you have in place. If at all possible, have a copy of your bill in hand as you move forward. The more detail on what you’re paying – and for what – the better.

2. Do your research.

With that copy of your bill, find out exactly what you’re paying for. Is it unlimited texting? 857 of your favorite cable channels? 5 samples of cosmetics? You want to know what you’re getting.

If you can, ask other people what they pay each month for each service. (It’s OK to talk about money, honest!)

Go online and see what offers are available for NEW customers to the service – and its competitors. This becomes key when you’re ready to negotiate. These are often much less than what you’re paying as a loyal, existing customer, and you can use that to your advantage!

3. Call and ask.

I’m a big fan of doing lots of things online, but rate-reduction isn’t generally one of them. No matter how nervous you are about negotiating on the phone, you often stand a better chance when you’re actually speaking with a representative.

Find the phone number on your bill, pick up the phone and call. When you do:

  • Be polite and friendly: ”Hi [representative's name], I’m Joan. I’m hoping you can help me with a question I had about the pricing on my account!”
  • Be brief and informed: “I have my account number ready. It’s 123456.”
  • Mention the rates offered by the competition: “I recently saw an offer from [competitor] for [similar service] for [price].
  • OR, mention the rates offered for the same service to your friends or new customers. (“I recently saw that you’re offering [price/deal] for new subscribers.”)
  • If possible, mention the length of time you’ve used the service: “I’ve been a customer with you since 2002, but I see that I’m paying [higher price].”
  • Close with a specific request for help: “I’d really like to keep my service with you, but the cost is getting hard to fit into our budget. Is there any way you could help me get my monthly rate down to [low price]?”

You aren’t going to win 100% of the time. “Flat-rate” services are harder to negotiate. For instance, my trash and sewer bill is negotiated by our municipality – and every resident pays the same amount. Making a phone call helped me become informed about that, but it certainly didn’t change my rate. My Birchbox subscription is $10 a month – the same as it is for every other cosmetics-loving female in the U.S.

But I had AMAZING success with my phone, cable, internet and alarm services. Those are the types of places where you – and the company representative – sometimes have more wiggle room. (For example, here’s a walkthrough of a chat with Comcast that cut the bill by 33%! I still prefer doing it by phone, but the idea is the same!)

Finally, be willing to negotiate creatively. Maybe the cost is fixed, but the features can be improved. That was the case with a gym membership I once had. It was a small chain of stores locally that didn’t have a lot of leeway on price. However, the owner was willing to throw in several “premium” classes that my lower-level membership wouldn’t normally have entitled me to.

4. Be ready to cancel what isn’t working for you.

If you’ve gotten a good deal for a cable/internet bundle through your phone negotiation, that’s great. I recommend going into the negotiation with a “make or break” number in mind.

I try to think to myself, “I’ll keep the cable package I have if I can save $20 a month, but otherwise, I’m reducing it to the basic package.”

Know this in advance, because you can then negotiate with it – or at least kill two birds with one stone!

When I negotiated my own cable bill, I wasn’t particularly successful at first, and when I (again, politely) thanked the representative, I said, “Is it possible for you to transfer me to someone who can help me downgrade my service? I’m going to need to do that to make the budget work.” If nothing else, I was saving a phone call – but it turned out that I was then transferred to a “retention” representative who was able to give me a better deal.

Big caveat: I see some sites that advise you to say you’re dropping your service no matter what. Joan’s take? Don’t say it unless you’re truly prepared to do it! In my case, I knew it was possible I’d get a better deal – but I also knew that it was possible I wouldn’t, so I didn’t mention it until AFTER I’d tried my first negotiation and decided I didn’t want to keep the service I had at that price.

Are you willing to take the challenge and negotiate a bit? Even if you lower ONE bill by $20 a month, you’ll have made a great start!

What bill could you negotiate today? Tell us in the comments!

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle January 7, 2013 at 9:12 AM

These are all great tips! I usually do this about once every couple of years with our bills, and it’s about time for me to do it again!

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Joan January 7, 2013 at 11:57 AM

Thanks, Michelle! That’s what we generally do as well – maybe every 18 months or so I revisit this plan and go through them again. That’s enough time for it to make a real difference and also, our needs sometimes change in those periods!

Keep us posted on how your next round goes!

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Matt January 7, 2013 at 10:37 AM

Good tips, they definitely help for contract services with phone and cable companies. I call them up about once a year and work through a new deal with them. I think its good to be ready to cancel the service or potentially give the business to a competitor.

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Joan January 7, 2013 at 11:57 AM

Matt, that’s exactly it – and if you’re not, well, it does limit some of your negotiating power, but you have to go in knowing that!

Good for you!

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Bilgefisher January 7, 2013 at 10:45 AM

Tracking the expenses is huge. We use Mint. While not perfect, it does the job for us. I check it every few days. Its much easier to kick bad habits and lower expenses when they stare at me in the face.

Jason

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Joan January 7, 2013 at 12:00 PM

Jason, that’s definitely key. I think it’s easy to pretend you’re not paying as much if you’re not staring at it!

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johne johnson January 7, 2013 at 11:48 AM

We canceled our cable and got Netflix to watch movies instead. Turns out we were not watching anything that had to be real time and we listen to the news on the radio in the car all the time anyway. This is a savings of 86.49 a month or 1037.88 a year! This money will be going into our vacation fund and we will be taking our first vacation in over 10 years with it!

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Joan January 7, 2013 at 12:01 PM

Johne, that’s EXCELLENT!! Good for you – and aren’t you going to enjoy that vacation all the more knowing how you helped fund it?!

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Cay January 7, 2013 at 11:55 AM

I am working up the courage with of course facts in hand to call our phone company and Dish Network. I would like to see about canceling our land line because of almost $19.00 in just FEES each month. Reading this was a God send because now I am encouraged to pick up that phone and make the calls to lower my monthly bills. Thank YOU Joan!!

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Joan January 7, 2013 at 11:58 AM

Cay, thank YOU!! I am so proud of you for doing that. It’s NOT easy – but I am waiting to hear how it goes, so please check back in and tell us!!

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Ed January 7, 2013 at 12:03 PM

Good tips and all tactics that I have used when times were tight…

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Joan January 7, 2013 at 12:15 PM

Ed, good for you! The trick is not to let them bloat higher than you like them to be when times AREN’T tight, which I’ve been guilty of!

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Katie January 7, 2013 at 12:12 PM

We have been looking into lowering our cell phone and cable bills…just need to make the calls!

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Joan January 7, 2013 at 12:15 PM

Katie, DO IT!! :) And let us know how it goes!

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TB at BlueCollarWorkman January 7, 2013 at 12:43 PM

The point about calling and asking is KEY! It’s crazy how sometimes when you call companies and simply say, ” I want a better deal than what I have now”, they’ll often say, “Well Mr. TB, I see you’ve been a customer with us for over a year, we’d like to keep your business, we can offer you XYZ.” It’s pretty awesome. And all it takes is a call. That’s it!

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Joan January 7, 2013 at 1:57 PM

I know!! It’s amazing!

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Catherine Jennings January 7, 2013 at 1:51 PM

Tip about Comcast: If you are on a “promotion”, make sure to log it on a calendar so you can renegotiate when the promo is over. Or, with me, I had a DATE with Comcast every six months (also on my calendar) where I we would look at my plan. I always specifically told them that I would not pay more than $100 a month for just about everything. The customer retention reps always managed to make it fit in my range. Also, be nice to the rep! You will know – immediately – whether you have a good or bad rep on the phone and if you have a good rep they will work with you.

At the present time, I got rid of Comcast with the exception of the internet. I bought a Roku box and use Netflix. I also got an Amazon Prime subscription for $89/yr. This really covers all of my TV needs, as I use the internet for everything else. PLUS …. ADDED BONUS … I no longer have to scroll through reality shows, political heads and disaster – type news … these things are a total waste of time and exhaust me. Clutter isn’t only in the house … it can also be in the brain!!

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Joan January 7, 2013 at 1:59 PM

Catherine, that’s great!! They are one of the major companies I negotiate with as well, and I do find that it works wonderfully to keep calling back and renegotiating!

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Kathleen, Frugal Portland January 7, 2013 at 5:14 PM

Great reminder! I’m always looking to decrease my subscriptions, but I got hooked by a fancy gym that wanted my money! I was able to walk away, and realize I didn’t want to do that, but it’s so tempting! Fewer subscriptions = better. Cheaper rate on current subscriptions = almost as good.

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Joan January 7, 2013 at 5:38 PM

EXACTLY, Kathleen!!

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Rosalyn @ Rosalynpricenglish.com January 7, 2013 at 6:39 PM

One way that we are cutting back our costs is by buying food in bulk and freezing or canning it ourselves. I bought a 10lb bag of dried beans for ONE DOLLAR and can it using my pressure canner – that’s a LOT of beans!

We also have hens and pigs – best way to use scraps. It’s amazing how much food gets thrown away. I have neighbors who bring me their kitchen scraps and fridge clean-outs – it’s amazing how much money we save on food when we buy bulk and raise it ourselves. We’d never go back to Wal-Mart shopping!

Lastly, I love the convenience of my non-contract cell phone. I can change my monthly plan based on what I’m doing – if I’m traveling I increase my minutes and if I’m planning on being home more I cut the minutes down. I’m thinking about getting rid of the landline completely, but am oldschool enough to feel weird about no home phone!

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Joan January 7, 2013 at 8:52 PM

Rosalyn, those are great ways to save!

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Kathy January 7, 2013 at 8:03 PM

We just bought and installed the Ooma voip phone system. It was a piece of cake to install. $160 up front and then about $4 a month for taxes. Getting rid of our $45 a month landline tomorrow!

We have wanted to dump Verizon forever. Sayonara Verizon!!

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Joan January 7, 2013 at 8:47 PM

Kathy, WAY TO GO! It’s hard to do something different but once you do it, doesn’t it feel great?! You rock.

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Debtgirl January 7, 2013 at 8:10 PM

I need to call my phone and cable company, I am sure I can get it down! It took me awhile to dump the land line but boy was I glad I did! What a waste that is. For us anyway.

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Joan January 7, 2013 at 8:51 PM

Keep us posted – you got this!!

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Debtgirl January 10, 2013 at 5:47 PM

I called TW and they couldn’t reduce but instead gave me showtime for free for 6 months. I wrote it on my calendar when to cancel it.
ATT gave me 10.00 off a month.
Thanks for kick in the pants!

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Boyd January 8, 2013 at 11:19 AM

Great ideas!! I called ATT and Direct TV yesterday to see what kind of deals I could get and we were able to stay with ATT and lower our bill by $40/month for the same service. Crazy reaction when I called Direct TV to cancel the installation we had talked about earlier. The connected me with their cancellation people (in order to keep us, no doubt) and I was given the hard sell to go with them (shock). This continued for a couple of minutes and I ended up telling the specialist that I understand you sell for a living, so I can appreciate what she was doing but there was nothing she could do to interest us. She persisted for a couple more minutes and I finally told her, I’m a trained mental health professional and I recognize all of the ways that you are trying to get me to stay. Please just cancel our installation. She flipped out in anger!! I wish I had recorded the conversation.

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Joan January 9, 2013 at 12:51 AM

Boyd, that is amazing – both in a good way, for the lower ATT bill, but in a sorta bad way for the nutty DirectTV one! I’m so glad you got out of it – but so sorry it had to happen that way!

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psumba January 8, 2013 at 11:45 AM

One of the keys to negotiating with your Internet supplier is to NOT use their eMail service. Use a free service like gmail or yahoo or hotmail (or one of their off-shoots). If you use the carrier’s eMail address, it will be a real hassle to notify everyone of the change. If not, you really don’t care who is your Internet provider!

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Joan January 9, 2013 at 12:49 AM

EXACTLY! Gmail all the way for me :)

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Jon January 9, 2013 at 2:40 PM

Thanks for the great tips! I think this could be especially helpful with internet (Comcast)… I have done this before with success, but have gotten a bit complacent with making sure I am paying the lowest price possible.

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Kyla H January 10, 2013 at 1:53 AM

Thank you for some very straightforward & simple ideas to negotiate bills! I finally worked up the nerve to call our internet company (Time Warner Cable) just now and asked for a lower price on our internet service. We were paying $66.94 per month for standard internet, an add-on of “turbo” service and a small monthly lease for the modem. I saw an offer for new customers on the TWC website for $29.99/mo for standard internet (same as we have now) for 12 months. I called and asked if we could get that price instead, leaving the turbo and modem lease, and got our bill down to $43.94! I definitely feel more motivated to look for more ways to cut down on bills now that I know it never hurts to ask!

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psumba January 10, 2013 at 10:53 AM

Kyla,

Great job!!!

The next time around, go after the “modem lease” fee too. EVERY Internet Service Supplier GIVES away their boxes these days. For them, it is much less expensive to install a standard device that they control than to deal with customer-supplied devices! Support people cost a LOT more than hardware these days!

Keep up the good work!

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Kyla H January 10, 2013 at 11:56 AM

Thanks for the tip! I’m going to call back soon and see if I can get the modem lease taken off as well. I didn’t even think to ask about that (I was so excited that they accepted my request for a lower monthly price!) I appreciate your advice :)

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Debtgirl January 10, 2013 at 5:50 PM

I asked about and they told me to go buy my own and then that fee of 4.00 would go away. I don’t know how much the box is.

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Thomas January 10, 2013 at 11:42 AM

Great article. I found sitting down and assessing all my bills, figuring out which ones seemed high, then searching online for special offers or deals to join new providers slashed all my household bills by at least 30%.

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anon January 10, 2013 at 12:24 PM

I work for an ISP/telephone provider that is a smaller company of a big TV corporation. When you call me to negotiate, my hands are tired. I can’t get you a lower rate, and I hate it. Our pricing is ridiculously high ($45/month for our LOWEST speed if you’ve been with us for over a year). I hate it. It feels like bad customer service to me, to charge loyal customers so much. We get a lot of people who cancel because of it, and I can’t blame them, but it’s frustrating because the company has started tracking our ability to keep customers.

Okay I’m done venting now. I’m sorry.

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Fred January 10, 2013 at 12:26 PM

Hi Joan,

Some great tips, I particularly agree with ringing up and inquiring I would like to add you should always ask for discounts. You can’t be afraid to go after big companies for discounts in the end of the day they just want the market share of custom they will never give too many discounts to dent profits.

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Megan January 14, 2013 at 10:26 AM

I love this!

Just this past Friday I made an appointment to close my accounts with a bank. It’s a shame since I’ve had an account with them since I was 8 years old – but they insist that only offering no-fee accounts to people who can keep at least $5000 in it is “encouraging people to build wealth” and not “penalizing the poor.”

They charge me $20 a month to access my money – so screw ‘em! I’ve got a student loan that would really appreciate that extra money…

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jose January 17, 2013 at 9:31 PM

I enjoyed this post, it highlights something that folks rarely ever do. which is call their provider (Pick One, Cable, Satellite, telephone etc) and negotiate to reduce their bill. It’s amazing how many providers will reduce their charges or even interest rate on a credit card debt. My favorite was when I called my satellite provider last month and told them i was going to a competitor, they dropped my bill by 30% with no contractual obligation. I only wish I had called them sooner. I posted on this very topic on my blog, trying to give folks some ideas on how to close their budget gap when they see a smaller paycheck in 2013, if your interested, here’s a link to that post. http://www.thefindependent.com/2013/01/16/pay-cut-2013/

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Isra {TheFrugalette} January 23, 2013 at 11:15 AM

One of the biggest hurdles I find is convincing people to switch or close down accounts that are sucking too much money out of you. People get too complacent and would rather let the money go then have to deal with talking and negotiating.

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Maggie August 7, 2013 at 5:00 PM

These are some fantastic tips Joan! I tried to negotiate with my companies to lower my bills with not much luck (maybe I’m a softy). But then I read about this company called BillCutterz on LifeHacker and it really did help me so much. They negotiate the savings for you and it really helped. They lowered my cell phone bill and my electric bill(!). They did take half of the savings as payment for their services but in all I’m looking at saving about $1000 this year that I wouldn’t otherwise have, so it was worth it to me.

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Kabamba January 4, 2014 at 9:10 AM

Thanks Joan. In 2014, I am saving atleast 10% of my gross income and I am keeping a list where the 90% of the money will go, and then i will look at the data at the end of the year. Then i will make another goal.

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Erin October 7, 2014 at 12:24 PM

I love this!

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