By Alison Hunt
Regular readers and contributors to our fantastic Dealing with Debt discussion board will know what it is to suffer the stress of owing money to credit card companies, personal loan lenders and other financial institutions.
Many of them have discovered that with some dedication and darn hard work you can follow The Fool's strategy and set up realistic payment plans, cut back in other areas and get those finances back under control.
But you don't have to owe money to creditors to struggle financially. After all, five interest rate rises in the last 12 months have meant that many of us are now struggling with our mortgages.
What's more, the cost of living has continued to increase while many companies fail to give even inflation-matching pay rises. And of course, those surviving on meagre pensions feel it the most. All in all, if you feel like you have less money each month now than you did a year ago, chances are your outgoings have been creeping up without you realising.
So what can we do to cope? Well while you may not be able to make a difference to some of your outgoings, you can certainly make some changes elsewhere and claw money back that way.
Depending on how dedicated you are to the cause you can save tens of pounds, to hundreds each month, simply by keeping a tight rein on your finances and aiming to shave pounds off every expense. Check out these tips on how to tackle those bills:
Check through your list of bills to be paid each month. If you have a mortgage, find out when its introductory period is over and make a note in your diary to remortgage three months before. With lender's standard variable rates set at anything up to 8.5% you don't want to fall foul of even one of these expensive payments.
If you haven't changed your gas and electricity supplier(s) for a while, check that you can't get a cheaper deal. Don't forget that if you pay by direct debit your provider could be sitting on a pile of your overpaid payments (which can be as much as a few hundred pounds!) so claim that back. And if you have fewer people in your home than bedrooms, fitting a water meter could shave pounds off your water bill.
3. Digital TV
Do you really need that digital TV subscription? At my home, we ditched our package with Virgin for a £40 Freeview box this year and I can honestly say that we don't miss those extra channels (but certainly notice the missing direct debit).
4. Phone calls
And if you use your landline a lot but pay for each phone call individually, examine your usage pattern. You could find you can save by either opting into a suitable cheap calling package with your provider (for example, you can pay an extra £3.45 per month for BT Together which gives all evening and weekend calls for free) or by picking an override company such as 1899 (especially if you make a lot of overseas calls).
Of course, once you've chosen your plan you must try and stick to making calls during the times that you can do so for free (or most cheaply). And don't forget, you can avoid having to dial those rip-off 0870 numbers by checking for an alternative number with saynoto0870.
Better still, if you have broadband check out one of the many internet (VOIP) call providers such as Skype or Vonage and make calls from your PC for free. And speaking of broadband, you could find switching supplier could save you a packet. That said, don't be a slave to broadband. If you barely use it, could you save by cancelling the contract and simply using the connection at work?
5. Mobile Phone
Check your mobile phone bill and see how many of those inclusive minutes you actually use. With tariffs starting at around £35 per month (that's £420+ per year!) you want to be pretty sure you're getting your money's worth -- and if you're an occasional user a pay as you go phone could work out to be a far cheaper option.
If you're still paying your provider a fiver or more a month for insurance, find out why it's a rip off and ditch it. And if you are a mobile phone junkie, a cheap way to get a swanky new phone can be to check out a cashback deal.
6. Gym Membership
As for gym membership, ensure that you're getting your money's worth -- do you go at least twice a week? Could paying per trip to the local council run gym/pool save you money? If so, save yourself that £40+ per month (or £480 per year!) and cancel it.
7. Contact lenses
And if you pay for your contact lenses each month, did you know you can save a fortune by buying in bulk from an online discount company? Check out Postoptics.co.uk, Tesco and Sainsbury's -- you can even earn reward points with your order.
And don't forget to scan your bank statement for old direct debits that you no longer use -- and cancel them!
So those are some of the ways we can cut our outgoings by attacking our bills. In my next article, I'll give my tips on how we can do the same to those household expenses.