This party’s over: a 12-step guide to making it to pay day
Forget about January detox diets and that gym membership you’ll never use, and save money by eating a balanced diet, shopping around for health insurance and leaving the credit card behind
The morning after the night before: see in the new year by cutting back on alcohol, holding off on joining a gym, and making packed lunches. Photograph: iStock
It’s January and you’re smashed. The party is over and it’s a long way to pay day. But take comfort in the fact that most of us are in the same boat. Don’t despair – and don’t make the mistakes of previous years. Simply follow our 12-step programme to stop wasting money you don’t have on things you don’t need, and save a few bob in the process.
1 You might have woken up today full of resolve to start anew. That is normal. We all do it. You might be considering a detox diet. You might even be considering spending money on a detox programme or buying a book to help you on your detox journey.
Don’t. Just don’t. Detox diets are as real as fairies, and you might as well spend a hundred quid on a smoothie made with the leather scrapings of a leprechaun shoe. Keep telling yourself there is no such thing as a detox diet and that there are no special treatments that will help your body detox itself. You have organs to look after detoxification. And this is not just Pricewatch saying this; doctors and dietitians all over the world have been saying it for years. We just need to listen to them.
2 There is no point in starting the new year by going mad on “superfoods”, either. We can see the logic. You have spent all of Christmas eating incredibly rich foods and drinking far too much booze. You are feeling super-sluggish and looking to recharge your system with so-called superfoods. However, in our experience the only thing that is really super about such foods – we’re looking at you goji berries and chia seeds and pu-erh tea – is the price. So just eat normal, healthy food and you’ll be fine.
3 Oh, yes, and drink more water. We are lucky in this country to have a supply of good-quality water coming from our taps, and despite that whole Irish Water unpleasantness, we still don’t have to pay any more for it than we used to. But think twice before you develop a bottled water habit. It takes three litres of regular water to manufacture a single litre of bottled water, and that plastic bottle will take some 1,000 years to biodegrade.
And although we’re not trying to guilt-trip you, you should probably bear in mind that more than 1.6 million people in the developing world die each year from drinking contaminated water. Meanwhile, in the developed world, we spend more on bottled water than is necessary to eradicate the fatal waterborne illnesses that kill so many people.
4 We had a look on Amazon. com towards the end of 2016 and were somewhat horrified to see it was selling more than 24,000 books claiming to help you lose weight. And that’s not to mention all the ridiculous pills and potions and workout DVDs and so on that promised to do the same. “Bone broth” diets appear to be big this year. But the thing is (and we mean no disrespect to bone broth), the vast, vast, vast majority of the diets, plans and books simply do not not work. So don’t spend money on them.
We say that in the full knowledge that many people won’t listen. Irish people spend many millions of euro every year on dieting, despite the fact that repeated surveys from medical experts and consumer groups in many different countries have proved that 95 per cent of diet programmes fail. So don’t get sucked into the latest fad. If you want to lose weight, eat less, exercise more, watch your sugar intake and cut back on processed food.
We’re not saying these steps will help everyone get into perfect shape (the problem of obesity is a lot more complicated than that), but it is a good starting point that won’t cost you significant amounts of money.
5 When we say exercise more, we don’t mean you have to join a gym. We are not anti-gym, but joining a gym in January or February is madness. The dropout rate among people who take out gym memberships in the first part of any year is about 60 per cent. That wouldn’t be so bad if gyms didn’t make it so hard to leave, and many who join a gym this week and next with the best of intentions will find themselves locked into expensive contracts for at least a year.
As many as 350,000 Irish adults are gym members, and less than half go regularly. Don’t find yourself in the wrong half.
6 Still, if you are going to join a gym, there are some steps you can take to ensure you’re not ripped off. Find out what is included in your membership and keep a close eye on the terms and conditions, particularly the length of contracts, rolling direct debits and the cancellation policies.
Figure out when you are most likely to use the gym and when you are most likely to be able to get on the equipment without a wait. If you plan to use the gym between 5pm and 7pm – the peak hours – there is little point taking the grand tour during a quiet period.
7 From healthy options to health insurance. Many people who have private health insurance will be facing into renewals towards the end of this month. Most will simply stay with the same provider on the same policy. We know this because more than 70 per cent of people with health insurance have never switched provider. All of these people are wasting their money.
Those who have not reviewed their cover in the past two years are spending more than they need to. So if your renewal is coming up, call your existing insurer and ask for the closest equivalent plan to what it has now now, and insist that all plans are explored. If the company comes back with a plan that costs €100 less, ask if it is the best-value plan. The calls are being recorded, so they have to say yes or no and they have to answer truthfully.
At that point, they might say they will post the details, but they should be kept on the phone and made to explain the details of the new plan and how it differs from the old one. If you are on a budget of, say, €800, you should ring and ask for the best- value plan for that amount. Always put the onus on the company to find the best-value and to explain exactly what the plan does.
And remember: If you are switching from one provider to another, they can’t pry into your private life and ask intrusive questions about your health. All a new provider can ask you is if you have health insurance already and, if so, for how long and with which insurer and what level of cover you have. If they try to ask about anything else, you can tell them to mind their own business.
8 While you are shopping around for health insurance, you may as well shop around for a new gas and electricity provider too. It is hassle-free and could save you €300 over the next 12 months. About 85 per cent of Irish people pay a standard tariff for both electricity and gas; they are all paying hundreds of euro more than they need to.
We have said this before and will say it again: the discounts companies offer are in place for a year only. So, to avail of them, you have to switch every year. The companies tend to be cute about this. In the first year, all bills carry the standard unit price, with a line underneath indicating the level of discount. Once the year ends, the line about the discount simply disappears and the standard unit price remains the same. Too many people don’t notice the change, which is why they are paying over the odds.
9 When it comes to getting in shape for the new year, one of the most important things you can do is overhaul your grocery shopping habits. Get into the habit of only buying what you need by checking what you have in your cupboards or your fridge before you go shopping. Then make a list and stick to it.
Pricewatch has long been a convert to own-brand products. We’re not saying they are all lovely; there is some awful stuff selling under the brand names of some of the State’s biggest retailers. But there is also some very high-quality stuff that typically sells for 30 per cent less than the brand equivalent. Know the time your local supermarket marks down the price of its perishable goods every day. You’ll save on perfectly good food and even some treats. Empty your freezer and cupboards. You probably have a week’s worth of food in there.
10 Set yourself a challenge to spend nothing for just one day. Then see if you can make it three days. Then five. Spending money is a habit, but if you put your mind to it, it can be broken. You’d be amazed at how easy and refreshing it is to get through a whole day without spending a bean.
The key to not spending money is not going into shops at all this week. If you find yourself weakening, you just need to ask yourself if you really need whatever it is you are tempted to buy. If you can’t answer a truthful yes, then let it go. Take your credit cards out of your wallet and leave them at home.
11 Get on the wagon – not forever, but until the beginning of next month. New year’s resolutions are always a disaster because they are open-ended and we get bored and drop them. But if you set yourself the goal of getting through the 29 days, it is much easier to do. The average Irish adult drinks the equivalent of eight pints of beer a week. That’s about €35 if you do all your drinking in a pub. Cut it out for the month and save yourself as much as €140. Cut out your morning coffee for January and save about €50.
12 Make your own lunch. A sliced pan and a block of cheese will easily knock €25 a week off the cost of keeping yourself fed during the day. You can also make a week’s worth of meaty stew for about €5.
BLESSED AREN’T THE MEEK: DO’S AND DON’TS TO GET YOU THROUGH THE CONSUMING YEAR
Don’t pay any outstanding water bills. We’re not advocating civil disobedience, but given the current level of confusion around the future of Irish Water, if you are one of the 600,000 people who still own the utility money, don’t hand over any cash. We still don’t know if those who paid are going to be refunded or if those who didn’t will be hounded, so your best bet is to do nothing.
Do look at your bank statements and utility bills. Big businesses profit from our unwillingness to even open – never mind actually read and try to understand – the bills and statements they send us. So make a resolution to pay attention to them. You never know when you are being gouged and by whom.
Don’t be a pushover. It almost seems as if some companies have made it a policy to make resolving problems as difficult as possible in the hope that customers who are looking for help or redress will just go away. If you have a grievance with a company, persist. Don’t just give up if it seems like too much hassle. That’s just playing into their hands.
Do know your rights. You don’t want to be the person shouting in a shop because it refuses to sell you the flatscreen telly that was incorrectly priced at 1 cent.
Don’t be mean to shop assistants. Working as a shop assistant can be incredibly difficult and not very well paid. If you have a grievance with a shop, there is little or no point in shouting at the lowest paid staff member, one who has no power to effect change, just because they can’t resolve your problem. Always be polite – and always make sure you are addressing your complaints to the right people.
Do complain in restaurants. We in Ireland are terrible complainers. We hate doing it because we hate “making a fuss”. Unless a waiter actually throws up in our soup as he serves it, we are too likely to say everything is grand while we silently vow to never darken a place’s doors again. Restaurant owners want to hear your concerns because they want to be given a chance to put things right.
Don’t give all your business to multinational retailers or online giants. Of course bargains can be found online and in giant supermarkets, but local retailers matter, and unless we make a conscious decision to support them, they will go out of business. There is no point in mourning the passing of particular shop if the last time you spent any money there was back when Ray Houghton put the ball in the English net.
Do get in touch with Pricewatch at The Irish Times. If you have been let down or messed around or gouged or in any other way mistreated by a retailer, a business or a supplier, we’d like to hear from you. We get a lot of complaints via email and over the phone, and while we can’t deal with them all, we do our best to look into as many as we can. And we always want to hear your stories.