Work & Money

We asked personal finance experts how to find 'hidden money' ASAP

Where to trim or edit in order to increase your cash flow.

Where to trim or edit in order to increase your cash flow

(iStock/Getty Images)

If you've been financially impacted by COVID-19, or are generally concerned about how your household finances might fare in the coming months, one expert recommendation is that you cut both fixed and variable expenses where possible to immediately improve cash flow. By doing so, you'll create more breathing room in your monthly budget, ensuring that any money or income that you do have available can go toward necessities like "paying bills, keeping a roof over your head, and buying groceries." 

To help you identify 'hidden money' in your budget, we reached out to three Canadian experts — finance writer Renee Sylvestre-Williams, personal finance commentator Preet Banerjee​, and Liz Schieck​, a ​certified financial planner ​at The New School of Finance — for their budget-trimming ideas, downgrading how-tos, and other spending (and savings) strategies for these unprecedented times.   

The first thing to do, say the experts, is to go over your bills and statements to see where your money is going in the first place — this will help you identify potential savings quickly for your personal situation. "Gather your debit and credit card statements for the last two months and create an itemized list. And every item on that list of expenses has to go into one of three categories: keep, eliminate or reduce," says Banerjee. 

By doing this exercise, you might that you're not even using some of the subscriptions, memberships and services that you normally spend money on. "It's really easy to forget about all the different apps and things that you might have signed up for that are being charged automatically," says Schieck. "Even though you might want them during normal life, you might not use them so much when you're stuck at home." She recommends reviewing all your expenses to find the line items that aren't bringing you any value anymore, or that you're definitely not going to use during this period of self-isolation. 

Once you've done that review and assessment, here are some ideas for freeing up money in your budget. 

Ask for discounts on your fixed expenses

You might be able to free up money in your budget by reducing some of your fixed expenses like telecommunication costs and bank fees — it just takes time to reach out to your service providers online or via phone. "Generally speaking, it's always a good policy to look at all your insurances every year and see if you can find a better deal," says Sylvestre-Williams. "Look at your phone bill and your internet, and call your provider to discuss options." In some cases, it can take just minutes to negotiate a loyalty discount, sign up for a new (and cheaper) plan, or find a new service provider who can offer a better price. There might even be special pricing or financing measures available at this time because of COVID-19. "[Companies] understand that people are under pressure in terms of loss of income," says Banerjee. 

Notably, some auto insurance providers have been offering rebates and reduced premiums to drivers who are on the road less often as a result of social distancing — the catch is that often you have to ask for the savings. "I wouldn't wait for them to offer that discount... I would call up proactively and see if you can get a discount," says Banerjee. 

Put memberships on hold 

Eliminating recurring expenses that you've either forgotten about or no longer need right now is one way to quickly find 'hidden money' in your budget. "Identify them, and contact those providers to either cancel them for the time being, or see if you have any options where you can have a moratorium on payments," says Banerjee. Examples of annual or seasonal charges — some of which might be set up for autorenewal — could include things like social-club memberships, professional organization fees or even fishing licenses.

Gym memberships — which generally aren't being used during social distancing, although some instructors and gyms are offering online workouts — can be put on hold in favour of free online classes, too, suggests Sylvestre-Williams. Similarly, you can try to pause or cancel charges for public transportation passes, co-working space memberships, and other monthly spends. 

Cancel any subscriptions you don't need

Subscription creep is a phenomenon that can negatively impact your budget. "We have this subscription economy where there are so many things that are now subscription-based; for example, your computer software that used to be a one-off license for $150 might be $8 a month now," says Banerjee. "It seems like a small thing, but all those little subscriptions add up over time." 

He suggests auditing your subscriptions on an annual basis, at minimum, to see if you still use them. "We tend to sign up for subscriptions fairly liberally, and then sometimes we forget about them. And we still have those expenses coming out even if we're not using those services," says Banerjee. Right now, for example, you might want to keep at least one video-streaming service while you're spending a lot of time at home. But you could save money by cancelling any other similar subscriptions for now, and switching things around later. "Keeping one streaming service makes sense, but having three at the same time rarely does," says Banerjee.

Downgrade the subscriptions or services that you're still using 

Even with memberships and subscriptions that you still need or want to keep while social distancing, you can save money each month by downgrading the plan that you're on, says Banerjee. "When you go through the items [on your statements] line by line, make sure that you think about what it is you could downgrade to save money," says Banerjee. For example, you may be signed up for a Premium plan with Netflix because it offers HD and ultra-HD quality streaming; but for now, the cheaper Basic or Standard monthly plans might make more sense with your budget. Similarly, if you're mostly at home and using WiFi, you could temporarily change your cell phone plan to a cheaper package with less data.   

Use up loyalty points, store credits and gift cards

If you're in any loyalty or reward programs — perhaps with a credit card company, retailer, hotel chain, or airline — see what you can use them for that might be helpful right now. Your airline frequent flyer miles could be redeemed for gas or hardware store gift cards, freeing up cash for necessities like rent or groceries. Similarly, this might be a good time to review and use up any store credits or gift cards you might have sitting around as needs arise.  


Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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