Get a Fresh Start with Your Finances

Want to get a better handle on your finances this year? Here are 5 free ways to get your financial house in order

Get a Fresh Start with Your FinancesAnother year, another set of resolutions. If one of yours is to get your money matters on track, these five don’t cost a cent. (See, you’re saving money already.)

1. Check your credit report

Even if you’re not planning a big purchase like a car or home this year, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada advises reviewing your credit report once a year to confirm that your personal and financial information is up-to-date and to check that you have not been the victim of identity theft. You can obtain a free report from Equifax Canada or TransUnion Canada—the country’s two largest credit-reporting agencies—by downloading the application forms online and mailing in your request. What the report won’t tell you, though, is your credit score. “The score tells you if your credit is improving or decreasing [the closer to 900 the better] based on positive or negative usage,” says Kelley Keehn, financial expert and host of W Network’s Burn My Mortgage. For that service you’ll be charged a fee—about $25. “I think it’s well worth the money and I recommend people check their score every six months to a year.” Keep your rating in good standing by making bill and loan payments on time and when you cancel any account, Keehn recommends getting a “paid in full” receipt. “I’ve seen people’s score dip dramatically or get declined for credit because there was a forgotten $6 charge sitting in collections.”

2. Get a library card

This may end up being the hardest-working card in your wallet. “My local library has been essential to help me cut hundreds of dollars from our family budget,” says Sarah Deveau, author of Money Smart Mom (Last Impression) and mom of three from Airdrie, Alta. In addition to books (obviously), cardholders can check out recent DVDs, attend story time and other children’s programs, access free Wi-Fi, join book clubs and, at some branches, score free passes to local attractions. “Whenever I’m tempted to take the kids to a pricey play centre or buy them yet another book or rent a movie, we visit the library instead,” says Deveau. “Now they cry if we drive by without stopping!”

3. Store your receipts

Make this the year that you aren’t searching high and low come tax time for the receipt for your child’s swimming lessons (which can be submitted under the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit) or the donation slip from your favourite charity. Deductions like these help you keep more of your money. Choose a box, a basket or a folder and keep it in a handy place. “What works for us is a basket on top of the fridge,” says Keehn. “Then, each month we organize the bills and receipts together in accordion files (one for each of our businesses and one combined for personal use). We also have one filing cabinet for tax returns, receipts, copies of important documents such as living wills, etc.”

4. Sign up for coupon sites

Coupon clipping is experiencing a renaissance. In addition to the traditional versions in newspapers and flyers, many coupons can be downloaded from online sites. Some of our faves: save.ca, brandsaver.ca, smartcanucks.ca and websaver.ca. Sign up for email notifications or become a Facebook fan of the clothing retailers or restaurants you frequent most often for special savings and promotion codes. When combined with an in-store sale (check flyerland.ca), the savings can add up. Just make sure you clip your coupons to your shopping list or keep them with your money so you won’t forget them. “I am an avid coupon cutter,” admits Deveau. But, she warns, the coupon must be used for something you were already planning on buying. “If you won’t use the product, don’t clip it.”

5. Review statements closely

Before shredding your various bills and statements, give each a good, long look. Does your electricity bill show your peak hours usage? Could it be reduced? Review phone bills for charges that stick out on top of your basic monthly fees. Are you being dinged for bank charges that some types of accounts regularly waive? “We’re constantly reviewing bank and credit card statements to balance them with our spending plan,” says Deveau. That includes ensuring they have the best rates and plans for their needs. “For instance, I’ll call my cellphone company and ask them if my usage warrants the plan I have, or if I’m way under or over in certain areas, such as texting or web browsing. Recently I called the loyalty department of my phone, internet and cable company to discuss a lower promotional rate that would match the one their competitor is offering. I shaved $60 off our monthly bill.”

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