Centsible Saver

Centsible Saver: Annual calls to service providers can help keep monthly bills in check

adunn@newsobserver.comMarch 1, 2014 

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A customer scans the expiration date on gallons of milk sitting on a cooler shelf at a Safeway grocery store.

CHIP SOMODEVILLA — Chip Somodevilla - GETTY

Editor’s note: For daily tips on saving money, check out the Centsible Saver blog on newsobserver.com. Amy Dunn writes every day about coupons, saving money and frugal living. Below are recent excerpts from her blog.

For years, we paid our monthly bills on autopilot. We might grumble a bit about a rate increase, but in the end we wrote the check and looked elsewhere to economize.

That doesn’t happen any more.

Now, once a year, we pick up the phone and start dialing.

It’s time to negotiate.

We’ve been pretty successful at keeping our cellphone, Internet and cable television rates steady – or at the very least reducing a scheduled increase. And when a new competitor has entered the market, we’ve been able to dramatically cut a bill.

If you haven’t made a round of these calls recently, it’s worth the effort. After all, we don’t think twice about shopping around for the best prices on groceries, a plane ticket or a kitchen appliance. So why not apply those same financial principles to the monthly expenses?

Here’s how our most recent round of calls played out.

Facing a $40 per month increase in our cable TV/Internet bill, we asked to have our one-year introductory rate continued. We got turned down flat but were offered a rate that was just $9 more than our current rate. After exploring our options with the competing company, we called back and took the deal.

The cellphone negotiations were easier. We discovered the company’s rate structure had changed recently. Just for checking in, we lowered our bill by $15 per month. If we hadn’t called, we’d still be paying the higher rate.

In the end, we’ll be paying $46 per month less – an annual savings of $552.

Here are a few tips on how to successfully negotiate your monthly bills:

• Be proactive. Call a couple of weeks before a scheduled rate increase. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get a company to make a new deal retroactive.

• Do your homework. Call your company’s competitors and get quotes for the same or similar service. Ask your friends, coworkers and neighbors what they pay for similar services.

• Set aside a chunk of time. Expect to spend 30 to 45 minutes on the phone – much of it on hold – so make sure you have the time to see the call through.

• Be prepared to switch. If your current company won’t reduce your rate or match a competitor’s price, be prepared to take your business elsewhere. After many years with one cable service, we switched to a new provider and lowered our bill dramatically.

• Ask for the retention department or a supervisor. Most customer service representatives who answer the phones are not authorized to negotiate.

• It doesn’t hurt to ask. We typically ask for either our old rate or the price offered by a competitor – whichever is lowest. Other things to ask: Is there a lower base rate? Is there a discount for paperless billing? Can you bundle services to lower your rate?

• Keep your cool. It won’t do you any good to get hostile. But do take notes and get the representative’s name and location. If negotiations aren’t going anywhere, ask for a supervisor at the next level.

• Call back later. Let’s face it, some representatives are better trained than others. If one can’t help you, call back on a different day at a different time and you may get better results.

Wasted food is wasted $

Forget about clipping coupons or buying store-brands to save money on groceries – at least for a moment.

There’s another secret to saving cash at the supermarket – avoiding food waste.

Building leftovers into your meal plan is one way to combat food waste, but if you’re a stickler for following the expiration dates on foods, you might be wasting more food – and money – than you ever realized.

It turns out, not all food expiration dates are created equal.

Manufacturers stamp “best by,” “use by” and “sell by” dates on everything from eggs to canned goods, but the meaning of those dates can be confusing, if not misleading.

So how do you know whether those eggs you bought last month are still good? Or what about the box of cereal dated July 2013 that you just discovered in the back of the pantry?

It pays to know your terminology.

Here’s a quick primer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

• A “sell by” date tells retailers how long to display products for sale.

• A “best if used by” date is recommended for peak flavor or quality. “It is not a purchase or safety date,” the agriculture department said.

• A “use by” date is the “last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.” The manufacturer sets the date.

In other words, food dates have more to do with food quality and store inventories than food safety.

Eggs, for example, are typically good for three to five weeks after purchase. Fresh poultry should be cooked within two days of the sell-by date. Stick it in the freezer and you have up to a year to cook it. Cream cheese in foil wrap is usually good three to four weeks beyond its date or two months if frozen. And that unopened box of cereal from the back of the pantry? It’s typically good for six to eight months beyond its date.

If in doubt, look it up.

The agriculture department has a list of guidelines and a chart of storage times on its website. Keep in mind, the food must be stored properly to have a longer shelf life.

Even more user friendly is the site EatByDate.com, which has a handy search engine that not only estimates the true shelf life of foods but also recommends proper food storage methods and other food-safety tips.

Dunn: 919-829-4522 or adunn@newsobserver.com; Twitter: @amygdunn

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