You know the letter, the one that says your contract is about to expire and here are the new rates? The letter you place in a file or drop in a pile and ignore? It’s the letter that fills you with dread because you know that deep down (read: immediately) you should comparison shop and see if those rates are competitive. It’d give you peace of mind to know you’re not being ripped off and you might save precious money. But who has the time? Who can be bothered?
You’re not alone. I’ve called up providers years after something was ‘out of contract’ to discover that I was paying for a plan that wasn’t even offered to new customers any more. It doesn’t matter if it’s for private health insurance or electricity or credit cards, or if the trigger is a letter or a financial need to examine your expenses. Every time you comparison shop around you come out of it better off.
More great tips here: Readers tell us their best money saving tips for families
The easy way to comparison shop
What makes this life admin tolerable is finding an approach that is going to give you an acceptable result as fast as possible. Nobody has time to embark on a project to comparison shop for everything on the market and find the one plan/contract/offer to rule them all. The good news is, comparison shopping actually only requires deciding just three things:
- Decide what will make you happy.
- Determine how long you can spend researching alternatives – an hour is plenty of time.
- Know what criteria you’ll use to compare.
It’s time to embrace ‘satisficing’: finding something that will satisfy you and be sufficient if it meets a certain threshold of acceptability rather than pursuing an elusive optimal solution.
Decide what will make you happy
I will be happy if…I save $100 a year. Or $500. Or get more convenient service in some way. Stop and consider what will make you feel rather chuffed with yourself. Meeting a budget goal for a specific dollar amount? Or merely paying less than you do now? In many instances, you’ll walk away content if you know you’re on a plan that is a better fit for you and your household and saves any amount of bonus cash.
Decide on the goalposts upfront so that you know when you’ve scored.
Determine how long you can spend
Next, time box the exercise by limiting the research to one Hour of Power, or one episode of Dead To Me, or during your daughter’s netball practice. Or decide on how many providers you’re going to compare. Will getting three quotes from the market leaders make you feel like you’ve done your due diligence? Five? It’s not necessary to comparison shop all the offers out there to find a better deal, nor is it possible. There are over 100 NBN providers in Australia! More than 60 credit card providers! Each of them has multiple products. So pick a number or a slot of time, and be confident that your effort, any effort, will pay off.
Know what criteria you’ll use to compare
Decisions are easy when you know what good looks like. But what does a good gas offer include? What about a good mobile phone offer? This is where consumer guides, like Choice and MoneySmart.gov.au, and comparison sites come in handy.
Choice is an independent organisation that tests products and surveys consumers to provide unbiased reviews and reports about all sorts of stuff. From superannuation funds to frequent flyer programs to pet insurance and beyond, Choice will outline what you should look for in a product, list and compare the alternatives out there and recommend top options. Choice reports and reviews are accessible online for free from your local library.
Comparison sites come in three flavours:
- Official government sites that list every provider in the market, such as Energy Made Easy and PrivateHealth.gov.au
- For-profit sites that attempt to list every provider in the market but may feature those that pay for promotion, such as Canstar and Canstar Blue
- For-profit sites that only list providers who pay for advertising.
Then there are resources like our Life Admin Life Hacks podcast, which helps with this third step. Life Admin Life Hacks scours consumer guides and comparison sites to tell you what your decision-making criteria should be and what information you need from your current bill or contract to start shopping around.
Try the power of three
My strategy for comparison shopping is therefore pretty simple.
- First, I visit government sites if they are available to avoid for-profit sites that don’t have a comprehensive range of providers.
- Next, I start researching by checking if there is a Choice report on the topic that will tell me what criteria to look for and who the best-rated providers are. Based on that, I pick the top three.
- Then I jump on a comparison site or the three providers’ websites to see what the latest offers are and get a sense of their customer experience.
Now I have a shortlist to compare, and usually, there is one glaringly obvious best choice for me.
What can you do for me?
There is a final step – and for some people who would rather skip the research but do at least something, this might be their first and only step – and that is to call your current provider to ask whether there’s a better offer available to you. Armed with your shortlist of alternatives, you can check whether your current provider will reward your loyalty and use your customer history to suggest a more favourable service.
Does the thought of doing this make you cringe? Remember that providers field this question one hundred times a day and they genuinely would rather keep a current customer than fight for a new one. Simply say: “My contract is up and I just wanted to check whether I should be switching to a better plan. What is on offer at the moment?” If they come up with something that ‘satisfices’ and meets your happiness goal, job done. If they don’t, then its time to call or sign up with a provider from the shortlist. Job also done.
One and done
What comparison shopping is lurking in your To-Do list? Maybe you’re scrutinising your expenses and want to take a fresh look at everything. Perhaps tax time has prompted a budget rethink. Maybe one of those letters has just landed in your inbox or mailbox. Regardless, you’re now equipped to tackle this task in one session.
The beauty is, once you’ve nailed this life admin in such an efficient way, the relief and elation will build momentum towards tackling the next thing. You’ll realise how much you can get done when you can make fast decisions with the right tools at hand. The hard part is actually choosing to do it.