How you can beat inflation and save money
Prices have been rising at their fastest pace in decades, but it’s not that anyone needs reminding.
According to the latest figures form the CSO published this week, inflation hit a 22 year high of 6.7% in March.
The ESRI and the Central Bank both expect the annual rate of price increases to peak at 8% in the summer and will average at around 6% for the full year.
For anyone who started earning from the mid 2000s onwards, their experience of inflation has probably been fairly limited.
For much of the last decade, aside from rent increases and the occasional increase in public transport costs, inflation has been pretty much non-existent.
So, this is either a totally new experience, or for those who are old to enough to remember a bout of inflation from past times, it’s probably a fairly distant memory.
Just think of it in the words of Warren Buffett who likened inflation to ‘running up a down escalator.’
Here are a few ways to make the escalator travel a little slower.
The golden rule
The main driver of inflation is of course the cost of energy.
And while most of us have looked at the bills through our fingers for the past few months, the next electricity bill should at least contain something of a reprieve as the €200 credit has started to be applied to bills from the start of this month.
It appears on the bill as a credit of €176.22 (which is €200 excluding VAT).
Although a sense of gratitude towards the energy provider may be felt, remember it’s exchequer money and not the provider so don’t feel any obligation towards them.
All of the energy providers have increased their prices several times over the past year so increases are impossible to avoid.
The only way to limit the hikes to some extent is to keep switching providers when a contract comes to an end.
Most energy suppliers here offer discounted rates to new customers as a sign-up incentive.
“These deals usually expire after 12 months. At this stage, if you don’t switch, your supplier will revert your plan to standard pricing and you’ll pay more for the exact same service,” Daragh Cassidy, head of communications of bonkers.ie advises.
And he says the process is easily done – all you really need is a recent gas and electricity bill to get your unique numbers and a meter reading.
Measuring your energy usage
If you’re a night owl who doesn’t mind doing some domestic duties into the small hours, it might be worth considering a Night Saver meter.
This works by charging a lower rate for electricity used after 11pm (or midnight in the summer months) up to 8 or 9am, depending on the time of year.
However, the standing charges are higher and the rate charged for energy used during the day is also higher than the regular tariffs.
It’s estimated that more than 30% of the daily usage of electricity in a house would have to be consumed during these off-peak hours to make it worthwhile.
The night saver is considered most suitable for homes with electric storage heaters, electric car chargers and heat pumps.
Separately, smart meters are currently being rolled out to premises across the country, which means that as well as better monitoring your usage, estimated readings will become a thing of the past.
Smart tariffs, or time-of-use tariffs, are being introduced as part of the process, but like the night saver option, some of the more favourable rates are offset by higher rates at other times, so it’s recommended to do some research on your energy usage before signing up to a pricing structure.
For two car households (with petrol or diesel powered motors), the burning question is should you continue burning those increasingly pricey fossil fuels?
As well as accounting for the price of the mechanically propelled lump of metal, the cost of insurance, motor tax and servicing is a considerable outlay every year.
Now, the cost of keeping it moving is escalating too, regardless of whether it’s forecourt fuel or electricity from your own domestic supply.
For many households it could be a good time to reconsider the two car strategy and looking at getting one electric vehicle.
Although the ESB recently announced some hefty increases in the cost of charging a vehicle at its public charge points, which will take effect from next month, the cost of an entire charge at one of these points (that is, with no contribution from a home charge point) would still be cheaper than the cost of a fossil fuel alternative.
Using the example of a round trip from Dublin to Galway, approximately 400 kilometres, the ESB calculates that using one of its fast chargers on a pay as you go plan, would cost the motorist €26.67.
This compares to a diesel car cost of €37.34 for the same trip, it said.
Charging at home will save even more money, but those cheaper running costs have to be offset against the considerably more expensive price of an electric car, even one that’s not brand spanking new.
Electric vehicles are in big demand at the moment and given the shortage in the second hand car market in particular, prices for used cars are already at a premium.
According to DoneDeal’s Car Price Index, the price of electric and hybrid vehicles have increased by 19% and 25% year-on-year respectively.
Given that the average price of such vehicles is high anyway, that’s a significant outlay.
It would take a lot of charging to make it worthwhile, but ultimately it’s where we will all be going eventually.
Mortgage holders are switching providers at a healthy pace in order to unlock savings in their monthly repayments.
According to the Banking and Payments Federation in their most recent Mortgage Approvals report, remortgaging and switching was the fastest growing segment of the market.
And it’s easy to see why. The savings can amount to hundreds or even thousands per year and the savings over the lifetime of the mortgage can be very substantial.
Alison Fearon, Managing Director of digital mortgage platform Switcheroo said there were a number of factors driving the behaviour.
“The arrival of non-bank providers who are competing on low rates and longer term fixes has really shaken up the market,” she explained.
“Financially savvy customers are also aware that inflation is best tackled at a policy level with interest rate rises. We are seeing a significant amount of customers looking to fix over the medium to long term to avoid additional costs to their mortgage that will come with expected interest rate rises,” she added.
One mortgage provider, ICS Mortgages, has already increased its fixed rates for new customers with other providers expected to follow suit in the months ahead.
Fixed rates can now be availed of for up to 25 or 30 years for as low as 2.65%.
“Don’t wait for ECB changes to fix or you may have missed the possibility of lower repayments,” Alison Fearon advises.
Aside from mortgages, savings can be made in the banking space by simply switching current account providers.
Some banks charge a flat fee structure, but others have a hybrid of a lower flat rate together with charges for individual transactions which, over time, can add up.
Some providers, for example, charge as much 20 cent for chip and pin transactions, and some charge up to 60 cent every time cash is withdrawn from the account.
Bonkers.ie calculates that up to €100 a year could be saved by switching to a bank with lower fees.
And the process has been made considerably more user-friendly with the Central Bank code of conduct for switching which all banks must comply with.
Although we’re losing two providers with the departure of Ulster Bank and KBC from the market, a new entrant has come in the form of payments app, Revolut, which now offers current accounts and loans with further services to follow.
One rare bright spot in the most recent inflation figures was that the cost of motor insurance had dropped by 12% in the year to March.
But premiums had risen substantially in the years leading up to that.
A number of changes in the market – including the introduction of judicial guidelines aimed at reducing general damages awards as well as measures to end the practice of insurers penalising customers who remain loyal to them – appear to be helping to gradually drive premiums down.
However, the current stability in the price of cars due to scarcity of supply means that their residual values are not dropping as much as they once did, which might limit the drop in premiums in the medium term, making shopping around at renewal time as important as ever.
Another rare beam of sunlight through the clouds of rising prices came in recent weeks came from the VHI with the announcement of another tiered rebate of between €75 and €300 (depending on the price and complexity of the policy) which that provider’s customers will benefit from in the weeks ahead.
All of the providers have been reducing their premiums in line with the once-off rebate of the state health insurance levy announced by the Health Insurance Authority last year.
“Whilst this is welcome news for all health insurance members, it’s important to remind consumers of the need to shop around at each renewal to make sure you’re on the best value cover,” Dermot Goode of totalheatlhcover.com said.
“Research shows that around half of consumers are on the wrong plans and members aged 50 plus tend to be over-paying by 30% – 40% simply because they’re remaining on dated plans,” he advised.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation’s latest food price index showed food prices rising at the fastest pace in 14 years, reaching a record high in March.
The impact of the war in Ukraine saw the annual rate of food price rises exceeding 33%.
While price increases are already making their way through to the supermarket shelves here, more hikes have yet to come.
Smarter shopping can help offset some of the increases. For example, supermarkets tend to place their higher yielding and more expensive items at eye level.
The cheaper products are often on the top or bottom shelves.
Another useful tip is to shop by comparing the price per unit rather than just going on the price.
“Under EU rules, the unit price – or price per unit of measurement – must be clearly displayed in shops on barcodes beside the actual price,” Daragh Cassidy of bonkers.ie points out.
“It’s amazing how many people either don’t know this or don’t see it. By looking at this you can determine what represents the best value and ensure you’re not overpaying or being fooled by gimmicky offers,” he added.
Don’t just leave your cash sitting there
We saved record amounts of money in Ireland during the pandemic.
Total household deposits stood at a whopping €136 billion at the end of last year with over €11 billion added throughout the course of 2021.
The problem is that not only is that cash not making any return, but its value is effectively being eroded by sitting there as inflation soars.
“When it comes to the value of money, the only real means of beating inflation is through investing,” Frank Conway, founder of the Irish Financial Review and Moneywhizz said.
He explained that investing in Ireland was often viewed through the prism of property or company shares, but the range of investment options available was far more complex.
“For those actively employed, pension contributions are one means of investing. This offers the added benefit of very generous tax relief on contributions, investment growth and also at drawdown with tax-free lump sum withdrawal allowances,” he explained.
Outside of pension contributions, he pointed to various low-cost funds, including exchange-traded funds which he said offered the advantage of low costs, risk diversification and regular fund rebalancing to ensure the risk tolerance of the investor is met.
If interest rates are on course to rise, paying off debt is a good use of spare cash during an inflationary period.
Shorter showers and reducing your driving speed
Environment Minister Eamon Ryan’s apparent suggestion that people might consider taking shorter showers was met with some bemusement. He also previously recommended driving more slowly to cut down on energy usage.
They can actually be quite effective measures. According to the US Environmental Protections Agency, leaving the hot tap to run for five minutes uses about as much energy as letting a 60-watt light bulb run for 22 hours.
In short, the longer you run the hot water, the higher your energy use and utility bills rise.
When it comes to car journeys, cruise control is your friend.
The key is to drive at a consistent speed. So, where the speed limit allows, driving at a speed of 100 kilometres per hour, it’s claimed, uses 15 to 20% less fuel than driving at 120 kilometres per hour.
You could also consider giving up the car completely and cycling.
Under the Government’s Cycle-to-Work Scheme, which has been running for 8 years now, an employer can pay for bicycles and bicycle equipment which can then be paid back through salary over 12 months.
No income tax, PRSI or the Universal Social Charge are levied on the repayments.
There is a limit of €1,250 per bicycle purchased and €1,500 for electric bikes.
For a higher-rate taxpayer buying a new bike for €1,000, it’ll end up costing just over €500, spread out over 12 monthly payments.
Ask for a pay rise
Inflation effectively makes us poorer if our earnings are not rising to match the rate of price increases.
One of the simplest and most direct ways of combating it is to ask your employer to pay you more.
Some are in the fortunate position of being able to negotiate a pay rise to match or even beat the current rate of inflation, but for those on a fixed income or those dependent on welfare that’s not an option.
Employers will be keen to keep pay increases to a minimum and an an official level it causes concern if wages are rising right across the economy as it can lead to what’s referred to as a ‘wage-price spiral’.
The request may be rejected but it’s worth at least asking the question.