Do a Direct Debit audit

Beware cash leaking from your bank account

It's a shocking but typical example: "I've paid £16/month for white goods I no longer have for six YEARS." That's not far off £200 for nothing, every year. Many waste £1,000s paying for products and services they don't need or never use. This waste has taken on even more significance with the rising cost of living. So whether it's mags, gyms, utilities, Amazon Prime or paid-TV, get tough and cut 'em down.

Join the Cancellation Heroes

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Every week, in our weekly email, you'll see my Money Mantras for shopping – "Do I need it? Can I afford it?" or "Will I use it? Is it worth it?"

Answer "no" and you shouldn't buy, yet we must also apply this logic to all regular payments. These drip out of our accounts monthly, with no forethought. It's not just for things you might not need – some find they still pay for insurance for stuff they chucked out years ago. Here's a painful example I was told on a Radio 2 phone-in with Jeremy Vine several years ago:

"I looked through my standing orders for the first time in ages. I've been paying repair insurance for two white goods we no longer have for six years, at £16 a month."

Over six years, that's £1,200 down the pan – think what you could do with that! As the cost of living is seeing large increases, now's the time to flush unnecessary payments out. Soon you'll have more cash in your pocket (no cape or tights required). All you need are your bank and credit card statements and a little know-how. 

Being a Cancellation Hero is simple: Unearth EVERY wasted regular payment and stop any you no longer need or use.

I covered this on my ITV show, answering a question from a viewer who wrote in to say the previous owner of their house was still paying £200 a year for home insurance – 16 years after they'd moved out.

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The clip above has been taken from The Martin Lewis Money Show on Thursday 11 February 2021, courtesy of ITV Studios Ltd, all rights reserved. You can turn on subtitles by selecting the keyboard image at the bottom right of the video. 

Tales of cash flushed down the drain

It's amazing what many pay for and never use. Discovering long-forgotten payments is common. Examples have been rolling in via Twitter, email and the Cancellation Success forum thread:

Moved two years ago, but was still paying a Direct Debit to my old gym (£330 a year) and to what was my local wildlife centre (£43 a year) – both of which are now too far to visit (and I never went to the gym anyway!). Also cancelled a phone insurance plan for £10 a month, as the phone is now so old it isn't worth the insurance. Total saving for this year: over £500!

- John

  • More examples of cash flushed down the drain

    For the last four years I'd been paying £11.99 a month for extended laptop warranty on a laptop I no longer had. Got a backdated refund of £600.

    Found out that I was paying £9.99 for a second Netflix account. Contacted Netflix and they were very helpful, refunding me £70.

    Just claimed back £650 in incorrectly charged electricity (I'd switched and they kept taking)... Sad thing is I didn't do it sooner.

    I had appliance cover... when I read this article and checked the policy I realised most of my appliances would not be covered. I have now cancelled £22 a month. Thank you MSE – you have saved me money again!

    Noticed I was paying £9.99 a month in insurance for a mobile phone that I'd already got rid of. Cancelled the Direct Debit and did an 'indemnity claim' via my bank for the money – ended up getting £200 back.

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Give your regular payments the once-over

If you're paying for something you don't need, or have forgotten about, STOP! There are three types of regular payment, and it's possible all three could be leaving your coffers, and many you may not even know about. The three types are...

  • Direct Debits. This is an agreement with a company for it to automatically take an amount from your account on a regular basis. This is usually on a set date and for a fixed amount, though the amount can vary. Common Direct Debits include bills such as energy, council tax and broadband, plus you'll likely pay your mortgage, loans and credit card bills with one too.

    You're also covered by the Direct Debit guarantee which means if there's an error with the payment, your bank must refund you the full amount. 

  • Standing orders. These are regular payments for a fixed amount you set up yourself via your bank. These are typically used to move money from your account to another, such as paying rent to your landlord or moving money to a savings account, rather than to pay a company for a service, though mortgage overpayments and service charges are examples.

  • Recurring payments. A recurring payment (sometimes called a Continuous Payment Authority or CPA) is where you give a company permission to regularly take cash from your debit or credit card.

    Once a CPA has been set up, in theory, the company has your permission to take money whenever it believes you owe it, rather than sticking to a set date. Most reputable companies won't abuse this and will typically stick to the same amount and timeframe, though be wary of little-known organisations as this can lead to difficulties.

    The key way to spot a CPA when making a payment is that the company will ask for the long number across your credit or debit card, rather than your bank account number and sort code. Common examples include gym memberships, breakdown cover, streaming services (such as Netflix and Amazon Prime), magazines and insurance policies.

Many regular payments are quarterly, biannual or yearly so check back over 12 months to ensure you cover all outgoings.

Common payments using Direct Debits or CPAs include:

Unused gym memberships

Unused subscription TV channels or streaming services

Unread magazine subscriptions

Old dating site memberships

Unused packaged bank accounts

Unused club memberships (for example, golf)

Insurance for items you no longer have

Unwanted charity Direct Debits

ALWAYS check you're allowed to cancel before doing so. If you're in a contract, cancelling could be a breach, leaving you with penalty fees - see how to cancel if still in contract. Now you're ready for your Direct Debit audit, use these steps to weed 'em out:

Step 1: Tackle unwanted standing orders and Direct Debits

To start, you need to know what you're looking for. The first two to tackle are standing orders and Direct Debits. Turn detective and use your bank statements to hunt them out. It's not just about your bank account, it applies to credit cards too. Here's how to audit them:

  • Online banking. Most online accounts have a section which displays all your standing orders and Direct Debits. If not, you should at least be able to access a year's worth of statements.

  • Branch or phone-based accounts. Your account provider should be able to list all the standing orders and Direct Debits for you. If not, at the very least request a year's worth of statements.

Yet before you get carried away cancelling everything...

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Always check if you can cancel first

You can cancel Direct Debits and standing orders when you like, but before you do make sure to check whether you're in contract before cancelling. If you're in a contract cancelling may be a breach, so check the paperwork first.

Notice may be required, or there may be penalties for early cancellation (which can be cheaper than keeping it going). It's especially been a problem with gyms, though the situation now differs depending on who you're with.

If you're asking yourself, 'can I cancel without the approval of the company?', the answer is to always check the paperwork first. If you are in a contract, you'll usually have to find a different way to pay. Here's how to cancel if you can...

  • Cancelling a standing order. A standing order's an instruction from you to your bank to pay a fixed amount out at regular intervals. Cancelling a standing order is usually free, and you can cancel them when you want. You can do this through your standing orders and Direct Debits page on your online bank account or by phone.

  • Cancelling a Direct Debit. Direct Debits are set up when you sign a Direct Debit mandate to let companies take a fixed or variable amount of cash as needed, often each month. Cancel a Direct Debit by contacting your bank or building society through online banking, or by phone. If there's an error you get a full refund from the bank, rather than the company itself.

Remember, it's best to check with the company concerned before cancelling in case you're in contract or need to give notice to cancel. 

Quick question

  • I've heard of something called the 'Direct Debit guarantee' - what's that?

    The Direct Debit guarantee gives you protection in case there's an error - for example if your payment's taken too early or too late, or the company takes the wrong amount. It can also be used if you've cancelled your Direct Debit, but a payment's still taken.

    The guarantee entitles you to an immediate refund of the amount you paid on the Direct Debit. ​This is paid by the bank rather than the organisation who took the payment.

    However, if you're refunded in error (for example, you owed the payment, and it was taken on time and for the right amount but you said it wasn't), you will need to pay it back when the bank asks you to. 

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Step 2: Tackle hidden recurring payments

Recurring payments are the third type of regular payments. It's best to contact the company taking the payment first and ask it to cancel it. If it refuses, you can also contact your bank or card provider and tell it to cancel it. The Financial Conduct Authority states that banks MUST cancel a recurring payment when asked.

We've a dedicated recurring payments guide, so see more help to cancel recurring payments if you've got these.

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Don't know what something on your statement means?

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It can sometimes seem like bank statements are written in a foreign language. So, while you might easily recognise your weekly shop at Tesco or your monthly Direct Debit for Sky TV, would you know what REV or TFR means? If you've checked your account and don't recognise something, see if we've got it in our glossary guide of bank statement codes and abbreviations.

Oh, and REV and TFR? That's bank speak for "reversal" – where a standing order or Direct Debit has been returned unpaid – and "transfer" – where you've transferred money between your accounts with that bank.

How do I know whether a subscription is worth it?

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This is the real backbone of being a Cancellation Hero – evaluating whether each payment is worth it. With every single one you find, use my (Martin's) Money Mantras. Work through these three key questions, then if it isn't doing you any good, CANCEL IT (ensure you aren't in breach of contract by doing so first).

Question one: Do I use it?

Ask yourself if you actually use what you're paying for. Be ruthless. Many people think they use a magazine subscription when they actually only glance through one in five copies. So in this case, buying individual mags only when needed is likely to cost far less, making the unused mag subscription a waste of cash.

I just checked Jan membership renewals (I work in a health club) 8.65% who joined last Jan came 10 times or fewer"

Question two: Is it worth it?

To help, work out the real cost per go. For example, use a £50-a-month gym membership three times a week and you're effectively paying just over £4 a time. Yet go three times a year and you're effectively paying £200 for each workout – the same as a posh spa weekend! Some Cancellation Hero confessions sent to us via Twitter:

I worked out I've paid £140 for a 20-minute swim!

Even if the payment's for something worthwhile, that still doesn't mean there aren't dangers.

Question three: Is it available cheaper elsewhere?

Of course, being a Cancellation Hero is primarily about cancelling unnecessary regular payments altogether. But if you don't want to cancel, see if it's available for cheaper elsewhere. There's masses you can do to swashbuckle down pricey subscriptions:

  • Gyms. Check out cheap pay-as-you-go, no-frills and council gyms, plus there are loads of free trials available to help you pick. Find full info in the Cheap Gyms guide.

  • Broadband and phone. It's possible to make huge savings by switching your provider. See the Cheap Broadband and Cheap Mobile Tips guides for best buys.

  • Energy bills. Switching can help cut costs over a year. However, due to the huge rises in energy costs we're seeing currently, you may find that sticking with your current provider is the cheapest option. See Cheap Gas and Electricity.
  • Magazines. If you rarely read them, it may be cheaper to just buy them individually when you'll read them. If you want to keep your subscription, here's a trick to help. Tesco Clubcard points are worth more if used as Tesco Rewards. These include mag subscriptions, eg, Good HousekeepingCosmo and Gardeners' World, where you can convert every 50p in Clubcard vouchers into £1.50 to spend against a subscription. See Swap Tesco points for up to 2x value.

  • TV subscriptions. Check what you watch with a channel audit, then use a comparison site like uSwitch* to see if you can get it for less – see Cheap Digital TV for the full bag of tricks.

  • Haggle, haggle, haggle! Even if you do use a service, see if you can haggle it down. A five-minute call can save £100s. See the Haggling with service providers guide for more. Plus if you're making regular payments for car or home insurance, you're being stung. Here's some inspiration sent in via Twitter and the Cancellation Success forum thread:

Phoned and asked what they could do for a loyal existing customer. Without hesitation, I was given free line rental for a year saving me nearly £150.

We want to know what wasted payments you've found and what you've saved. Let us know in the Cancellation Success discussion.

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