Think you've never been charged a sneaky fee by your bank, broker, credit card issuer or cell phone provider? Then you haven't looked at your bills very closely.
The Internet has made it easy to comparison-shop with a few clicks, so companies find it tougher to raise prices. As a result, they've taken to boosting revenue by adding fees on the back end.
In 2007, Americans paid almost $30 billion in fees to credit card issuers, reports R.K. Hammer, a bank card advisory firm. "Companies figure they'll throw in as many fees as they can, and a large percentage of people won't complain," says Bob Sullivan, the author of "Gotcha Capitalism."
Don't be one of them. If your bank, for example, suddenly slaps a $5 monthly fee on your checking account, you're not necessarily bound to pay it. In fact, you can save thousands of dollars a year if you pick your battles and fight smart.
Sullivan has his own tactics:
- Call during business hours. On weekends, few managers are available, and you won't get the cream of the crop among lower-level representatives.
- At Gethuman.com, you can find codes that let you circumvent company phone trees.
- Do your research and flex your muscle. Tabulate how much money you've spent with a company, which can boost your bargaining power. If you think you've been treated unfairly, don't hesitate to say you're considering a letter to the state attorney general.
- Don't waste your time. A $2 fee may get your goat, but you can't afford to fight every charge. Your chances of winning are directly correlated to how much leverage you have. With financial services, such as banking and credit, "consumers ultimately hold all the power because they can vote with their feet," says Greg McBride of Bankrate.com. In fact, a survey for Sullivan's book found that customers who complain to credit card companies get results 65% of the time.
Below, we show you how to avoid the most annoying fees, and save $5,000 or more a year, by:
- Reducing bank and credit card fees.
- Beating back investment fees.
- Zapping cell phone and land line fees.
- Avoiding car rental and purchase fees.
- Navigating around hotel and airline fees.
Reducing bank and credit card feesWhen Ilana Matfis moved from Sharon, Mass., to San Francisco, she figured that ordering new checks from Bank of America would be a snap. But when the new set arrived, "they'd spelled San Francisco wrong," recalls Matfis, 25.
After misspelling Matfis' name on the second order of checks, the bank finally got it right -- then sent her a tab for all three sets.
"The charges were only about $10 each time, but I had to dispute them on principle," Matfis says. A customer-service representative in San Francisco declined to issue a refund. So Matfis called her branch back in Sharon, where an employee remembered ordering the first batch of checks and agreed to remove all the charges.
There's little hope of restitution for some fees, such as the $3 to $5 you'll pay to withdraw cash from an out-of-network ATM, so it pays not to stray. Or open an account with a bank that reimburses ATM fees.
McBride says that as long as your account isn't paying interest, you should be able to qualify for free checking. If your bank balks, head elsewhere.
Also worth the haggle are fees for receiving canceled checks with your monthly statement (up to $3), getting a replacement ATM card ($5), making too many monthly transfers (up to $10) or using a live representative instead of the phone tree (up to $2).
The best way to avoid the dreaded insufficient-funds fee, which averages $28 for the first overdraft or bounced check and may increase as offenses pile up, is to balance your account regularly. As an alternative, link your checking account to a savings account so that overdrafts are covered by your own funds. Expect to pay $5 to $10 for triggering the service, but you'll avoid interest charges on an overdraft line of credit.
The success rate for challenging credit card fees is higher than with bank account fees. Even supposedly nonnegotiable charges, such as late-payment fees, aren't set in stone.
"If you're a good customer, you can probably get late fees removed once a year," says Bill Hardekopf of LowCards.com. The tardy payment may still tarnish your credit score, but you'll be as much as $39 richer.
Other fees worth a phone call: the 3% many card issuers charge to transfer a balance, the fee of up to $5 for a duplicate copy of a bill and the fee of as much as $25 to rush you a replacement card.
Companies have to notify you when they add a new fee, but "it might come in a white envelope that looks like junk mail," Hardekopf says. Sign up for electronic delivery to stay on top of sneaky maneuvers.