Unexpected fees hidden in bills are the biggest everyday annoyance for Americans, according to a recent survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. These fees are often small, but they're cropping up in more places.
You can’t do much about some fees, like the special taxes on products and services. But you don’t have to sit still and be nickeled-and-dimed by companies that hide extra costs behind seemingly attractive offers. Consumer Reports Money Adviser exposes some of these annoying expenses and offers advice on what you can do about them.
Overdraft fees from debit cards are one of the more pernicious fees out there. A single overdraft can cost you up to $70 if not repaid within five days. Many banks automatically enroll customers in so-called courtesy overdraft programs and then slap them with fees of about $35 per incident. If the overdraft isn’t paid within a few days, a "sustained" fee might be added. But new federal rules released in November will require banks to get your permission before charging overdraft fees; they go into effect on July 1 for new accounts and Aug. 15 for existing ones.
What to do: Keep a close eye on your balance to avoid overdraft fees. Opt out of overdraft programs, and ask your bank either to deny transactions when there isn’t enough money in your account to cover the purchase or to link the debit card to a savings account or credit card to cover any overdrafts.
Credit-card fees aren’t so hidden because banks must disclose them in the so-called "Schumer box," which is a standard table in the terms and conditions of each credit-card agreement. Credit-card companies are beginning to eliminate overlimit fees — nasty charges averaging $39 when you breach your borrowing limit — which they’ll be required to do as part of the Credit CARD Act of 2009.
What to do: Check the terms and conditions of a credit card online before signing up. Look to credit-union cards for lower fees. Annual percentage rates for purchases range from 9.9 percent to 13.75 percent for credit-union cards, compared with 12.29 percent to 17.99 percent for bankcards.
Cell phone service
Billshrink.com, a Web site that lets you compare service costs, estimates that 80 percent of Americans overpay on their cell-phone service by more than $800 million a year, or $300 a person on average. One of the biggest hidden costs is what you pay for unused minutes each month. And if you terminate your contract before it’s up, you might get slapped with a hefty fee; Verizon recently doubled its early-termination fee to $350 for smart phones and other advanced devices, including netbooks.
What to do: You can compare prices of major carriers’ plans at Billshrink.com. But some lower-cost prepaid plans are not included in Billshrink’s comparison. Consumer Reports Money Adviser found that prepaid services are often the lowest-cost option, though they do come with fees.