Last Updated Aug 2, 2011 12:10 PM EDT
This article is part of a package of stories about automation. Read our other article: 5 Bills to Put on Autopay NOW.
Service providers are happy to give you the “convenience” of automated payments — primarily because it lets them reach into your wallet each and every month. But although autopay can be a valuable financial tool for some bills and expenses, for other types of payments, you may be setting yourself up for all-too-frequent fee hikes, surprise costs, and payments for services you never even use.
Those unexpected costs can hit you with a double whammy, says Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America. In addition to the extra costs themselves, surprise fee hikes can bleed your account balance dry, she says — and “if you run low in your checking account, you can easily overdraw your account and rack up $35 overdraft fees.”
Here are five fees to drop from your automated payment list today.
Mobile Phone Bills
Perhaps the only thing more exasperating than getting your usual sky-high smartphone bill is getting a bill that’s even higher than you expect after you’ve exceeded your plan’s texting, phone, or data limits. “If you’ve got kids, you’ve got to be paying particular attention to your bills. Oftentimes, they’ll download ‘free’ ringtones that have monthly subscription fees buried in the terms and conditions,” says Kathy Kristof, MoneyWatch columnist and author of Investing 101. “If you’ve automated that expense, you might not notice the charges for months.”
“In-app” purchases — such as a game’s additional levels, premium features, or virtual goods — also can easily add hundreds of dollars to a monthly bill.
Aggressive advertising from insurance companies has conditioned people to look for the very best prices on home and auto insurance. And you can get great deals — for a while. “I call them ungrateful service providers,” says Brian Preston, wealth manager at Preston and Cleveland in McDonough, Ga., and host of the Money Guy podcast. “They give great rates to brand-new customers, but then they’ll have premium creep over the years, because they hope you’re not paying attention.” Keep them honest by shopping the rates every year or two.
Sitting down to pay water, electric, and heating bills may seem like an onerous chore, but those bills may be the first tipoff that something’s out of whack. “If the electric bill is high, maybe it means the refrigerator in the garage has its door open,” Kristof says. Big bills will encourage you to investigate problems early.
According to a study done by Stanford and Berkeley researchers, most people dramatically overestimate the number of times they go to the gym each month — in essence paying $17 a visit with a monthly fee. “One technique you can use to save money is to pay a la carte,” says Ramit Sethi, author of the blog and book I Will Teach You to Be Rich. “It sounds crazy to buy a day pass each time you go, but that may actually save you money.”
Other options include buying packages of passes (often found at climbing gyms and yoga studios) or using smartphone apps to support your (free) workout. The free Adidas miCoach app, for example, tracks the distance and speed of your runs while piping helpful coaching advice into your earbuds.
Cable used to have a lock on the best programming, but that’s changing quickly. Instead of shelling out three figures every month to get your weekly Mad Men fix, consider individual purchases from iTunes or Amazon. “When you’re forced to experience the pain of paying each time you purchase a show, you might decide you don’t actually want it,” says Sethi. “It can also get people out of the house and off the TV.”
Still want your TV and movie fix? You can add top-flight movies streamed over your internet connection from Netflix for a more reasonable cost of $8 a month and many past and current TV shows from Hulu Plus for $8 a month. (See “Cut the Cord on Your Cable TV” for more options.)
More on MoneyWatch: