4 Steps to Take to Avoid Stealth Fees
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Stealth fees are the costs that aren't included in the sticker price. Chances are, you have plenty of experience with them, even if you didn't know their name. Take a standard $34.99 monthly cell phone plan, for example. That price conveniently omits about $10 worth of monthly surcharges, taxes and fees. (Also not included: the extra charges for each text message, the whopping per-minute cost if you exceed your monthly allowance and the per-megabyte charge for downloading data from the Internet.)
Sometimes stealth fees can’t be avoided. But taking these four steps can soften their impact on your wallet:
1. Before buying anything, always ask yourself (and the salesperson) what isn't included.
The low price of an ink-jet printer sounds tempting, for example … but it doesn’t include the often high cost of the cartridges that will need to be replaced periodically. And that bargain hotel rate probably doesn’t include parking or Internet access.
2. Think about how you'll actually use the product or service. Will you need features that cost extra?
If you’re going to use that printer infrequently, and for small jobs, you won’t have to replace the cartridges very often, so it may be a genuine bargain. But if you’re going to use it often, for big jobs, a higher-priced laser printer might be a less expensive purchase in the long run.
The low hotel rate is a true bargain if you use your cell phone rather than the room phone to make calls, don’t intend to use the mini-bar, go online or rent a movie. But if you do plan to use those extras, ask what they’ll cost so you can factor them into the price.
For example, some hotels now charge $9.95 to $19.95 a day for Internet access, a mini-bar ‘restocking’ fee of $2.95 to $5.95 a day once the first item has been removed, and a ‘tray charge’ of $5.95 for room service. With a little comparison-shopping, you might find that you’d be better off staying at a hotel that charges more for a room but less for the extra services you’ll need, or includes them as part of a package deal.
3. Do your homework.
A little research can pay off. It’s smart to comparison-shop online to find out what vendors charge for comparable products and services—and it’s very easy. Sites like PriceGrabber.com and Yahoo! Shopping make it simple to find the best price on everything from gadgets to groceries.
Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy an item online, but not always. If you do decide to buy online, don’t forget to factor in the shipping costs when you compare prices.
Before you start comparison-shopping, make a short list of what’s really essential to you, and what would be nice but isn’t mandatory. If you’re going on a business trip, for example, your hotel ‘must-haves’ might include close proximity to the airport, a short taxi ride to your meeting place, and a 24-hour business center with Internet access and a fax machine. Free access to the hotel swimming pool and gym might be attractive extras. On the other hand, if you’re going away for a long vacation weekend, the hotel’s swimming pool is more important than its business center.
4. Read your bills carefully.
According to the American Bankers Association, more than half of all consumers have at least one recurring expense automatically billed to a debit/credit card or bank account. Those recurring charges often escape people’s notice. Are you paying $14.95 a month for a restaurant discount you never use or $25 a year for a magazine you no longer read? Are you paying for a premium cable package with 150 channels you never watch? If so, cancel it!
Take a look at the monthly fees on your cell phone bill, too. Do you really need insurance on your phone? Is it worthwhile to pay extra for a customized ringtone? Are you being charged a monthly fee for Internet access you hardly ever use?
Stealth fees can add up. As a smart consumer, you can reduce your expenses by making sure you pay reasonable charges for what you need—and stop paying for what you don’t.