Look at your rearview mirror, and you'll see a warning: Objects are closer than they appear. It's a government-regulated warning that if you take what you see in the mirror at face value, you could find yourself spinning out of control. Monthly bills and pricing in general could use a similar warning near those dollar signs and cents: Prices aren't always what they seem.
It's a sad fact of consumer life that hidden fees, or surprise charges, seem to be everywhere. If you don't read the fine print, you'll often end up paying more than you bargained for. So in that spirit, here are nine hidden fees across a wide spectrum of goods and services, with suggestions about how to avoid them.
Monthly modem fee. Do you get your Internet through the cable company? Many companies, including Time-Warner and Comcast, now charge broadband customers a monthly fee to rent a modem, usually around $6 or $7 (until recently, modems were offered to customers at no charge).
How to avoid it. You can buy your own modem if it's been approved by your cable company. Modems can cost anywhere from $50 to $150, but possibly within a year, it'll be paid for. The only downside is if something goes wrong with the modem, you'll have to buy another one -- or go back to renting one from your cable company. But if you're anything of a tech guru, it's probably worth doing.
Document fee for your new car. If you're buying a car, you may be asked to pay a document fee, also known as "doc fees," to cover the cost of processing paperwork.
How to avoid it. Ask your dealership to lower the fee and see what happens, or even better, check your state's Department of Motor Vehicles website to see if it limits the document fee. If your state has a cap on the fee and your dealer is charging more, consider buying elsewhere. If there is no limit, find out what local dealers are charging for doc fees and ask your dealer to match that.
Hotel fees. That nice, smiling clerk at the front desk may be as charming as can be, but he or she may be holding back a secret: a hidden fee or two. Fees that may pop up on your bill include a "safe warranty fee" (because your room comes with a safe) and a "resort fee" (because the hotel has a swimming pool).
How to avoid them. Some fees are tough to avoid, especially resort fees if the hotel is in a popular tourist destination, but ask ahead of time if there are any fees that come with the room -- and then ask if they can be removed. The safe warranty fee, which is usually around $1.50, is generally an easy one to get taken off your bill.
Airline luggage fees. It's common knowledge that airlines charge for space in the baggage hold below the plane, but if you don't travel much, you may not know that some airlines are charging for carry-on luggage that goes in the overhead cargo. Airlines will also charge passengers for additional checked luggage, and fees often come into play if your luggage weighs too much.
[See: 10 Ways to Avoid Airline Fees.]
How to avoid them. Remember that you aren't just paying for your travel, but to transport your belongings, too. Look at every angle that might save you money. For instance, you can buy a lighter suitcase to pack more stuff into it. Also consider the total of what you'll spend, including luggage fees, when comparing airfares.
College student fees. It's hard to avoid these fees once you start paying for your child's tuition, but it's easy to forget about them until the bill's due. Most universities disguise the fact that their tuitions are climbing by charging and raising student fees. Some of the fees you might pay include a student activity fee, student union facility fee, learning technology fee, recreational fee, safety fee and an orientation fee. Earlier this year, Worcester State University in Massachusetts made headlines with its $72-a-year pedestrian and parking fee to help pay for sidewalk maintenance.
How to avoid them. You probably can't, but you'll want to look closely at those fees if money is a deciding reason for going or not going to a particular university.
Wedding fees. If you're signing contracts for a reception venue, flowers, caterers and the like, be careful. You may not notice that there are fees for just about everything, from alterations that can raise the price of your wedding dress to cake-cutting fees per slice.
How to avoid them. Negotiate to let guests cut their own cake or designate a family member do it free of charge. Basically, read the fine print in all of your contracts before you sign, and bargain with your vendors beforehand.
Prepaid card fees. The fees on prepaid cards can generally be found on the cards' websites, and it may surprise you how extensive they are. Some come with activation fees, swipe fees (that is, you're charged each time you use the card), reloading fees, ATM fees, a monthly maintenance fee and even a dormancy charge if you don't use the card enough.
How to avoid them. Not all prepaid cards are a joke, but many are. Consumer Reports took a look at prepaid cards earlier this year and out of 26 cards it examined, it only recommended three: Bluebird with direct deposit (American Express), H&R Block Emerald Prepaid MasterCard and Green Dot Card (Green Dot Bank).
Mortgage or refinancing fees. If you're buying a home or refinancing, there are numerous fees known as closing costs. They include application fees, loan origination fees and inspection fees, title searches and survey fees. According to Bankrate.com, on a $200,000 house, the average homeowner pays about $2,400 in closing costs.
How to avoid them. You can't avoid them all, but some fees can we waived or negotiated. Many consumers, for instance, have had luck getting rid of the application fee, which can range from $100 to a few hundred dollars. And if you shop around, you may save if you go with the lender that has the lowest closing costs (providing the terms of the rest of the loan are comparable).
Credit card fees. Ever since the Credit CARD Act of 2009, credit cards have had to be pretty upfront about their fees -- banks, too. But earlier this year, the software company BillGuard and research firm Aite Group came out with a study that estimates there are about 233 million hidden credit card charges every year, costing cardholders $14.3 billion in 2012 alone. The study termed them "grey charges," referring to, for instance, times when consumers sign up for a free trial for a service and later forget or not notice when a monthly fee begins landing on their credit card.
How to avoid them. This one's pretty simple: Scrutinize your credit card statements monthly. If you spot something strange, prepare to do battle with the company charging your plastic -- or call your credit card to stop the charges.
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