RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Losing weight is always a popular New Year's resolution, but this year, fattening up their wallets is an even more common goal for people. According to a recent survey, Americans are most concerned about changing their financial habits, and indicated they want to reduce spending and increase savings in 2010. In fact, nearly 15 percent of those surveyed went as far as to say they'd rather pay to enlist the help of a financial expert than a personal trainer. Padding our bank accounts isn't just good for the bottom line, either. Studies have shown that people who are worried about finances sleep less and are more prone to illness. Other research has found that consumers without a secure emergency fund are prone to anxiety and sleep problems—both of which set you up for health problems just when you can't afford big medical bills.
To help you start the new year off on the right financial foot, Rodale.com has enlisted the help of New York Times best-selling author and blogger Bob Sullivan, who penned the new book Stop Getting Ripped Off: Why Consumers Get Screwed, and How You Can Always Get a Fair Deal (Ballantine Books, 2009).
Here are Sullivan's top tips to avoid getting ripped off by hidden fees, fine-print stipulations, and other marketplace traps.
• Invite your bills to lunch. Most people pay about 10 bills each month, and the key to shaving down the balances is to get cozy with them. Sullivan recommends spending one lunch hour every month attacking them, one at a time. Analyze each line item, of your cable, phone, cellphone, electricity, and other bills, and you may be surprised to find you're paying for services you didn't even know you had. "It's often as simple as looking at the paperwork and then putting in the time," he says. "I know, sitting on hold with the cable company for 35 minutes feels awful, but if you dump a $16-a-month HBO subscription you've never ordered, that's almost $200 you've saved during the next year!"
• Play hardball with your cable company. "I think this is a great time for TV consumers," says Sullivan. That's because strong competition has entities like FIOS, satellite, cable, and, particularly, free services like Hulu.com and over-the-air digital TV, all competing for your entertainment budget. "Consumers should call their provider every six months and ask for the 'new-subscriber' deal with a competitor's offer in hand. Most are honoring such requests right now because the threat is real," Sullivan explains. And Sullivan warns that rip-offs come in many forms, not just hidden fees, so it's worth reading the fine print and asking about termination fees before signing up for any new service. "Many DirecTV consumers are complaining right now about crippling contracts they don't even know they have agreed too, and threats of early termination fees that can be as high as $480."
Read on to find out more mega-money-saving tips.