With five family members on my AT&T mobile phone plan, my monthly bill generally runs into the triple digits. But several months ago I noticed it was unusually high. I finally discovered the reason: One of us had inadvertently managed to sign up for half a dozen games, ringtones and other subscription services, adding more than $60 a month to our bill. After an hour on the phone with AT&T, we got the subscriptions canceled and the money refunded.
How could I have allowed this to happen? The truth, though I hate to admit it, is that I don't scrutinize my personal bills nearly as closely as my business expenses. I was too busy to notice that I was being charged for services I didn't want or need. And that's exactly what those mobile subscription services were counting on.
The next time your phone, cable or utility bills arrive, take a closer look. You may be spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year for games, movies and interactive services you never asked to receive. These services often are bundled as part of premium packages or start as free trials that turn into paid subscriptions if you don't cancel them.
"Be careful of freebies," warns Arleen Kahn, president of AMK Associates, a New York consulting firm that helps small businesses analyze their costs. "Bundling phone, data and voice may be cost effective for your business, but it won't necessarily save you money at home. You really need to do your homework to find the best deal for your home and family."
Here are five tips for cutting your family's phone, cable and utility bills down to size:
The web offers a multitude of resources for comparing service pricing and packages, as well as slashing your utility costs. Here's a sampling:
myrateplan.com : The site's CellCalc and TruBill features let you search mobile service plans available in your region and do side-by-side comparisons of features, minute allocations and costs.
saveology.com : Enter your address into this site to get an up-to-date list of options for phone, Internet and TV services for your home--and to see whether bundling is the best way to go.
utilitybillbusters.com : This online trove of energy-saving advice offers articles on everything from the right kind of insulation to how to keep your microwave from burning money.
Avoid teaser rates. Cable companies may offer a rock-bottom price for a bundled package in return for a two- or three-year commitment. "Sometimes that rate is good for only the first six to 12 months," Kahn says. "Then the rate goes through the roof."
Beware of cancellation penalties. Depending on the contract you sign, you may have to pay a hefty fee to move on with your life. That "free" cell phone may end up costing you more in the long run than if you had paid the sticker price and kept your options open.
Customize your plan. "Family plans" and "rollover minutes" may sound attractive, but they make sense only if you use them. "You can save more money by selecting a plan with the appropriate number of minutes," Kahn says.
Beware of free trials . New cable, phone and Internet accounts often come with "free trial" subscriptions that automatically start adding up. Call customer service if you see a charge on your bill you don't recognize.
Pull the plug. The best way to save money on utility bills, Kahn says, is to unplug your coffee maker, cell phone charger, air-conditioning units or any other appliance you don't use every day. "As long as these appliances are plugged into an outlet, they are running up your electric bill," she says.It's worth spending a few extra minutes a month to save hundreds of dollars a year in needless charges.
Rosalind Resnick is founder and CEO of Axxess Business Consulting, a New York consulting firm that advises startups and small businesses, and author of Getting Rich Without Going Broke: How to Use Luck, Logic and Leverage to Build Your Own Successful Business. She can be reached at email@example.com or through her website, abcbizhelp.com