The Buck Stops Here: How To Lower Your Bills


photo: Refracted Moments™

I was recently bemoaning my overdraft fees to a friend (two $35 fees because my deposit took forever to process!), when his response totally blew my mind: “I never pay those. All you have to do is call and ask nicely.” 

Granted, I am a bit of a rule follower (thank my conservative upbringing for that)—but getting bank fees rescinded just by asking nicely? This had to be too good to be true. But just in case I really was missing something, I decided to give it a try. And how about credit card rates? Would my gym lower my monthly fee? My attempt to lower my bills in these tough times left me with a lesson I’ll keep close—for richer or for poorer. 

Overdraft Fees

Even the most money-savvy consumers slip up on occasion and spend before replenishing their accounts. Who decided that a momentary lapse of judgment justifies forking over more hard-earned money to the bank? “Banks love charging those overdraft fees,” says Monica Rios, a former teller at a major bank in the San Diego area. “Most people never contest them.” Whether we earn $25,000 or $500,000, making a little noise can keep those dollars in our accounts where they belong. 

“Start by asking nicely,” says Rios. Don’t call up and get confrontational with the poor customer service rep (especially since most of them do have the power to give that refund). Be nice! Sounds simple, right? I called up my bank’s 800 number and gave it a try, asking the representative if she could waive the overdraft fee—considering it was an honest mistake, and I wasn’t planning on letting it happen again, and I am truly a poor, young professional trying to make ends mean in a tough economy… you know the drill. Guess what? It was that simple. It worked. 

Grocery Costs

Of all the places I’d never dare consider asking for a better price, the grocery store ranks pretty high up there. They’re so pristine, clean, and almost medical in their precise aisles, neat checkout lines, and programmed prices—it just doesn’t seem like there’s much wiggle room.

Not so, says the price-savvy mom of one of my close friends. “If I see a product that’s near its expiration date, I ask the manager for a discount,” says Sue James of Dublin, Calif. “I’ve had success with baked goods, dairy, meat, and produce.”

Oh, and another reason to support our local farmer’s markets and mom-and-pop grocery shops—there’s a lot more room for negotiating when the workers know you and don’t have a big bureaucracy to answer to. I’m still working up the courage to give this one a try. 

Credit Card Fees

Competition in the credit industry is fierce, meaning this is where throwing in some dramatics really can make a difference. We shouldn’t be afraid to pull out all the stops—threatening to close the account or (gasp!) switch to their biggest competitor—when we don’t get what we’re looking for. Because once we let them know we’re considering those other options, companies tend to become suddenly more flexible (crazy how that happens). Turns out, over half of the consumers who simply call and ask end up scoring lower rates, according to a national survey conducted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. 

Not convinced those credit card giants would give a lower rate with a friendly phone call, I convinced a friend with a little credit card debt to give it a try. 

My friend, Priyanka, used the same script as the study’s consumers: 

Hi, my name is [Your Name]. I’m a good customer, but I have received several offers in the mail from other credit card companies with lower APRs. I want a lower rate on my card, or I will cancel my card and switch companies. 

Guess what? It worked for her, too.

Lower Gym Fees

Gyms, like most organizations right now, are slashing fees in an attempt to coax people to include them in their ever-shrinking budgets. A January report in the Health section of the Los Angeles Times found that many gyms were offering 50% off initiation fees. I couldn’t think of a single reason why I—a faithful, longtime member—shouldn’t reap those rewards, too, so I went to talk to my gym’s manager. 

“Approach it from the angle of you loving your experience there and wanting to continue to be part of the community,” says Sally Masterson, the manager of a Sacramento-area gym. “But not being able to afford your membership in the bad economy.” 

While my manager wasn’t willing to knock $500 off my yearly bill (the amount they were knocking off new members’ fees), she did offer me a week’s worth of guest passes and a 20% discount over the next six months. Something is a whole lot better than nothing, right? 

Cable and Internet Bills

Ever since I began living alone, this monthly bill always bums me out. Without a house full of roommates to split it with, it’s a huge bank account sucker. Especially after those special six-month HBO promotions run out and the bill jumps up another fifty bucks. Luckily, this one was just as easy as making those overdraft fees disappear. 

I gave my cable company a call and (kindly!) explained my situation to the woman who answered. “I’m going to have to stop my service if I can’t lower my monthly bill in light of the economy, rising health care costs, etc.” Before I knew it my bill had been cut in half—turns out there was a promotion going on for new users that old customers were eligible for as well. Fancy that. 

Cell Phone Plans

While we’re talking monthly bills, my other big budget eater is the cell phone bill. Ever since I could get email, pictures, videos, and internet on my cute little Blackberry, this bill regularly climbs higher and higher. Giddy with my slowly growing pile of saved money, I dialed my service provider to inquire about some overcharges I’d recently racked up calling Australia (trust me, that’s a whole different article). At first the man was hesitant, but when I asked what he suggested I do, he offered some fine ideas. He said if I signed another two-year contract or upgraded my plan, they’d happily pretend those late-night calls to Down Under never happened. Cha-ching. Lesson learned? The customer service rep may have some useful, non-scripted advice after all. 

Tips I Picked up Along the Way

Besides these specific situations, there were some general techniques I found useful along my hunt for extra savings: 

* Be diplomatic. Would you feel like giving the hookup to someone screaming about how horrible your English skills are? Didn’t think so.

* That said, a little dramatics can go a long way. Threats, however empty they are, can scare companies into taking desperate measures to keep our business. They’re hurting just as bad as we are these days and need every source of income they can get. Oh, and mentioning the competition can’t hurt your cause.

* Personalize it: “What would you suggest I do?” Everyone likes to feel like an expert.

* Stirring up a little pity can work in the right situation. With health care, the economy, layoffs, and rising education fees, we’ve got a slew of reasons to choose ask for a break.

* Always ask nicely. When it feels right, a simple, “Can you do any better?” can go a long way. I doubted it. I tried it. Now I believe it. 

As in most aspects of life, making a little noise is worth it, even if it feels uncomfortable. It’s not as if we have anything more to lose—they’ve already taken our money. And without asking, there’s no incentive for them to give it back. 

Now if I could only resist spending all this saved cash on online shopping and gourmet groceries.

The Buck Stops Here: How To Lower Your Bills was provided by

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