There's nothing worse than feeling swindled, especially in matters of money. One of the worst ways I can think of being ripped off -- aside from being all-out robbed (thank God I've never had to experience that) -- is to suffer the horrors of hidden fees.
You sign your name on the dotted line ... perhaps you've been uninformed, uneducated or are just plain naive, truly thinking you're paying a certain amount for a new credit card or car loan. Twelve months later, you're standing slack-jawed and in shock over an obscene bill, so confused that not even an Appletini could put you right. After that first wave of adrenalin washes through you, completely nixing the calming European facial and full-body massage you just got (hey, a girl can dream), now is the perfect time for a plan of attack going forward.
The number one cardinal sin of a girl on a budget is enduring repeated hidden fees that always seem to hide in long lists of terms and conditions or other fine print that many fail to fully read or even bother to understand. You want to save money? Now is the time to stop glossing over the fine print. As you've witnessed over the last year, the erstwhile Wall Street conglomerate may score a government bailout (if they're lucky), but no one will there to bail you out just because you didn't "think you needed to read all that." You've got take to take matters into your own hands. Don't be afraid to ask questions of anything you don't understand, and make sure to never, ever sign your name (and while you're at it, your bank account) to something that you don't fully comprehend in entirety. After all, it's your money we're talking about here.
Where do the most common hidden fees lurk? I found some great tips from Suze Orman on Oprah.com, highlighting where and what to watch for in these typical areas:
Retirement savings: Do you know how much it costs you to invest in the funds in your 401(k)? The difference between paying high and low fees can add up to tens of thousands of dollars. Call your plan provider to make sure your funds don't charge sales commissions (called a "front-end load" or "deferred-sales charge") and that the annual expense ratio is no higher than 1 percent. If your plan doesn't offer lowcost options, you and your colleagues should make a ruckus—the law is clear that 401(k)s must be operated for the employee's benefit, and high-cost funds are of no help to you. The same goes for your Roth IRA—no-load funds and low-expense ratios are the surest way to boost your bottom line. Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, and Vanguard all offer many low-cost funds.
Credit card: If your monthly payment isn't on time, you'll be slapped with a late fee as high as $39. Do that three times a year, and you've donated nearly $120 to the credit card company. Late payments also hurt your FICO score. And never, ever take out a cash advance on your credit card. The cost is often 3 percent of the amount borrowed, and the interest rate can be higher than 20 percent.
Bank account: It's easy to be hit with fees of $3 or more when you use an ATM—a charge from your own bank plus the one from which you withdraw cash. Do that twice a month, and you're spending at least $72 a year.
Recurring payments: Some bills, such as your insurance premium, allow you to choose between making one big annual payment and a series of installments. If you can afford the one-time deal, you'll avoid the $5 or so service charge levied when you pay quarterly or monthly—that's $20 to $60 a year. It's easy to save $200 annually by eliminating these types of fees. Invest that $200 a year for 20 years, earn an annualized 8% gain, and you've got nearly $10,000. It pays to be a fee fiend.