Seattle, WA — At home, in your car or even online — products and services you don’t need could be draining your cash.
And the dirt on what you may be wasting money on begins with cleaning the air ducts in your home, according to our consumer expert.
Kevin Brasler is with the nonprofit research organization, Consumers’ Checkbook.
“Intuitively it seems like, ‘Oh, yeah. I keep my house clean. I want to reduce dust,’” said Brasler.
But he said paying to clean air ducts isn’t the solution.
“There’s really no independent research that indicates that getting your ducts clean does any good,” said Brasler. “The one study that was done found that after duct cleaning, dust levels went up as opposed to going down.”
Plus, we’ve investigated shady air duct cleaning businesses for years. We’ve caught companies advertising one price, then charging costly add-ons at the end.
Click through or scroll down for the full list:
Here’s another big one for the Northwest: basement waterproofing.
Some companies charge up to $10,000. But is it really worth it?
“That’s not resolving the original problem, which is that you have a drainage issue outside that’s resulting in water in your basement,” said Brasler.
Brasler said those problems on the inside can be fixed on the outside — and for a lot less: cleaning gutters, extending downspouts and making sure water flows away from your walls.
For another money-saver, Brasler said people should rethink subscription services. He said Amazon Prime is a big one.
“It was first marketed as, ‘Well, you get free two-day shipping if you sign up for Prime,’” said Brasler. “But these days, if your order is $25 or more, really, on most websites these days, you can get free shipping. And free, fast shipping.”
But, come on, Kevin. I love Amazon Prime! Then again, I use all that it offers.
“Now if you’re using Amazon for its original video content, if you’re using it to back up photos, Prime members get free photo backups, and it’s unlimited. Then it probably still does make sense. But most of us aren’t getting our money’s worth anymore from Prime,” said Brasler.
He said you can also slam the door on car dealership add-ons.
“They used to sell a lot of, kind of, rustproofing things. That seems to have changed to things like fabric protection,” said Brasler.
The benefits are small. But the markups are big. And they don’t stop there.
“Really, these days, they are pushing extended warranties. Which are really not warranties at all. They’re service contracts. And none of these things are worth the money,” said Brasler.
Look at the fine print. You’ll find lots of exclusions.
“A common exclusion, for example, is if you own a hybrid car, the batteries aren’t covered,” said Brasler. “And they’re not cheap. These contracts cost thousands of dollars to protect against a repair bill that they may not even cover.”
Brasler also said:
“Don’t rent your internet modem and router from your cable company. Just buy your own.”
He’s a pass on pet insurance. Just save the money you need on your own.
And instead of buying rental car insurance, he said get a stand alone-policy and save up to 70% from the counter.
There are some common themes here that can save you money: First, look at what you’re paying and what you’re really getting out of a service. Are you using all the features and benefits? Or are you being charged every month for something you’ve forgotten?
And always look at the fine print. So whenever you sign a contract, you know what you’ll get and what’s excluded.
See the full list of 65 things you shouldn’t buy:
You forgot to get tip money for your barber and you’re running late. You made it to the new taco shop only to learn that it doesn’t accept plastic. When you need cash in a hurry, sometimes you shell out a bank’s outrageous fee to use its ATM, but for the most part you can avoid paying it. Many banks and credit unions offer account options that reimburse customers when they incur ATM fees. And you can usually use an ATM card for purchases at grocery or drug stores and get cash back gratis.
Auto Insurance Extras
Our undercover shoppers find that auto insurers are relentless in pushing additional coverage to pay for a rental car if your own ride needs bodywork. The problem? The modest coverage offered—typically $30 per day with a limit of $600 per claim—usually costs $30 to $70 per year for each car on your policy. The additional premiums are, over time, likely to greatly exceed any benefits you can collect. We say don’t buy it.
Carefully evaluate other types of optional coverage using a similar cost-benefit approach. Many add-ons are just marketing gimmicks. If a company offers “accident forgiveness,” “vanishing deductibles,” and other benefits for no extra premium, great; but these features really aren’t worth much.
Baby Products and Kids’ Toys
Many gadgets marketed to new parents—wipe warmers, Diaper Genies, swings that magically calm your wailing infant—promise to keep your home as peaceful as a yoga retreat. But seasoned baby wranglers know they’re often gimmicks you don’t need and won’t use.
We and most parents we know also wish we’d bought our kids about 90 percent fewer toys. Sooooooooo many gifts were played with for a few hours and ignored forever after.
Before buying a baby doodad or kid toy, ask around about what actually gets used, check one of a gazillion great parenting blogs, and consider experiential gifts or activity kits.
Each year, U.S. consumers pay more than $100 billion to a bottled water industry that gobbles up about 100 million barrels of crude oil to manufacture and transport plastic bottles. Getting your drinking water from the tap is nearly free and doesn’t waste all that energy.
Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group created by Public Citizen, says that tap water in the U.S. is usually safer to drink than bottled water, since it is tested more rigorously. Plus, bottled water is more likely to be contaminated by microplastic particles.
If you need to filter your community’s tap water, and your refrigerator doesn’t have a built-in filter, you can buy a standalone model for less than $20.
Thinking about cutting the cord? Droves of consumers continue to join the cable-free club. The growing variety of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, Disney+, and Sling TV make it easy to access a plethora of a la carte programming for less moolah than the all-or-nothing plans still sold by cable and satellite TV companies. And because streaming services usually don’t require term commitments, you can subscribe to a few and if you grow tired of what one offers (or its free trial ends), cancel, and move your money to the next one. Some watchers will save as much as $100 a month by saying buh-bye to cable.
Even though ads featuring low monthly payments make vehicle leases look like good deals, in the long run these plans will cost most consumers more than buying. Unless you purchase the wheels at the end of your lease, you have to give back the car and won’t own anything; you’ll then have to lease or buy something else, starting a process of paying for a new ride’s steep depreciation all over again. Plus, you can’t customize a leased car, drive it farther than preset annual mileage limits, or damage it without paying the vehicle’s real owners extra fees.
Whether you lease or buy, avoid overpaying. Click here for our advice on how to get the best price on a new car.
Car Repairs at the Dealership
Unless the work you need is covered by a new-car warranty or manufacturer recall, use an independent shop, not a dealership. Many consumers believe dealers have access to proprietary knowledge, sophisticated diagnostic software, and better tools than independent garages. That’s not true. And when we use our surveys of consumers to compare quality of work at dealers and non-dealers, the non-dealers on average score better. We also find that dealerships typically charge a lot more than independents.
Cloud Data Backup
You definitely should periodically back up all your devices. Dozens of websites offer free cloud backup, usually capped at 2 to 5GB, which is plenty for most people. If you need more, sign up with multiple sites. If you mostly have photos and videos to store, Amazon Prime members can back up unlimited pics and videos to its cloud for free.
Credit Reports, Scores, and Monitoring
Carefully watch your credit and accounts for signs of fraud, but don’t pay a company to do it. Identity-theft monitoring services cost $10 to $30 a month, but you can easily do it yourself for nothing.
Federal law entitles you to one free credit report every 12 months from each of the three credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Request yours at AnnualCreditReport.com.
You can stagger your requests to get a free report from one of the three major credit bureaus every four months. Because of the pandemic, you can access a free online copy of your credit report from all three credit bureaus once a week until April 20, 2022. And identity theft victims are always entitled to unlimited free credit reports from the credit bureaus.
The credit bureaus’ free reports won’t include your credit scores. But you don’t need to pay extra to get yours. Many financial institutions have set up access so their customers can monitor their FICO scores for free; check the websites of your bank, credit union, and credit card companies for how to enroll.
Debt Relief and Counseling Services
Many of these outfits prey on consumers by promising solutions they never deliver, charging high fees, or even outright theft. Their customers often end up in worse financial shape than before they asked for help.
No company can magically eliminate your debt or quickly repair your credit scores. On your own, you can do most of what even the legitimate services can accomplish. If you need help, read the warnings and advice offered by the Federal Trade Commission. It advises that you deal with only certified, trained counselors who offer in-person meetings, and to avoid those that charge high fees or hidden fees, or urge clients to make “voluntary” contributions that produce more debt.
We’ve all bought stuff that arrived broken, didn’t perform as promised, or died too soon. Many frustrated buyers give up and pay for something else. But consumer protection laws entitle you to receive defect-free products and provide several paths to satisfaction, even if the manufacturer’s warranty expired or there wasn’t one at all.
Start by asking the retailer for a refund or replacement. It’s reasonable to expect a store to stand behind products it sells and to make things right for a valued and loyal customer. If that doesn’t work, check whether there’s a manufacturer’s warranty. Even if there isn’t one, or it has expired, you still likely can demand a replacement or free repair under your right to an implied warranty of merchantability. In the U.S., unless a seller explicitly declares a product is sold “as is,” there’s an implied warranty that the item was provided free of defects and will remain so for a reasonable amount of time.
Still no resolution? Complain to your credit card company. You can dispute a credit or debit card transaction and request a “chargeback” if you’ve tried to resolve a dispute with a business and it won’t budge.
Dental Treatments You Don’t Need
Be suspicious if a new dentist recommends far more treatment than your previous one—for instance, if suddenly many fillings need to be replaced, several teeth need to be crowned, or your gums need extensive surgery. This is an area where we receive frequent complaints in our surveys of patients.
To help you decide on a treatment, your dentist should fully describe the condition of your mouth and all treatment options, including those that might cost less. If a dentist recommends extensive treatment, get a second opinion.
Yes, they’re still a girl’s best friend, but they’re also overhyped and overpriced. Even though recent discoveries of large deposits of raw stones in Australia, Canada, and Russia have increased production worldwide, because only a handful of companies own most of the supply—and gem giant De Beers controls two-thirds of its global distribution—diamond prices remain artificially high.
There are several better buys: Lab-grown diamonds are chemically and physically identical to mined ones and cost about 20 to 30 percent less; sapphires, rubies, and other stones offer similar dazzle at significantly lower prices. Before buying anything, shop around to make sure you’re not overpaying.
DNA Ancestry Reports
More than a dozen outfits offer to analyze your genes for various reasons, from testing for medical conditions to romantic matchmaking. But most consumers are buying them for estimates of their ancestry or ethnicity.
While genetic science continues to make important discoveries and invent breakthrough medical treatments, the breakthroughs DNA ancestry companies make are largely marketing ones. We find that some companies overpromise on what they can deliver; despite their ads, they at best can provide very general and imprecise ancestry estimates, especially when they try to assign users to regional ethnic groups.
And we don’t think most DNA testing outfits are transparent enough about what else they do now or will do in the future with all the genetic info they’re scooping up. We have serious concerns about how carefully these companies store data and with whom they might share it.
Always ask your doctor whether less-costly generic brands can be subbed for name-brand drugs.
If the label says “Dry clean only,” get thee to a professional cleaner; our ratings will help you find a good one. But if it only says “Dry clean,” it’s just a suggestion; and “hand wash” and other instructions mean that—if you’re careful—you can do your own laundry.
Materials that spot or shrink when washed with water definitely should go to the pros. That includes silk and, unless the label reads otherwise, acetate, velvet, taffeta, and many wool items.
You usually can hand wash or machine wash cashmere, linen, cotton, and polyester. But test for colorfastness first by wetting a cotton swab with mild soap and dabbing it on a hidden spot. If you see color on the swab, take it to the cleaners.
Most of our abodes unnecessarily waste lots of energy, contributing to pollution and climate change while sucking away our money. You don’t have to throw down tens of thousands of dollars for a solar energy system, a geothermal heat pump, or a complete green-oriented remodel to sharply reduce your home’s energy usage. Often, the combined effects of making inexpensive improvements, adopting better habits, and buying better products can do the trick.
We detailed 32 changes you can make around your home that will save energy. Several of these tasks cost nothing or nearly nothing to do; others require some upfront spending but quickly pay for themselves with lower utility bills.
Pre-pandemic, expensive workout studios and “boutique” gyms specializing in just one or two exercises—and charging jacked-up per-session rates—were exploding faster than you can say, “Give me 30 pushups.”
Will they make a comeback? It’s too soon to tell. But even before COVID-19 you could find roughly 10 bajillion free instructional exercise videos online. And lots of spots offer free or nearly free yoga and other workout classes, including recreation centers, churches, libraries, and parks. Click here for more advice on choosing a gym or fitness center, plus ratings of local workout spots.
Extended Product Warranties, AppleCare, Etc.
Purchase protection. Service contracts. AppleCare. Whatever retailers call them, these policies are sources of easy revenue for the outfits that hawk them and for the insurance companies that administer them and honor infrequent claims. But we find they are usually bad deals for you.
For example, buy an iPhone 11 and for no extra cost you get a one-year limited manufacturer’s warranty covering repairs and 90 days of tech support. Pay an extra $149 for AppleCare and it extends that warranty for another two years; spend yet another $100 and you’ll get coverage for theft or loss.
The problem? Even after paying those premiums, you’ll still have to pay extra if you run into trouble. Cracked screen? There’s a $29 deductible to fix it under AppleCare; you’ll pay $99 if your clumsiness or a product defect necessitates a different type of fix. And if you bought Apple’s full-boat policy covering theft and loss, you’ll still have to shell out a $229 deductible to replace a lost phone.
So you’re out $699 for the phone, plus $149-$249 for AppleCare, then up to another $99 if you break it or $229 to replace it. That means if something goes wrong you could be out-of-pocket $248–$478 to cover a $699 purchase.
Even if you want an extended warranty, you can usually get it for free. Many credit cards automatically provide free extended warranties when you use them to pay for products that have manufacturer’s warranties. Costco also offers free warranty extensions. That so many companies give away extended warranties is an obvious sign that they’re not worth paying for.
If you have a pest problem, before you hire an exterminator learn what you can do yourself. Unless termites or bedbugs are the problem, homeowners can solve most creepy-crawly invasions themselves. If you do hire help, consult our ratings of area services, and avoid long-term contracts. A single treatment performed properly will rid you of most household vermin. Suspect termites or bedbugs? Get several inspections and proposals.
Eyeglasses Lens Extras
Anti-reflective and UV coatings. High-index lenses. Scratch-resistant coatings. Polarized lenses. Photochromic lenses. When shopping for eyewear, you get offered lots of add-ons. Many of these options have value but don’t make sense for everyone. For example, if you usually wear contacts and sunglasses outdoors, it’s a waste to get transition lenses for your backup eyeglasses. If your glasses have not gotten scratched in the past, or if reflection has never troubled you, don’t pay for add-ons to fix something that isn’t broken. And if you have a low prescription, there’s little need to pay more for high-index lenses. Click here for more advice on buying specs and contacts.
As we discuss here, the U.S. eyewear market is dominated by Italy’s Luxottica Group. It owns several major retailers, including LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, and optical departments at Target. The eyewear giant manufactures its own lines of frames plus many designer-brand specs. If you buy frames marketed as Armani, Brooks Brothers, Burberry, Bulgari, Chanel, Coach, Dolce & Gabbana, Michael Kors, Oakley, Persol, Polo Ralph Lauren, Prada, Ray-Ban, Tiffany, Tory Burch, Valentino, Versace, and more, they were churned out in a Luxottica factory along with Luxottica’s own brands.
Luxottica frames can cost from less than $100 to several thousand bucks per pair. It’s hard to justify paying hefty prices for designer frames when you can buy a far less expensive model at Target that possibly was made in the same facility, and the manufacturing cost of both models probably was less than $5.
Fitness Equipment Purchased New
Lots of New Year’s resolvers buy treadmills, stationary bikes, elliptical trainers, and cross-country ski simulators but then (often pretty quickly!) end up back on the couch bingeing on Netflix.
Their sloth is your reward. There are so many ex-exercisers happy just to have someone get big treadmills and such out of their homes that you could very well search Craigslist, Freecycle, Facebook Marketplace, and other resources to find a free piece of equipment, if you’re willing to haul it. Click here for more tips on buying used stuff.
Traditional funeral services and burial arrangements usually run between $7,000 and $10,000, plus cemetery costs. There is nothing wrong with an expensive funeral if that’s what the decedent and the family want. But many families that prefer simple, dignified ceremonies get pushed by funeral directors to overpay for something else.
Cremation, immediate burial, or body donation, followed by casual memorial services are increasingly popular arrangements, and cost far less than traditional funerals.
Document your preferences and give them to your family, or file a preference form with a funeral home. But don’t prepay toward your funeral. These agreements offered by funeral homes represent major financial commitments and are not prudent.
Furniture and Carpet Protection Plans
In the past, stores offered to apply a stain-resistant coating. Now those coatings are applied during the manufacturing process. What the stores offer is lousy insurance coverage. Don’t buy it.
If your car’s owners manual specifies a high-octane formulation, then use it. Otherwise, fill ‘er up with regular—your engine won’t care about the difference.
Yes, you can save money by buying in bulk at warehouse clubs or by stocking up during great sales—but not if half of your purchases are wasted due to spoilage. Smart ways to save at the supermarket: Plan your meals. Make a shopping list, and stick to it so you buy only what you need. Shop specials, but stock up only on nonperishables. Keep track of what you throw away so you’ll buy less of it. Don’t shop while hungry. Avoid impulse purchases. Pay attention to labels to eschew products with little nutritional value. Use per-unit pricing to identify which products are the best values. Instead of name brands, try store brands, which usually cost five to 10 percent less. Finally, use Checkbook’s ratings of grocery stores for quality and price to determine whether you can save by switching to a lower-cost store.
The entire fitness industry thrives on good intentions. Most people who sign up for gym memberships stop using them after only a few months. Before joining, think realistically about what activities you are likely to participate in and how often you’ll use the facilities. Be sure to weigh all your options: Can you work out for free or less expensively some other way—for example, by doing exercises at home, running, biking, joining a sports team or exercise class, or using a government-run rec center or YMCA?
If you still want to sign up, you can find more advice, and ratings of local gyms, here. Also, know that many health insurers incentivize fitness by offering deals on gym memberships. Some will even reimburse gym fees if you go often enough. Check your plan’s website to see what you can get with your contract. If you’re with a Medicare Advantage plan, the SilverSneakers and Silver&Fit programs offer free or very-low-cost memberships at lots of gyms.
Home Security Systems
We find that because most burglars enter homes by simply opening unlocked doors or windows—or pushing and kicking locked ones until they open—even the most basic protective measures will improve your security. Several ways to shore up your home are more effective—and much cheaper—than alarm systems: Secure all doors with good deadbolt locks; lock all windows accessible from the outside; set up lighting systems that deter burglars; and improve your own safety habits.
Homeowners are increasingly setting up their own simple security devices to save money on equipment and avoid monthly monitoring fees.
Home warranty companies run lots of ads promising to save you thousands of dollars when something goes wrong with your refrigerator, furnace, plumbing, and other appliances and systems. But don’t count on the peace of mind these plans promise. We find these warranties are terrible deals for most homeowners.
Warranty companies are the subject of thousands of complaints to consumer agencies. Even after paying $400 to $1,000 for the coverage, consumers will find home warranty contracts typically are filled with fine-print exclusions that stick them with much of the costs for product repairs or replacements. The vast majority of plan buyers will pay far more in premiums and service fees than they’ll get back for covered repairs. Plus you don’t get to decide who does the work. We find that the best repair services overwhelmingly disdain these plans and won’t work for home warranty companies.
Homeowners Insurance Gotchas
It is important to obtain an accurate estimate of your home’s replacement cost to determine how much dwelling insurance you need. The replacement value isn’t the same as market value; the latter includes the value of the land and your home’s foundation—two expensive components of your property that don’t need to be insured against wind, fire, etc. Replacement value is an estimate of what it would cost to rebuild your house completely on the land that you own.
While many U.S. homes are underinsured, some others are overinsured because disreputable agents tell their clients to buy dwelling coverage equal to their homes’ market value.
Another big source of insurance-spending waste? Many homeowners overspend by sticking with the same insurance company year after year instead of periodically shopping around for better rates. We find that most homeowners will save more than $500 each year by switching to a lower-priced company; some will save $1,500 or more.
That awesome rate you got on your room becomes less awesome if you have to pay more than $60 a day to park in the outrageously priced hotel garage.
Fortunately, several websites and apps—including BestParking.com, ParkingPanda.com, and SpotHero.com—can help you find a good spot by providing pricing for garages and parking lots in major metro areas. Simply enter an address or select a neighborhood, indicate when you plan to arrive and depart, and these sites map out the total prices for parking facilities in the vicinity. You’ll usually find a spot nearby for far less by avoiding hotel parking.
Hotels’ Early and Late Check-in Fees
We often can get fees for early or late check-ins waived simply by asking nicely. If the hotel isn’t expecting a full house, they’re usually happy to accommodate. And members of loyalty programs of some chains get free late check-outs as a perk.
If there are no extra rooms at the inn, most places will happily store your bags (tip the bellman) for the day while you sightsee or grab a bite before check-in or after check-out.
Want to rest up before a redeye flight? Although they don’t advertise it, many hotels allow guests to pay for a half night’s stay, letting you hang on to your room until evening for less money.
HVAC Maintenance Contracts
Some heating and A/C companies swear by these contracts, arguing that regular maintenance helps avoid untimely breakdowns during peak-usage months. But many really push these plans to keep their technicians busy during otherwise slow months—and to maintain a steady flow of revenue.
Use our ratings to identify a reputable HVAC contractor and ask it how often your equipment needs service. If you need professional maintenance visits every year—if, for instance, you have a large house or don’t want to perform even the simplest tasks, like changing filters yourself—a maintenance contract might make sense. But most of us won’t benefit much from these plans, and we get a lot of complaints from consumers who buy service contracts and find that technicians discover something to repair on every service visit—at extra cost. Some contractors seem to use service contracts as twice-a-year opportunities to squeeze customers for unnecessary repairs.
The cost of hiring a fully trained designer to redo a living room is typically more than $20,000. While many overwhelmed consumers are happy to spend what it takes to get help planning their furniture purchases, there are less expensive options.
Store-based designers sometimes offer limited services, but others do more, from drawing floor plans to advising on color. Design services at many furniture stores are free; at others, you pay a small fee, refundable if furniture purchases exceed a certain amount. At some stores, designers charge hourly rates or flat fees for consultations.
Some pros also now work via e-design portals, including Decorist, Havenly, and Modsy. Take a design quiz pinpointing rooms and styles you like, get matched with a few designers, choose one, and pay up front. You’ll receive design renderings, suggestions for products, and advice on painting, wallpaper, and lighting. Most e-design services charge on a per-room basis, with costs ranging from $79 a room (for a simple plan with a 3D rendering from Modsy) to $1,299 (for what Decorist says is a plan from a “celebrity designer”).
Internet Modem and Router Rental
Many cable companies and internet providers charge $12 or more a month to rent their modems and wireless routers. You can buy your own for less than $100; the savings from not paying for a monthly rental will quickly pay back your investment.
Investment Brokerage and Consultation Fees
Many investors pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year for financial advice, brokerage fees, account service fees, and to fund managers. Are they getting their money’s worth? Are the fees justified by better returns? Most of us will do just as well, or even better, by managing our own money and picking a diverse selection of stocks and mutual funds, or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that scrape very little for management fees. And brokerages like E*Trade and TD Ameritrade now charge no transaction fees for most stock and mutual fund trades.
We provide dozens of ways ways to get rid of unwanted belongings, including donations to charities—some will even pick up. Websites like The Freecycle Network match you with people who think your trash is a treasure. If you need to unload an entire household’s worth of stuff, working with an estate sale company will generate revenue for you.
Late Fees and Credit Card Interest
Get organized to avoid racking up missed- or late-payment fees. If you slip up, ask the company for a free pass; many waive penalties for customers who demonstrate they made one-time mistakes. If you can’t afford to pay a bill, inform the creditor right away; during the pandemic, many companies are allowing customers to skip or lower their payments, and some offer debt-relief programs. Even in better times, if asked, some companies would allow lower payments to avoid delinquencies.
Life Insurance—Cash Value and Annuity Policies
Permanent life insurance plans, aka cash value policies, and similarly structured annuity plans are typically bad deals for most consumers. If you want to buy coverage, shop around for a term life policy. The way permanent life plans are structured make them more investment vehicles than reasonably priced insurance policies, and as investments they offer lousy rates of return. You’ll most likely do better by paying a bundle less for term life coverage and investing elsewhere savings earmarked for long-term needs.
Click for more advice on buying life insurance. Some quick savings tips: Shop around for the best price, and don’t overinsure—if your kids are 15 years old and you’re 10 years away from retirement, you probably don’t need a 20-year term policy.
Medical Alert Devices
Our researchers tested several models and found that most medical alert device makers’ products delayed emergency response and provided less-than-precise location data when we hit the alarm button. We could recommend only one company: GreatCall, because it offers wearable devices that can connect its customers directly to 911 instead of a company-run call center. Wearable devices like Apple Watch also offer good options for those who want a panic button at hand that can actually get them help in a hurry.
Medical Bill Gotchas
Double-check your medical bills and statements from your health insurance plan to compare them against your policy to make sure you’re not paying too much for routine and preventive care like annual physicals, well-woman visits, mammograms, flu shots, colonoscopies, etc. Usually, out-of-pocket costs for these types of services are lower than other types of appointments and treatment. If you get a surprise sky-high medical bill, consider hiring a patient advocate to negotiate a fair price for you.
Medical Tests and Procedures
No, not all of them. But it’s clear that doctors too often prescribe—sometimes at patients’ requests—unnecessary treatments. The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that up to 30 percent of the costs of medical care delivered in the U.S.—more than $250 billion—pays for unnecessary tests, procedures, doctor visits, hospital stays, and other services that may not actually improve patient health—and in some cases increase the risk of further harm.
ChoosingWisely.org is an initiative of the ABIM Foundation, a supporting organization of the American Board of Internal Medicine, that provides recommendations for doctors and patients. The campaign encourages medical specialty societies to identify commonly used procedures of which the necessity should be questioned and discussed, and then issues their findings in clinical lists and patient materials. The aim is to promote dialogue and urge patients to have only the tests or treatments that are free from harm, necessary, and supported by evidence, not to duplicate already-performed tests or procedures.
Digital subscription services are the ultimate in convenience. That small monthly fee to stream video, listen to music or audiobooks, or store your stuff in the cloud makes it seem like a good deal when signing up, especially if you get a free trial period. But these little fees add up: The average American spent $640 on digital subscriptions in 2019. Then there are regular payments you make for gym or fitness club memberships, and subscriptions to a newspaper or magazines, a monthly clothing or beauty box, or weekly meal kits. The list goes on and on. Periodically sit down and follow the money to figure out how much your monthly memberships strain your budget and cancel subscriptions you don’t use.
If you don’t have 20 percent equity, your lender likely will force you to buy costly mortgage insurance. But you don’t have to carry it forever. Once you have paid down your mortgage balance to 80 percent of your home’s appraised value, you can ask your lender to cancel the insurance, and by law it must eliminate it once a mortgage balance represents less than 78 percent of a home’s value. (Note that you can’t cancel mortgage insurance on an FHA loan; if you have one of those, you’ll have to refinance your note to eliminate it.)
When considering whether to buy pet health insurance, first determine what you would do if Fluffy or Fido required expensive medical care. While many pet owners will pay anything to save their furry kids, others won’t. If you are in the latter group, pet insurance is not for you. If you belong to the pay-any-price group, consider it if huge vet bills would severely strain your finances. But keep in mind that in terms of total out-of-pocket costs over the life of your pet, most owners will do better without insurance.
You can tackle most frame-up jobs on your own. If your pieces are standard-sized, you can buy inexpensive premade frames for them. If you have odd-sized art or want customized frames and mats, several websites allow you to enter measurements and shop from hundreds of frames. The store ships your products and you assemble everything. In our experience, this is a relatively simple (but not totally goof-proof) task.
Rental Car Insurance
When picking up your rental car, you must face THE QUESTIONS about insurance coverage. We find that for most drivers, the plans the agent “strongly recommends” represent unnecessary expenses. Most of us already get sufficient coverage from a combination of our personal auto insurance policies and the credit cards we use to pay for the rentals. Plus, you get liability coverage automatically from the rental car companies themselves, as required by the state or country you’re visiting.
If you don’t own a car (and therefore don’t have auto insurance), or you want to protect against risks not covered by your auto insurance or credit card companies (loss of use fees is a biggie), consider buying your own standalone policy, rather than paying for the expensive plan offered by the rental company. If you’re an American Express cardholder, for example, you can pay a flat $25 fee and get good primary rental car insurance coverage, which means that, unlike the plans offered by the rental companies, if there’s a problem no claim is filed with your regular auto insurer.
Restaurant Ordering Services
Although ordering apps like DoorDash, Grubhub, and Uber Eats charge you low fees to ferry food to your place, we find most charge restaurants steep commissions and fees, typically totaling 20 percent, and sometimes 40 percent or more. These fees force many restaurants to raise their menu prices paid by you and other eaters.
That fancy new gadget on sale for “60% off!” seems like a steal. But it’s probably not. Our researchers find that advertised “sale” prices often aren’t special prices. Many stores offer fake discounts to discourage shoppers from bothering to shop around for legitimate good deals.
For proof that we Americans have too much darn stuff, we present the burgeoning self-storage industry, which rakes in more than $40 billion a year. Unless you’re in between homes or need a place to stash your things during renovations, downsize your possessions rather than blow big-time money on storage. If you do need storage, shop around to make sure you don’t overspend: Our undercover shoppers found big prices differences among local spots.
Tax Prep Help
If you have complicated investments, are self-employed, or own a business, it often makes sense to pay a CPA for help. But most of us can do our own taxes. Tax-prep software is now remarkably easy to use, and if you have a straightforward return and your family’s adjusted gross income (AGI) is below $72,000, you can use several companies’ software and e-file your federal return for free. Several studies have found that many of the “experts” employed by commercial tax-prep companies don’t really know what they’re doing anyway.
At the end of your rope trying to program or hook up a new TV? Can’t get your new tablet to find your Wi-Fi network? Can’t configure that new laptop? Some stores, including Costco, offer free tech support. Or ask a techy friend for aid in exchange for lunch.
The pitch is that filling tires with nitrogen will more effectively maintain air pressure, which means you’ll get optimal fuel economy and tread life. That’s true, but the benefits are really small. And if you have to pay for nitrogen fill-ups (many shops charge $7 or more per tire), then it’s a waste of money.
Tire Protection Plans
Most tire sellers offer tire protection plans, which cover damage to tires due to road hazards during normal driving. In other words, if you get a flat caused by a nail, glass, or other road debris, the company promises to repair or, if necessary, replace the tire. But if you get a flat from accidentally running over a curb or other driver-caused errors, you get bupkis. And these plans never pay for failure from worn tread; that type of problem is (poorly) covered under the manufacturer’s warranty.
Some stores (including Costco) provide this type of coverage for free, but most plans cost an extra $50 to $80 for a set of four tires. Unless it’s free, these add-ons aren’t good deals.
Even if a nail flattens your tire, you can get it plugged by an auto repair shop for only $20 or so. Paying $50 to $80 to protect yourself against a $20 risk doesn’t make sense.
Periodically rotating tires extends tread life by allowing even wear, but the rubber savings gained from regular rotation likely won’t offset the cost of rotating them. If your tire seller or repair shop will rotate tires for free (as do Costco and some other sellers), then, sure, go ahead and do it; but if you have to pay a fee, skip it.
Trip Protection Plans
We find that the trip protection policies pushed by airlines, travel-booking sites, cruise lines, and their lot are (often incredibly) bad buys for most travelers. While they might seem like good, sensible buys, wade into the fine print and you’ll find these plans actually provide pretty thin coverage—typical exclusions include hurricanes, earthquakes, civil unrest, illnesses due to preexisting medical conditions, and pandemics. Most travelers don’t risk much skipping it.
On the other hand, it makes sense for some international travelers to shop around for medical insurance policies, especially if they are Medicare beneficiaries (no coverage for foreign healthcare costs) or visiting regions that lack comprehensive medical facilities and their health insurance plans won’t cover the high price of medical evacuation.
Upgraded Tech Speeds and Capabilities
Internet and cell service providers push their customers to upgrade to “better” plans that offer faster speeds and higher data-download allowances. But before you pay out the wazoo for 1,000 Mbps download speeds, unlimited cell data, and the like, consider whether you really need it. You don’t need too much bandwidth to watch Netflix or attend all those dreaded Zoom meetings. And although each year our smartphones gobble up more and more data, most of us still can get away with monthly allowances of 20GB or less, rather than a pricey unlimited plan.
When shopping for new gadgets, consider whether you really should shell out a lot more money to buy the latest thing. Plopping down thousands of dollars for an 8K Ultra HD TV model to watch Cheers reruns doesn’t make sense, especially when “older” models from a few years ago cost 90 percent less yet deliver the same picture quality for your needs. And although 5G smartphones sound amazing—download a movie in minutes!—the carriers haven’t built out their networks enough for us to take advantage of it, and how often do you need to download the latest Oscar-winning flick to your phone, anyway?
Utility Line Warranties
Homeowners across the U.S. often receive ominous, official-looking letters bearing the logos of their utility companies warning they are responsible for repairs to water and sewer lines on their property. The clincher: If there are problems, the homeowner could be on the hook for thousands in repair costs.
Although these mailings seem to come from their utilities, they’re really pitches from third-party companies. They’ve struck sketchy partnership agreements with utility companies allowing them use of their names and logos to hawk (in our view, lousy) warranty coverage. The ploys work: So far, more than 7 million homeowners have purchased these plans.
But our research found that few homeowners ever have to deal with expensive water or sewer line repairs or replacements. These warranties are bad deals.
Vitamins and Supplements
Mounting clinical research indicates that many vitamins and nutritional supplements provide few, if any, health benefits—and some can do more harm than good.
Most of us get enough vitamins by eating a healthy balanced diet. Some people should take specific vitamins or supplements—for example, many pregnant women need folic acid and some adults require extra vitamin D. But talk to your doctor or perform research using reputable websites (MayoClinic.org has good summaries) before gobbling down a lot of pills and powders.
We call duct cleaning work a solution in search of a problem. Companies that do it claim that their services will improve your home’s air quality, but there’s little evidence this yields any substantial benefits. Even if you have dust allergies, you may want to avoid having your ducts cleaned: The little independent research that exists indicates duct-cleaning work may temporarily worsen problems.
When Amazon launched Prime, its main benefit was free two-day shipping. Now Amazon provides free shipping for much of what it sells if your order is $25 or more. Prime is still worth its $119 annual fee (or $12.99/month) if you regularly watch its original TV shows or movies or other programming available for free to Prime members. And its unlimited cloud storage for photos, its music streaming service, and Subscribe & Save discounts on household and baby products also make membership costs a better deal if you use those services. But many Prime customers aren’t getting their $119-a-year’s worth.
Basement Waterproofing Contractors
If you have a wet basement, before calling in a waterproofing contractor try some simple solutions. Most basement moisture problems are resolved by cleaning out clogged gutters, extending gutter downspouts, or doing a bit of regrading work to improve drainage outside. These tasks are far less expensive (even if you hire someone to do them) than jackhammering up your basement and installing interior drainage systems and sump pumps. Waterproofing companies will gladly sell you costly solutions that manage rainwater after it enters your home, but they usually won’t offer to solve the problem outside, at its source.
Car Repair Warranties
Vehicle extended service contracts are incredibly profitable for auto dealers and other companies that sell them. But because many new cars are very reliable, most owners make few service claims. Even when something goes wrong, many consumers who buy these plans find their claims are often denied due to sneaky fine-print exclusions. We reviewed the lists of excluded repairs buried in several contracts and were left wondering if there was anything on the car left to cover.
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