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Our Monthly Bills: The Shocking Truth

I have something embarrassing to admit. For the first time in our sixteen-year marriage, my husband and I decided to scrutinize our bills. We are not, I should point out, one of those filthy-rich-set-for-life couples either. You’re probably wondering what kind of people we are then—with the adjective “irresponsible” coming quickly to mind.

I could blame it on being busy, but the truth is it’s mostly due to the fact that both of us don’t like things that require attention to detail, and both of us have not, in the past, been overly concerned about money. For years, we both worked full-time and money wasn’t an issue. We brought home healthy salaries and were rapidly climbing our respective career ladders. The future looked bright. I quit my full-time job a few years ago, but, at that exact time, my husband got a raise that more than made up for my salary.

Life rolled along with lots of travel, entertaining, private school tuition, and club memberships. Neither one of us is super indulgent when it comes to spending, but we do like to live well. We weren’t excessive or gross about it, but we pretty much bought ourselves whatever we wanted—from clothes to cars. Each year, we socked away an amount deemed “responsible” by our investment guy and spent the rest.

Then my husband quit his job. He was burned out and wanted to try something different and entrepreneurial. He took some time off, spent the summer with me and the kids, and geared up to kick off a few endeavors in the fall. Talk about timing.

Like most people right now, we’re trying to offset losses from the market crash, and tightening our belt straps. But we’re also, for the first time, trying to solve a long-time mystery: where does all the money go? 

Taking a close look at our monthly bills, quite frankly, we were shocked. Take our American Express bill. We put just about everything on it from gas to groceries. By doing a line item review (this monthly bill is usually seven or eight pages), we found automatically recurring charges for things we were no longer using—AOL, several Web services, and a newspaper we rarely read. 

Other items, like pest control service every three months, were deemed excessive and cut back.

Then we hit the monthly bills, one by one, line by line. By examining our DIRECTV bill, for example, we discovered we were paying $4.99 every month for an extra receiver we did not own. We got rid of it five years ago when we renovated, but no one apparently told DIRECTV.

Our AT&T bills, though, were a complete Pandora’s box. First let’s take the AT&T mobility bill for our cell phones. My husband I both have them, as do our two sons. In several bills, there were Internet charges for my sons’ phones—one, in November, was a $30 charge for using the Internet on his phone. On other bills, there were charges for ordering games for their phones. For example, one son ordered a tennis game to play on his phone for $9.99—one of three games he ordered that month. The other games were $7.99 and $5.99. Suffice to say, neither of our sons were given phones to access the internet or play games. I called AT&T and had both features eliminated. Suffice to say, this should have been noted on the bill and taken care of months ago (we got the boys their phones at the start of the school year). In addition, there was an oversight on my cell phone. I had failed to sign up for text messaging when I got my phone. I started doing that with my kids recently and was being charged text by text. One monthly charge was as high as $25. I changed this to a $5 charge for unlimited texting.

The AT&T home phone bill was the biggest shocker. Over the past twelve months, our monthly bill has ranged from $196 to $330. It has averaged at about $225. We had a home line, a business line, a fax line, and a DSL line for internet. I told the customer service rep I wanted to talk to someone about reducing our bill. She replied, “I’ll switch you to the Retention Center.” It was amazing what happened next.

The rep pointed out we were paying $20 a month for a fax line. The truth is we rarely use the fax anymore. If we did need a fax, the rep pointed out, we could plug the fax in the phone line just for a brief time and then switch it back to phone when we were done. We killed the fax line then and there.

I noted we were paying $31.50 each month for our SBC global Internet line. It seemed high. Without a beat, she offered up, “Oh, we can take that down to $14.99.”

My husband had put a message service on his business line for $8.95 a month. “Why don’t you just go to Radio Shack and get a message machine for $40?” the rep asked. Done. We eliminated the $8.95 monthly charge immediately.

We were also paying a bulk or flat rate of $25 for a certain amount of long distance calls each month. The rep said, “Oh we can do better than that. I’ll reduce that to $10 for the same amount of minutes.” I wondered why she was able to do that. She said that’s just what they were offering customers now. Four years ago, when we signed up, it was $25. Would have been nice if they had let me know when the rate dropped? But she said, customers have to ask for it. 

In total, we reduced our monthly phone bill by more than forty-six bucks. 

One final note, if you do call AT&T to try to reduce your rate, be sure you ask for the Retention Center. The regular reps apparently can’t lower rates.

It’s amazing what you can get by paying a little attention and asking questions. Duly noted.