10 Pointless Fees That Are Sabotaging Your Budget


When I read the word "fee," what I see is, "something you should have avoided paying." No one likes to pay fees, fines, service charges, or anything that sounds remotely like a penalty. While some fees are unavoidable — try taking a flight without paying the Passenger Civil Aviation Security Service Fee — there are plenty that you can sidestep by calling to complain, avoiding certain behaviors, or switching providers.

Of course, to get out of a fee, first you have to know it was charged. Here are the especially pointless ones you need to watch out for.

1. Digital equipment rental fees

A friend recently replaced her internet provider's outdated modem with one she bought herself. When she called to let the company know, they removed a $20 monthly equipment rental fee she hadn't even known she was paying. She just saved $240 a year!

2. Bank fees

Banks love to tack on fees. One of the most insidious is the overdraft fee, which kicks in when a bank allows you to take more money out of your account than you actually have, then charges you for the "privilege." The really devilish thing here is that if the bank doesn't cover the transaction — for instance, if you haven't opted in to the overdraft program — they will deny payment to the merchant and charge you a non-sufficient funds fee. Either way, you pay.

Other sneaky bank fees are account maintenance fees, which might kick in if your account falls below a certain balance threshold, or check writing fees, which can crop up if you signed up for an account that typically allows only a small number of transactions per month.

A few tips for avoiding bank fees: Use a credit card rather than a debit card to avoid accidental overdrafts. Keep an eye on your balance and know what checks are coming in. Keep a buffer of several hundred dollars in your account and set a text alert to let you know if your balance dips below it. Link your checking account to a savings account. Know the terms of your bank account.

If you do see a fee on your bank account statement, call the bank. They may agree to fully or completely reverse the charge, and at the very least, they can let you know how to avoid the fee in the future — for example, by changing account types. If you find yourself getting hit with a lot of fees, consider changing banks or switching to a credit union. (See also: Are You Paying These 6 Unfair Banking Fees?)

3. ATM fees

The average fee for using a cash machine not run by your bank has hit an all-time high of $4.69, according to Bankrate. This may not seem like a big deal until you consider the percentages here. If you withdraw $40 from an out-of-network ATM and pay $4 for it, that's like giving away 10 percent of your hard-earned money just for the privilege of using the machine.

To avoid this fee, always keep a little cash in your wallet in case of an emergency. If I find myself in a crunch, I stop at a grocery or drugstore and make a small purchase to get cash back. I'd rather pay $1 for a pack of gum with my cash than $4 for nothing. (See also: 8 Ways to Make Sure You Never Pay an ATM Fee)

4. Investment account fees

When you invest for retirement, you can expect to pay some fees, but plans and accounts with higher-than-average fees can sap your retirement income big time. There are the fees you can easily see: The average investment manager charges around 1 percent of your assets each year. But you may also be paying fees you don't know about, like load fees on the mutual funds your adviser is buying or excessive trading fees if your manager is moving your money around a lot.

To avoid excessive investment fees, consider a low-cost platform such as Vanguard target date funds or a robo adviser. If you're stuck with your company's 401(k) plan, study the fees carefully and complain to human resources if they're too high. (See also: Watch Out for These 5 Sneaky 401K Fees)

5. Foreign transaction fees

If you go overseas, you may find yourself hit with foreign transaction fees both while using your credit card and while withdrawing cash. The only way to avoid this is to do your homework before you go. There are a lot of credit cards that advertise no foreign transaction fees now, so if your card doesn't offer that perk, simply apply for one that does before your trip. Getting approved should only take a few days, and you can even pay extra for express shipping if you're leaving soon.

If your bank account charges foreign transaction fees, that can be harder to change, because opening a new account takes paperwork and time. If you have more than one account, check with all of them. Last time I went overseas, I learned that my credit union account doesn't charge the fee, while my regular checking account did. So I simply used the credit union account to withdraw cash on my trip. You can also ask your bank if there is a different account type you can switch to that doesn't charge the fee. (See also: 11 Ways to Avoid Bank Fees While Traveling)

6. Library fines

When my kids were little and liked to check out 10 picture books at a time from our local library, the books would end up mixed in with their personal libraries and I would forget we ever checked them out. We ended up running up so much money in fines that my library card was frozen.

A better way to operate is to set a calendar reminder on your phone for the day before books are due. Keep the receipt handy, or consult your online library account, so that you have a list of all the books you checked out. If none of that works, you may have to do what I did: Institute a "read them at the library only" policy for library books.

If you do let those fees add up, find out if your library has an amnesty or fee forgiveness day scheduled. Our local library sometimes forgives fines in exchange for donations to the food pantry. You can also let the library know if you have a financial hardship; as long as they get the books back, they may be willing to waive the fines. Finally, find out if your library offers fine-free cards for children.

7. Credit card fees

If you fail to make the minimum payment on your credit card, you will be charged not only interest, but also a late fee. While traveling last month, I missedpayments on two credit card accounts, each which only had a tiny amount of charges on them. For both, the fee was larger than the balance I'd failed to pay.

To avoid this, always make at least the minimum payment each month. Not only will this avoid this month's fee, but it will demonstrate a good payment record which will help if you ever do slip up. Because I'd had a perfect on-time payment record before this, both credit cards forgave my late payments and reversed the fees. (See also: 5 Simple Ways to Never Make a Late Credit Card Payment)

8. Credit report fees

It's a good idea to check your credit report regularly for accounts you don't recognize, accounts sent to collections without your knowledge, or other problems that could prevent you from getting a loan in the future. But you generally don't need to pay for this. Under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act (FACTA) all Americans are entitled to one free credit report a year from each bureau. (See also: How to Read a Credit Report)

9. Money transfer fees

Sending money to family or even paying bills if you don't have a checking account can run up large fees, but it doesn't have to be that way. There are now tons of ways to send money with no fee or only a small fee, using PayPal, Venmo, Apple Pay, or Square Cash. For PayPal, if you're not making a business transaction, make sure to choose the friends and family option so you're not charged a fee. (See also: 7 Modern Ways to Send Money to Your Kid)

10. Airline fees

We are in the era of a thousand airline fees, and it is annoying. Many of the so-called fees that airlines tack onto your bill are just price increases in disguise, while others are mandated by the government. But there are some that are often avoidable, such as phone booking fees, baggage fees, and ticket change fees.

To avoid a phone fee, book online whenever possible. If you are booking an itinerary that can't be booked online, such as using miles on partners for some airlines, remind the phone agent that your transaction can't be done online and they probably won't charge you the fee.

To avoid baggage fees, look into getting the airline's credit card; many offer a free checked bag and other privileges to cardholders. Another strategy is to bring a roll-aboard bag that fits within the airline's carry-on allowance. In my experience, passengers with these bags are often offered free checked baggage at the gate anyway. Finally, you can stick to airlines that don't charge a fee for the first bag or two, such as Southwest. (See also: 6 Ways to Save On Baggage Fees)

Avoiding ticket change fees can be both the easiest and hardest. When your plans don't change, or if you book with Southwest, it's easy to avoid. If you made a mistake on your booking or if plans change, these can be impossible to avoid. The best you can do is to check and double check your reservation within the first 24 hours, before the airlines are allowed to charge a fee.

Some airlines offer the chance to purchase a ticket with free changes for a higher cost. Naturally, on the flights when I paid extra for that privilege, my plans did not change. If your plans change unavoidably, you can try calling the airline or booking company to plead your case. If the change is due to a death, you'll be expected to produce the death certificate.

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