Fees Rise as Recession Drains Private, Public Coffers

From new banking fees to increasing traffic fines and higher education costs, the consumer is getting gouged left and right. So what can you do about ubiquitous fee creep? Here are four strategies.

In these recessionary times, with revenues falling in all jurisdictions, governmental bodies have been scrambling to find income where they can. And with T-A-X being a four letter word, they have been creative in coming up with euphemistic alternatives for the same thing.

Dealing with Traffic Tickets

Take the Revenue Traffic Fine, for instance. In California, the poster child for governmental insouciance and fiscal collapse, the new year has brought a sharp uptick in the cost of all infractions. If you figure in the cost of traffic school, and it's fees, even many simple tickets can easily run over $1000 now. And I'm not talking about the consequent spike in insurance costs that no doubt will be added.

The insurance companies must realize the increase in traffic violations do not represent a breakdown in vehicular civility, especially in these less traveled, lower employment times, but they sure are happy to raise your rates if you are cited and collect the low-risk higher rate premiums.

To get a snapshot of how much low hanging fruit there is for local jurisdictions, the next time you are driving somewhere without a deadline, pick a fellow motorist at random. Watch them for just a short while and you will notice the rolling stop, the unsignaled lane change, and the casual drift over the speed limit that are SOP. All ripe for an arbitrary pull over, or the newest filip, the traffic camera. None of these tickets will make us appreciably safer, and arguing about it is usually fruitless. It's a lot easier to write a ticket than it is to fight a ticket.

Credit Card Creep

And how about the credit card companies and banks learning to love fees? They have had legislation to limit their interest rates, but they will, and do, find a way to get at your wallet, especially through the ubiquitous fee. For instance, I just received a document from my bank (I assume not voluntarily sent by them) listing about 80 fees that they may levy. But that's okay because they will impose one...only if they can. So watch your statements and speak up. I have been able to get some reversed from time to time, albeit with polite begging.

Saving for Education

Fee creep has really flourished in higher education. Again, in California, my fair state, which used to have the best public university system in the country, sharply higher fees have been imposed. And the level of service has been sharply cut back as well to make the value proposition even worse. Only the even higher increases in private education costs over the last years have allowed public education to maintain a relative edge.

For young docs starting out with record school debt, the challenge to get ahead to save for your children's education seems especially daunting and requires very careful planning. With room, board, tuition, books, incidentals and travel, a bachelor's degree at a public institution is looking up to $100K and a private degree at a top Ivy may well top out over $250K, at current rates. Per child. Ouch. Figure in even modest inflation and there go those dreams of a retirement Ferrari.

(In)Frequent Flyer Miles

Another egregious example of gotcha! creep is the Frequent Flyer programs. When they first started, they were a delight. To build business they made it easy to qualify and there were seats available on almost any flight. Not anymore, bunky. They have continually increased how many miles/points it takes to get either an upgrade or a "free" flight. Next, they have drastically cut back on both the number of flights going anywhere and the number of "available" seats that they open for miles/points.

Then they came up with the concept that miles expire. The net effect is that the person who aspired over time to slowly build up to a grand trip has been too often rudely surprised to find that that plane has left the airport.

And the ubiquitous fee has reared its ugly head here, too. Transfer fees, access fees, and unbundled taxes add up to not quite what a purchased flight might cost. So you figure it is still worth it, barely.

Lastly, the programs have gotten so huge that it is difficult to access any available seat and flight. I once got a good clerk on the phone and gave him a wide window of times and airports. We managed to work it out with a motley assemblage of carriers and stops, but it took 2 hours. And that was with an involved clerk, many of whom, you might not be shocked to learn, are not so committed to helping. And don't even get me started about the unbundling of previously free luggage to a fee status.

Being in health care we know that dysfunctional systems can only be made to work sometimes by gaming them. So there are lots of websites with advice on how to do this for frequent fliers. But we've all learned the hard way that lucky usually wins out over smart.

For example, I once tried to book an international flight with my domestic airline miles. My carrier didn't go to my destination, so they booked me with another carrier. But in the shuffle, we were assigned to First Class on one of the best airlines in the world. I told my wife that I wasn't getting off and was going to spend my entire vacation being pampered by the 4 female attendants assigned to the six mini-bedrooms upstairs in the 747.

Now, you still can't let down your guard with the fee-hungry police, banks, credit cards, universities and airlines, but it sure is nice to report one win for the little guy!