On being ... nickeled-and-dimed

By Ingrid Sapona

I use the same company for my phone, internet, and digital t.v. service I pay a flat fee and I save (if you can call paying about $150/month saving) because I get “bundling” discounts. When my March bill arrived I noticed it was a bit higher than normal. On closer examination, I saw that the internet service charge was $5 more than it had been. I phoned and, after numerous questions and being put on hold for quite awhile, the customer service rep said there was a billing error and somehow that month I didn’t get all the bundling discounts I should have. He told me they’d credit me $5 on my April bill but that I should pay the current bill in full.

When I got the April bill there was no $5 credit, so I phoned to complain. After 20+ minutes on the phone, the customer service rep once again assured me I’d be credited next month. After hanging up I was very irritated, in part because between last month and this month I spent at least an hour (time digging out previous bills and time on the phone to straighten it out) dealing with this $5 error.

Compounding my irritation was the thought that maybe I should have just paid the $5 and let it go because, clearly, my time’s worth more than $5. But, truth be told, I also knew that part of what was nagging at me was the thought that maybe my knee-jerk reaction to fight such overcharges comes from worrying I’m not as financially as secure as I’d like to be or, worse yet, that such disputes are a manifestation of being a penny pincher.

After calming down, I realized I’d be a happier person if I didn’t let things like this bother me, so I began thinking of techniques I might try to cultivate more of a sense of equanimity. One idea I came up with is to set a dollar amount below which I wouldn’t quibble. In other words, borrowing a concept from my accounting friends, I’d set a personal “materiality threshold” and I’d only spend time on issues involving amounts over that threshold. But what amount should I choose? I decided to ruminate on that question for a few days.

As it happens, the very next day I got a parking ticket. They’re doing repairs to my condominium’s garage and the management company arranged with the City for residents to park on the street overnight, so long as we displayed special permits. Despite the fact that I prominently displayed the permit on my dashboard, I got a $40 ticket! I was livid.

No sooner did I sit down to write a letter about the ticket than I thought of my materiality threshold question. Though I hadn’t yet settled on an amount, it took me less than three seconds to decide it certainly was something less than $40. Besides, I’m a fast typist and it wouldn’t take me long to write the condo management company telling them I expected them to deal with the ticket.

The following day’s mail brought yet another opportunity for me to either practice developing equanimity, or to narrow in on a personal materiality threshold. This opportunity came in the form of a $29 late fee applied to my April Chase Visa bill. In March, Chase had returned a $53 cheque I wrote on a U.S. dollar account I have with my Canadian bank. In the past, they’ve accepted payment from this account. I phoned Chase immediately to find out what the problem was.

It’s a long story but it has something to do with the fact that my Canadian bank recently issued me new cheques that apparently can no longer be cleared under the U.S.’s clearing system. The upshot of that 45+ minute conversation was that I had to get a U.S. money order to pay Chase. Getting the money order and mailing it with a letter explaining that the problem wasn’t my fault took two more hours.

Fast forward to the other day and my April bill with the $29 late fee. Naturally, I phoned Chase for an explanation. They said the fee was because the March payment was late. I couldn’t believe any late fee was charged, much less $29 on a $53 bill! I again explained it wasn’t my fault that they returned the cheque and I asked them to waive the fee because I’ve always paid in full and on time. After 55+ minutes on the phone, it was clear Chase wouldn’t budge. (I’ve already cut up the Chase card but I can’t afford to jeopardize my credit rating by simply ignoring the $29 fee, regardless of whether I think it’s fair or appropriate.) They suggested I ask my Canadian bank to reimburse me the $29 since it was their change to the cheques that caused the problem.

So, what to do? I’d already spent nearly an hour on the phone with Chase about this damned $29 (not to mention the time I spent on the phone with them in March). Do I take up the matter with my bank or do I bite the bullet and forget about it?

Well, I’m sorry to report that equanimity didn’t triumph, but I am getting closer to nailing down my materiality threshold. (Clearly it’s something under $29!) I took it up with my bank and, thankfully, it took less than an hour of my time and my bank reimbursed me the $29.

To be honest, I don’t know if setting a materiality threshold is the answer, but the way things are going lately, I worry that if I don’t, I may end up being nickeled-and-dimed to death.

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona


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