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Money May 2014

Dollar Sense

Are You Paying Gray Charges?

By Teresa Ambord

Now when I see a Butt-Weight ad on TV I tell myself, “but wait!” Within a few weeks those items will be on sale locally, and I can walk into a store and buy just one if that’s all I want, and pay zero shipping and handling.

No, gray charges aren’t fees targeted at those of us with silver manes (or silver roots). They are unexpected charges, which you may have knowingly or unknowingly. Or you may have agreed short-term and then forgotten. Generally gray charges are legitimate though they can also happen accidentally. However they originate they are every bit as annoying as the onset of gray hair. And like gray hair – if you choose to fight them you just might win.

Here are some examples:

  • Subscriptions. This may be a subscription for a magazine or a service. It starts with a free or low-cost offer. Let’s say it’s for a credit protection policy through one of your existing credit cards. The salesperson might say, “it’s valued at $29 per month, but for you, it’s free for 90 days.” The idea of course is to get you to try it, but if it comes with automatic renewal, it’s up to you to cancel it within that period, or be charged. That’s why, to get the free deal you’ll generally have to provide your debit or credit information.

    If you do decide to try it, be sure to get details on how and when to cancel. Then put the information on a calendar you will see daily and follow through if you decide you don’t want it.

  • Free trial offers. These are very similar to “subscriptions” above. Your mama probably told you, nothing is really free, and she was right. Yes, it might be free for 30 days, yet to get the free trial – just like subscriptions -- you have to give the vendor your credit or debit information. This could be to pay a small amount for shipping and handling, which seems reasonable. But once again, the vendor is relying on you to forget to cancel the product or service before the end of the free trial period.

    Years ago I used to get these phone solicitations all the time, through one of my credit cards. Salespeople frequently called to offer me some wonderful new service which would usher me into the “good life” or provide insurance to protect me in case of accidental dismemberment, or make exotic travel very affordable… if you could figure out how to use the service and didn’t mind traveling to Florida during storm season. I admit it. I felt sorry for these people trying to make a living by pitching these services. So I’d say yes to the freebie, then note the cancel-by date. Occasionally I did remember to cancel but mostly I didn’t. By the time I realized I’d forgotten and was being charged, at least a month or two had gone by, of paying for something I didn’t want.

    A friend of mine has a much worse story. Like me, he always felt sorry for the salespeople and let himself be talked into the free trials, fully intending to cancel. He saw them on his credit card  statements, month after month, always intending to cancel … for over 20 years. It gets worse… he eventually had four separate policies, and never made a claim. If he did file a claim, he probably wouldn’t get back as much as he paid in premiums. All because of those darn free trial offers.

    My friend and I both learned the hard way, the best policy is, just say no.

  • Contests.  Beware of online contests, such as those connected with magazines. They may be completely legitimate. But if you don’t read the fine print, you may find you’ve subscribed, when you only meant to enter the contest. To be legal, the contest sponsors have to provide a way for you to enter without making a purchase. But watch the fine print. Many sponsors put little boxes which say, for example, “Subscribe me.” The trick is, the boxes are pre-checked, and it’s up to you to find them, notice them and uncheck them or you agree to something you didn’t intend, like a subscription.

    I like to think I’m pretty savvy (don’t we all?) but I recently entered a contest on the website of a magazine I already subscribe to. Evidently I failed to find and uncheck the little box, because soon I got a duplicate of the latest issue, and a bill. Now I’m trying to cancel the mistaken subscription.


What can you do?

If you agreed to the charges, even if you didn’t intend to agree… they can be hard to dispute. If you believe there was deception involved, or a mistake like a double billing, contact the business and explain. Ask to have the charges reversed, and if it is an ongoing subscription, ask to cancel it immediately. If you don’t get satisfaction, you can always file a dispute with your credit card issuer for charges you did not initiate.

As I mentioned before, these tactics aren’t generally illegal. And I don’t blame vendors for holding out free or low-price offers to get new customers. But I don’t like the effort to hide the gray charges, and neither should you. Again, the best policy is usually just say no.


Those Ever Present Butt-Weight Ads

What is a “butt-weight ad?” Technically it’s “but wait,” but in my house we call them “butt weight ads.” They fall under the category of “as seen on TV” items. First they tell you the low, low, unbelievable price. Then the seller says, “but wait! We’ll send you not one, but two for this price.” Then he adds the kicker. To get the deal, you must agree to pay the additional shipping and handling on the free item. And the devil is in the mystery of that handling fee, which gives the seller too much leeway.

I fell for this once. I ordered an item for my dog, for $10. The seller said I could get two for just $10 if I paid the extra shipping and handling, which I agreed to. After all, how much could it be? When the products arrived I realized I’d paid a total of $30. So if one item was free, that means I paid $20 for shipping and handling (both items together weighed about two ounces).

Never again.

I still see TV ads for things I’d like to buy, but I learned that my local Walmart has a special aisle for “As Seen on TV” items. Some towns also have stores dedicated to only these items. Now when I see a Butt-Weight ad on TV I tell myself, “but wait!” Within a few weeks those items will be on sale locally, and I can walk into a store and buy just one if that’s all I want, and pay zero shipping and handling.


Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

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