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Product Review

Costly fees that you should never pay

Additional costs can stack up, but there are easy ways to avoid them

Using your own bank’s ATMs can help you avoid fees, which usually run $2 to $3.

CHUCK BURTON/AP/FILE 2013

Using your own bank’s ATMs can help you avoid fees, which usually run $2 to $3.

Fees! Consumer Reports hates them as much as you do. And not just because all that nickel-and-diming adds up to a pretty penny. It’s also because they can be hard to escape.

Consumers pay $2.4 billion per year in credit-card late fees — and $800 million in expedited-payment fees to banks to avoid those late charges. We cough up $31 billion annually in debit-card overdraft fees. That’s a lot of $30-a-pop penalties for payments that banks authorized in the first place.

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Airline fees can be just as bad. Spirit Airlines, for example, ropes you in with its claim of “ultra-low fares,” then charges you $90 to check your first bag at the airport, $110 for the second, and $100 per carry-on (round trip).

Still, many fees can be avoided or minimized. Consumer Reports offers this guide:

Banking. Avoid ATM withdrawal fees, usually $2 to $3, by using your own bank’s machines or a fee-free ATM network. Or tap the cash-back features many supermarkets offer when you pay by debit card.

Avoid big-bank checking fees of $8 to $15 per month by signing up for direct deposit, maintaining minimum balances, or switching to a credit union, community bank, or online or smartphone virtual bank, where free checking is more common.

Credit. It’s easy to avoid $65 to $495 in credit-card annual fees because only 5 percent of credit cards have them; shop for no-fee, low-interest-rate options at Bankrate.com. Stop overlimit fees by contacting your card issuer to opt out of plans that let you charge beyond your credit limit.

Knowing your consumer rights is the key to fee-zapping here. There’s almost no need to pay $12 to $17 in credit report fees, because you can get a free copy once per year from each of the three big credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — at annualcreditreport.com.

You can deal with a variety of mortgage fees by asking the lender to explain them, then negotiate to reduce or eliminate them. Those include prepayment fees, origination fees, and various document fees.

Investing. Never pay a mutual-fund sales fee, or “load,” which can be a whopping 3 percent to 8.5 percent of the amount you pay for fund shares; buy only true “no load” funds. Reduce management fees that can tax your balances by as much as 1.5 percent every year, which hurts long-term returns, by shopping for stock funds with fees below 1 percent and index funds with fees below 0.4 percent.

And stay away from variable annuities and the mortality and expense risk charges they come with. Annuities are overpriced, and it’s hard to comparison shop to begin with. But such charges cost 1.25 percent of the annuity’s asset value every year to insure the insurer in case you live longer than their calculations supposed.

Travel. Sidestep airline telephone-booking fees of $25 to $35 per ticket by reserving and buying online. Include baggage fees to compare the true cost of low-fare come-ons, and consider two carriers highly rated by Consumer Reports’ readers that let you check one bag (JetBlue) or two (Southwest) free on domestic flights.

Autos. The additional dealer markup, often found on new or high-demand models, can be made to hit the road if you threaten to bail on the deal or wait until that hot model cools down. And let the salesman know that since manufacturers pay dealers to remove coatings and coverings that protect vehicles during shipping, you won’t be paying dealer-prep fees.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.
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