How To Avoid Late Fees And Penalties

rolled up US dollar bills and nine coins scattered on a gray and white countertop

I believe paying late fees is a voluntary form of taxation.

You are paying more than you should, because of failing to get a payment made on time.

a 1967 British penny

Let those who have never made a late payment cast the first penny!  I am neurotic about paying my bills on time, but sometimes life happens, and a bill manages to slip through the cracks.

I’ve recently had a flurry of activity calling companies to reverse late charges, or get a better rate on the services I’m utilizing. I’m going to totally nerd out here, so you may want to grab a cup of coffee while reading this!

cup of coffee with heart shaped foam on top, in a white cup with matching saucer

Every year, I get a letter from my credit union, informing me that my lack of activity on my account caused my status to change to “inactive”.  If I don’t want my money to be transferred to the state’s unclaimed property department, I need to contact them to reactivate my account.  And by the way, I have been charged a $5 inactivity fee.

I would love to be able to charge people for literally doing nothing!

My account with the credit union is fee free when I use it.  But when I don’t…..I get charged.  I find this annoying, and I also don’t want to have to go through the state to get my meager few bucks back, so I called the credit union.

The call started by reactivating my savings account. stack of invoices on a desk, and a calculator with a woman's fingers touching the keys Honestly the only reason I keep it open is because I have a 24 year old credit card with them that they’ll cancel if I’m not a member.  Being a member means I have to have a savings account with a minimum of $25.  If they cancel my oldest credit card, my credit score will drop like a brick.  The credit reporting agencies like to see old, but active credit.  I don’t care about my credit report, up to the extent that I need to keep my score high to refinance my home.

Normally I would have asked that the fee be reversed, but the rep beat me to it. After she reactivated my account, she offered to put my $5 back in the account.  It did come with the reminder to use my account at least once in the next year to avoid having to go through this again.  I promised to do so, just like I promised the previous 4 years in a row.  I’ll have to add “put a few bucks in the credit union” to my New Year’s resolutions.  (This clearly hasn’t been a high priority.)

Next on my list of calls was to the State.

I live in a high fire danger area.  The state collects $117 from me every year for their fire abatement program. red fire hydrant on green weeds in front of a tan stucco wall There is a fire hydrant on my property, and they actually sent someone to weed whack around the hydrant.  Apparently the weeds could be fire fuel.  This is the first time I’ve ever seen my tax dollars directly impact me in a positive way!  At any rate, back to my story….

The tax was assessed for the period of 7/1/16-6/30/17.  Every year I have paid it on the 30th of the month.  The bill was written in a tiny font, and all I saw was 6/30/17 as my due date.  I paid it on 6/20, very proud of the fact I was paying it 10 days early.  A week later, I got a penalty and interest charge in the mail for $12.53.  How could this be?  I paid this early!!!  Well, I looked at the bill again, and below the assessment period, written in the same tiny, non-bold font was the due date of 6/19.  I was one day late.

As I complained about this,

woman with red hair in a white karate suit with a black belt lunging and holding up one fist my boyfriend suggested I call them and tell them what happened.  Sometimes I have a lot of fight in me for things like this. Other times, I’m too tired to argue over $12 bucks.  About a week later, I finally decided I had the energy to fight this fee.

I spoke with two different people, neither of whom had the authority to reverse the fee.  They told me the due date was clearly written on the bill.  I said it was not clear at all, otherwise I would have paid it on time.  They directed me to their website to file a request to remove the fee.  It took only a minute or two to fill it out.  I was rather disappointed that there was no ability for me to write a short novel explaining in detail why I was late.  There were check boxes, so I had to select one.  The best option was “I was confused or didn’t understand the due date or the amount.”  Close enough.  I checked that, and hit submit.

To my surprise, the moment I submitted my request,

a screen popped up and said my request was granted.  They would remove the late fee and penalty.  There must be some automated algorithm that says if you’re one day late, it’s less than $15, and you’re willing to go through the trouble to protest, they’ll reverse the penalty.

I was on fire, so my next assignment was to call AT&T.  My office phone bill is normally around $67.  Every year I have to go through the song and dance routine with them to review my plan “to make sure I’m getting the best deal possible”.  This is sort of like the credit union.  I know I have to call them, but it always gets pushed down to the bottom of my list.  It reached the top of the list when my otherwise $67 bill came in at nearly $110.

I called to renegotiate the bill,

and was told I could have the same plan, but it would now be $85 instead of $67. old fashioned grey phone in front of a dark blue wall I thanked the lady for her help, and told her I had no problem with her or her customer service, but asked her to transfer me to the customer retention department.  I learned a long time ago the cancellation department has way more authority to give much better deals.

By the time I was done with the retention department, my new bill for the same plan was going to be $58.  Yay!  A bill actually going down!  No doubt the phone company has finally figured out that if those of us who still have land lines get angry enough, we may switch to only using our cell phones.  She said it was a promo rate, good for one year only.  That is fine with me.  Maybe next year it will be even less.  For now, what they wanted to charge compared to what I ended up with will save me $27 a month, or $324 a year.

The above reasons that triggered the fees seem pretty forgivable.

Not using a bank account, not renewing an annoying telephone contract on time, and even misreading an unclear due date for the state.  My cell phone bill was a different story.

I’m sure at some point I’ll blog about the passing of my beloved dog, but I’m not ready to do that yet. two black labs laying in one green dog bed wagging their tails Suffice to say, she went into the hospital the day my Sprint bill was due, and passed away four days later.  I did manage to pull myself together and paid Sprint three days late.  I’ve been with Sprint for 13 years, and have never made a late payment.

I got the following month’s bill, and it included a $4.06 late charge.  I called Sprint and explained what happened.  I’m sure the old “the dog ate my homework” excuse makes people jaded when a pet is blamed for something not getting done.  It was very painful for me to have to explain why I was late, especially to a customer service rep.  She said she didn’t have the authority to remove the fee, but would ask her manager.  When she returned, she told me her manager said “no”.

I’m a pretty metered person, not prone to flying off the handle,

but “no” was not an acceptable answer.  I responded quite sternly (and loudly) by saying “I want you to immediately transfer me to your cancellation department.  If Sprint can’t afford to cover $4 after the loss of my dog, then you are a company that I don’t want to do business with.”

I lit into the next person who answered the phone.  It truly wasn’t the $4. close up of angry bear's face with open mouth showing sharp teeth I felt like they were telling me my dog’s life wasn’t important, and didn’t matter enough to remove the fee.  Yes, I was actually late on this bill, but anyone with a heart would understand I had a really good reason.

I despise when companies tell me they value my business, and then treat me like dirt.  Don’t thank me for being a loyal Sprint customer for 13 years, and tell me I’m a valued customer while you’re telling me you won’t reverse a $4 fee under my circumstances.

The lady in the cancellation department apologized for the previous reps, and quickly reversed the fee, and expressed her condolences.  I apologized for ripping into her, and told her I knew she didn’t have anything to do with the prior reps.  I was so furious I had a hard time containing my anger.  There was no doubt for either one of us that I would have cancelled on the spot had she not reversed the fee.

Calling support centers is not a normal part of my daily routine.

I just had the perfect storm of events recently that lead to all of the above.  While it did take a little time and effort on my part, I feel better emotionally knowing I did not waste money paying these extra fees, even though none of them were really large.  My immediate savings came out to $48.59, and I’ll continue to save $27 monthly on my AT&T bill.

many US dollars bills spread out over a flat surface

Saving this money is not going to change my lifestyle, or pay off my house, but if I had $48.59 in my hand, I would not throw it in the garbage can.  Paying late fees and penalties is literally throwing money away.

If we work hard to make money, shouldn’t we also work hard to make sure it is not being wasted?

How about you?  Have you ever fought to reverse a late fee or renegotiated a better price for the same service?  What is the biggest late fee you’ve ever had to pay?  Let me know on my Facebook page at Elaine’s Lane.

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