It seems people are willing to pay a high price for convenience these days.
Need your kitchen cabinets painted? Hire a painter through the app TaskRabbit. Don’t have time to go to the grocery store? Have them delivered through Instacart or Peapod. There are apps for people who don’t have time to do their laundry, clean their bathrooms or even go shopping. (And that last one is supposed to be fun.)
Heck even cereal sales are suffering in part because people don’t want to be inconvenienced by having to clean a bowl.
So it’s not too surprising that there is a budding industry of apps and companies willing to take on the mundane financial chores that some people never get around to, including saving money, canceling old subscriptions and negotiating with the cable company.
The business model for many of these companies relies on the attitude that plenty of Americans have when it comes to tackling financial decisions: They would rather not deal with it.
“When I wake up in the morning and I have a choice between doing anything related to personal finance or playing Pokémon Go, I’m always going to pick Pokémon Go,” says Thomas Smyth, the 26-year-old co-founder and chief executive of Trim, a personal finance bot that scans credit card statements to help people identify and cancel subscriptions they never use.
Smyth says that’s the mentality he is harnessing as he works on his long-term goal of expanding his program to eventually include more ambitious financial services such as retirement planning.
But the cost of that convenience can add up. Fees for services that help people cancel or reduce their bills can range from a few bucks to hundreds of dollars, often depending on how much the company is able to save.
The start-ups say that by bringing in outside help, consumers can find saving strategies they’d overlooked. Trim’s typical user identifies 10 subscriptions through the service and cancels one of them, Smyth says. (Gym memberships and credit monitoring services are high on the list of services likely to get the ax.)
The service is free for most people. The company is able to cancel most subscriptions by sending an email to customer service and copying the consumer in the message. But in cases where a phone call or certified letter are required to cancel the subscription, customers have the option of taking care of it themselves or paying $6 for Trim to handle it for them.
Much of the time, people who call to request more affordable packages from their cable and Internet providers can be talked into more elaborate packages that come with bigger bills. It may take several phone calls and hours of going over options — never mind being put on hold — before that person might see any savings.
So one can understand the appeal of a service that says all you have to do is send in a copy of your bill and wait for the new and reduced bill to arrive.
But the price tag can be steep — fees usually add up to one-third or half of the savings that consumers will see over the next year or two. (There is no fee if the process doesn’t result in any savings.) Take someone who saves $300 a year after hiring BillFixers, which charges a fee of 50 percent of the savings seen in the first year. The cost for that person would be $150.
The consumers who have the most to gain from these services are people who haven’t picked up the phone to rework their bills in more than a year, the companies say. (By then, chances are that any new customer rates and other discounts have expired.)
The target customer is often the person who thinks he or she would never have gotten around to asking for a better deal on their own, the companies say.
“They know they’re overpaying, but they don’t have time to spend hours on the phone negotiating,” says Brian Keaney, the co-founder of Billshark, which charges customers a fee amounting to a third of the savings they would see over two years. “The person who is on top of their finances and has the time to do it themselves — that’s not who we target.”
The negotiators also say that because they’re going through the process day in and day out, they are more successful when it comes to tracking down savings. That includes knowing the latest promotions a company may be offering, having a sense of the best times to call and other tactics.
“We improve the process everyday,” says Ben Kurland, co-founder of BillFixers. “There’s a million little secrets to how to get the bill as low as possible.”
So, what if you would rather tackle this yourself and pocket whatever savings you are able to yield on your own? Julian and Ben Kurland, the founders of BillFixers, offered some tips:
Call during business hours. Customer service representatives are more likely to be available during the day, while most other people are at work. That means less time on hold and more time for them to work on finding you a better deal.
Be friendly. Being firm and angry works sometimes, but representatives may be more willing to help you come up with a solution if they feel they are being respected.
Threaten to leave. Companies may be willing to offer you a less expensive package in an effort to keep you as a customer. Other times they may offer premium services, such as a faster Internet speed or HBO, at no extra cost.
Do your research. If you go into the conversation with specifics about the rates charged by competitors in the area, the company will know that you’re serious about changing providers. It also helps to look up the offers that your current provider is offering to new customers. You can also use the information as a guideline to know what rates to ask for.
Follow up. Keep an eye on your bill to make sure the changes the company promised are put into effect. And call back in a year or so if your bill goes up.
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