Fees for All, or Join the Club

My parents were young during the Depression and learned frugality thy hard way. Their monthly bills were paid – mortgage, car, phone, gas, electric, water and sewer. And that was about it. The rest of the money was kept in cash in budget envelopes. So much for food and other actual necessities, so much for a rainy day, and what was left – not much – for frivolities.

How times have changed. Affluence, even when you have to borrow to imitate it, requires an expanding universe of monthly payments. Every business is out to sell you add-ons and upgrades or better yet to get you to subscribe. You aren’t a onetime customer. You are a revenue stream in waiting.

Banks, while never a day at the beach, at least used to pay you a small interest rate for keeping some savings on deposit so they could charge gigantic interest rates for lending it back to you. Now, in a zero interest rate environment, that game doesn’t work. Instead, they charge you fees for everything under the sun – late payments, checks, safety deposit boxes, for initiating loans or paying them off, for transfers, travelers checks or using their ATM.

But banks are hopelessly backward in not offering you anything but varying degrees of pain. Elsewhere, the merchant is your pal until they bankrupt you. They begin by bribing you to come back often. This isn’t entirely new. The corner grocer used to have loyalty programs in the form of green stamps or a piece of dishware a week until you’d accumulated a set, but that was trivial compared to today’s clubs, platinum memberships, prime memberships.

Endless gimmicks seek to bind customers to the seller with “hoops of steel.’ Now you can’t even get in a Costco or Sam’s Club without joining the club and coughing up the annual fee. Just like the country club, without the golf, the 19th hole or the high net worth.

Often these programs promise you treasure that never materializes. How many zealously accumulated frequent flyer miles have crashed and burned when an expiration date in fine print arrived or the airline itself was consumed by another with no interest in honoring your loyalty with a bit of their own.

Or consider the internet. Like Radio and TV, it was briefly the home of free info and entertainment. But cable turned TV viewers into monthly cash cows. Now Sirius, Pandora, Spotify, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix and you-name it seek to get you to pay monthly, daily, on demand, per view, per song, streaming. Ka-ching!

The Internet is now a shooting gallery with you as the target in which monetizing every page view, click and relationship is the road to riches. Newspapers and magazines may be on the way to extinction, but the internet has adopted their subscription model with enthusiasm. It is said that Amazon’s Prime Subscription is the difference between their being in the red and in the black, and the annual fee just went up.

Microsoft, Quicken and their ilk began by selling you perfectly adequate software, seemingly a onetime purchase. Then they began to make it obsolete by issuing new versions with improvements that you didn’t want or that actually made life worse. Even if you didn’t want them, the company made the upgrade mandatory by phasing out the old. Or they make you pony up over and over to keep a function to which you’ve become addicted functioning. Want to use Quicken to download financial data? Once every few years you have to buy a new version. Buy a video game for big bucks? You aren’t done, there’s a quarterly fee to get on the internet and play with others.

Perhaps the greatest example of the utility that ate your wallet is the phone. It used to hang on the kitchen wall and occasionally Aunt Martha would call. Maybe once a year something would be sufficiently important to justify pricey long distance. Usually a death in the family. Now the device is welded to the ear, in terrifying use while driving, in bed, in your sleep. Not just to converse but to text, tweet, game, watch cat videos. And the meter is constantly running on your mega-giga voice and data plan. Today the average phone bill exceeds my parents’ mortgage payment. Money, money, money, money.

There’s no end to it. If I can’t motivate myself to walk around the block, I can join a gym and be a member. If I don’t want to bother, I can jump around in front of my TV by subscribing to streaming video trainers or monitor my vital functions by connecting them to the internet for a fee. The gas company offers to insure my gas line from leak for a monthly fee. I can join a wine of the month club, an olive oil club, subscribe to fruit from Harry and David.

I suppose there’s even a membership program for frequent bankrupts who can’t say no to any club, upgrade or add-on. But don’t join. Just say no. Consider adopting Socrates rather than the Unreal Housewives of Rodeo Drive as your role model.

One fine day, contemplating the good life, he looked around the bustling Agora of Athens, a kind of Hellenic Mall of America, and said in amazement a sentence we should all practice daily.

“So many things I don’t want.”

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