- Personal Finance
My utility bill is how much?
You live frugally. You count out the pennies and nickels you save at every turn. You live for the best sales. You dream of being an extreme couponer. You wait until after Christmas to buy your decorations. You shopped every cell phone company around to get the lowest bill with the best service. You seek out restaurants that have awesome food but won't cost you in the end. You brag about the deals you find to anyone who will listen. How can anyone possibly get you to pay more than you should?
Witty consumers don't pay more than they have to. We live by a code of frugality that is almost an art form. Yet even we can get taken. While we shop for the best deal and make sure that companies outbid each other to provide us with services, sometimes we don't have a choice in who we use for services. This is where things become dicey.
Utility companies (gas, electric, water, etc), for example, usually have a monopoly over the area. In other words, consumers have no choice in who to use. If you don't use that company, you have no services. We assume that we are being charged correctly, but that assumption could cost you...and big.
Lighting up the neighborhood
We don't often take a hard look at our monthly bills unless something is wrong. This is what happened to me recently. When we first moved to our new home (only 80 s/f larger than our old home) we immediately noticed that our electric bill almost quadrupled in amount - from $120 to $500 per month. This was a massive increase for us. We made all kinds of adjustments to our home, and while it went down a bit it remained between $350 and $400 per month. We assumed it was just the way that it was and continued to do everything we could to keep the bill very low.
Then a strange thing happened. Our January bill was $1020.28. I knew there was a problem instantly. We had not changed a thing from the previous month, yet our bill was two and a half times the amount of what it should normally be. It was like we were providing lighting for the neighbors as well as our own home. There was no explanation for it. I immediately contacted our electric company. They did their research and tested our meter. The meter test happened three months after the billing cycle. They found our meter tested fine and we owed the money. They told us it was our fault.
I filed complaints like crazy and I am still in the complaint process. But since my initial complaint to the utility company, something even stranger than that first high bill has happened. Our bill dropped from $1020 to $304 to $214 and now is down to $136. The last amount was where it should have been all along! My major concern is that the utility company did locate a problem and fixed it and now our bill is where it should have been all along. Talking to neighbors who have larger houses and things like welding machines in their homes, their bills are all around $120 per month.
My mistake in this matter was not questioning my high bills from the very first one. Instead of accepting the bills as "normal" for this house and paying them, I should have immediately contacted the utility company and said something was wrong. It took my bill surpassing the $1000 mark to realize there was an issue.
Charged for services not rendered
Utility companies are not the only companies we trust to get our bills right. We live in a small town and should any of us need emergency medical care, we have to drive about 15 minutes to the next town to visit the hospital. We don't have another hospital around for about an hour. Therefore when my primary physician sent me from her office straight to the emergency room in January, I didn't think twice about not being provided with 1) good care and, 2) a correct bill. I was more concerned with my health at the time.
I received my bill in the mail, which is always a dread after someone has to visit the ER. After insurance, the hospital wanted almost $1700 of my money! I complained and was mailed an itemized bill. The itemized bill revealed some interesting facts.
First, I was charged for an IV and medicine in the IV that I never received. This mysteriously missing IV and medicine was a whopping $1381.00 on my bill. Second, I was charged for a urinalysis. When I arrived at the hospital, I had in my hands my urinalysis results from my primary physician's office from tests run only 20 minutes earlier. Yet the hospital insisted on re-running the test and charged me $508.61 for the test.
Finally I was charged $6317.33 for medically unnecessary tests. The ER doctor did not do an initial examination of me based on my complaint when I first arrived and instead sent me for a CT scan and an ultrasound. Had he done the initial examination he would have found the problem without these expensive tests. In addition, the tests did not even reveal the problem; an actual exam had to be performed to find the problem. So I was sent home without a diagnosis and had to go to a specialist to get a true diagnosis - which took all of five minutes to give me and tell me I needed surgery for the problem.
Being charged for items I didn't receive, charged for items I had with me when they insisted on re-running the tests, and not receiving proper care while I was there all added up to a massive bill. Worst of all, my insurance had already paid their portion of the bill, which included things I had not received.
When in the ER, I should have first and foremost taken charge of my healthcare. I knew there was no reason to rerun a urinalysis so I should have refused. I also knew that I needed an exam so I should have refused expensive tests until an exam was performed. At the time I was too timid to tell the doctor how to do his job, so I went along with everything willingly and trusted that it was what was needed in order for him to do his job. Turned out I was wrong...and I was billed for it.
My dispute is still under review, but I have been informed that the IV and medicine not received have already been removed. It does make me question, why was I charged for it in the first place and how many other people just pay their bills without reviewing it to make sure they received the services the bill shows?
Don't let it happen to you
I've learned a lot from my mistakes and I guarantee you, it will never happen to me again. Here is some wisdom that I have gained that hopefully you can take with you and ensure you are never an unwitting victim.
1. Don't automatically trust the bill to be correct. Read the bill in its entirety. Make sure that the services you are charged for are the services you received. If you don't receive an itemized bill for services, insist on getting one before you pay a cent. All companies that charge for services are obligated to tell consumers what those services are. If they can't account for the services for which you are being charged, then they shouldn't collect a dime.
2. Question, question, question. If you feel something is wrong, even if you don't have proof, question it. If you move to a new house and your gas bill is way higher than you feel it should be, call and find out what is going on.
3. Don't let someone else tell you what you need. If you are in a situation in the doctor's office or hospital and you feel that that they are running unnecessary tests, say so. You are 100% in charge of your healthcare. You need to always be in control. Don't make insane decisions, like refusing to go to the ER when your right side is killing you and your doctor suspects your appendix has ruptured, but if you go in for a sinus infection during cold and flu season and your doctor goes straight for a CT scan instead of antibiotics, you may want to question the reasoning and if you need a new doctor.
4. Complain to whoever will listen. You may feel as if companies will ignore your complaint, but you'd be surprised at the action that is taken when you file a complaint. You don't have to be mean about it, but you have a right to complain if your issues are not resolved. Use your voice. If the company will not help you after you file a complaint then there are lots of agencies out there that can help you if the company that refuses to do so. The Better Business Bureau is always a good place to start. The Attorney General's office for your state can help as well. Here in California we have the California Public Utility Commission to file complaints with on utility bills. If you're unsure where to file your complaint, use the Internet to find it. Others have complained before you and they have left a trail for you to follow. Finally, complain on websites. ConsumerAffairs.com is a great site that takes your complaints and sends them to the company for review. Unfortunately, publically complaining may be the only way to get the company to listen to and resolve your issue. If it comes to that, don't hesitate.
5. Learn from your own (and others') mistakes. Don't be a victim twice. Take what you learn from yourself and others to not allow these things to happen to you again. You'll be happier for it in the long run and it could potentially save yourself thousands of dollars.