Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Once Was Free

Things we buy that used to be free

An 'unbundling' of services we could once take for granted (like access to our money or a gas-station fill-up) and newer markets for products like water and TV are costing customers.

By Liz Weston

Bank customer and bank teller © SuperStock/Getty Images
Fees and more fees

The airline industry gets the lion's share of attention when the subject is paying for things that used to be free.

Air carriers have returned to profitability because of their success in "unbundling" the services and features that used to come with the price of a ticket. First it was food, then pillows and blankets, then luggage, then legroom. Ryanair is working with Boeing to install coin-operated potties on its flights.

But the air industry is actually late to this game. There are plenty of things we pay for now that used to be free. Following are just a few examples:

Accessing your own money

You may not believe it, my dears, but banks once actually paid you for the privilege of storing your money. No, I'm not talking about the toasters that banks would give you for opening an account. I'm talking about interest, and receiving it was a wonderful thing: Your balance could grow with no effort on your part.

Banks still purportedly pay interest, but you'll need a magnifying glass to spot the difference in your account balance. Meanwhile, most financial institutions are intent on whittling away at your balance in every way they can think of -- through monthly account fees, ATM fees, fees for having a statement printed or the image of an old check retrieved, even fees for talking to a teller.

You don't have to let them rob you blind, of course. You can still get free checking at most big banks by maintaining a certain balance or agreeing to an all-electronic account (no paper statements, no talking to tellers). Or you can expand your search to community banks and credit unions, which often still offer free checking. Avoiding ATM fees can be as simple as drawing money from your own bank's machines or asking for cash back when using your debit card.

Old telephone switchboard © Ed Clark/Getty Images
Directory assistance

Ask your granny: Once upon a time, if you didn't know a number, you'd either look it up in a floppy book (called "the white pages," for individuals' numbers, or the "yellow pages," for business lines), or you'd call directory assistance and talk to an actual live person who looked up the number for you. That was back when AT&T had a monopoly on phone service, so it made you pay in other ways, but directory assistance itself was free.

These days, calling or texting your carrier's 411 service can cost you $2 a pop, if not more. You can dodge the fees by calling 1-800-BING-411 (1-800-246-4411) or 1-800-FREE-411 (1-800-373-3411). FREE-411 makes you listen to a short ad. (BING-411 is owned by Microsoft, the publisher of MSN Money.)

Girl drinking from garden hose ©Vicky Kasala/Getty Images

I vividly remember when a journalist friend traveled to Southern California in the early 1990s to report, amazed, on the trend of people drinking water out of bottles. We lived in Alaska at the time, where our kooky governor had been promoting a plan to fill giant bladders with glacier water and tow them south to sell to thirsty crowds.

That plan didn't pan out, but the trend of buying and drinking bottled water certainly did: The International Bottled Water Association says we spent more than $10 billion to drink more than 8 billion gallons of the stuff in 2009 (the latest year for which statistics are available). Interestingly, though, we're buying less than we did in 2007 ($11.5 billion) as hard economic times have led people to trim their spending. But that's still a lot of money going out the door for something that comes out of your tap.

A random factoid: Bottled water doesn't go "bad." It's safe to drink indefinitely, even if the flavor isn't optimal. So be sure to store some with your emergency supplies (at least a gallon per person per day). If you do want to swap out your bottled water occasionally, make sure you put it to good use (watering plants, drinking water for the dog) rather than pouring more money down the drain.

TV with rabbit ears © Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images

Television broadcasts once came via antennas strapped to your house or "rabbit ears" atop your TV. You got just a few channels -- three, maybe four if there was a public broadcast station nearby, plus some grainy UHF channels if your set could tune them in. But by gum, they were free.

These days there are 100 million cable and satellite subscribers among the United States' 112.6 million households, according to research company SNL Kagan. The average monthly cost for cable runs about $50, or $75 if you get the digital version.

Of course, some people still get their television for free using antennas. Others, in a movement known as "cutting the cord," use the Internet to circumvent the pay-television industry, opting to watch via providers such as Hulu and Netflix. But most of us are accustomed to paying $600 a year or more -- and we still get to sit through the ads (although we can scoot through them faster if we pay for digital video recorders).

Full-service gas station © Charles E. Rotkin/Corbis
Gas station services

Get this: Not only would a gas station attendant pump your gas, he would clean your windshield, check your oil, add air to your tires and fill your radiator if you needed it. All free!

Wait, there's more: If you needed a road map, those were free. And plenty of stations had giveaways on top of that. You could get stuff like Hot Wheels cars, kitchen knives, soap, dishes and -- coolest of all -- an orange tiger tail you could tie to your car antenna or the handlebars of your bike. (That was from an Esso-Enco slogan that urged motorists: "Put a tiger in your tank.")

Today, free service is all but gone. Self-service is the rule (Oregon and New Jersey are the only states that ban it, requiring full- or miniservice instead). Many stations charge for air and water; some charge for access to a restroom. Giveaways of any kind are dead. But the tiger tails can be found for sale on eBay.

Old classroom with blackboard © Al Fenn/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In the early days of our nation, rich kids went to school, and poor kids went to work. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that free public education was available to all elementary-age students. Free public high schools eventually followed. Then came bake sales, gift wrap catalogs and a whole host of fees to pay for various programs that used to be, and in some areas still are, free.

Oregon now charges parents for full-day kindergarten (half a day is provided for free; the other half is $375 a month). Indiana charges textbook rental fees of $100 to $400. Many districts charge course, lab or "activity" fees; sign up for extracurricular activities, and you'll watch the charges soar.

A fan on my Facebook page detailed the toll: "Field trip fees of over $200 for just my child; if I had been able to afford to go as chaperone, those costs would have doubled . . . Activity fee at the beginning of the year was $27.50. School supplies, including paper towels, reams of copy paper, kleenex, wipes, plastic bags for the classroom to share, amounted to $75-$100 (this is my neighborhood public school). Party costs for classroom parties (I was room parent) about $50. After school science program (since school system has pretty much eliminated science for elementary school, even upper grades) was $125 for 8 weeks. Fundraisers, don't even get me started. In previous years, I always bought minimum $50-$100 but with no job this year, I couldn't. Kids & I did attend Chuck E Cheese fundraiser to a tune of about $50 and Chick fil A fundraiser ($25) plus bingo fundraiser ($15-20) and carnival. I hear that next year will be worse, with field trips once a month and costs of about $500 for the year in field trip fees alone."

California recently settled a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union, which pointed out that a free public education is part of the state constitution. Fees are now called donations and are supposed to be voluntary.

Yosemite National Park © Melville B. Grosvenor/National Geographic/Getty Images

Toll booths at state and national parks are a relatively recent innovation. Access to public lands used to be free. As late as the 1970s, most parks didn't charge access or even camping fees. The toll for a carload of people to enter the most popular destinations, including Yosemite, was $3 (about $11 in today's money).

Government budget cuts combined with growing popularity changed all that. Now Yosemite costs $20 per carload to enter. If you're a big nature fan, you'll probably want to consider spending $80 to buy an America the Beautiful annual pass, which gets you to national parks and federal recreation lands.

Or you can scope out the remaining wilderness areas, Bureau of Land Management properties and a few national forests that remain free. For more, check out this Bargain Babe post on ways to camp for free.

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