I am not Smart Enough to be a Consumer

Forget fifth grade; the real battle wages every day.

(Originally published in the Vacaville Reporter January 31, 1999; how things (haven’t) changed!)

It’s become crystal clear.  I am not qualified to be a customer, consumer, or anything else that begins with “c” and describes the relationship between “service” companies and the end user.

Despite 18 years of school, a master’s degree, and a relatively sound mind, I have failed.  I need a professional – one who knows how to navigate the treacherous waters of finding the best deal.

Take your every day phone line.  A professional would know that simply trusting your phone company to take care of you is not enough.  If your phone plan is over 6 months old, there is a better one out there, often with your own company.  The quickest way to find out is to sign on with another company.

Your old company will call you within days with an even more irresistible offer.  Customer loyalty is not enough to inspire such personal and persistent attention – those who jump ship are so much more richly rewarded.  A professional would know this.

How about cellular service?  How I’ve been pounded on the rocks of confusing rate plans.  A professional would know all the competing plans of all the various companies, down to peak and off-peak minutes, roll-over and weekend options, service lock-in periods, when penalties apply, and the like.

A professional would know better than to ask “What’s the best deal?”  That is merely a clear sign that you don’t know the best deal and your cellular company considers this a closely guarded secret.  A professional would know the best deal and demand it.  This would involve extensive research into a dizzying array of promotional literature with the capability to understand what it really all means.

For instance, “2,000 minutes until the year 2000” means roughly 167 minutes a month or five and a half minutes a day – not nearly so impressive (although your unused minutes do carry over to the next month).  If you’re dumb enough to pay through the nose for cellular service, your company is all too happy to oblige.

A professional would know better and get it changed without months of trying and failing with helpful “customer care” representatives.  I am not a professional.

Then there are credit cards.  A pox on thee, you greedy banks and card companies!

A professional would know better than to risk carrying more than one card, rarely used.  Otherwise, the most benign of plastic “credit” extenders could turn very ugly.  Once rarely exercised “late fees” are now commonplace.  Be prepared to pay $29 if your payment arrives as little as one day late.  (Note that the grace period has shrunk, now requiring payments to have been mailed before statements are received, or soon thereafter.)

In addition to a hefty late fee, you are now one of the “small minority” of non-performers, a “high risk” category.  Your card company can now, in self-defense, raise your rate to 20 or 21 percent.  How does it feel to be a deadbeat?  Even those very attractive incentive rates which convert to a still-low annual percentage rate are only as good as the next “change of terms” notification.

Then there are the highly touted “cash back” incentives.  After a year of heavy use with one such card, Paying an average of $80 a month in interest, I received my much anticipated annual cash back bonus – for $24.12.

A professional would never be caught on the short end of a credit card.  I am not a professional.

Goodness knows, I need help.  I need a professional, someone who would look out for my best interests, who would value my business enough to take care of me and money, someone who remembers that dusty old golden rule.

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