Ever had bill shock?
You're not alone. As we scoop up more electronic devices, keep our cars longer and use pricey medical services, bill shock is becoming more common.
But here's the good news: There's a growing consumer toolbox for beating high bills. You can download free smartphone apps to track utility expenses or visit websites that compare health plans or analyze mobile service bills.
"The greatest source of bill shock is lack of consumer awareness," adds Schwark Satyavolu, CEO of BillShrink.com, which manages everyday expenses. "And services are getting more complex."
Reading the fine print and doing Internet research is more important than ever to save money. To fight back, follow these easy, fun tips for seven much-used services.
Track mobile phone use
Texting, data and talk are triple threats that can quickly balloon into wallet busters.
Deciphering talk plan details can be daunting, says Satyavolu. For example, a 600-minute talk plan may vary widely among cellphone companies. "Anytime minutes" can be a nebulous term, he says.
Consequently, most people make the mistake of overbuying, Satyavolu says. To find out if that's you, upload an electronic version of your mobile bill to a cellphone analysis service such as BillShrink or Validas.com.
"Most carriers also offer phone apps that track usage, but only prepaid phones send alerts," Satyavolu says.
Prepaid phones can help control texting and data costs. For example, AT&T's prepaid plan gives you unlimited talk, text and data for $50 monthly. "But watch out for hidden charges," adds Satyavolu.
Another way to save money is opting for free text messaging via sites such as txtDrop.com. You can also make free or low-cost calls by using Skype.
Play online games for less (or free)
Buying premium content to go further in your favorite online games, such as "FarmVille" and "World of Warcraft," can be addictive and chew up cash.
To beat bill shock and save money, don't link your credit or debit card to game payments. "Use a card that has limits," Satyavolu says. "If your card is automatically debited, you'll find yourself suddenly spending $200."
As an alternative, use sites such as FreeGamePick.com and MyRealGames.com that let you play online games for free. To stream games for less, try services such as OnLive.com and Gaikai.com. For example, OnLive offers unlimited play for $9.99 per month.
Much like Netflix, rental game services such as GameFly or Gamerang let you play your favorite games cheaply without buying them.
Save on utility bills
Heat and cold spells can spike utility bills fast.
To defend your pocketbook and save money, fix energy leaks in your home, says Ronnie Kweller, a spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, D.C. Properly sealed homes can boost energy efficiency up to 20 percent year-round.
Downloadable smartphone apps also can track usage. For example, MeterRead is an iPhone app that lets you check the number of kilowatt hours of power you've used. And the iGO Green "vampire power" calculator app tells how much electricity you're wasting in each room.
Some utilities also offer time-of-use plans, where off-peak usage costs you less money, Kweller says. Talk to your utility company about them, she says.
Lastly, ask your power company about a fixed-bill plan, where you can pay set amounts each month based on an annualized utility bill. That way, your payments don't balloon during hot summer or cold winter months.
Do regular maintenance on your car
As a sluggish economy lingers, more people are hanging on to their cars longer. The average age of a vehicle is 10.8 years, the highest on record, according to the research firm R.L. Polk in Southfield, Mich.
The upshot: Repair bills can be daunting. So, doing preventive maintenance such as changing brake pads and timing belts can decrease your costs down the road, says John Nielsen, director of AAA's Approved Auto Repair Network.
For big-ticket repairs, get an estimate on the cost first, he adds. "Many states require that shops give you written estimates, and they can't vary by more than 10 percent from the final bill," Nielson says. Don't sign an open-ended contract with a repair shop when you won't know costs until the car is taken apart.
Get educated on fair car repair prices by heading to sites such as RepairPal.com or DriverSide.com. They estimate repair prices for your car's make and model year.
Choose your repair shop wisely. Several studies show that dealers charge more for repairs than independent repair shops. Building a relationship with your shop also can help prevent overcharging, Nielsen says.
Fend off high veterinary bills
Like human health care, veterinary bills also are rising, especially costs for exams and surgeries, says Ernie Ward, a practicing vet and author of "Chow Hounds."
Keeping your pet at a healthy weight is the easiest way to control costs, Ward says. The No. 1 pet health threat is complications from obesity, such as heart disease or high blood pressure. Getting regular exams for your pet helps catch diseases before they turn into expensive care.
To fend off unexpected $5,000 vet bills, Ward suggests getting pet insurance. "Over the life span of a dog or cat, these policies save money and they give you peace of mind," he says.
For example, PurinaCare pet insurance offers three types of insurance, including "accident only" insurance. Pet insurance is fairly inexpensive and can save you thousands of dollars in surgical bills, making them cost-effective, Ward says.
Track health care costs
Health insurance costs for employer-based plans rose 9 percent in 2011, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Hospital and acute-care costs are rising, too, says Aaron Ginn, a spokesman for Simplee.com, which helps manage health care expenses. And the more renowned hospitals usually raise their rates the fastest, Ginn says. "They simply say, 'Here's our rate,' because everyone wants to go there," he says.
Also, going out of your network quickly adds up, Ginn says. So he advises double-checking your plan statement of benefits. Enlist a friend or even a health advocate to track mounting health insurance expenses, if you're not up to it.
"Track your bills as they come in, so they don't pile up," Ginn says.
On front end, it can be difficult to obtain quotes for hospital care. "Hospitals aren't very consumer-friendly," he says. "Their billing is more complicated to follow and can use 50 different codes."
Emergency care clinics are usually cheaper and will give you accurate quotes, Ginn says. Consult Healthcare Blue Book for online estimates on health care prices such as hospital services.
Shop for dental care
Root canals and crowns aren't just ouch-inducing. They also cost a lot. But costs between dentists can vary by thousands of dollars.
Fortunately, the dental world is friendlier to consumers than the health care world, Ginn says. The reason is many patients pay with cash and don't have dental insurance.
"You can do a lot of research and usually get dental quotes upfront," he says. The website Brighter.com helps you compare dental costs, listing more than 25,000 dentists by price and consumer reviews.
Another good source is DentalPlans.com. It offers discounted dental plans and helps you find a dentist by ZIP code. "DentalPlans.com is straightforward and helps you manage your costs," Ginn says.
"As a dental consumer, always take a step back," he says. "Getting dental quotes works in your favor."