Minding the Pennies

There’s an old English saying: Mind the pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves. When I discovered the writing of Donna Freedman back in 2006, I began to really understand that attention to smaller details– particularly in the area of personal finance– will definitely help sort out the bigger picture.

When we moved from California to Texas, we got a letter from our roadside assistance provider, asking whether we wanted to transfer our membership to the chapter in our new home state. We filled out the form to reply in the affirmative, sent it back, and never heard from them again. Not even when the membership was up for renewal, and so it lapsed without our noticing.

Several months later, we received a bill for $60, due to a service call Mr. Vega had made after our membership ended. Or so the bill said. Yesterday, I made a phone call to sort that out. It took me half an hour on the phone (most of it on hold while the California representative talked to the Texas representative), but eventually it was made clear that the service call had indeed occurred before the coverage expired: “Please disregard that bill, Ma’am, and thank you for your patience.”

I haven’t figured out my Real Hourly Rate (as outlined in Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin) for this job yet, but I promise you it’s a far sight less than the $120/hour I “saved” by making that phone call.

Another, shorter phone call saved us a $25 returned-check fee (our first in many years!) several weeks ago. I had misjudged the amount of time it would take for the funds from my new-job paycheck to be available, and the auto-draft from the credit card we use for airline miles showed “insufficient funds.” Although they had every right to assess the fee, I called the credit card company and asked politely if they’d be willing to remove it as a one-time courtesy. Because I had never made a late payment or bounced a check to them before, they removed the surcharge immediately.

Were the phone calls worth it? You betcha! I’m grateful that we’ve gotten to a place in our finances where we don’t have to choose between paying an unexpected bill and keeping the lights on, but just because we can afford to pay for mistakes (theirs or ours) like that doesn’t mean we should. I shudder to think of how many erroneous charges we’ve paid for over the years because we couldn’t be bothered to deal with it.

Taking a few minutes to carefully review our bills as they arrive, and sometimes a few more minutes to make those phone calls, has helped us get out of debt, build an emergency fund, and start saving for a house much more quickly than we would have without such vigilance. And perhaps more importantly, taking the time to track down those smaller amounts of money has taught us discipline in our spending habits: after all, if I just spent half an hour clearing up a bill for $60, I’m much less likely to blow that money on a concert ticket or a cell-phone upgrade, or a shiny new pair of… well, of anything, really.

Pennies don’t buy much of anything these days, but keeping an eye on all of them is the best way to make sure their larger relatives don’t go too far astray.

What small savings have you come across lately, and how do you think they affect your finances overall?

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