Feeling a little poorer these days? Your salary (if you're lucky enough to still have one) probably hasn't changed much lately, but the amount of goods and services it can cover has surely shrunk. Just check your grocery and gas bills. And wait until the hangover from Ben Bernanke's Treasury-bond-buying binge kicks in.
What better time, then, to shine a light on all the overpriced stuff — rip-offs, you might call them — draining your already depleted coffers?
We're not talking about fraud here, though there's certainly a bit of that going around too. We're talking about all the ways, within the law, that we allow ourselves to get taken for a ride.
If there's truly no substitute for a particular good or service, and you absolutely have to have it, then you'll put up with sticker shock. (Think movie theater snacks and life-saving medications.) That's good work for businesses that can get it. But plenty rely on our collective naiveté, distraction, shortsightedness and high stress levels when pushing their flimflam. A rip-off implies choice — a bad one, that is, on our part.
In some cases we know we're being had, but we put up with it anyway. What you may not know is just how egregious the gouging is.
We started unearthing rip-offs in 2009, and our hunt continues. Here are some of the latest lowlights. For a complete list of 20, click the link above.
Graduation caps and gowns
The rip-off: Just when you think your alma mater has milked you dry! Caps and gowns bought through your university's bookstore can run up to $100. Expect to pay even more for a last-minute purchase.
How to avoid it: Buy an imitation of your school's robes for as little as $15 through sites like GraduationSource.com. And with jobs not exactly easy to find, plenty of fellow alumni on Craigslist and eBay are happy to unload theirs for a few extra bucks.
Travel-size products The rip-off: Smaller is not better when it comes to travel portions of toiletries and the like. Example: a 3.2 ounce, TSA-compliant bottle of Listerine Total Care Anticavity Mouthwash retails for $1.99 at CVS, while a 16.8 ounce container costs $4.99. That means you are paying 62 cents an ounce for the travel-size bottle, more than twice the 30 cents an ounce for the larger one.
How to avoid it: Pick up travel-size bottles (around 99 cents at The Container Store) and fill them up before leaving for the airport.
Wedding gowns The rip-off: Alan Fields, author of Bridal Bargains, says that the convoluted ordering process for wedding dresses is kind to manufacturers and retailers, but not to consumers. "In any boutique a bride tries on a sample dress and is then ordered a dress to her approximate size," explains Fields. "The dress isn't being custom-made to her measurements, so it then has to be altered, adding on an average $200 to the already marked-up price."
How to avoid it: Cut out the middleman and order direct from the manufacturer (there are a slew in China), then find someone to do the alterations.
Broadband speeds The rip-off: Internet service providers are quick to sell you on the speed of their service, measured in megabits per second (Mbps). Comcast offers a performance starter service with downloads up to 6 Mbps for $49.95 and a Blast service with downloads up to 20 Mbps for $55.95. You might think paying 67 percent less per Mbps is a great deal. But a report last summer from the Federal Communication Commission found that 80 percent of broadband users fall into usage categories that would require at most 4 Mbps, so chances are you'll end up paying for broadband you won't use.
How to avoid it: If there's a trial period, test the service to see if it meets your needs.
Many mutual funds The rip-off: Thousands of actively managed mutual funds (which employ stock pickers who try to beat the market rather than simply match its overall returns) charge fees of 1 percent or higher. Yet consider that less than 40 percent of actively managed funds that invest in large companies outperform the S&P 500 Index. Assuming an investment of $10,000 per year for 40 years, and an average annual return of 7 percent, a fund with a 1.5 percent annual fee compared to one with a 0.25 percent load will cost an extra $580,000. That's a yacht or a summer house.
How to avoid it: There are plenty of mutual funds, index funds and exchange-traded funds that can be had for fees of 0.25 percent or less.
Extra frequent flier miles The rip-off: Airlines routinely claim to be sold out of tickets that require fewer frequent flier miles, only to then sell you more miles to make up the difference. American Airlines charges $57.50 plus tax to buy 1,000 extra miles. Give a friend 10,001 to 15,000 miles and you'll fork over $150. Want to cancel a ticket bought with miles? That's another $150 to reinstate those miles. "Everyone in the industry knows that these programs are come-ons for consumers," says Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance. "But consumers have swallowed them hook, line and sinker."
How to avoid it: Book ahead, travel in off periods and choose programs that include multiple airlines.
Face cleansers The rip-off: Just because a product includes exotic ingredients doesn't mean it's worth the plump price tag. One four-ounce bottle of facial cleanser featuring caviar extract sells for $40. Does slathering your face with fish eggs make much difference? "Ingredients such as gold or caviar do not have any proven benefit and are just used to drive up the cost," says Dr. Patricia K. Farris, a dermatologist at Old Metairie Dermatology in Louisiana. "I tell patients 'more money gets you more glitz, but not necessarily a better product.'"
How to avoid it: Dr. Farris recommends Cetaphil. A 16-ounce bottle costs just $11.49 at CVS.
Inefficient charities The rip-off: With more than 1.4 million registered nonprofit organizations in the country, how do you know which ones will make the most effective use of your dollars? Check out how much of a charity's total expenses go directly to the charitable purpose as opposed to management, overhead and fundraising. The American Institute of Philanthropy, a nonprofit charity watchdog, recommends that at least 60 percent of donations go to program services.
How to avoid it: Review a charity's most recent IRS Form 990 for total revenues and expenses. Guidestar.com and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance offer a wealth of free information about charities, as does your state's regulator of charities.
The rip-off: Banks are giving away less and less for free these days. If you don't carry a minimum balance or don't have a direct-deposit arrangement, you'll get hit with a fee. Take checking accounts: According to a study by Bankrate in December 2010, 35 percent of checking accounts carried a monthly service fee or a minimum balance requirement, up from 24 percent in 2009. ATM fees are rising too: The average all-in cost of using a non-network ATM was $3.74 in 2010, up from $3.54 in 2009.
How to avoid it: Hunt for a no-frills online bank that doesn't have to maintain hundreds or even thousands of branches. And when you withdraw cash, take out enough to last you awhile.