Avoiding “America’s Biggest Rip-offs”

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CNNMoney put together a list of “America’s Biggest Rip-offs,” which include things like text messages (marked up 6500% with some cell plans), college textbooks (which cost the average student $900 a year), and popcorn at the movies (no surprise here, they charge nine times what it costs to make it). But for every rip-off, there’s usually a very simple, much cheaper alternative.

Many of America’s Biggest Rip-offs are easily avoidable—and now that you know just how big of a rip-off each is, perhaps you’ll be more inclined to take a moment and choose another way to go.

Here’s the list of rip-offs, and some suggested alternatives:

Text Messages. ALTERNATIVE: To avoid markups of as much as 6500% (yes 6500%, because texts cost next to nothing to transmit, yet you can be charged 20¢ a pop), get a cell phone plan that includes enough free text messaging to accommodate your habits. Some prepaid models include 1,000 minutes and 1,000 texts per month for only $30, and prepaid phones—which don’t lock you into any long-term plans—are available with unlimited minutes and texts starting at $45 a month.

Movie Theater Popcorn. ALTERNATIVE: You can do the math and figure out which of the theater’s soda-popcorn packages gives you the best bang for your buck—sharing with someone else makes it seem like less of a rip-off—but the truth is you’ll always pay way more than you need to for snacks at the movies. Same thing at airports and sports arenas. Food and drink are huge revenue generators for these venues. To avoid the crazy markups, eat before you get there (duh), or sneak in your own Junior Mints (you didn’t hear that me, because movie theaters are cracking down on outside snacks).

Free Credit Reports That’ll Cost You. ALTERNATIVE: Many people wind up signing up for monthly services that cost money on seemingly free credit report websites. There’s no need to pay for such services because the federal government mandates that everyone can check up on their credit score once a year; go to AnnualCreditReport.com for the details.

Brand-name Painkillers. ALTERNATIVE: Buy generic, and buy in bulk to avoid markups of 60%.

Wine at Restaurants. ALTERNATIVE: Seek out BYOB spots. Restaurant review sites like Urbanspoon allow you to filter your search for BYOB joints in many cities. If that’s not possible, you can whip out your smartphone at the restaurant and see what Wine.com to see just how steep the markup is on the wine list. Be especially wary of the second-cheapest bottle of wine on the list. This is often the biggest rip-off. Many diners don’t want to appear super cheap, and so they defer to ordering the second cheapest bottle. Restaurateurs know this behavior well, and so they often put the heftiest markup on that second-cheapest bottle. The cheapest bottle on a restaurant’s wine list may in fact cost you more (and taste better) if you were to buy it at a wine store. So go ahead and buy the least expensive option. Or go the true cheapskate route: “Just water please. Tap is fine.”

College Textbooks. ALTERNATIVE: Buy used—not only by shopping at the college bookstore, but also by seeing what’s at Amazon, Alibris, and other websites. In some situations, you may be able to barter for books: Swaptree lets users swap any combination of books, DVDs, video games, and CDs, though the vast majority is pop culture rather than college material. You can also rent college textbooks—and save a bundle compared to the game of buy at full price, then sell for a pittance at semester’s end—from new services such as Chegg.com.

Super Gasoline. ALTERNATIVE: Read your owner’s manual, but most cars will run just fine on the regular gasoline. You’ll save 25¢ or more per gallon.

Hotel Mini-bars. ALTERNATIVE: Get your butt down the block to a store that doesn’t mark up candy and soda by as much as 1300%. Even the vending machine near the elevator should offer more reasonable prices. Be careful about taking something the mini-bar and trying to replace it later with a cheaper item you bought outside the hotel. Many hotels are aware of this practice, and can detect when something’s been removed and replaced with an item that’s the slightest bit different. Some hotels even have sensors—meaning you could be charged for touching that Snickers bar, even if you put it right back. The moral is: Hands off!

Hotel In-room Movies. ALTERNATIVE: BYO DVDs. Or with a laptop and wi-fi, you should be able to watch all sorts of movies streamed online from your Netflix account. Or just make due with what’s on the 68 other channels you get for free in your room.

Not on the list of rip-offs: Health care. Presumably it didn’t make the cut because of the difficulty of quantifying just how much we’re ripped off. ALTERNATIVE: Pray that you don’t get sick.