By Beth Pinsker
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Coronavirus lockdowns might have caught a lot of people by surprise last month, but with April’s new billing cycle, it is time for cash-strapped Americans to rethink automatic spending habits.
Are you turning off that monthly parking pass? Your gym membership? What about the balance due for summer camp?
You may have many recurring charges on credit cards you do not even notice most months, what experts refer to as gray charges.
“This is a time more than any other that people need to be aware of where their money is going,” said Haroon Mokhtarzada, co-founder and chief executive of Truebill, a free service that evaluates your spending and helps you cancel services you no longer want.
Automation is usually helpful in personal finance, but it makes things tricky with the economy on pause.
Ramit Sethi, author of “I Will Teach You to Be Rich” and one of the chief proponents of this approach, is now hosting fireside chats on YouTube to coach his followers on how to turn off some of those payments and ask for help (https://bit.ly/3avUZbz).
“You should call your credit card company, your student loan company, and your landlord,” Sethi said. “Many companies are willing to help by pausing payments, restructuring payments, or even waiving payments altogether.”
If you want help with everyday expenses, you will need to dig a little deeper. Here is how to handle some scenarios:
If you have pre-tax deductions taken from your paycheck for rail passes or parking, log onto the website that administers the service, like WageWorks, and shut it off. Wait times could be long for a customer service agent if you cannot figure out how to do it electronically. You also may have already missed the window for April, depending on your billing date.
WageWorks advises that normal refund policies are still in place. If your pass does not expire, just hold on to it for now, the company said (https://www.wageworks.com/commuter-covid/).
Many national fitness chains have Covid-19 information pages available online, although messaging varies.
Some, like LA Fitness, immediately paused all billing and waived all freeze fees. Members inadvertently billed during the freeze will get their membership time extended, said Jill Greuling, president of club operations for the chain.
Others have evolved. 24 Hour Fitness said in a statement that it closed gyms on March 16, and effective April 16, it will suspend all membership billings, if the clubs are not open by then. Anyone billed for closed days from March 17 through April 15 will “receive additional days of club access” added on to the end of their membership.
Gym memberships are notoriously hard to cancel.
“Some you have to come in person to cancel, and bring a form,” noted Adam Dell, head of digital product management for Marcus by Goldman Sachs and founder of Clarity Money. So for now, you might want to accept the freeze.
Beware of simply cancelling the automatic payment through your credit card. Because you are under a contract, the gym could send your account to collections, and that could damage your credit score.
Like many summer programs, Camp High Rocks in Brevard, North Carolina, moved back its “pay in full” date, which parents often set up to autobill to credit cards.
Payments that had been due in April are now postponed – with some camps extending the due dates to June. There is a big question mark hanging over whether there will be summer camp at all for children across America, as schools remain closed.
“We tell parents that if we can’t open, we’ll refund the money,” camp director Don Gentle said. Ideally, families will take up the offer to roll over the deposit to 2021.
So far, only two families out of about 500 have canceled, one because of job loss.
Some camps may also offer cancellation insurance, much like trip insurance, said Susie Lupert, executive director of the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey. Your individual camp would know the details.
As a parent, Lupert said she was doing the same thing as everyone else, waiting to see what happens.
“We’re under the assumption that they’re happening, and if they don’t, we’ll deal with it,” Lupert said.
(Editing by Lauren Young and Bernadette Baum)