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4 Ways Americans Keep Wasting Their Money

Economist Mike Moebs points out that overdraft fees are so high that consumers hit by them the most frequently could save money by instead taking out one of those much-maligned payday loans.

"The average amount overdrawn on checking accounts by about 70% of consumers, according to the General Accounting Office and the FDIC, is less than $100," Moebs says. "Consumers who use a payday advance loan for $100 or less will pay an average of $17.97, which is 33% less than the $27 it costs for an overdraft of that same amount from a checking account."

3. Unused gift cards, memberships and rebates
According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, there were 45.3 million gym and health club members last year and health club attendance averaged 102 days.

That means on average, 263 days of each annual membership go unused. Assuming that a monthly membership, on the low range of things, is about $30 a month, that's $258 a year being paid by the average customer for unused days. Nationwide, that's billions of dollars being spent on nothing more than guilt over an abandoned New Year's resolution.

Massachusetts-based research firm TowerGroup, a subsidiary of Corporate Executive Board (EXBD), issued its annual overview this week of the gift card industry.

Spending on gift cards for this year's holiday shopping season will increase for the first time in three years, reaching $91 billion in sales, it estimated, and could hit $100 billion by 2012.

The good news: In addition to the increase in spending on gift cards, "breakage" -- industry jargon for the value left unused on gift cards -- is expected to decrease by almost 50% since 2008, to 3.1%. The change is owed to new federal regulations.

The bad news: that's still $2.5 billion consumers will never collect on.

How about rebates? Those deals on electronics and cell phones sound great -- $50 off if you just clip the UPC symbol and mail it in. Blame procrastination, forgetfulness and tricky fine print for the fact that up to 60% of rebates are never filed and billions of dollars will never be collected.

Though numbers aren't readily available, consider other services you pay for but don't use -- unused cell phone minutes and data allowances, ignored or expired gift card balances, lingering over one Netflix (NFLX - Get Report) movie all month, paying for premium cable channels that go ignored until the next season of Entourage starts and all those impulse buys from Amazon (AMZN - Get Report) that you'll only glance at on your Kindle.

4. Airline fees
The ever-multiplying array of airline-imposed fees is another costly modern inconvenience. A typical bag of checked luggage will set you back at least $25 to $35 each way on many airlines.

Baggage fees charged by airlines totaled a mere $464 million in 2007. For the first half of this year, nearly $1.7 billion has already been collected in these fees, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Delta Airlines (DAL) led the pack with nearly $474 million in fees. Rounding out the top five were American Airlines (AMR) ($280.5 million), U.S. Airways (LCC) ($256.3 million), Continental Airlines (UAL) ($167.6 million) and United Airlines (UAL) ($155.9 million).

It's not just extra baggage that has us paying through the nose. Fees related to canceling and changing reservations has earned airlines more than $1.1 billion in the first half of this year.

To fight the fees, however, one must first know what they are.

A survey earlier this year by the National Business Travel Association found that 61% of those who responded said it was "very important to know the total cost of the trip," but 58% said they were "unable to track the total amount spent on ancillary fees."

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont.

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