Continuous service? Dumb moves from Smart Money

As part of my ongoing effort to bring you interesting and informative personal-finance information, I subscribe to several magazines, including Smart Money. Smart Money isn't my favorite money magazine, but it has some useful articles.

In 2005, I paid $20 to subscribe to Smart Money for two years. In 2007, I paid $20 to subscribe for another two years. Today I received my latest issue, which included this wrap-around “cover” announcing that “as part of our Continuous Service program, your subscription will be automatically renewed unless you tell us to stop”:

Click on an image to open a larger version in a new window

This is annoying, but it's an annoyance I can live with. Some periodicals (especially newspapers) automatically renew subscriptions. For a variety of reasons, people are more likely to accept the state in which they are required to do nothing. If the default is “the subscription will expire if you do nothing”, people will generally let the subscription expire. But if the default is “your subscription will automatically continue if you do nothing”, people will generally let the subscription renew.

Dumb Money

As I say, this is annoying, but I can deal with it. What made me cranky, however, was this bit at the bottom of the renewal notice:

 

Smart Money wants to automatically renew my subscription for one year at $20. But I was previously paying $20 for a two-year subscription. They want to use this automatic renewal to double my rate. This is bullshit.

I did some research to see if subscription rates have increased since 2007. They have not. At the official Smart Money subscription page, I found the following deals:

  • One year for $12
  • Two years for $18

Apparently my reward for being a “preferred subscriber” is that I will pay more for one year of the magazine than new subscribers pay for two years. That sounds like dumb money to me. It gets worse. Using Google, I found an even better deal, also from the official page:

  • One year for $11
  • Two years for $18
  • Three years for $24

And Amazon has an even better price: 24 issues for just $14!

Out of the Frying Pan

Armed with this info, I prepared to unleash my righteous indignation on a customer service rep. I dialed the phone number on the wraparound cover. But I couldn't reach customer service — only an automated answering system, which offered two choices:

  1. Stay in the “continuous service” program and renew the subscription.
  2. Be removed from the “continuous service” program and cancel the subscription.

I didn't want either one. I wanted option three: give me back my lower rate. I gave up and tried the web.

Smart Money actually has a website that purports to let you manage your account. Fine. I clicked on the link to renew my subscription and saw this:

 

This clearly says: “Fill in the form below to access your subscription account.” I understood this to mean: “When you enter your information, you will be able to perform various actions on your account.” But no. That's not what it really means. I entered my account number and was greeted with this screen:

 

That's it. A blank page with the command: “renew your subscription”. Can any of you tell me what this means? Checking a different page on the site revealed that by entering my account number, I had actually agreed to renew the subscription.

This is so lame!

I hate crap like this. I hate it when businesses treat me like a commodity. Usually when these things happen, a business loses me as a customer forever. (No joke.) But I can't just pretend Smart Money doesn't exist; it's an important part of the financial media. Argh!

Free Magazines!

How much does this bother me? So much that I've spent an hour processing images and writing this post. So much that I cancelled my subscription — and then re-subscribed for two years for $14 through Amazon. And so much that I'm going to give away free subscriptions to GRS readers — for Smart Money‘s competitors.

Six commenters on this article (chosen at random) will receive a one-year subscription to the personal-finance magazine of their choice from those reviewed in these two articles:

The only caveat is that if you win, you cannot choose Smart Money. To qualify, all you have to do is share your own tale of financial frustration in the discussion on this post. (Contest ends at 12:01 am Tuesday morning.)

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Paul
Paul
11 years ago

This happens all the time. Almost with anything that you are subscribed to, the company will have more interest in gaining NEW customers than it has in keeping the existing ones. When I tried to replace my water-logged cell phone with my mobile provider, my “loyal customer for 4 years” allowed my to purchase a replacement phone for $150. But if I signed on as a new customer, I received the SAME phone for free. And both carried a 2-year agreement? The customer service agent could not answer my question why the company she was representing was going to reward… Read more »

Josh
Josh
11 years ago

My tale of financial frustration: A Time Warner cable salesman was going door to door in my neighborhood. When he came to my house he wanted me to upgrade my plan. I used Time Warner Cable for cable and internet services and was paying $110 for both. He claimed that by adding their phone service I would lower my total bill to $100 a month. I questioned him over and over saying it didn’t seem right that I could add another service and lower my bill. But he guaranteed me it was true and put it in writing so I… Read more »

Scott
Scott
11 years ago

Here’s my most recent tale of financial frustration, written as an “open letter” to AT&T: Dear Valued AT&T High Speed Internet Service Equipment Processing Center: I am formally begging you, for the love of God, to stop to the onslaught of declined rebate notices in my mailbox. Wouldn’t you agree you’ve made your point, now that I can repeat verbatim the five reasons why my rebate for the purchase of high-speed internet equipment was declined? (Not that I initiated this rebate in the first place–it was you who tracked me down with the offer. But that’s beside the point.) Apparently… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
11 years ago

This week I received a $200 tax refund and like all government checks, it was deposited directly to my checking account. My bank’s system seemed to think it was a paycheck. Since I automatically withdraw $200 per paycheck for my retirement savings, the computer automatically slapped the entire refund into my retirement savings, when I was planning to put it in my emergency fund. I called the bank to complain and learned that a computer error — made in just a microsecond — would take a human five business days to fix. I’m still trying to figure out if the… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
11 years ago

Geez, this must be an annoying new practice magazines are doing!! I also subscribe to SM but haven’t had to renew it yet. I did have the same experience as yours, though with Country Living, a nice home mag I’ve gotten for a few years. Same as you, they automatically renewed at a much higher rate. I searched endlessly for a way to contact them (e-mail, phone) but ended up only being able to return the bill with an ad for 12 issues for $10, not the $20 they wanted to charge. They sent me back a letter stating I… Read more »

Snowballer
Snowballer
11 years ago

I’m going through one right now. Check this out: Six months ago my bank hits me with a $5 account fee. I call and ask why as the description is vague: net service fee. They said it was for too many ETFs. All right, I bought that, I had done several that month. So I reorganized my accounts to do just one a month. For two months after, no fee. Thought I was good to go. Then suddenly at month 4, fee again! I called and asked why since it’s only one ETF a month. They said then it was… Read more »

Andrew
Andrew
11 years ago

That is terrible. Its great that you took the time to write this article and bring this up to make people aware. You know that here a thousands of people out there that just don’t pay attention and fall into this trap.

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

That’s crazy, J.D., but not unlike my experience with Everyday Food Magazine that I have subscribe to since its inception. The difference is that I get e-mails from the company telling me I can get the magazine for $10 per year, but when I click the link it takes me to my account, where “loyal” subscribers pay nearly double for a one year renewal. Reminds me of an old joke my father used to tell where the punchline began, “Such a deal I have for you . . .” I eventually reached a customer service rep (a real live person… Read more »

Mr. ToughMoneyLove
Mr. ToughMoneyLove
11 years ago

JD – You can send me a subscription to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. I actually read all of these at the local library but as long as you are giving one away, I would like to have it.

Jeremy
Jeremy
11 years ago

I hate this also. Though I have never caught it with a magazine subscription before. Comcast is the bane of my existence, giving intro rates and then jacking them up by over 300%. Why yes, I love to pay $60+ for something that for the past 6months I have only had to pay $20 for. Thank you so much Comcast. Oh, and when your service goes down and I can’t get on the internet for a week, don’t bother to credit me that would be detrimental to your profits.

Gary
Gary
11 years ago

For subscription services I use a credit card with “ShopSafe”.
This allows me to set the charge amount and how many months the card can be billed.
This eliminates the auto-subscription problem for me.

Mark Roberts
Mark Roberts
11 years ago

Heh, alright, I’ll give it a go and I think I have a pretty good ‘lesson’ story. Back in December I was offered a long term IT contract job in a different city and the job market being what it is I moved and took the job. About a month and a half in I found it was not as long term as I thought and in fact was only a 6 month contract, I was rather upset I was lied to but I need the job so I just took the hit and kept working. Three weeks ago they… Read more »

Kevin
Kevin
11 years ago

Wow this is lame. And as you mentioned, Smart Money is not exactly the best PF mag out there. I used to subcribe to Entertainment Weekly. One time they called and tried to sell me a big book about movies. I was not interested. The Rep got nasty with me. I cancelled EW that day.

Aman@BullsBattleBears
11 years ago

I can agree with the article from a similar experience. I was out of the country for a few months and during that time, my local cable company introduced some new TV channels. Part of the promotion was that everyone would get these channels but you had to cancel before the first month preview ended or would pay an additional $15/mth for this package. Being away, I did not find out until my monthly bill was in its 4th month. It took a lot of calls to the “no-customer-service” department at which point I finally just cancelled my entire service… Read more »

Amy
Amy
11 years ago

My husband and I recently subscribed to a marriage magazine that we had been previously enjoying online. The online version didn’t have all the articles and we were reading it enough that we felt we should support it. Two issues into our subscription the editorial was a teary eyed farewell to the print version of the magazine. They asked us to continue reading on-line and replaced the balance of our subscription with their women’s magazine. We didn’t want the women’s magazine. That’s why we didn’t subscribe to it in the first place. Why would a company who knew they were… Read more »

Erik
Erik
11 years ago

Must be a trend! I just got a letter yesterday from Kiplinger’s to let me know that if I do nothing, my subscription to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance will auto renew at the “discounted price” of $19.95 for 12 issues. Their current offer on the web site is $12 for 12 issues (and possibly cheaper elsewhere). I looked back through my receipts and I paid $12 for 12 issues the past two years and there has never been an auto-renew letter. I put the letter aside out of disgust figuring I would cancel over the weekend and resubscribe after it stops… Read more »

Chillyrodent
Chillyrodent
11 years ago

I like to take advantage of free trials of magazines, rather than shelling out several bucks at the newsstand or committing to a year’s subscription. This is a good deal for me, except that the bills and dunning letters start pouring in long before the “free” issue ever arrives. “By now, you’ve surely enjoyed our fine magazine at our expense, you freeloading deadbeat. Now, do the right thing and pay up, loser.” The Atlantic was the most recent culprit.

Even if I had been favorably inclined toward the magazine, by the time it arrives I’m annoyed and peevish.

Terrin
Terrin
11 years ago

I called up American Express the other day to pay off my bill. It’s phone system tells you how much you owe, so I paid that off. Two weeks later I get a bill for about four dollars, which supposedly constitutes accrued interest during the month. If I call up to pay off the bill, I don’t expect to be hit with some residual interest after the fact. My friend went to Baltimore over the weekend. I went with her. Apparently she lost or had her Key bank card stolen. Somebody rung up a few hundred dollars worth of stuff… Read more »

Sylvia
Sylvia
11 years ago

Great post, JD. I’m with you on “Usually when these things happen, a business loses me as a customer forever. (No joke.)” The Internet seems to be exacerbating this trend, as do endless voicemail prompts on “customer service” phone lines. The more I’m treated like a numerical entity instead of a person, the less I am inclined to participate at all. Which might not be a bad thing!

Doug
Doug
11 years ago

I belonged to a gym that decided to raise rates, but they were not just going up in price every September there would be an additional equipment fee. All they would say is that the equipment fee was going to be the same as the monthly fee or slightly higher. I have feeling that meant always higher.

I should thank them I have found some great hiking/ snowshoeing trails nearby. I never have a reaction to chemicals when I take a swim in the lake.

Jon
Jon
11 years ago

That’s ridiculous JD, and I’m glad you canceled the subscription and renewed through your usual method. Personally I only subscribe to a few magazines, and I ignore ever single email/snail mail they send me, even if it means that my subscription at some point gets canceled. If I really enjoy the magazine I will go onto Amazon.com to re-subscribe (best prices around). Letting the subscription fail forces me to evaluate whether I really need/want the various magazines.

Selene M.
Selene M.
11 years ago

These phone menus that go nowhere frustrate all of us. The situation worsens when you’re in a time critical mode trying to find out coverage for an emergency medical procedure, and no matter what menu item you choose, you can’t make contact with a live person.

Another maddening item are voice commands that don’t work.

Jean
Jean
11 years ago

Consumer Reports automatically renewed my online subscription one year. I didn’t know about it until I received an email after the fact. I was a bit upset but went ahead and took the second year subscription (no I didn’t complain). I ended up keeping an eye on it and canceled right before the end of the second year. I’ve since received ‘we want you back’ emails. I suppose I should let them know that of all consumer magazines, I’m surprised that they would take part in this practice.

JC
JC
11 years ago

Arggh — I hate this stuff too. Call me old fashioned but I always thought that companies who really wanted to do well in the long run had to work to keep their customers happy, not try and slip things by them, especially in this economic environment. In fact I just finished fighting with my credit card company who had decided to raise my interest rate despite my sterling history with them — ridiculous! I honestly think that if companies were up front about things, and treated their customers more respectfully and earned their trust, they’d probably do a lot… Read more »

Kevin
Kevin
11 years ago

I stopped reading Money magazine for a different reason – all the families they profiled as having these big money problems always made over $150k a year. Now, I realize there are some people out there like that, but how about some variety! It got old reading every month how Dick & Jane can’t make it on their 6-figure incomes.

I get all my info off the web now – it’s cheaper and I don’t have a bunch of old magazines sitting around. How green of me!

KC
KC
11 years ago

I cancelled my subscription to Smart Money last year. I never saw the “Smart” in it. It dealt a lot with funds investing (which I don’t do) and it featured high end items like articles on Cadillacs, very expensive watches, and overpriced vacations. Some people may find these items as money savers, but I knew this magazine just didn’t appeal to me and what I wanted from life.

Brenda
Brenda
11 years ago

J.D., Nice move you’re making with this give-away. I hope you’ve also forwarded this post to Smart Money! I agree with your assessment of this magazine … I received a subscription as a gift, but found nothing of interest to me in the issues. Like you said, the magazine’s focus seems to be geared towards high income individuals who want to spend and be seen. My tale of financial frustration deals with DirecTV. The reception of some channels on ONE of our two TVs was severely degraded. Calling “customer service” I learned I’d need to pay a $20 service fee… Read more »

Fred Bloggs
Fred Bloggs
11 years ago

Well, I don’t want the magazines. But what a creative way to go about things. I hope this has effect.

My latest similar experience was a month trial of audible. I was expecting to cancel before the month was up, but poor tech support and a “stuff you, just pay up” approach made quite sure of it. Also that I won’t be trying them again in the next several years.

Melissa Miller
Melissa Miller
11 years ago

I used to subscribe to a magazine that one of my professional organizations put out. It was a great magazine but cost about $100 a year so after a while I wanted to drop it. I couldn’t find a phone number to call to do it and their web page didn’t have a means for canceling it. I did enjoy the magazine so I didn’t try beyond that, after two more years the expiration date on the credit card they were charging changed, so I figured I would stop getting it, I still got it for 6-8 months after that… Read more »

Adam
Adam
11 years ago

My frustration came when I wanted to purchase a hybrid bike from Target. It was on sale for $199 down from $229 (about a 10% discount). Of course when I got there, they were sold out of them. The impulse shopper in me wanted to take a bike home that day so I spotted a very similar one on the rack. It’s price was $249 but not on sale. I asked the manager of the department if they could give me 10% off the bike that was in stock and she said no very quickly and walked away. I thought… Read more »

jim
jim
11 years ago

To anyone who wins, I recommend subscribing to Portfolio, great magazine with terrific articles.

Heather
Heather
11 years ago

I have not had a problem with magazines, but have had problems with my newspaper. I chose to let my newspaper subscription lapse, but did they ever stop sending me the newspaper? No! They continued to send the newspaper, that I never read and then tried to charge me an enormous amount for a service I no longer wanted. I tried to cancel the newspaper three times but they never got the hint. Now, finally I get only the Sunday paper at an extremely discounted rate.

Cheap Like Me
Cheap Like Me
11 years ago

I have business and personal accounts with a credit union. If my personal checking account gets too low to clear a check, it automatically pulls from savings. I was told the same applied to my business accounts — until it didn’t happen. I double checked and was told they had corrected it. Then my check to the IRS bounced in January (with about double the amount due in my savings). The IRS tried twice, and the CU never e-mailed or called but mailed notices that I received 9 days after the fact. I know this is common BANK practice, but… Read more »

Adam
Adam
11 years ago

I’m interested in the homesteading journals. I was thinking about a subscription to one of them already, so a free one would be awesome.

Tony L.
Tony L.
11 years ago

This just happened yesterday…we recently refinanced with Bank of America (BoA). Our first payment is due on April 1. I went on their website to see how I can pay my mortgage online. After browsing their website for half an hour, I wasn’t able to find the way. I decided to call the customer service. This is when the disaster begins. The rep somehow hung up on me the first try (after inputing numerous information like account number, zip code, etc.) The second call, I was transferred to one department, back to same department that tranferred me, transferred back (this… Read more »

Bill Sherlock
Bill Sherlock
11 years ago

I had a somewhat similar surprise when I got my latest statement from the Chicago Tribune. I pay via automatic payment from my checking account so all I get is a notice of the impending deduction. The latest one added $8 to the subscription price, not only for the upcoming period but for the last one (already paid for), as well. I got on the phone and let the Trib know that I wasn’t going to pay a retroactive price increase. After a bit of fiddling with the telephone rep I got the charge removed, and also got a lower… Read more »

deb
deb
11 years ago

DH is a AAA member. I hadn’t renewed it for him last year as early as usual so they gave him a call, or at least he thought it was AAA calling. It was actually a AAA reseller. He renewed AND signed me up, without telling me. I didn’t know until the cards arrived in the mail. He was charged more than the regular membership fee for my dues – it was cheaper on the AAA web site. Plus, I already have roadside assistance through my car warranty so I don’t need AAA. I called to cancel and spent half… Read more »

dogatemyfinances
dogatemyfinances
11 years ago

I ditched Smart Money after an entire article about how you should TRY to pay off your car in a couple years when you’re in your 30s.

Idiots.

Kenny Johnson
Kenny Johnson
11 years ago

This seems like a relatively new phenomenon. I don’t remember ever dealing with this before. Entertainment Weekly just did this to me. I never noticed the “auto renewal” thing they sent me or ignored it. Then they started sending me bills for $45 with late notices and saying the were going to start charging me interest! I finally called them and they change my account balance to $0. I probably won’t subscribe again soon. Also, I just went with Verizon FIOS. They had a deal where you got HBO/SHO/Etc for free for 1 month (I swore they told me 3… Read more »

Money Minder
Money Minder
11 years ago

Where I live this is called “negative billing” and it is illegal. It became controversial here about 10-15 years ago when cable companies started adding new channels to subscribers’ cable line-ups and billed subscribers unless they called to cancel the new channel within 30 days.

It caused a huge uproar and backlash and we now have legislation preventing this practice.

Do You Dave Ramsey?
Do You Dave Ramsey?
11 years ago

Spot on JD… give’em hell!

My favorite magazine – Sports Illustrated – recent did this crap to me on a gift subscription I gave to my nephew last year.

Fortune ran a similiarly crappy deal… I had subscribed for about 15 years and they started sending me urgent renewal 2nd and 3r notices a full 6 months before my last subscription elapsed.

Nutty behavior and NOT full service.

Thanks for sharing and riling us up as well!

Katharine
Katharine
11 years ago

My husband and I recently realized that we spend a crapload on phone, internet, and tv cable that could be greatly reduced if we combined all three. We’re in Canada and have two real choices: phone company or cable company. Because we don’t want to deal with changing our email addresses and because we like the cable company better than the phone company we’d like to use the cable company. BUT their bundle for the equivalent is $20 a month more than the phone company. So we call to have them price match. They run around saying that the service… Read more »

Matt
Matt
11 years ago

A few years ago, I signed up for Billpay online at Wachovia.com. I had been a faithful customer of Wachovia for over ten years. The bill pay service was pretty user-friendly, and things were smooth sailing. I got to control when, where, and how the bills were paid. One month after paying my utility bill, out of the blue, I get a returned check from another county’s utility company. My local utility, never received payment, even though I had manual entered the correct utility’s mailing address. I was slapped with a fine by my utility for late payment, and Wachovia… Read more »

Michael Wendell
Michael Wendell
11 years ago

This is pretty much Standard Operating Procedure in the magazine world. Many years ago I had a similar thing happen with AutoWeek. I would subscribe for a year for $10 or something, and then a year later they’d want me to re-up for $20. After a few years I just began letting the subscription lapse every year and then waiting for the phone calls asking me to resubscribe at a “special rate”, which I would do. I’d miss a few issues, but so what. I never understood the magazine industry’s penchant for punishing existing subscribers with higher rates. By the… Read more »

Fuber
Fuber
11 years ago

I love the outrage. What is outrageous to me is that, most likely, at the corp offices of smart money, people devised this and someone signed off on it. Not so “Smart”.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

This didn’t fit in the original post, but I can remember the first time this happened to me. About 15 years ago, I subscribed to the Portland newspaper. At that time, I also subscribed to the paper for the small town in which I lived. I had subscribed to many magazines and newspapers in the past, and they all worked the same way: When your subscription term was up, you received renewal notices and then the publication ceased to come. Well, The Oregonian used this “auto-renewal” method. I couldn’t afford to re-subscribe (I was in debt!), so I just let… Read more »

recoveredplan
recoveredplan
11 years ago

Our firm been charged a fee for over 2 years that wasn’t supposed to be charged for one of our pieces of equiment. My boss was on the phone for 2 hours trying to get this straightened out. He was persistant to say the least but he ended up getting the charges reversed and credited to our account, saving the company over $2,000. I used to get Mother Earth News in the 80’s and 90’s, but now only pick an issue if I happen to think about it. I’ve always enjoyed Consumer Reports too and have bought a couple of… Read more »

Sam
Sam
11 years ago

Sounds like quite an ordeal….i wonder how much Smart Money has to pay Amazon for the referral?? And how much its costing them vs. if they had just kept you paying $20 every 2 years!

My biggest frustrating with magazines is when they send you the renewal forms even when you are not due for referral…but don’t tell you how many months you have already paid for, thereby giving the impression that you need to renew! The one that i’ve noticed does this the most is “Parents”.

However my favorite personal finance magazine is probably Forbes.

Rob
Rob
11 years ago

I am just SO relieved I am not the only person who finds this stuff incredibly galling and who goes through the trouble of calling around and checking ebay/magazine websites/amazon for cheaper prices. (BTW, magazines.com has good rates usually and if you use Fatwallet you currently get 5% back in a rebate check, sometimes they have 30% rebates.) I have had this happen with several subscriptions and have always been able to beat the price online then call the company and get them to match the lower price. It’s ridiculous they don’t offer their repeat subscribers the best deal in… Read more »

Allison
Allison
11 years ago

How clever of them…take more of your money to keep you in a state of less money, which makes you want to read their magazine to learn how to keep more of your money. Personally, I’d take a homesteading magazine.

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