Here’s a true story:
Long ago, when I was in college (the late 1990s), people still rented movies from stores like Blockbuster. We didn’t have the convenience or RedBox or Hulu or Netflix or even YouTube. We had to drive to the store, pick out the movie, watch it and then remember to return it. Steps 1-3 never posed a problem for me. Step 4, however, was the bane of my movie renting existence.
For some reason, I could never remember to bring movies back. They would sit in my apartment or my boyfriend’s (now husband) house until one of us looked at them and said “hey! We should bring those back!” The movies would then move to my car, where they’d again sit for days until I got around to driving 5 minutes to the store to return it.  I would, on average return a movie about 5 days late—just long enough to have a late fee, not long enough to get charged for the movie.
There was one store where our late fees were pretty high (around $10 or so) and we knew that if we waited long enough, their system would kick out our late fees (don’t ask how we knew this. I promise it has absolutely nothing to do with accidentally finding it out after facing a similar situation). So we did exactly just that. In fact, we waited so long that the store actually went out of business before we had a chance to go back. It wasn’t intentional; it was merely coincidental.
I got lucky that the store went out of business and I didn’t have to own up to my mistake/forgetfulness/irresponsibility. Sadly, late fees have become commonplace in my life, particularly in areas where they don’t need to be.
Like the library. I love the library. I cannot say enough good things about the library. One of my favorite features about the library is the fact that I can renew my books online without ever setting foot inside the building to do so. I even get email reminders about 4 days before my books and movies are due! Yet I still have a problem remembering to login to my account to renew the books or movies until they’re several days overdue and the library has sent me a nastygram reminding me that I have not yet renewed/returned my items. Fortunately, my library fees are small (the most expensive is a $1/day late fee for new releases, $.10 for older children’s books, and then there’s a whole menu of fees in between that I have not yet figured out) but they still add up. As of this writing, I owe my library $2.90.
I haven’t always been plagued just by small late fees. For years, my husband and I were broke and poor managers of our money and would have to manipulate payments because we weren’t organized enough to use the money we did have to pay some bills by the due date. Believe me, we tried. But due dates didn’t always coincide with payday, and we were not far enough ahead to have a buffer or slush fund to draw from (we’ll discuss this another time). Nor was I organized enough to rearrange money or smart enough to think to call the companies and get the due dates changed. We got to the point where we learned which bills tacked on a large late fee immediately and which ones gave a grace period or just had a small fee and just went with it. I lost count of how many times we had to pay an extra fee on our electric bill because we could just not make a prompt payment.
Even though we were paying late fees on some bills, we never got behind in our mortgage due to the expedited payment fee. Almost every month for 4 years, we paid an extra $15 so that the mortgage was paid on time, which was wonderful and probably helped protect our credit score, but when you’re already scrambling to buy food, that $15 is crucial. That $15 makes a huge difference. Every month I used it, I got angry that a) we couldn’t get it together enough to be able to make the payment on time and save that $15; and b) had to pay $15 for absolutely no reason other than that we couldn’t get it together.
Eventually, we grew out of this phase and it’s been years since we’ve been late on a payment (it helps that we are out of credit card debt). We’ve even managed to get a month ahead on our mortgage! But when I think about how much money was wasted, I get a little sick inside.
It’s easy to laugh off late fees like library fines and late movie returns. A couple of quarters here, a few dimes there. No big deal, right? But if late fees are a chronic habit, those insignificant amounts can add up to quite a hefty charge. And the consequences of late fees on bigger bills, like credit cards and car payments, are even worse. So don’t be like me and make sure you’re tracking your due dates.
Because late fees…are a waste of money