The word "bills" used to be synonymous with "fixed expenses." But there's nothing fixed about many of the bills a typical household pays today.
Some bills have introductory rates that expire, shooting monthly costs skyward. Others offer secret discounts or upgrades to those in the know. Providers constantly tweak their plans and pricing, which means long-term customers can overpay by hundreds of dollars a year.
"It's like airline seating pricing," says Steven McKean, founder and CEO of BillShark, a bill negotiating service based in Boston. "I wouldn't say [people] are overcharged, but I would just say that the pricing is very opaque."
BillShark calculates that Americans could save $50 billion a year by haggling over their bills for cellphone service, home security, internet and pay television. The company, like its competitors BillFixers of Nashville, Tennessee, and BillCutterz of Corpus Christi, offers to negotiate for consumers in exchange for 40 percent to 50 percent of the savings.
Some of the biggest savings right now can be found in cellphone plans as a price war roils the industry, says BillFixers founder Ben Kurland. "A lot of the cellphone providers have introduced multiple plans just this year," he says. "If you have a cell plan that's more than six months old, you may not be on the most efficient plan for you anymore."
In addition to cellphone plans, bill negotiators say the following services often have plenty of room for negotiation:
■ cable or satellite TV
■ satellite radio
■ landline phones
■ alarm systems
■ storage units
■ bottled water delivery
■ gym memberships
What these bills have in common is competition: In most areas, there's another provider that you can hire. You also can opt out, at least theoretically. It's typically much harder to tell your electric company that you can do without lights.
Most BillShark customers would rather stick with the service they have than deal with the sometimes considerable hassles of changing providers, McKean says.
"They don't want to rip out their DVR, and they don't want new equipment, and they don't want to sit around [waiting to] set up all this stuff," he says. "They just want a lower price."
Sometimes a competitor's deals are so much better that it's worth the switch, he says. That's particularly true for cellphone providers, which are paying customers' early termination fees and offering other bounties to switch.
"They're all desperate to steal each other's clients," Kurland says. "Switching providers a lot of times just comes with an instant payoff, and then over the long term, as long as you switch smart, you'll find that you can save money month after month."
Knowing you have that kind of leverage can help you negotiate better deals and save money. Here are the steps:
Gather competitors' offers. These may be touted on the providers' websites, or you may have to call and ask what the best deals are for new customers. Make sure you nail down the details, such as the speed of the internet service and which television channels are included.
Call your provider. Let the telephone representative know, right away, that you're thinking of switching to a competitor or canceling the service if you can't get a better deal. That typically means a transfer to the customer retention department, which often has more leeway to adjust your bill. Keep an open mind as you talk; there are many ways to cut the cost of cable, for example, not just negotiating the price.
Tell them what you know. Companies have caught on to empty threats to cancel, Kurland says. "But if you call up and you say, 'Hey, this is the other provider on my street, and this is the new price that they're offering. I know that your new customer pricing is even lower than that. Why don't we strike a deal?'" Kurland says. "Then you're talking their language."
Don't accept the first offer. If "Can't you do any better than that?" doesn't produce a deeper discount, tell them you'll sleep on it. That may produce another price break, or you may get a different agent the next day who's more eager to deal.
Get clear on expiration dates. Any discounts you negotiate may expire in a few months. To help you keep getting the best deals, enter the expiration dates on your calendar with a reminder to restart negotiations before your bill jumps up again.
Think bigger. Monthly bills such as mortgages and car insurance aren't negotiable in the same way, but you can and should revisit those rates at least annually. The savings could be bigger than all your smaller bills put together.
LIZ WESTON is a certified financial planner and columnist at NerdWallet, a personal finance website.