Below the bottom line

List price doesn't mean a whole lot anymore, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Take car buying.

The information revolution has given consumers easy access to the actual cost of a vehicle to its dealer. Conversation between buyer and seller – when it is required at all – can now be limited to how much profit the seller is willing to take.

Think invoice plus $500 or so.

If a salesman ambles back to his manager's glass cubicle with your offer, in an old ritual meant to make you sweat, you don't need to wait for him to come back.

Consumers buying contracted services, however, face a lot more complexity on the pricing front.

Contracts are more nebulous than hard goods. It's harder to get a real cost, harder to know whether a "tax" or surcharge is a government-levied fee or just a company-levied device to boost profits.

It's also tough to know whether, say, the "in-state access recovery fee" – a line that appears on some phone bills these days – is something you want or need.

Worse, consumers often cannot opt out of the add-ons. And the add-ons can really add up.

To win business, many service providers ratchet down their base prices while projecting an illusion of all-inclusiveness. Then come the fees needed to make their service expand to meet your needs – to cover events both fully expected and unforeseen.

A car rental can easily cost about twice what you thought it would – even allowing for collision insurance and a few other "initial-here-please" riders. If you ding a car, you might need (surprise!) to add a daily rental charge for the time the car is in the shop.

So shop hard, and make sure the "bottom" line really is.

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