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Can online 'bill analyzers' really cut your expenses?

Farhad Manjoo
Farhad Manjoo says consumers can save hundreds of dollars a year with sites such as BillShrink.
Farhad Manjoo says consumers can save hundreds of dollars a year with sites such as BillShrink.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Columnist says online "bill analyzers" can help you save money
  • Sites like BillShrink, BankRate and GasBuddy dissect your monthly bills
  • Then the sites offer ways you could save money, based on your habits
  • There some limits, however, since it may not be easy to adopt some changes
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Editor's note: Farhad Manjoo is the technology columnist at Slate, an online magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @fmanjoo.

(CNN) -- Every year, I pay $200 or so too much for auto insurance. I also throw away about $500 extra for my cell phone plan.

And if you looked at my cable TV bill, you'd call me crazy -- nearly a thousand extra dollars a year are being sucked out of my pocket, as if under the pull of some faraway black hole.

Why am I wasting so much money? Because I don't know my options. That's the operating assumption of a new class of online "bill analyzers." These sites argue that every month, many Americans get snowed in under an avalanche of confusing bills.

Because it's too difficult or just too tedious to parse our monthly statements, we pay for features and options we don't need or will rarely use -- like far more cell phone minutes than we're ever likely to consume, or TV packages that include channels that you wouldn't be caught dead watching.

The bill analyzers aim to solve this problem with computers. These companies rate all the different plans and features of major household services currently available on the market. Then they try to match the perfect service to your actual usage.

For instance, I plugged my cell phone bill into BillShrink, a 2-year-old start-up that also offers comparisons to help you choose the best credit card, savings account, gas station, and, starting this week, TV service.

BillShrink examined my usage -- how many minutes I used, how often I made calls on nights and weekends, how often I sent text messages, etc. Then it presented me with a range of options that it believed would better suit my needs. Sure, I could have gone out and done much of this on my own, but it would have taken a lot more work and thought.

"We go out and analyze 10 million combinations of services and plans," said Samir Kothari, a co-founder of the site. "You could make a big spreadsheet and go through it to find savings, but it's just a lot easier if you let us handle it."

That's true. It was easy. And BillShrink did find cheaper plans for both my TV and wireless phone service.

But when I saw the plans, I noticed something immediately -- many of the alternatives wouldn't work for me. BillShrink told me I could save lots of cash if I switched from cable TV to satellite, but I live in an apartment where I can't install a dish.

I also get my internet service through my cable subscription, so it wasn't clear that ditching cable and then paying for internet separately through some other provider would have actually resulted in lower bills.

I found similar problems in BillShrink's advice on wireless plans. I can save a lot more by switching to another service, but I've got an iPhone, which is locked to AT&T. As long as I wish to stick with my phone -- and I do -- BillShrink could only help me by offering cheaper plans within AT&T, but not outside.

Even despite these limitations, I found BillShrink quite useful as a starting point in searching for possibilities for saving money. The site did allow me to filter down to ways that could make some of my current plans cheaper.

"Many people find lower rates for their iPhone within AT&T," Kothari said.

There are several other sites online that offer some parts of what BillShrink does. Bankrate.com will help you find a credit card, GasBuddy.com will look for better gas prices, and MyRatePlan.com will help you find a better wireless service.

BillShrink differs, though, in offering all of these under the same roof. Among the only other sites that matches it is Mint.com, the much-beloved personal finance management site.

Mint's main focus is keeping track of how you spend your money -- you plug your credit card and bank account info into the site, and it constantly monitors, categorizes and graphs your spending habits. By doing so, it can also spot ways you can save. For instance, Mint can tell how you use your credit card, so it can recommend a card that's tailored exactly to your spending habits.

Whatever site you choose, do choose something. There's a pretty good chance you're wasting a lot of money every month. Even if you don't -- or can't -- actually change your plans, it can't hurt to learn how much you're throwing away.

[TECH: NEWSPULSE]

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