MONEY bills

The AT&T Bill That Just Wouldn’t Die

AT&T store with pedestrians rushing on sidewalk below
Richard Drew—AP

A Chicago woman got more than she bargained for when she tried to change her phone-and-Internet service.

When you have a dispute over a bill with a company, sometimes it’s not enough to respond to a collections notice with evidence that the bill has been paid. Sadly, even if the collections firm appears to drop the matter it can still come up again, and again, and again. This is the tale of the bill that just wouldn’t die.

It’s often harder than it should be to close an account. A small remaining balance, sometimes invisible to consumers, can create a big hassle, leading to collections calls and damaged credit – even bills that are several years old for as little as $50 or $100 can really punish a credit score. That’s bad enough.

It’s hard to understand how simply changing service – rather than canceling service – could lead to that kind of red tape nightmare. But that’s exactly what happened to Cathy Nestor, who lives north of Chicago, when she dropped AT&T’s U-verse TV, phone and Internet bundle three years ago and went with only U-verse Internet service.

The trouble started with a $70-something balance remaining on her old bundled account with AT&T’s U-verse, which Nestor claims she paid back in 2011.

Since then, three different firms have tried to collect on the bill, and Nestor says she provided evidence it was paid each time. Still, by the time she wrote to me, she was on the verge of getting reported as delinquent to the credit bureaus.

AT&T, for its part, disagrees with Nestor’s version of events. The company says the old account was never settled (for reasons we’ll explain shortly) and claims her evidence is faulty. Nestor says that the various collection firms never successfully communicated that to her, or didn’t push back when she told them the bill was paid.

The Confusion Begins

When Nestor dropped her U-verse bundle in 2011 but kept high-speed Internet, AT&T gave her a new account and new account number. She says she paid her new bill, thinking it would include any leftover balance from her old U-verse account. It didn’t. But soon after, she realized the error and says she separately paid the old account bill balance of $72 on Nov. 23, 2011. As evidence, she provided me a copy of an electronic payment from her bank statement. (And we should note that she is currently considered an in-good-standing customer of AT&T’s Internet service — that is, on the new account.)

Then the fun began.

She says she got a letter requesting that the bill on the old account be paid. She says she wrote back with evidence that it had been paid, claiming AT&T must have lost the payment amid the account number confusion. About 18 months later, she got a letter from another collection agent demanding that the bill be paid. Again, she wrote with evidence of payment. Then in January 2013 (“Yes, this has been going on that long!”), she received a letter from yet another collections company, Afni Inc., based in Bloomington, Ill., demanding a $79 payment.

“This account has been placed with our agency for collections,” read the letter. “We are requesting your assistance in resolving this matter. We may report information about your account to credit bureaus.”

“I WILL NOT BE PAYING THIS COLLECTION ITEM,” she wrote to Afni, in all caps. (Nestor provided a copy of the exchange for my review). “AT&T has already been paid, and they have tried to sell this off once before. I have already proven to them they were paid. I do not know why they keep trying to collect this.” She concluded by threatening legal action.

Then, nothing. No acknowledgment of receipt. No, “We’re sorry, we’ll drop it,” notice. No new attempt to collect. Silence. It was tempting to think the matter was closed, but Nestor knows consumers should never assume any such thing.

“Just waiting for it to show up again, you know,” she wrote when she contacted me to complain about the repeated collections.

Unraveling the Mystery

I reached out to Afni, and the firm shed a little light on the situation. AT&T had not sold the debt, but was using Afni as a third-party firm to attempt collection.

“When Afni had this account, AT&T was the owner of it—we did not purchase it,” said Debra Ciskey, director of compliance at Afni. “This account was recalled from Afni by AT&T on Aug. 5, 2013, so we are no longer handling it on behalf of AT&T.”

When I asked Ciskey what “recalled” meant, she said Afni was simply instructed to stop attempting to collect on the debt on behalf of AT&T.

“I am sorry that I am unable to tell you what would have happened to the account after we returned it to AT&T,” she wrote.

Ciskey’s responses suggested Nestor’s fear her bill would become zombie debt was well-founded.

“Terrific. I’m guessing that means I still haven’t seen the end of this,” Nestor said, sarcastically. She was right.

Next, I contacted AT&T, and the firm said that Nestor did indeed still owe the money. Emily J. Edmonds, director of AT&T Corporate Communications, acknowledged the payment Nestor made in November 2011, but said it was applied only to her new Internet service account rather than her old bundled account. That left a $79 balance (Nestor and AT&T also disagree on the old account balance).

“This customer has had an outstanding balance on her former account since 2011 that was never paid, ultimately resulting in the bill being sent to collections,” Edmonds said in a statement. “Once we were notified that the customer claimed to be wrongly charged, we conducted a thorough account review and determined the outstanding balance was indeed still owed.”

She also said Nestor had only contacted AT&T directly once during the three-year dispute to complain.

There’s no way to know who’s right about the payment, unless of course Nestor provided proof that the $70-something check was applied to the old account or AT&T provided proof that it was applied to the new account (which should have led to an account surplus, or reduced bill, if logic serves). But we do know for sure that when the third and final collections firm tried to collect, she wrote back with evidence the disputed amount – or something close to it – was paid, and then Nestor heard nothing more.

Edmonds said she could not explain why Afni didn’t respond to Nestor’s letter with further evidence that the debt was owed, and referred that question to Afni.

Afni says a collector is not required to respond to a consumer disputing a debt if it simply ceases collection. “A response is required only if the agency is going to continue collection attempts,” Ciskey said.

And that is one reason some bills never die; it’s also how consumers come to be reported to credit bureaus as late. While Afni could not pursue the debt any further without continuing the dialog by “validating” the debt, that doesn’t stop AT&T from contracting a different collector, or selling the debt.

Margot Saunders, a debt collection law expert at the National Consumer Law Center, said that’s true. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires any firm collecting a debt on behalf of a third party to “verify” the debt if a consumer objects to a collection notice – but only if the firm continues to attempt to collect. Second or third collections firms get to start the process over, and are currently not required by law to keep track of prior collection attempts by others.

Moving Forward

AT&T is now working directly with Nestor to resolve the dispute, so at least for now, she appears to have a happy ending. There is a lesson in her tale, however. She is an example of a concept I call the “exception bin.” Computers and databases are great at handling 99% of transactions. When things follow standard patterns, computers hum along and take care of everything. But once there’s something even a little unique about your situation, you land in the exception bin. And because corporations rely on computers so much, many run into trouble when dealing with items that land in the exception bin. Often, it can feel impossible to get out of it – even if you send letter upon letter providing evidence.

In Nestor’s case, it’s perfectly sensible that she thought she could just keep paying the bills AT&T sent her for U-verse and her account would be current. If you think like a computer, however, you can see how the firm’s computers might handle customers who downgrade from bundled service to a single service. Then, once her bill was handed over to collections, she became an exception that just wouldn’t die. Yes, AT&T used three different firms during a three-year stretch in an attempt to collect a $70-something debt from someone who otherwise seems to be a good customer. And yes, the firm could have seriously harmed her credit over a small bill that she thought she’d paid, that she provided evidence she’d paid, and for which she’d received no response (until the next collection attempt).

So what’s the lesson? In broad strokes, do whatever you can do to avoid the exception bin. Of course, that’s not always possible. Moves happen. Mid-contract cancellations happen. Early service upgrades or downgrades happen. And mistakes happen on both sides. But when they do, realize that your odds of getting caught in corporate red tape go up astronomically. In that case, you must be hyper-vigilant for signs that your exception will soon lead to headaches. Be proactive: Pay a bill, then call to make sure the payment is applied. When you cancel a service, get a letter confirming cancellation and a bill showing a $0 balance. Furthermore, check your credit scores and credit reports regularly for signs of trouble, and dispute any errors as soon as possible. You can get your credit reports for free once a year from each of the major credit reporting agencies, and you can get two credit scores for free from Credit.com along with an explanation of what they mean.

It may seem tedious, perhaps even unfair, but it’s a reality of navigating your way in the 21st Century.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY Face to Face

How to Deal with a Roommate Who’s Late Paying the Rent

Past Due envelope slipped under door
Jim Corwin—Alamy

Unfortunately, sharing an apartment can also mean sharing money woes. Use these conversation starters to make sure your own finances don't end up in the gutter—and you don't end up on the street—because of someone else's problems.

If your roommate can’t manage his or her share of the rent, you’ve got more than an uncomfortable situation on your hands.

When both your names are on the lease, you’re both liable for the full amount owed to the landlord, and you can both be evicted if payments aren’t made in total. Your credit score may suffer in the process, too—making it difficult for you to get another apartment. Serious stuff.

Still, the first time your roomie misses a payment, you might give him a pass, says San Francisco-area financial counselor Susan Bross. “But if this happens more than once, it’s about bad decisions they’re making with their money.”

And since the situation could worsen, you’ve got to address it head on, she says. Here’s how:

OPEN GENTLY: “Can we talk about what’s going on with our rent payments?”

Your first goal is figure out why your roommate was late, so that you can determine whether missed payments will continue to be a problem in the future.

If your housemate has just started freelancing and hasn’t yet figured out how to balance expenses against an irregular income, the problem may resolve itself once she gets more settled. But if she’s got a shopping habit that eats up all her paycheck before she can get to her bills, you may have a regular headache ahead.

As you try to ascertain the situation, try your best not to come off as accusatory, says Dr. Eric Dammann, a New York City clinical psychologist and financial coach.

The last thing you want to do is put your housemate on the defensive before you’ve had a chance to discuss resolutions. And if the conversation escalates to a fight, it’ll be tougher for you to live harmoniously under the same roof going forward.

“So bring it up in the gentlest way you can,” he says.

PUT IT IN PERSPECTIVE: “I was late paying some of my other bills last month because of the missed payment.”

If your roommate’s not opening up, or if he acts like missing the deadline is no big deal, let him know how his lateness is affecting you or the rest of your roommates.

“Suggest ways in which it is a big deal,” says Dammann. “You might get through that way.”

Also, explain to him the possible consequences if his portion of the rent is not met every month (e.g. you’ll get kicked out and both end up with poor credit).

FIGURE OUT A GAME PLAN: “Let’s come up with a system so we make sure we don’t have to have these conversations again”

or

“If you’re not able to keep up with rent payments, I need to know so that I can go to our landlord and try to renegotiate the terms of our lease.”

If the late payments are truly only a matter of forgetfulness, try to encourage your roommate to set up a new system to avoid missing payments, so that you’re not left scrambling for money again.

The fix could be as simple as a Google alert, a gentle reminder on a whiteboard in the kitchen, or together using a site like Splitwise, that helps roomies coordinate shared expenses.

But if you find out the issue is more serious or more chronic, start by asking your roommate if he sees any possible resolution, such as asking a parent for money. No end in sight to the problems? Without being too aggressive, let your flatmate know that you’ll have to get the landlord involved in order to protect your own finances.

Then do so, stat. “Most leases can be modified,” says Brandy Peeples, a Frederick, Md. litigation attorney specializing in real estate. “If your landlord knows you’re having problems, he or she may work with you—it’s practical to go back and ask.”

You could see if your landlord will allow you to bring in an extra roommate to reduce everyone’s individual contributions. Or you could try negotiating an early termination fee that allows your roommate to pay a fine and leave the apartment.

“It’s good to keep the landlord into the loop,”says Peeples. “If you wait until after the fact, a lot of times the landlord is not going to be so forgiving.”

RELATED: 3 Tools that Help You Nudge Friends to Pay You Back

MONEY Shopping

Here’s How to Save Hundreds on Groceries

Shopping Carts
Baldomero Fernandez

These 29 surprising and easy moves will help you find the best prices, avoid the sneakiest store tricks, and prevent those costly impulse buys.

Regardless of whether you’re feeding just yourself or a whole family, you probably find that groceries take a big bite out of your paycheck.

Food is the third-largest household expense, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. And for a family of four, the average monthly tab runs between $568 for the super thrifty to $1,293 for those on a more liberal budget, according to the USDA.

MONEY consulted supermarket-savings experts for strategies that would help you trim the fat, without giving up the foods you love. Employing just a few of these 29 tricks—because let’s face it, you hardly have time to cook let alone turn shopping into a project—can take your bills down by 25%.

In other words, you could realize between $1,700 and $3,900 in annual savings.

Now that’s pretty delicious.

Plan Ahead

1. Do an inventory. Take stock of your pantry and freezer once a month to get a sense of what items you need and what you can skip buying, says Annette Economides, co-author of Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family. Her husband and co-author Steve adds, “you don’t want to get in a panic when you’re in the grocery store and impulse buy an item at full price only to go home and find you’ve already got it.” Use an app like Out of Milk to help with your inventory.

2. Plan meals by the ads. “A lot of people make a weekly meal plan and then go look for a deal,” says Steve Economides. “Instead, look first at the deals and plan your meals around what’s on sale. This way, you can get meals for half price.”

3. Use up your pantry. Americans typically toss about 25% of the groceries we buy, according to the National Resources Defense Council. To prevent your food from turning into wasted money, sort through your fridge and pantry about once a week for items that are about to expire and place those in a designated space so that you remember to eat them before they go bad. Plug in what you’ve got at Supercook to find recipes that will help you use up your ingredients.

4. Shop only once a week. “The less you shop, the more you save,” says Annette Economides. Reduce impulse purchases and save gas by planning your shopping list so that you get a week’s worth of groceries in one shot.

5. Look for substitutes. Review your last grocery receipt and circle your most expensive purchases. When you’re next in the store, consider swapping these items for lower-cost alternatives—like ground turkey for ground beef. Subbing out a few items each trip can add up.

Get the Best Price

6. Do some reconnaissance. Pick the 10 or so items you most commonly buy (e.g. milk, cereal, bananas, chicken, detergent) and make a one-time mission to a few stores in your area (supermarket, Walmart, Target, Costco, dollar store) to compare the prices. A spreadsheet like this one from the Balancing Beauty & Bedlam blog can help. Your goal: to find out if you’re actually shopping the store with the lowest overall prices for your needs, says Stephanie Nelson, founder of the CouponMom.com.

7. Know the rock-bottom price. Learn the price range of the items you buy most frequently so that you’ll be able to recognize when they hit their lowest and stock up then, says Nelson. “For my family, one of our biggest grocery expenses is boneless chicken breast,” she says. “In my area, they’ll drop to $2 a pound and peak at $5 a pound over the course of three weeks. By stocking up at the lowest price, I’ve saved nearly $500 a year on just one item.”

8. Be wary of 10 for $10 sales. Or any promotion in which a store is offering several items for one price. Check the price of the item to make sure it is actually discounted, and not just clever signage making you think 89¢ cans being sold 10 for $10 is a steal. Also, if it is actually a discount, keep in mind that you don’t need to buy 10 to get the lower price.

9. Weight it out. Compare items by not just the sticker price but the price per ounce or pound to be sure you’re getting the best deal. Most stores post this number on the label on the shelf. For meats, look at the cost per serving instead so the bones and fat included in the weight of the item don’t mislead you.

10. Download coupons… Couponing doesn’t require circulars and scissors anymore. Visit Coupons.com, SmartSource.com or redplum.com to easily see what coupons are currently available in your area, then either print them out or load them onto a store loyalty card so you don’t even have to remember to bring them with you, says Nelson.

11. …then deploy them wisely. “When we find a coupon, we feel like we must use it right away,” says Nelson. “But wait until the item is at a really good sale price. This way you get savings from both the store discount and the coupon.”

12. Buy for 10 weeks at a time. Sales run through cycles, typically on an eight to12 week rotation, lifestyle and money-saving blogger Leslie Lambert of Lamberts Lately found. So if you know you’ll go through a box of cereal a week, buy 10 when they’re a deal to see you through the weeks when the item will be at full price.

13. Get an IOU. If a sale item is out of stock, ask the store for a rain check. It’s a slip of paper that grants you the sale price once the item’s back in stock regardless of whether the promotion is still running. Or if you don’t want to come back into the store, ask a manager if you can sub a similar item for the one on sale, recommends Annette Economides.

14. Photograph your receipt. You can earn cash-back on your groceries with apps like Ibotta, SavingsStar and Checkout51. These services offer weekly cash-back deals on a range of goods and all you need to do is take a photo of your receipt showing you bought the item to take advantage of the kickback, says Nelson.

Be Smarter in the Store

15. Be loyal. Pick one grocery store and one drugstore you go to frequently. “Sign up for their loyalty programs and get familiar with the promotions they run and what rewards they give out,” says Nelson. Understanding the program will help you concentrate your efforts so that you can get items for free, she notes.

16. Learn the layout. The more aisles you walk down, the more likely you are to add things to your shopping basket that you hadn’t initially intended to buy. Shoppers who decreased the number of aisles they visited checked out with only half their items being unplanned purchases vs. 68% of items for those who visited most or all aisles in a shop, according to a Marketing Science Institute study.

17. Go alone. The larger your shopping party, the more likely you are to make impulse purchases. About 65% of the items in our baskets when we group shop are unplanned, an eight percentage point increase over shopping alone, according to that same Marketing Science Institute study. So leave your spouse and your kids behind.

18. Pack mints. Or eat before you go. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that consumers are likely to spend more if their appetites have been stimulated beforehand. That’s probably why baked goods and rotisserie chickens are placed by the entrance of the store. Combat those tempting odors by eating a mint—which satiates hunger and can help overwhelm other scents—or by making sure your belly is full.

19. Bring your own soundtrack. Studies show that stores play music with a slower beat to encourage you to move more slowly through the aisles. That slower pace can lead shoppers to buy 29% more, found Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy. Create your own mix of upbeat songs.

20. Use a Goldilocks cart. Lindstrom told CNBC that doubling the size of a cart makes people buy 40% more. And opting for those handheld baskets can be equally dangerous. A study from the Journal of Marketing Research found that the strain of carrying the basket made us more likely to pick up “vice products” like candy and soda as an unconscious reward for putting up with the hassle. Opt instead for a smaller wheeled cart.

21. Look high and low. Avoid the middle shelves and end caps. Companies pay to place products at your eye level—and your kid’s. Scan the top and bottom shelves instead as most of the time you’ll find the less expensive brands and best deals there.

22. Check yourself out. Impulse purchases dropped by 32% for women and about 17% for men when shoppers used the self-checkout line instead of a staffed checkout, found a study by IHL Consulting Group. The reason: There is less merchandise for you to pick up last minute around self-checkout stands, and the wait time is typically shorter—giving you less time with those tempting items.

Save on Specifics

23. Skip the deli. Whether you’re buying freshly cut meats from behind the deli counter or pre-sliced by the hot dogs, you’re spending more on cold cuts than you need, according to Steve Economides, who instead opts for large chunks of prepackaged meat called chubs. He then asks the deli or the butcher to slice the chubs for him. “At the deli, I can get a pound of ham for $7 to $9,” says Economides. “If I go to the meat counter and have a chub of ham sliced, it costs between $3 and $5 a pound, meaning I can save up to 66%.” You could also cook up larger portions of a meat, say a roast beef, and slice up those extras for sandwiches.

24. Do your own slicing and dicing. Prepackaged and single-serving foods are easy mark-up territory. (Example: Through New York City’s Fresh Direct delivery service, we found a cut and cored pineapple cost $5.99 while an uncut pineapple cost $3.99.) Though it may be more time-consuming, buy the whole chicken, block cheese or pineapple and do the chopping yourself. You can create your own smaller servings—say, for school lunches—by dividing up the food into baggies or Tupperware.

25. Don’t get milk at the supermarket. Moo juice sold at drugstores and convenience stores typically costs 30¢ to 50¢ less per gallon, Teri Gault, founder of TheGroceryGame.com, told Reader’s Digest.

26. Grow your own herbs. Stop buying bundles of herbs—at $2-plus a pop—that you’ll never be able to use up in time and instead plant a couple pots with fresh herbs to keep in your kitchen or porch. For a one-time cost of around $5, you’ll always have fresh herbs ready, and you won’t end up wasting any.

27. Follow the produce cycle. “You can save 30-50% on the price of produce by buying what’s in season,” says Annette Economides. If you do want those berries in the off-season, buy extra when they’re cheap and freeze them so you can enjoy them year round. For a guide to when certain produce is in peak-season, see this chart from the USDA.

28. Check seafood labels. At the counter you’ll find products labeled “previously frozen” in small type. That product is often the same thing you can find in the frozen-food aisle for as much as 40% less. Buy frozen and do the thawing yourself. Your fish will be fresher and you won’t have to use it right away.

29. Get meat in bulk. Washington-based Zaycon Foods offers consumers very competitive rates—e.g. chicken breast for $1.79 a pound—for those willing to buy orders starting at 40 pounds. To get these deals, you’ll have to order online and then pick your food up at a prearranged time from the back of a refrigerated truck waiting in a church or shopping center parking lot. Can’t store 40 pounds of meat? Split it with a friend, and you’ll both save.

Read next: Amazon Will Start Delivering Fresh Groceries in New York Today

MONEY Ask the Expert

How Can I Save More?

Financial planning experts share easy ways to trick yourself into setting more money aside for your future.

MONEY the photo bank

FREE MONEY! (If You _ _ _ _ It)

What if you found a dollar bill on the street? Would you pick it up? What if it was taped to a window in a grid with 99 more of its friends? Would you pull it off? What if I told you it was Art?

At the recent 2014 DUMBO Arts Festival, that “free money” was the artwork of North Carolina–based artist and educator Jody Servon. In her “I _ _ _ _ a dollar” installation piece, on the storefront window of a building on Plymouth Street between Washington and Main streets, she offered up 100 one-dollar bills for all to see or take.

Next to the display, Servon posted a short statement:

There was a time when a single dollar made a difference in the quality of my day. It either bought me food or kept me from walking a few miles to school in the rain. Viewers are invited to contemplate their situation and decide if they want or need a dollar. If you want the dollar, consider if it is better left for someone who may need it. If in need, you are invited to take one of the 100 one-dollar bills hanging on the wall to make a difference in your day.

“I _ _ _ _ a dollar” was originally created in 2012, for the exhibition “Poor Quality: Inequality” at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. Noted behavioral economist Dan Ariely offered artists an honorarium of $100 to create work based on the topic of social and economic inequality. Servon, the sole recipient of the money, went ahead to do the most daring thing an emerging artist can do: She gave it all away. As Servon recounts:

The honorarium to create the work was $100, and I used the entire amount to fund the dollar bills for the project. I came upon this idea when I thought about my socio-economic background and different times in my life when I had less money and how this lack of funds impacted by daily existence. I wanted to open up a situation for others to consider the economics of their situation at the moment they experienced my project.

Festival-goers who saw it in the six-plus hours that the piece remained on the window in DUMBO had many reactions. Some took pictures of the dollars tacked to the glass or posing with money they had taken, others were touching the bills and lifting them to check if they was real. Servon recounted a red-haired woman who shook her finger at two young adults who pulled money from the wall, lecturing to all who would listen, “Do you really need the money? If you don’t need it, don’t take it.” The same lady returned to the installation many times to check on the status of the dollars. Servon told me:

There were all sorts of interventions that took place—people added money (dollar bills and a five-dollar bill). There is a photo I took of a woman getting a high five after adding a dollar and telling her friend that ‘Someone needs it more than I do, and now I feel part of the project.’ For the first few hours, whenever someone took a dollar, someone soon replaced it so the total didn’t go below the original 100 dollars. At times, the amount was greater than 100 with people continuing to add money. I particularly enjoyed hearing people talk about the value of a dollar and whether or not it made a difference to them at that moment or if it could make a difference to someone else.

With inflation, a single dollar clearly does not have the same value and the impact it once did. For example, in the mid-1990s the vending machines in my high school sold a package of M&M’s for 50 cents; the same colorful chocolate candies cost $1.00 in the machines in the Time Inc. kitchen today. And though photographer Jonathan Blaustein included a double cheeseburger from McDonald’s in his project “The Value of a Dollar” (which documented what could be purchased for that amount in 2010), they are now listed on the 2014 “Dollar Menu & More” for $1.49.

Still, sometimes a dollar can make a difference in the life of someone who is carrying no cash and just wants a drink or a snack or to pay for parking. Or the emotional lift that comes from finding “lucky money.” As Servon explained, the value of the dollar is not really the point:

I am not really asking if a dollar will change peoples’ lives, but rather could it make a difference in that moment for that person encountering the work or for someone else in the future. The work is about asking people to consider their want versus need in relation to others in their community.

In a past installation of the project in downtown Greensboro, N.C., she installed a hidden surveillance camera aimed at the grid from across the street to document the results with shots taken every five seconds for the six hours during which money still remained. The resulting video of time-lapse stills shows various reactions to the installation.

I asked Servon what she thought would happen if her concept existed on a larger scale. What if, instead of asking people to consider the one-dollar bills, they were hundreds or thousands? What if an ATM machine or a bank vault were just left open? Her guess was that the higher the denomination, the more quickly the money would disappear and the piece would end. The smaller denomination, she says, makes people consider “want” and “need” more actively.

Just months ago, Jason Buzi and Yan Budman, founders of the @HiddenCash phenomenon, created a Twitter-based scavenger hunt for envelopes containing up to $140 in cash. They invited the world to show up to various locations, follow their clues, and locate the money they left for would-be treasure hunters. A frenzy ensued, with @HiddenCash giving away more than $15,000. In this case, the reward was enough to cover people’s groceries or provide free plane tickets “to connect loved ones.” Buzi and Budman’s social media experiment was philanthropic, with the goal of inspiring people to “pay it forward.”

Jody Servon’s work is different. While she acknowledges that giving someone a dollar could be an act of kindness, she is more interested in starting a discussion. That’s why an invitation to fill in the blank in the phrase “I —-a dollar” is posted beside the installation of the work. She has been intrigued by the many ways in which people have responded to the challenge.

She’s also interested in catching viewers off guard. While she posts about the work on social media—and a second installation, “Dreams For Free,” in which she gives away lottery tickets in exchange for the recipients’ telling her their dreams of what they would do with the money—she never gives away the exact location. “I enjoy the element of surprise from people that happen upon the hanging dollars.”

So the next time you come across a grid of dollar bills on the street, know that there’s free money to be had—if you _ _ _ _ it.

This is part of The Photo Bank, a new section of Money.com dedicated to conceptually-driven photography. From images that document the broader economy to ones that explore more personal concerns like paying for college, travel, retirement, advancing your career, or even buying groceries, The Photo Bank will showcase a spectrum of the best work being produced by emerging and established artists. Submissions are encouraged and should be sent to Sarina Finkelstein, Online Photo Editor for Money.com: sarina.finkelstein@timeinc.com.

More from The Photo Bank:
Looking at ‘Rich and Poor,’ 37 Years Later
When the DynaTAC Brick Phone Was Must-Have Technology
Inside the ‘Pay What You Want’ Marketplace
The Costs of Bringing Up Baby

MONEY Customer Service

How To Break Up with Your Cable Company

140716_EM_cable_1
Getty Images

...or at Least Drive a Hard Bargain

If your relationship with your cable provider is driving you mad like this man, brace yourself. It’s only going to get worse.

The average monthly cable TV bill is rising 6% a year. It’s projected to hit $123 a month next year and top $200 by 2020, according to market research group NPD. To be fair, part of the surge is because the cost cable providers pay to license shows is getting steeper. But the near-monopoly that cable TV companies have in many places is to blame, too.

Most areas have just one or two pay-TV providers. And even if you’re lucky enough to have more choice, that will probably change if the Time Warner Cable-Comcast and AT&T-DirecTV deals are approved. And less choice means that the providers that remain don’t have to go above and beyond on customer service. As if they did already.

Can’t live without your favorite programs but fed up with the bill? Here are four moves you can make to cut the cost—and not all require you to cut the cord.

Downsize. How many of the 700+ channels that you get do you actually watch? A growing number of pay-TV providers are offering pared-down packages. Verizon recently rolled out its Select HD no-sports package that’s $15 a month cheaper than its $65 a month standard Prime package. Last year, Time Warner Cable launched Starter TV, a bundle of 20 premium channels plus HBO for $29.99 a month—40% less than its 200-channel, no-HBO option. And Cox Communication’s TV Starter is $24.99 a month for 155 channels vs. $49.99 for its Advanced package of 220 channels.

Play hardball. Despite their dominance, pay-TV providers are still loathe to lose customers, says digital media analyst Dan Rayburn. Call the cancellation department to talk with a retention specialist trained to hang on to customers. Ask about promotions or a discount if you’re a long-time customer. They’ll try hard to keep you, but if they don’t give, you can likely get a better deal as a new subscriber if you have a satellite dish or cable competitor where you live.

Go a la carte. Even though the Aero service that delivers low-cost broadcast TV via Internet shut down thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling, there are still plenty of other lower cost alternatives for those who want to cut the cord, says technology industry analyst Jeff Kagan. Hulu Plus costs just $7.99 a month and shows many current programs the day after they air. If you can wait a season or two to catch up with your favorite shows, Netflix is $7.99 a month (though will go up $1 or $2 for new subscribers). Amazon Prime Instant Video, which comes with Amazon’s $99 a year Prime membership, gives you unlimited streaming movies and TV shows.

NetFlix, Hulu and Amazon are also spending millions on high quality original content. In May, Hulu announced that it would be tripling its budget for exclusive programs and launching six new shows this year, including the much-buzzed-about reality show parody Hotwives of Orlando, which premiers tonight.

Get an antenna. Today’s antennas aren’t the rabbit ears of your parents’ generation. An HD antenna for your roof or TV set top will cost you about $30 to $100,and you can get local TV channels for free. You won’t get cable programs, but you’ll pick up more than 30 broadcast networks (such as ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, FOX). And picture quality is even better than cable, says Kagan.

MONEY Gas

Gas Prices Hit a High for 2014—but the News Isn’t All Bad

Steven Puetzer—Getty Images

Right now, prices at the pump are as expensive as they've been all year. With any luck, though, it'll be all downhill from here.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, as of Monday, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline reached $3.70. That’s 13¢ higher than a year ago at this time, and it matches the previous high thus far in 2014, set in late April.

The bad news, beyond the obvious—you know, having to pay more to fill up and all—is that prices have been creeping upward just at a time the opposite was supposed to happen. The expectation was that gas prices would actually decrease in June, as they have in each of the past three years. The summer forecast from AAA called for a 10¢ to 15¢ per-gallon drop in prices at the pump this month, and predicted that the national average would remain in the vicinity of $3.55 to $3.70 through the summer. We’ve already hit the high end of the predicted price range long before anticipated—and gas prices have tended to rise toward summer’s end in recent years.

That said, prices at the pump aren’t exactly spiking. Nationally, the per-gallon price is only up a few pennies compared to a week ago, or even a month ago for that matter. Still, because everybody was expecting a significant decline this month, drivers are justified in feeling like they’re paying a lot more than they should to gas up right now. Turmoil in Iraq is being blamed for the persistently high gas prices.

So what’s the good news here? While drivers in 41 states and Washington, D.C., are currently paying more for gas than they did at this time last year, a handful of states are starting to see price breaks. According to the gas-pricing monitoring site GasBuddy, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan drivers have all seen a per-gallon price decrease of 9¢ to 12¢ over the past week. And areas that have experienced a gas price hike lately can expect prices to flatten out going forward. “Many areas that saw gains over a nickel should see a calmer, cooler week at the pump,” a GasBuddy post on Monday explained. “So far this morning, oil prices are down 55 cents a barrel while gasoline spot prices are generally negative, a good sign for motorists.”

What’s more, the analysts generally say that it’s extremely unlikely the national average will reach $4 per gallon, or even close to $3.90 as happened in September 2012.

Then again, the analysts have been wrong before. Like when they were making predictions just a few weeks ago, for instance.

TIME Saving & Spending

Spring Is Here! Too Bad You’re Still Paying for a Bitterly Cold, Costly Winter

Snow shovelers in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 2014.
Snow shovelers in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 2014. Jonathan Ernst—Reuters

This year's brutal winter wreaked havoc on roads, homes, and most likely, your finances. Here’s a look at a few of the groups that got hammered by the harsh weather, and that are likely to bear the costs of the season for quite some time

The brutal winter of 2013-2014 wreaked havoc on roads, homes, and most likely, your finances. It’s been a horrendously awful winter for many businesses as well.

There was reason for some to welcome the stormy, bitterly cold weather that descended on much of the nation in early 2014. Supermarkets thrived during the peak (nadir?) days of polar vortex frigidity as shoppers stocked up on staples in anticipation of waiting out the storms, and businesses selling plows and snowblowers understandably made a killing as the snow and ice piled up week after week.

Then there’s the rest of us, who will remember the winter that’s just passed as one chock full of tire-busting potholes, frozen pipes, roof collapses, and monster heating bills. Restaurants, retailers, car dealerships, delivery services, and other businesses have also suffered. Even some businesses that normally cash in when cold and snow arrive fared poorly because this winter brought just too much, well, winter. Travel Michigan noted that the ski and snowmobile business dipped in recent months because the weather has caused tourists cancel trips. Yes, people have been deciding it’s too cold and snowy to go … snowmobiling.

(MORE: Springtime Is Finally Here as the Vernal Equinox Arrives)

Here’s a look at a few of the groups that have gotten hammered by the winter of 2013-2014, and that are likely to bear the costs of the season for quite some time:

Drivers
By late January, it was clear that the winter was shaping up as an epically bad season for potholes. The mix of heavy precipitation with rapid freeze-thaw cycles has resulted in an inordinately large number of potholes on roads, and dangerous, tire-wrecking conditions have arrived much earlier than usual in the season. Drivers shouldn’t expect the pothole plague to disappear anytime soon, as local public works crews have been overwhelmed by requests to fix damaged roads. Cities like Des Moines, Iowa, have received more than 600 calls since December from citizens reporting potholes, for instance, while greater Indianapolis has fielded more than 10,000 pothole service requests this season.

Every day, it seems, there are more reports of potholes causing chaos for drivers—for instance, a huge pothole on I-75 in Detroit this week, which caused traffic to slow to a crawl as two lanes were closed so that crews could do a quick patch job. “It’s the worst we’ve seen it in decades,” a West Virginia DOT spokesman, speaking of this winter’s potholes and road conditions, told the MetroNews recently. “It’s unbelievable.”

Last fall, a transportation research group known as TRIP released a report on bumpy roads, indicating that during a normal year, drivers fork over the equivalent of $277 per year due to vehicle repairs, tire wear, and depreciation thanks to potholes and generally poor road conditions. This year, drivers should anticipating paying a lot more than that.

Homeowners
Unusually cold temperatures make for unusually high heating bills. This is especially the case for homes heated by propane, thanks in part to a propane shortage that hit several states early this year. Citing data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, USA Today reported last week that the average homeowner will pay 54% more this year for heating a home with propane. Homes in the Midwest heated by propane will see their bills soar the highest, from an average of $1,333 last year to $2,212 for this season. Homes heated with electricity, natural gas, or coal, meanwhile, are projected to face bills that are 5% to 10% higher than last year.

(MORE: Meet the Low-Key, Low-Cost Grocery Chain Being Called ‘Walmart’s Worst Nightmare’)

Beyond budget-busting heating bills, homeowners around the country have been hit with plenty of other costs related to the brutally cold winter. The list of headaches—and hefty expenses—includes a heaping share of frozen pipes, roof collapses, and ice dams. Oh, and soon, flooded basements are probably inevitable. As one insurance agent told the Detroit News, as spring arrives, “The warmer temperatures will exaggerate and accelerate the melt, and then we’re going to have basement issues.”

State and Local Governments
Around the nation, many towns have already exhausted the budgets they allocated to clearing and salting roads and fixing potholes. In many cases, local authorities have been forced to use emergency funds to keep roads open and safe. West Virginia, for instance, just announced it was increasing the spring pothole-patching budget to $30 million, up from $18 million.

In recent weeks, states have been scrambling to round up precious road salt to cope with storm after storm. Things were so bad in New Jersey that the transportation department warned the state might be forced to close down major roads—even interstates—because crews didn’t have enough salt. Inevitably, the combination of high demand and insufficient supply of salt led to soaring prices; in some cases, the cost of road salt rose by a factor of four. The Washington Times noted that some salt supply companies have seen shippings triple in recent months and net four-quarter earnings rise by as much as 94%.

Businesses
Abnormally cold weather has caused people to stay inside rather than go out and spend money. That’s the basic explanation used by car dealerships, fast food, and other business categories for months of underwhelming sales tallies. The list of businesses blaming Mother Nature for subpar earnings and sales reports also extends to the likes of Federal Express, which said all the storms resulted in it losing $125 million in profits last quarter, and Walmart, which pointed to snow and cold weather as a reason for slumping sales in January and early February.

(MORE: The Government Is a Hitman, and Uber, Tesla, and Airbnb Are in Its Crosshairs)

Speaking of the world’s largest retailer, Walmart just announced a huge lawn and garden sale that plays off homeowner desires to shake off winter. “Given the extreme winter many of our customers experienced, we know they are preparing to restore their gardens and outdoor living spaces,” Michelle Gloeckler, senior vice president of home, Walmart U.S., said via press release.

Of course, Walmart also helps the sale, featuring $1.97 bags of mulch, discounts on grills, mowers, and the like, will help the company recover from the brutal winter and kick off a big spring.

The bad news for consumer, homeowner, driver, and retailer alike may be that, despite what the calendar says, winter—meaning cold and snow—hasn’t necessarily disappeared. The latest extended forecasts from the National Weather Service, appropriately published in angry CAPS, offers the following predictions for the days and weeks ahead:

THE FCST REMAINS FAIRLY CONSISTENT FOR AN UNUSUALLY WINTRY PATTERN OVER THE CNTRL-ERN STATES DURING MOST OF THE PERIOD WITH A BROAD AREA OF TEMPERATURE ANOMALIES REACHING 10-25F BELOW NORMAL BEFORE MODERATING BY DAY 7 THU. AT SOME LOCATIONS EXPECTED TEMPS WOULD BE CLOSER TO MID-JANUARY NORMALS… THIS COLD AIR WILL SUPPORT A PERIOD OF WINTRY PCPN POTENTIAL FROM THE NRN/N-CNTRL PLAINS INTO THE MID ATLC/NORTHEAST.

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