By Susan J. Marks Internet companies claim to do nearly everything to help people manage their money, but can a Web site actually save them money? LowerMyBills.com is a startup that has gotten a lot of attention for providing a quick, easy way to comparison-shop for services like wireless and long-distance phone service. Billing itself as the "premier destination to compare and lower all of your monthly bills," it claims to have saved American consumers more than $95 million since its launch two years ago. That may be true, but a test drive brings to mind a cliche: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
LowerMyBills focuses on a few industries, many of them related to telecommunications: long-distance phone service, credit cards, insurance, loans, the Internet, utilities, wireless, and even debt relief. Since loans, telecom, utilities, and insurance generate about 70% of household bills, according to consultants Gartner Inc., these industries are logical places for LowerMyBills to focus.
Based on the information you provide, the site collects deal offers mainly from among the 13 affiliate organizations, large and small, that use LowerMyBills as a marketing channel. Some, like Letstalk.com for wireless service and InsWeb.com for insurance, are aggregators and comb other providers for service deals. Others, like MortgageIT.com and America Online, sell directly through LowerMyBills, which gets a fee for every consumer who buys services through its affiliates.
SIDE BY SIDE. In comparing LowerMyBills' quotes to what I already pay for wireless, long-distance, and Internet service, I was unable to find big enough savings on similar services to make me want to change my providers. But many consumers may find it worthwhile. Because I went through an arduous search a few months back, I already have a low rate on my cellular service. That search would have been easier had I used LowerMyBills' software tools to compare different wireless plans, but the price wouldn't have been any lower.
The site is easy to use. Just click on the products or services you are considering -- up to three at a time -- then hit go. Almost instantaneously, LowerMyBills returns side-by-side, feature-by-feature comparisons. (In total, seven different carriers with dozens of different plans and 45 different kinds of phones are available through LowerMyBills affiliate LetsTalk.com.) That certainly would have helped in my search for two-phone shared service, with one linked to my home voice-mail. Plus, I might have been able to pick up a better deal on the phones themselves.
For many who are wading into the wireless morass, the comparison function alone is enough reason to visit LowerMyBills.com. It's definitely less cumbersome than checking out each product on the manufacturer's or provider's site, printing out specs, and then making comparisons yourself. However, it won't necessarily get you a materially better price.
YOUR CHOICE. LowerMyBills also helps find Internet access, but it couldn't beat the price I already pay. In my area, LowerMyBills returned four options for a dial-up 56-kbps connection. The cheapest was $9.95 a month for unlimited service from GTC Internet. The most expensive was $23.95 a month from America Online -- the rate I already pay for its service. LowerMyBills did find cheaper Internet service than I have, but I'm still a bit too skeptical to switch to a lesser-known ISP, especially in today's here-today, gone-tomorrow Internet market. But that's the beauty of LowerMyBills: All it does is come up with options, and the choice still is yours.
Next, I looked into long-distance deals and again found LowerMyBills doesn't offer anything better than a reasonably diligent shopper would already have. I entered my area code and the first three digits of my phone number, along with my average monthly long-distance charges -- none of which, I noted, was carried over a secured connection -- and then clicked go. In a few seconds, the site returned seven options from six vendors. The purported "Annual Savings" ranged from $281 with AT&T's "One Rate 7 Cent Plan" to $391 with Buyersonline "4.5 Cents a Minute Plus 100 Free Minutes" plan.
The AT&T "7 Cent Plan" caught my attention, since that's my current carrier and plan. Even if you were switching from another carrier, the savings are smaller than they look. The fine print explaining the savings reveals that the estimates are based on "four hours of long-distance calls per month, 50% in-state, 40% out-of-state off-peak, and 10% in-state during peak times." But I make 90% of my calls out-of-state during peak hours, and LowerMyBills didn't give me any easy way to compare prices for the way I actually use my phone.
As I found out, LowerMyBills can get the job done, but it still takes a thorough review of each product to clarify what exactly is being offered and the actual savings you can expect. It's worth checking out, but it's well short of a miracle product. But then, we gave up on expecting Internet miracles, oh, about two years ago. Marks writes about technology and personal finance issues from Denver