Cable TV prices are on the rise ...

The Baltimore Sun

So I just received an e-mail from a group called TV4US about Maryland residents paying an average of 6.4 percent more for cable television beginning Saturday.

Says TV4US, "the cost of Comcast's standard cable package will go from $55.45 to $59, an increase of 6.4 percent. In some counties, like Montgomery, rates have increased 13.75 percent since January 2007."

Comcast disputes those figures. (I'll get to this in a sec.)

Comcast is not, however, disputing the fact that your cable bill is going up come Saturday. Customers in the Maryland-Delaware-Richmond region, which includes the greater Baltimore area, will see a 3.7 percent increase in their bill.

The average bill increase is representative of customers who purchase multiple products from Comcast (Internet, phone, etc.), as the majority do, the company says. Customers in bundle packages will not see a change in their pricing, and Comcast will not increase prices for any digital voice customers or for high-speed Internet customers who subscribe to at least one other service, says Comcast spokesman Aimee Metrick.

"As we discussed, it is impossible to comment on how TV4US came up with their calculations as they omit that from their press release," Metrick says. "But the numbers they provide are not in fact representative of the average increase our customers will see or have seen in Maryland."

Metrick says that the price adjustments are needed "in view of the increased cost of doing business in this challenging economic environment, including gas prices, health care costs, increases in the cost we pay for programming, and technology and service improvements." (The company spends $6 billion a year on programming.)

How much do you currently pay for cable? Has anyone out there seen whether cable prices are more competitive in areas that have competition? What will the increase mean for your bill and your pocketbook?

... and natural gas ...

Boy, I hate being the bearer of bad news, especially on top of the Comcast rate increase, but the American Gas Association says consumers should expect a likely 10 percent to 30 percent increase in home-heating costs this winter.

Gas is the most common form of home heat in the U.S., so this will likely hurt a lot of households, especially those in the Northeast and upper Midwest, where winter can be especially cold.

So how exactly will this affect you? It's hard to say, since the increase will depend on two factors: how much gas you use to heat your home this winter and the price per unit that your utility paid to lock in its supply for the cold season.

BGE announced back in September that residential natural gas customers can count on a $110 average increase from last winter in the gas portion of their total bill for this heating season. Assuming a normal winter, the BGE average residential customer can expect to pay about $792 during the season, which lasts from Nov. 1 through March 31.

The one bit of good news for everyone is that the AGA says there are ample supplies to meet demand.

... and checking accounts

Here's something that shouldn't be too surprising. Bankrate's 2008 Checking Study shows that checking account fees have risen to record highs this year.

On average, Bankrate found that:

* ATM surcharges moved to $1.97 while the cost of using an outside ATM reached $1.46, bringing the total average cost of using an out-of-network ATM at $3.43.

* Bounced-check fees rose 2.5 percent this year, up to $28.95.

* For interest-bearing accounts, monthly service fees hit a new high at an average of $11.97. Minimum balances also set a record with an average balance of $3,461.84 needed to keep an account open.

* For noninterest-bearing accounts, monthly service fees hit a new low at an average of $1.96. Minimum balances also hit a new low with an average balance of $109.46 required.

Bankrate senior financial analyst Greg McBride says consumers need to be more vigilant than ever to avoid bank fees. You should balance your checkbooks regularly and check your account balances online routinely. You can also sign up for overdraft protection with a funded savings account to make sure you don't bounce a check.

McBride says to think twice about taking money out of an ATM. Taking $30 or $40 from an out-of-network ATM is the same as paying 9 percent interest on your money, he says. You should also investigate online banks. Many reputable online banks have generous ATM fee reimbursement programs for frequent users.

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