Always Read the Fine Print

Always Read the Fine Print

This is a guest post from Greg McFarlane of ControlYourCash. Greg recently wrote “Control Your Cash: Making Money Make Sense, ” a financial primer for people in their 20s and 30s. If you like what you see here, please subscribe to his RSS feed.

You’d think that the functionaries at American Express were above this, but they aren’t. In the mail last week, I received a glossy sales piece that cemented my status as an elite cardholder. It made what appeared to be a no-strings-attached offer: $100 worth of food, drink and conviviality.

We all know better than to immediately bite at this, right? This is a poor cousin of the novelty check you receive telling you that you might have WON $1 MILLION! But while the latter is preposterous, the former is modest enough to be plausible, right?

Here are the details… American Express offered me (and presumably hundreds of thousands of others) a $100 restaurant certificate if I would agree to accept a couple of free issues of a magazine – in this case, American Express Publishing’s own Travel + Leisure.

Sounds like the easiest thing in the world, right? We’re all familiar with how this works. The fine print states that if you don’t contact American Express by the deadline, you’ll become a paid subscriber to Travel + Leisure. They’re betting that at least some of their sales prospects are going to like the magazine or forget to cancel, at which point they’ll have a new group of paying subscribers.

It’s no great revelation that you should read such an offer from the bottom up. Here’s the summary of the qualifying language at the end of the mailer: $3 processing fee, 12 monthly issues for $20, then $29 a year until you come to your senses and realize what you signed up for.

By the way, that $29 is the “Cardmember rate”. Care to guess what the non-Cardmember rate is?

Nope, not higher. It’s lower.

That’s right, $20. Says so right there at the subscription page. In this case, membership has its disadvantages. By virtue of having an American Express card, you get to pay a 45% premium! For something called a “magazine, ” which will sound as quaint and archaic five years from now as iceboxes and VHS tapes do today.

Then, at the end (and this is verbatim): “Either way, your 2 issues and Restaurant Certificate are yours to keep.”

Of course, we all think we’re smarter than that. I’ll take my two free issues, skim some interminable articles about grape season in Tuscany and the latest sous chef to open a tapas bar in Manhattan, promptly cancel, and then enjoy a net $97 worth of free food.

But this offer came with a wonderful new catchall phrase, ordering me to visit a website to redeem my certificate. An extra step in the chain, but for $97? Bring it on!

Unfortunately, there’s a 6700-word (!) legal disclaimer on the website, which is a powerful indication that this might not be worth the trouble. Buried in the jargon, we find the following:

  • You can’t deduct only partial value from the certificate. You have to spend it all at once.
  • “Redemption… requires additional consideration paid to the restaurant.” A conversation with a couple of attorney friends (alright, attorney acquaintances – attorneys don’t have friends) revealed that that phrase means the restaurant can require you to spend a certain amount at its discretion – say $75 – before your $100 “free” certificate kicks in.

But again… For all this, you get to pay a mere $9 more per year for a magazine than do ordinary people who don’t receive these offers.

The moral? Always read the fine print.

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11 Responses to “Always Read the Fine Print”

  1. Anonymous

    I almost signed up for it but then thought it sounded too good to be true and decided to search online first. Thank god, I found this article or otherwise I would’ve gone ahead with the offer. I usually don’t read the fine print and trust Amex a great deal but I’ll be careful next time. Thanks

  2. Anonymous

    Thanks for this great article! I got this offer in Feb 2011 but they have upped the offer to two $100 crappy certificates…..but of course after reading this site, I didn’t take their offer. Instead, to humor myself, I printed this very article, and sent it to them in their Postage Paid envelope! I’ll get a little happiness if at least one of them realizes that info about their stupid rip-off offer is on the web. Sweet!

  3. Anonymous

    The same thing goes for those loyatly credit cards you’re offered as you’re checking out of a store.

    Maybe they entice you with 10% off your current purchase. But if you read the fine print you realize there’s an annual fee or you have to spend over $50 to get the discount (but you were only planning to spend $30).

    But my biggest problem with those cards is that opening a bunch of random store accounts can really hurt your credit.

  4. Anonymous

    That is hilarious. I always read fine print, especially when related to anything credit card company-related. However, I also taken advantage of grace periods related to paying annual fees, etc. if I can get a free flight or something out of it. The best thing I’ve found is the to put an appointment on your calendar well within the window of time you have to cancel something BEFORE you even are approved. That way, you won’t get hit with something you don’t want/need.

  5. Anonymous

    I don’t trust AMEX. Had their card for many years with good service, but a big change in AMEX senior management a few years back changed that and I canceled with no regrets since.

    That auto-renewal, introductory magazine subscription racket has been around for decades– even Consumer Reports does it.

    Those restaurant coupons mentioned are from ‘’ … another shady outfit. You’re right about the horrendous legalese for the coupons– that fine print says there are no guarantees whatsoever for those coupons, and they can change all the terms & conditions (and there are lots of conditions) however and whenever they want without notice to coupon holders. There are no privacy protections for your personal information. Worse, well over 90% of U.S. restaurants will not accept the coupons.

  6. Anonymous


    Yeah, but once in a great while (and I do mean great), the offers are legit. The girlfriend got a no-strings-attached $50 credit from some clothing store a few days ago. But that offer was unambiguous, didn’t require us to read a gigantic disclaimer, and conveyed its entire message in a single paragraph. More words = more caution.

  7. Anonymous

    I have a very sophisticated strategy for filtering these offers: They leave my mailbox and get dropped in the recycle bin on the way into the house. Anything that seems it may contain peronsal info about me sees the shredder, then the bin.

    I admit, sometimes I read them for entertainment with “who falls for this crap?” running through my head.

  8. Anonymous

    If the $100 restaurant certificate is a certificate, it is not worth it. The choice of restaurant is limited and you have to spend a certain amount to use the certificate. You can always get the promotion of $25 certificate for $2. So you can have the $100 certificate (in four $25 certificates) for $8. Why bother going through all the troubles to get the deal from American Express?

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