UPDATE: 5 weird things I found out about America in my first 24 hours
By Sushma U N, MarketWatch
'I landed wide-eyed in New York City and was immediately nickel-and-dimed.'
Having grown up watching the TV show "Friends" in India in my teens, and movies like "Kal Ho Naa Ho" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0347304/), a very popular 2003 Bollywood movie set in New York, the city wasn't unknown entity to me. It was only after I got here that I realized that movies, TV and even friends and relatives living in the U.S. can't prepare you for the corporate culture shock. More than a year later, I still find myself going "Whaaat?!" at many things, but here are some of the most surprising things my wallet and I learned during my first 24 hours in the U.S.
My first purchase was renting an airport trolley
I left Chennai in south India with three huge suitcases, a small carry-on piece and a backpack. Despite several pieces of luggage, I could effortlessly deposit them at the check-in counter in India, thanks to the many trolleys (and helping hands) at my disposal all over the airport. I found upon landing at 10 a.m. at JFK that I had to pay $6 for a trolley. In India, you get to use as many trolleys as you wish for free.
And I wasn't the only one to find that odd. My former classmate at Columbia University, Aditi from New Delhi, was relieved to find that I was also shocked about having to pay for such things. "We're not misers," she said. "Trolleys are a customer's necessity just like seats in the boarding gate area or the bathrooms." It still bothers me that my first purchase in America was an airport trolley. I landed wide-eyed in New York and, before I even left the airport, I was immediately nickel-and-dimed.
Lesson No. 1: Nothing is for free except, perhaps, Wi-Fi in Starbucks.
The cost of staples varies dramatically depending on the store
I moved into my dorm at around 2:30 p.m. in Harlem and needed to get some basics in place: milk, bread, cheese and jam. There were five different kinds of milk in several sizes and packages, 10 different kinds of bread, and I was prepared for that. What I didn't know: each is priced differently in every store. India follows the concept of "maximum retail price," meaning that the price of a product stays relatively the same because it's determined by the manufacturer and the taxes on the product.
True, there have been calls to abolish MRP in India (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/maximum-retail-price-is-an-archaic-dysfunctional-mechanism/article7452745.ece), with some saying it hurts the retailer and consumer (when the retailer charges a premium for other products to compensate). However, for staples such as a branded carton of milk or a pack of cheese slices, you know that the price will be the same at every store in the city. I froze when I found that a can of milk at the grocery store to the left of my dorm building was 25 cents cheaper than the store on the right. The good news: Groceries in the U.S., while expensive, are actually getting cheaper (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/attention-shoppers-grocery-prices-down-in-america-2016-06-16).)
Lesson No. 2: Never assume I'm paying the best price even for staples.
Cash versus credit card spending
Speaking of withdrawing cash from the ATM, hardly anyone here pays with cash. In India, I didn't have a credit card and only paid with cash or a debit card. Here, on the other hand, I can use credit cards for even a coffee at 5:00 p.m. in Starbucks (SBUX). The importance of building a credit history is a whole other story, helping financial institutions judge your creditworthiness when you do want a loan for a home or a big ticket item like a car. U.S. consumers spent some $2.1 trillion in cash transactions in 2016, but that's forecasted to fall to $1.9 trillion in 2021 (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/what-living-in-a-cashless-world-would-mean-for-consumers-2017-07-13). This is why credit-card companies dream of a cashless world.
(http://www.marketwatch.com/story/heres-a-good-reason-to-pay-for-your-holiday-gifts-in-cash-2015-11-25)Lesson No. 3: Invisible money is much easier to spend than cash.
(http://www.marketwatch.com/story/heres-a-good-reason-to-pay-for-your-holiday-gifts-in-cash-2015-11-25)Only your own bank's ATM won't charge you a fee
While at the grocery store, I was also introduced to cash back at 4:00 p.m. in Whole Foods (WFM). Several grocery stores also serve as ATMs. That didn't surprise me, but I still can't get over the fact that a Citibank (C) customer can only draw cash at a Citibank ATM unless he is willing to pay a $3 fee at another bank's ATM. These "opt-in" fees can be avoided if you are willing to walk a few extra blocks. (India has now learned this from American banks, unfortunately. Still, in many cases the first six withdrawals from the third party ATM are still free.)
This is ATM fees hit a new high for the 11th consecutive year, according to a study of fees by personal-finance site Bankrate.com released Tuesday (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/this-common-bank-fee-has-soared-55-over-the-past-decade-2017-10-03), and have risen 55% over the last decade. The average ATM surcharge rose by 2.4% to $2.97 and the average ATM out-of-network fee spiked 3% to $1.72. But considering Americans pay both fees when they use an out-of-network ATM, the average person pays $4.69 per transaction. All those fees add up. And that's not the only way banks nickel-and-dime you (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/is-your-bank-robbing-you-2014-04-25).
Lesson No. 4: You pay big fees to avoid a small inconvenience.
Whatever you do, don't forget to tip
To actually live in America and see how tipping works was eye-opening for me coming from India and on a limited budget: 20% in most places or else, as I discovered when I ordered takeout at 7 p.m. from a nearby restaurant. You are expected to tip the waiter irrespective of whether you were satisfied with the service, because the waiter's wages are structured with tips in mind, takes some getting used to. And now I learn that the $1 tip is dying (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/is-the-1-tip-dead-2014-11-07), even if you are tipping for a drink or a coat check. Uber was one tip-free zone until earlier this month (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/this-is-exactly-how-much-you-should-tip-your-uber-driver-2017-04-18).
Lesson No. 5: Good service or bad service, you should pay 20% more.
-Sushma U N; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com
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