Surcharge? What surcharge?

Fortune's Brent Schlender discovers how he became a victim of Chronic Subscription Fatigue Syndrome.

By Brent Schlender, Fortune editor-at-large

(Fortune Magazine) -- Here's another one of those tipping-point stories. It was the end of the month, when I run through the stack of household bills that pile up both on my desk and on the bill-paying page at my bank's Web site. (I'm old-fashioned. I like paper bills. I even check out the cubic zirconium comeons.) This time around, the Verizon bill for my family's four cell phones seemed a little higher than usual, so I went over the 38-page itemized bill. Like most college students, my two daughters live on their phones, but the bill had been pretty consistent. This month, however, there was a spike. Fernanda, it seems, had gotten into texting - and got hit with a $45.65 surcharge, nearly doubling her bill to $93.21.

So here's the tipping point: I didn't lose my cool and tell her she was paying her own phone bills from here on out. Instead, for the first time ever, I tallied up the total monthly cost of my family's digital and cultural lifestyle. I was shocked and awed. Stupefied. Then queasy. Diagnosis: Chronic Subscription Fatigue Syndrome.

CSFS is a 2lst-century malady loosely related to mouse-induced carpal tunnel syndrome and to the neurological disorder that habitual videogamers call the "twitch." It's the kind of infirmity that sneaks up on you, sort of like "feature creep" - the slow accumulation of arcane bells and whistles that transforms perfectly usable software like Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop into an intimidating, leaden mass.

Indeed, when I tallied up my family's subscription obligations, the first thing that hit me wasn't the dollar value but the sheer number of them. Every month I pay a dozen separate bills, mainly for various digital communications services - landline telephone, long-distance, cell, broadband, cable and roaming Wi-Fi, not to mention digital content from Netflix and download allowances for my daughters at the iTunes Music Store, etc.

But when you add in the quarterly and annual subscriptions for newspapers, magazines and online services paid at various points throughout the year, the number of obligations triples. No wonder it feels as if I have to pay a bill every day.

CSFS, of course, is a natural result of the penchant of telecommunications and media companies for finding new ways to "monetize" their products and services to generate "recurring revenues," which in turn make their businesses "stickier" and their financial performance more "sustainable." Buzzwords aside, what that really means is that they get your money for a prescribed period - regardless of whether you use the product or service - and pass it off as if you're getting a bargain because the monthly fee seems so low.

Still, you're locked in. Ever tried to get out of a health-club membership? And what about those automatic-renewal subscriptions that bill your credit card without even telling you? Have you or a loved one ever attempted to find that obscure corner of the customer service Web site that lets you discontinue that privilege?

So how much does it cost my family to stay plugged in? Before I get to the actual numbers, a few disclosures. Because I am a journalist who writes about high tech, Fortune pays all the bills related to my Palm Treo 700p smart-phone - roughly $90 a month - plus a few business-related publications (Business Week, Wired, Forbes and Newsweek) and annual online subscriptions to The Wall Street Journal ($99) and (The New York Times Select premium content ($50). When I'm on the road, the magazine pays for the occasional Wi-Fi wireless-connection fee. But other than that, it's up to me.

All told, my monthly subscription nut comes to $863.09. On top of that, I spend $1,812 a year on magazine and newspaper and online services, ranging from satellite radio to NBA League Pass to New York Times crosswords. That's $12,168 a year just for subscriptions. I wish I'd never counted. But the first step in conquering CSFS is confronting the fear.

So here we are at the dawn of the iPhone era, when Apple and AT&T are asking customers to spring for $500 or $600 for a phone and commit to two-year service plans that ultimately will cost anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000. The iPhone may be a magical device, but could it mark the tipping point of a CSFS epidemic? All I know is that my daughters both want one, but if they get one, they'll have to find a way to pay for it themselves.  Top of page