It happens all the time. You buy a product in the store, rush home to use it for the first time, and nothing happens. The product doesn’t work.

According to the Consumer Federation of America, consumer transactions that generate the most complaints include used car sales, home improvement, auto repair, mail order and telemarketing. Getting your money back on a failed product or service can seem like a hassle, but it can have a big impact on your personal finances.

Here’s what every consumer needs to know before and after making a big-ticket purchase.

Do Your Homework

Finding the right product takes time--figure out exactly what you want and how much you want to spend before you start shopping. Ask friends for recommendations, and shop around to check out different brands and manufacturers.  Consumer Reports magazine published by Consumers Union, is a good source to check out, it tests and recommends products (including automobiles) and services. 

Get Good Service

Don’t leave finding good service up to chance. Be sure to:

Deal with a company that has a good reputation for service in the community.  Start by asking anyone you know whether they’ve dealt with the company and call your local better Business Bureau or Chamber of Commerce.

•Ask your friends, family, neighbors, and businesses for recommendations.

•Trust your instincts.  If you call for service or visit a business and you feel uncomfortable, think twice about using the services of the company.

•If you are treated rudely, go elsewhere. Don’t take a chance that this will change. 

Read Contracts Thoroughly

If you are applying for credit to make a purchase, the store may require a contract.  If this is the case, read the contract carefully and make sure you understand the repayment terms, the cost of credit and your rights.

Service contracts are often pushed by retailers because they bring in a lot of money, but don’t just sign up without thinking it through. If the product you buy is a reliable brand and has a warranty, or is an item that is unlikely to need service frequently, you may not need to service it until long after your contract has expired. 

Use Your Credit Card

Thanks to the Fair Credit Billing Act, when you use your credit card to buy a product, you may be effectively gaining a warranty just in case something goes wrong with the purchase.

If you encounter an issue that the merchant will not resolve, then write(don’t phone) your credit card company and identify the charged item and the nature of your complaint.  At that point, you may be able to withhold payment on the item until the issue is resolved.

Understand Your Rights

Consumers are protected under federal and state laws against certain unfair practices.

One well-known group of consumer protection laws are the state lemon laws that protect you when you purchase a car and later find out it’s defective.  Other laws, such as the Consumer Credit Protection Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act, offer other protections including the right to receive information regarding credit terms and to be treated fairly and equally when applying for credit.

Resolving a Consumer Complaint

The key to getting your money back on a product or service is persistence.  First, check out the product information you received with the product to make sure that you’re using it or setting it up correctly. Next, register your complaint, in writing, as soon as possible. Keep copies of your correspondence and write down the names and phone numbers of all individual to whom you speak. 

If your complaint is not resolved satisfactorily and you want to pursue the issue further, work your way up the company’s ladder. If you are still unsatisfied, call government consumer agencies, trade groups and customer action lines to get advice or assistance. Once you have exhausted these measures, the last step you might consider is pursing the matter in small claims court.

Final tip: don’t be a bully or pushover .  It’s important to stay reasonable and level headed, but don’t give up until you resolve the issue satisfactorily or decide that it’s not in your best interest to pursue the matter further. 


Family Finance Expert, Princess Clark-Wendel, holds an MBA from the University of Chicago and is the author of A Pocketbook of Hope in Tough Economic Times.  Ms Clark-Wendel is an international business consultant and financial advisor who has held management roles in two Fortune 100 companies. Visit Princess at