CUT YOUR Dry Cleaning BILLS To Shreds Fed up with the exorbitant prices charged by your dry cleaner? Don't know why French cleaners cost more? Don't get steamed, get even. Armed with our inside information, you'll never have to feel cleaned out again.

(MONEY Magazine) – So many customers got sore at their dry cleaners last year that the industry zoomed from No. 11 to No. 7 on the Better Business Bureau's list of the top & consumer complaints -- beating out even auto repair shops -- with a total of 14,000 formal gripes in two years. Top of the chart: bad service, followed by lost items, ruined fabrics, wrecked colors and stains that remained. Clearly, the rising cost of dry cleaning is becoming one of life's most begrudged expenditures. Whole legions of folks are getting hot under the collar. According to a telephone survey of 300 MONEY subscribers conducted by the Gallup Organization (margin of error: plus or minus six points), 49% found dry cleaning not worth the price (including 62% of women) and 44% of those who changed cleaners last year switched because of poor service. Even more telling: 63% decided to buy an item of clothing recently for the sole reason that it didn't require dry cleaning (75% of women). America's obsession with cleanliness has helped spawn the dry-cleaning industry's rapid growth, with revenues now up to $8.1 billion from only $5.5 billion in 1985. ''It's behavior we learn as children,'' explains Judith Waters, professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J. ''Whether it's an employer, a friend or a lover, we want people to buy our package. Clean clothes are the wrapping.'' And when you combine that out-damned-spot habit with the rise of two-career families, dry cleaning turns extremely profitable. Most cleaner shops today average revenues of $190,000 annually and chalk up hefty net profit margins of 13%, as compared with the measly 1.6% after-tax margins typically found at grocery stores. Profits like that support one of the largest service industries in the U.S., employing more than 140,000 personnel in about 37,000 shops nationwide -- most of which actually clean clothing on-premises. Until the 1950s, however, cleaners were relatively inefficient middlemen. They routinely shipped clothes to the outskirts of town to large processing plants where soiled garments were dipped first in kerosene, then in gasoline solvents that lifted off grease, oil and food spots. Furthermore, since pressing was done mostly by hand, it took about a week to get a freshly ironed suit back to a customer. Then by the 1960s, following the invention of smaller, self-contained machines and less flammable chemicals, such as perchloroethylene (''perk'') and valclene, cleaners were able to install their own time-saving and money-making units. The technique, still in use, works like a large washing machine. (Yes, your clothes do get wet at the dry cleaner's.) Instead of water and soap powder, however, the perforated drum is filled with fast-drying perk, a compound of carbon and chlorine that belongs to a class of toxic chemicals linked to cancer. Bottom line: today, 50 gallons of perk, which costs around $4, can clean 35,000 pounds of clothes. As you already know too well, the improved technology and cheap raw materials haven't resulted in lower bills for consumers. On the contrary, prices have marched steadily upward, outpacing inflation in most years. Since 1988, dry-cleaning prices have climbed more than 10% -- compared, for example, with the cost of getting a shoeshine, which has remained virtually unchanged (about $2). And 1992 could be worse. When proposed environmental- protection regulations go into effect later this year, some cleaners will find themselves shelling out anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 to install or retrofit equipment with low-emissions standards. Expect some of that cost to be passed on to you through price hikes of 10% or possibly even more. The cost of dry cleaning a man's two-piece suit now generally ranges from $5.50 to $8 across the country (big cities are more expensive), a woman's silk dress from $4 to $8 and a laundered man's shirt $1.10 to $3. In an effort to protect consumers, New York City cleaners have recently been required to post prices. But that doesn't always work. ''So far, about one-third of the city's 1,600 cleaners have not complied,'' says William Seitz, executive director of the Neighborhood Cleaners Association, which represents 4,000 dry cleaners. Among the priciest places to clean togs are Los Angeles and New York City, where it is not uncommon to pay as much as $9.25 for a man's suit and more than $18 for a woman's silk dress. Then there are the elite establishments that can really clean you out: at Effrey's on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, for instance, if Liz Taylor sends in a dress that chicken has free- ranged over, the price is likely to run more than five times the national average. Many of you who spend, say, $300 to $600 a year on dry cleaning (a hefty 28% of our poll) may feel that you have no choice. But you do. We've compiled five dirty facts about the dry-cleaning biz that can prevent you from being taken to the cleaners. Here's what you can do:

FACT Know your spotter. While perk does perform miracles on clothes, the real magician at cleaning shops is the spotter, an employee who uses a steam gun and tiny brushes to dab away stains with an arsenal of chemicals like ammonia, hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid.

If your cleaner tends to miss your stains, get to know your spotter. The very best establishments send spotters to dry-cleaning school every year for refresher courses on the latest techniques and chemicals. Courses are offered at both the regional chapters and the Silver Spring, Md. headquarters of the International Fabricare Institute, the national association for dry cleaners. Local groups, such as the Neighborhood Cleaners Association in New York City, also offer classes. MONEY move: Patronize only those cleaners with experienced spotters. Be sure your shop owners invest in keeping their spotters up to date.

FACT Don't fall for French cleaning. Once upon a time, dry cleaning was indeed French. The process is credited to a Parisian tailor named Jolie Belin, a clumsy oaf who in 1840 supposedly knocked over his kerosene lamp, spilling the liquid on his none-too-clean tablecloth. When the fabric dried -- voila! -- civilization took a significant step forward. Why do some U.S. cleaners still hide behind the facade of French cleaning? Marketing. They're betting that customers will buy into the notion that ''French'' will carry higher quality -- and thus pay more for it. ''One- Hour Martinizing'' is another marketing moniker frequently sighted on street corners. But in fact, it's just a brand name emblazoned on 806 shop doors in 44 states, making it the only national dry-cleaning chain. This 43- year-old franchise based in Cincinnati, Ohio pioneered the process of on- premises cleaning but Martinizing now just means the usual. MONEY move: Don't be fooled into paying more. There's only one method of dry cleaning. ''The only difference between French dry cleaning and regular dry cleaning is about 50 cents a garment,'' laughs Seitz.

FACT Women are charged more than men. ''For the past 20 years, women have been taken advantage of at the dry cleaners,'' says an indignant Barbara Anthony, assistant attorney general of Massachusetts. ''Women have to argue and create scenes with cleaners over a lousy shirt.'' What Anthony is fed up about is paying three times the amount a man shells out to launder and press one plain cotton Brooks Brothers shirt in Boston. Last September, Massachusetts attorney general Scott Harshbarger warned dry cleaners that they now face fines of as much as $5,000 per violation if they & charge women more than men for the same service. As of February, the attorney general's office had yet to study the results of its warning. Yet despite the spate of recent protests and lawsuits, it still costs more to clean women's clothes. ''It's not sexist,'' insists Patsy Woodard, owner of Atlanta's Quick as a Wink. ''Women's clothes are more labor-intensive to clean.'' In addition, cleaners argue, women's blouses and shirts are usually too small to fit on the industry's standard machine-pressing form, called a bosom, and must be ironed by hand, which adds to the cost. Perhaps. But when confronted, many cleaners are quick to lower prices. Three years ago, a group of George Washington University law students filed a formal complaint with the Washington, D.C. Office of Human Rights and Minority Business Development alleging that 25 local cleaners charged women 200% more than they charged men for the same cleaning services. The department agreed that such practices were illegal. As a result, the two major Washington, D.C. trade groups -- the Metropolitan Dry Cleaners Association and the Korean Dry Cleaners Association -- were among the first in the nation to ban such sex discrimination and to agree to unisex pricing. Women's prices subsequently plummeted to the men's level. MONEY move: Shop for unisex prices. Complain to the cleaner management if you discover discriminatory pricing. Report any instances to your state attorney general's office or to your city's consumer affairs divisions.

FACT Dry cleaners mess up 25% of the time.We've all been there: On the eve of an important meeting, you find that the cleaner has managed to lose the one suit you always feel good wearing. Or you slip the designer linen out of the plastic sheath and find that the slacks have shrunk to knickers. When you march back to the shop, you're vehemently told: ''It was like that when you brought it in'' or ''The manufacturer's instructions were wrong'' or even this industry favorite, ''We have no record of that suit.'' Who is at fault? ''It's the old game of tag,'' replies the Association's Seitz. ''Everyone blames the last guy who touched the garment.'' Here are the averages: About half the time, the manufacturer did mislabel the clothes. Another 25% of the time, you caused the damage. For example, you might have tried a home remedy before enlisting the pros -- and permanently set the stain (so don't try it). Even more likely, when you're surprised by the damage, you spilled some liquid like champagne or ginger ale that dried without leaving an obvious mark. Once heated in the cleaning process, however, the spot oxidized and popped out. The remaining 25% of the time, the ruined clothes are the cleaner's fault, usually because the shop used the wrong chemicals or the item was scrubbed too hard. Yet even when you can prove it, you usually can't collect more than a fraction of the garb's replacement value. That's because most cleaners follow rules outlined in the Fair Claims Guide, put out by the International Fabricare Institute, the industry trade group. (See the table opposite.) Inevitably, clothes become worn and pick up stains. ''Unfortunately, all customers think is the garment was nice when they first brought it to us and now it isn't,'' says Marilyn Kleczka, chief executive of 19 One-Hour Martinizing shops in Milwaukee. MONEY move: Read all manufacturers' cleaning labels carefully and, if you have any questions about the fabric, ask your cleaner to run a test on a part that won't show. Don't experiment with cleaning solutions at home. Get the stained item to the cleaners as soon as you can. And remember to retain your receipts.

FACT Revenge is sweet. In addition, keep these tips in mind: -- Buy clothes that you can wash at home. Several designers such as Carole Little and Kikit are successfully introducing washable fabrics to their lines. Stores like The Gap and Banana Republic are doing a dynamite business in cotton, ramie and rayon style. Even Sears and Giorgio Armani (with his new A/X Armani Exchange) are following their wash-and-wear lead. ''Easy-care fabrics are now on the rise,'' says Max Weinstein, senior vice president of Leslie Fay Dress Group. Think twice before buying silk. The most expensive fabric to dry- clean, silk must be washed in light loads -- usually half the normal 80- pound wash -- and the delicate fabric makes spotting harder. And by all means, stay away from bright silks at bargain prices. These are often made with cheaper dyes. -- Learn to live without pleated skirts or dresses. Most cleaners today charge an additional 15 cents to 20 cents for each pleat they press. Some shops have even been known to charge 60 cents a pleat. Say your skirt has 30: that's an additional $6 to $18. -- Be cautious about sequins and beaded garments. On those items, the dyes often wash off or the ornaments melt in the high-temperature solvent. Ask your + cleaner to run a test on one sequin or bead before cleaning. -- Don't take your favorite sweater to a new cleaner. Start with an item of clothing that you can afford to lose, just in case. -- Ask your cleaner to cover brass, gold, pearl or other metallic buttons with aluminum foil to avoid scratches. Request that sleeves be stuffed with tissue after pressing so they won't get crushed when hung on the cleaner's rack. Most expert cleaners do this free of charge. Many will even remove shoulder pads and then sew them back in -- the same with buttons. So ask about your cleaner's practices. -- Get outside help. For troubles with clothes that have inaccurate cleaning instructions on the labels, write to the Federal Trade Commission (Correspondence Branch, Washington, D.C. 20508), and it will notify the manufacturer. For garment analysis, ask your cleaner or local Better Business Bureau to send damaged goods to the International Fabricare Institute (12251 Tech Rd., Silver Spring, Md. 20904; 301-622-1900). Or check your Yellow Pages for a regional or local dry cleaners association. The largest regional group is the Neighborhood Drycleaners Association (116 E. 27th St., New York, N.Y. 10016; 212-684-0945).

Moral: Knowledge is power. When you show up at the cleaner's, you don't need to get cleaned out.

CHART: NOT AVAILABLE CREDIT: NO CREDIT CAPTION: ThreadCheck The price tag of any garment is just the be ginning of how much you pay. After that, cleaning bills can almost double the cost in a year's wear. Here are guidelines from the International Fabricare Institute.