serverless on AWS

How to Defend Against AWS Surprise Bills

Short on time? Set up Budget Alerts in less than 2 minutes.

Got a surprise bill? Here’s how you can contact AWS Support.

Imagine you’ve been running a hobby project in the cloud for the last 6 months. Every month you paid 20 cents. Not enough to really care about. However one morning you notice a surprisingly large transaction of $2700.

Cloud computing allows us to pay for storage, compute and other services as we use them. Instead of going to a computer shop and buying a server rack, we can use services and get a bill at the end of the month. The downside is however that we can use more than we might have money for. This can be especially tricky with serverless solutions which automatically scale up with the traffic that comes in.

Accidentally leaving an expensive VM running, or having your Lambda functions spiral out of control, may lead to a dreaded surprise bill.

In this article we’ll take a look at how billing works, and what you can do to prevent surprise bills.

Focus On Small Bills

This article focuses on personal or small company accounts with relatively small bills. While a $3000 spike in cost might not be noticeable in a large corporate bill, it can be devastating for a personal account that you run hobby projects on.

There’s No Perfect Solution

Unfortunately there’s no perfect solution to prevent surprise bills. As Corey Quinn explains on his podcast the AWS billing system can take a couple hours to receive all data, in some cases up to 24 or 48 hours. As a result the Budget Alerts might trigger hours or days after a significant spending happened. Budget alerts are still a great tool to prevent charges that take more than a day or two to accrue, e.g. forgetting an expensive EC2 instance that you used to follow a machine learning workshop.

It’s up to you how much time you want to invest to reduce the risk of surprise bills, but I highly recommend you to take 2 minutes to set up Budget Alerts!

Defense Mechanisms

There are multiple mechanisms that you can apply to defend against surprise bills. The ones we look into include security, alerting, remediating actions and improved visibility.

1. Secure Your Account With Multi Factor Authentication

This is the first thing you should set up when creating a new AWS account.

Follow this official guide from AWS to set up multi factor authentication (MFA) for your account. By activating MFA on your account, you add another barrier for malicious attackers.

2. Budget Alerts

This is the second thing you should set up when creating a new AWS account.

Budget Alerts are the most popular way to keep an eye on your spending. By creating a budget alert, you will get a notification e.g. via e-mail which tells you that the threshold has been exceeded. You can further customize notifications through Amazon SNS or AWS Chatbot.

Here’s a short video (52 seconds) that you can follow to create your first Budget Alert. Ryan H Lewis made a longer video with some more context around Budget Alerts, and the many ways you can configure them.

If you’re already using the CDK then the package aws-budget-notifier gets you started quickly.

What amount should you start with?

Start with an amount that’s a bit above your current spending and that you’re comfortable with. If you’re just starting out, $10 is probably a good idea. If you already have workloads running for a few months, then take your average spending and add 50% on top.

I also recommend to set up multiple billing alerts at various thresholds:

  1. The comfortable alert: This is an amount that you’re comfortable spending, but you want to look into the bill over the next days.
  2. The dangerous alert: At this amount, you’re not comfortable anymore, and want to shut down a service as soon as possible. If your comfortable amount is $10, this one might be $100.
  3. The critical alert: At this amount, you want to nuke your account from orbit. With a comfortable amount of $10, this one might be $500. You can attach Budget Actions or pager alerts to this alarm to automatically stop EC2 instances or wake you up at night.

As an addition to predefined thresholds, you can also try out AWS Cost Anomaly Detection.

DANGER - The Orbital Nuke Option

As you can send notifications to SNS, you can trigger a Lambda function that runs aws-nuke which will tear down all the infrastructure in your account. Do not use this on any account that you have production data in. If you want to learn more about this, check out the GitHub repository.

3. Budget Actions

AWS recently announced Budget Actions. This is an extension to Budget Alerts, where you can trigger actions when a budget exceeds its threshold. In addition to sending e-mail notifications, you can now apply custom IAM policies like “Deny EC2 Run Instances” or let AWS shut down EC2 and RDS instances for you as shown below.

Budget Action to Shut Down an EC2 Instance

4. Mobile App

The AWS Console Mobile Application puts the cost explorer just 3-5 taps away. This way you can check in on your spending with minimal effort.

Below you can see two screens from the mobile app:

Cost Explorer in Mobile App

To use the app you should set up a dedicated user that only gets the permissions that the app needs to display your spending.

Here’s an IAM policy that grants read access to the cost explorer as well as cloudwatch alarms.

    "Version": "2012-10-17",
    "Statement": [
            "Effect": "Allow",
            "Action": [
            "Resource": "*"

We can group the permissions into 3 sets:

  1. Cost Explorer Read Access (everything that starts with ce:). These let us get detailed information about or current and forecasted spending.
  2. CloudWatch Alarms Read Access (cloudwatch:DescribeAlarms). This allows you to see if there are any alarms, but doesn’t let you get further than that.
  3. General Access (permissions starting with aws-portal: and health:). These allow you to display the mobile dashboard properly. As far as I understand and tested, without they don’t give you access to the spending details, but without them you can’t show the dashboards.

Please let me know if any of these permissions can be removed.

5. Secrets Manager

If access keys get leaked through public repositories, malicious actors can start expensive EC2 instances in your account and use it for example to mine Bitcoin. There are also reports of instances hidden away in less frequently used regions, small enough that they don’t get noticed in the bill summary.

To keep your code free from access keys or other secrets, you can use the AWS Secrets Manager to store the secrets which your code needs at runtime.

Follow this AWS tutorial to create your first secret. Once you’ve created one, replace the secret from your code base by using one of the official AWS clients (boto3 for Python) to retrieve the secret.

import boto3

client = boto3.client('secretsmanager')

response = client.get_secret_value(SecretId='replace-me')

secret = response['SecretString']

Please note that each secret will cost you $0.40 per month, as well as $0.05 per 10,000 API calls.

Contact Support

If you experienced a surprise bill, stop the apps that cause the high spending, rotate your access keys if necessary and contact AWS support.

Here’s a 20 seconds video which guides you to the support case.

The steps to file a support ticket are:

  1. In the top right click on Support and then select the Support Center
  2. Press the orange button that says Create case
  3. Select Account and billing support
  4. As type select “Billing” and as category select “Payment issue”
  5. Now fill out the details and submit

While there are folks who got their surprise bill reimbursed, please don’t rely on this.


The first thing you should do is set up MFA and Budget Alerts. After that you can look into more advanced operations like Budget Actions to lock down your account if spending spikes.

If your applications use secrets or access keys, you can prevent them from accidentally ending up in your repositories by storing the secrets in the AWS Secrets Manager instead.


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