News flash: The economy stinks. It's not a good time to throw money at things that don't rate as necessities — a description that...
News flash: The economy stinks.
It’s not a good time to throw money at things that don’t rate as necessities — a description that applies to many of the goods and services reviewed here.
Inconveniently enough, though, the stuff of a technological lifestyle — the hardware, the software, the services — can add up to a large fraction of your budget. And a lot of these items do count as essential by many people’s reckoning. So how can you chip away at that figure?
The obvious answer is to do nothing: that is, don’t buy new things. Stick with last year’s camera, the computer of 2005 and the printer of 2003.
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This option isn’t always viable, however. Gadgets break and technological progress can make using an older but still functional model seem painful.
When that time comes, you can still shop defensively. Employ price-comparison sites, like PriceGrabber (pricegrabber.com), Yahoo (shopping.yahoo.com) and Microsoft’s Live Search Cashback (search.live.com/cashback), to find the cheapest deal.
Resist the temptation of this year’s alleged must-have feature — say, 10 megapixels of resolution on a digital camera or 4 gigabytes of memory on a laptop — to buy whatever people were excited about a year ago and which now costs less.
Buying used hardware can also slash costs, though some devices, such as laptops, tend to age poorly.
And, of course, decline “upsells” like fancy cables or extended warranties. (If you can, buy with a credit card that extends the manufacturer’s coverage free.)
Software provides another way to trim the tech budget. Investigate free and open-source alternatives to commercial programs. For example, try OpenOffice (openoffice.org) before you drop $150 or more on Microsoft Office.
But your greatest savings by an overwhelming margin are not in one-time hardware or software purchases, but in the subscriptions that make up most of the operating costs.
With cellphone, landline, TV and Internet services, you can easily hit $175 a month, the equivalent of two laptops a year.
Some of these cutbacks ought to be obvious. Many people have ditched landline phones, but if that’s not an option (say, if your DSL requires a voice line) you can still pare your service to the minimum.
Drop features like call waiting and switch to a metered-rate option that only includes a set number of outbound calls, after which you pay about a dime per call.
You should also stop making long-distance calls from your home phone.
Use your cellphone, even if you have to wait until after 9 p.m. to take advantage of the unlimited off-peak calling provided by most plans.
Wireless phone service, in turn, offers easy cost savings if your plan includes excess minutes, video or audio streaming, or navigation services you rarely use. In most cases, you can change plans without penalty.
If you’re out of a contract and rarely use your phone, do the math and see if prepaid service would be a better deal.
Then look at TV — probably your single most expensive telecom service. Do you need all the channels you are buying? When’s the last time you considered a different provider?
The first-year discounts that cable, satellite and fiber-optic carriers offer to new subscribers can cut costs more than half. I’ve also heard from many readers who got a break on their cable bill just by calling to complain about it.
Internet access, by contrast, doesn’t offer much pricing flexibility. You typically buy a broadband connection without any options that you can later decline.
You should, of course, consider what other broadband options reach your home. For example, DSL typically costs less than cable-modem service.
But broadband Internet, unlike TV and landline phone connections, can also duplicate those services if you’re willing to put it to work. And now’s the time to try out that potential.
Consider long-distance calling: Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) costs far less than landline long distance and doesn’t carry the time-of-day limits of cellphone long distance.
EBay’s Skype (skype.com), for instance, allows free computer-to-computer audio and video chatting, plus computer-to-phone calls for pennies a minute, whether you’re calling to Connecticut or to China.
Cheap corded and cordless VoIP phones can plug into your home network and free you from talking through a computer’s microphone.
You can also turn your broadband connection into your TV service.
The networks offer free streaming video of most shows at their own sites and such third-party portals as Hulu (hulu.com), and you can buy shows at Amazon.com‘s upgraded video-on-demand service and Apple’s iTunes Store.