A new tax year has begun which provides a great opportunity to do a little financial spring cleaning. Even in a tough economy, it is possible to spend less without making major sacrifices.
First things first—gather all of your monthly bills and take stock of your situation. Ask yourself questions like: "Do I need this?", "Is this the best service provider?" and "How long has it been since I made changes?"
How About that Landline?
If you are really honest with yourself, there are probably several services that you are paying for that don't produce a good return on their investment. One of the top issues on my list is a landline phone. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances, but fax machines and security systems are often among the excuses people use to hang on to these relics.
For most faxing situations, a scanner and some kind of email or e-fax service will work just fine—we recommend emailing PDFs with embedded signature images where possible.
And, of course, you always have the option of going with VOIP. Vonage offers unlimited local and long distance for $25 a month while unlimited US and Canada Skype accounts start at $3 per month (plus it is also available on cellphones for extra savings). Keep in mind that this price is on top of your current internet connection, so it may be advantageous to investigate bundles.
Take Advantage of Bundles
If you insist on keeping a landline, now is a great time to take advantage of bundled services. As a recent article in the New York Times pointed out, companies like AT&T offer several options for bundling services. Another example is Verizon Fios. If you are fortunate enough to have this option where you live, you can get double and triple freedom bundle packages—the latter combining landline, Fios internet and TV for $95 a month (a $38 savings).
While we are talking about bundles, keep an eye out for upsells. For instance, when I moved recently, I decided to try Road Runner Turbo over their standard service. I found that in my situation, the speed upgrade was barely noticeable and therefore not worth an extra $10 a month—so I dropped it. It's as simple as that.
Fight For Your Rights
The NYT article also made clear that the tried-and-true art of bitching can sometimes make a world of difference. If you feel you are paying too much, let your voice be heard. And don't be afraid to threaten a switch to another provider. Often the representatives you are speaking to are empowered to make a deal.
Security Without the Monthly Fee
A lot of people keep landlines just for security systems, and that's not a bad idea. E911 services from traditional telecoms and VOIP networks automatically tell cops and ambulance services where you live, and where you want to continue to live.
But a lot of security systems can be ripoffs. For one thing, the equipment installation can be riddled with extras. And second, what's the monthly monitoring fee for? In reality, the monitoring service is just a middleman. So in addition to paying a huge installation fee—a new ADT system can easily cost over $1000 (depending on the deal)— and you pay at least $25 per month on top of what you pay for the landline (GSM add-ons can cost even more).
One way to eliminate the cost of a monitoring service and possibly save some money on installation without compromising security in the house is a home security kit. One suggestion is SecureLinc. It doesn't require in-home wiring, and it calls up to four numbers when tripped. You still have to keep the landline, but you wouldn't be paying for monitoring and you still have the option of a GSM modem. Instead of dialing out to a landline, the modem uses a SIM from your wireless carrier. There would be a monthly fee associated with that of course, but it will most likely be cheaper than a monitoring service and maintaining a landline—and you don't have to worry about the line being cut during a break-in. If all else fails, dogs and guns (maybe even dogs with guns) is always an option.
Going on a TV Diet
Looking at my own bills, it's pretty obvious that I spend a great deal of money on my DirecTV service. At the moment I'm taking advantage of a 12-month deal at around $50, but after the year is up the price will shoot up to $75 to $80. To be honest, I really only watch a handful of networks and shows consistently.
So would it be traumatic if I gave up that service completely? Probably not. With Bittorrent and the growing availability of my favorite shows streaming legally online, it is conceivable that I could get by without making a huge sacrifice. Engadget contributing editor Ben Drawbaugh has found success in ditching cable for over-the-air TV and Netflix, along with internet-based extras. Four months and counting.
Obviously, this solution isn't going to work for a total TV addict, but it makes sense for most of us to re-examine our situations to see what might be excessive. I mean, there are often great shows on HBO, but sometimes even HBO can be dry for months at a time, and you can find a lot of their shows online or catch them on DVD/Blu-ray. With all the money you save, you can pay an extra couple of bucks for the Blu-ray bump at Netflix.
Speaking of Netflix, how many movies do you really watch? Is three out at a time too many? If you are not churning and burning these discs, you might be able to get away with a cheaper plan. Even the $9 plan gives you unlimited Watch Instantly, which you should try to take advantage of when possible. (If you are on the $5 plan, for two DVDs per month and up to two hours of Watch Instantly, you may want to drop Netflix altogether, because maybe you need that $5 more than Netflix does.)
Dust Off Your Service Plans
Like most of us, you have probably been sitting on a cellphone or TV plan for years now. If you think your provider will alert you when there is a money-saving change you could benefit from, think again. Many years ago I was on a Sprint plan where night minutes started at 9pm. Sometime later, the plan changed to 7pm. Since I make most of my calls in the evening hours, that change had a big effect on my minutes usage. If I had not done a check at the end of the year, I would have never known. Make sure to check the offerings of your provider and the offerings of competitors to make sure you are getting the deal that fits your needs best.
Last but certainly not least we arrive at the energy bill. There is no doubt that energy bills can be one of the biggest monthly expenses. Obviously, elaborate solar arrays are out of the reach for many individuals, but there are plenty of simple, affordable eco-upgrades that will pay for themselves sooner rather than later:
• Ditch the incandescent bulbs. You already know that you should change out those energy sucking incandescent lights for CFLs or LEDs. Seriously, a 60W CFL that only uses 13W of power is a no-brainer. Over the life of that single bulb you might save $40 or $50 in energy costs. It is more expensive up front, but you can bounce into any Walmart and get a decent deal. Besides, how many incandescents will you buy over the course of a CFLs seven year life span?
• Buy Energy Star appliances. Again, there is a premium for Energy star devices up front, but these devices use 10% to 50% less energy or water than their traditional counterparts. You will more than make up for that in energy cost savings in a short amount of time.
• Kill the electricity vampires. You may not know it, but many of your gadgets constantly suck standby power even when they are "off." On the lower end, power strips like the Ecostrip and the Visible Energy UFO help to control this problem. If you are looking for a more elaborate solution, a company like Greenswitch can quickly re-wire the outlets in your home—designating each one as green or standard as needed. If you want to turn off all of the gadgets in your home using standby power, it is as easy as flicking a single switch. A solution like this could potentially save 8-10% of your energy costs and pay for itself in a year or two.
• Get an efficient water heater. There are several options here, but spending the extra cash on something like a tankless water heater could result in a savings of up to 50% on your hot water bills (depending on your usage) because it doesn't store and heat water when it's not needed. It costs significantly more than a traditional heater, but there are usually tax credits that help to subsidize the cost. This goes for other green upgrades as well. Green incentives in your state can be found at DSIRE.
•Go low-flow: Replacing your current shower heads with low-flow versions can reduce your water consumption in the shower by as much as 50%. They cost about as much as regular shower heads, and despite consumption rates between .5 and 2.5 gallons per minute, they can still deliver great water pressure. You can also go low-flow with your toilets and use about half as much water per flush for a price that is comparable to a standard version.
• Get or make a rain barrel. Seriously, we waste far too much water irrigating our lawns. Even if you're not a greenie, there's money to be saved. At the very least you can make a simple rain barrel for less than $40 or buy one for $50-$100 (depending on capacity).
In the end, saving money on your bills is about being proactive and taking action when necessary. Ideally, going through your monthly expenses should be part of a yearly self-audit. It also pays to investigate the financial viability of eco-friendly options because many basic upgrades will start paying off right away.
Prof. Dealzmodo is a regular section dedicated to helping budget-minded consumers learn how to shop smarter and get the best deals on their favorite gadgets. If you have any topics you would like to see covered, send your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org, with "Professor Dealzmodo" in the subject line. Utilityweek" />