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Computing For Cheapskates, Telecom For Tightwads

You could consider today's column an exercise in guilt--or in ripping off Michelle Singletary.

The idea came to me Sunday night, as I was mulling over a couple of other ideas I'd been working on. After pondering the symbolism of reviewing expensive software when many of you might have more pressing concerns, I decided to write a column about how to spend less money on a tech lifestyle instead.

At first, I thought I'd do a simple how-to piece on ways to save money on new hardware and software--what you see in the first third of the column as it ran, and which I've covered before on this blog. But then I made the mistake of adding up my telecom expenses for last year. In a word: ugh. It seems that my wife and I managed to spend over $2,700 in 2007 on the combination of two cell phones, basic landline phone service, satellite TV and DSL.

(Did I write "ugh"? "@*!#" is a more accurate reflection of my thoughts on seeing that figure.)

I tried to stick with advice that wouldn't be too difficult or expensive to follow. So, for example, I didn't suggest using a Voice over Internet Protocol service (my favorite remains Skype) to replace a landline, just for outbound long-distance calling, where it offers maximum savings for minimum effort.

Similarly, I didn't suggest buying any add-on hardware, like the Apple TV or the Roku Netflix Player, to watch TV downloads or streams on your television. (You can just watch them on your computer or, if you've got a laptop and a TV that--like any flat panel set made in the last few years--has a VGA input, plug the laptop into the TV to watch the show.)

Having done this exercise, I now need to figure out how I can chip away at my own telecom costs. Where to start? Perhaps by dropping HBO, now that the network has begun building out its initially-weak inventory of shows available on iTunes.

You can help me, and your fellow readers, here: Share your own tips on how you've cut your tech budget, whether it's capital expenditures like new computers and gadgets, or operating costs like all these different telecom subscriptions. (Note: Please don't say "canceling the newspaper subscription.") Post your suggestions below--or share them in my Web chat, starting at 2 this afternoon.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 2, 2008; 12:54 PM ET
Categories:  Computers , Gadgets , Telecom , The business we have chosen , Tips  
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Over the past few months, I have learned to live without cable altogether (digital or basic). The few shows I watch (Heroes, Simpsons, a couple of others occasionally) are readily available online at or their official websites. Any special breaking news coverage, like the presidential debates, are usually available in a live stream from news websites. If on a rare occasion it is not available live, repeat coverage is scattered all over the Internet, both on news websites and user-content websites like YouTube. Of course, since I started my first year of college in the middle of August, I haven't had much choice in the matter :)

I haven't found a way to break away from my cell phone yet, despite downloading Skype in the middle of last month. I still need a way to get in touch with people on the go. Maybe I should forgo my voice plan in favor of texting ...

Posted by: Doc | October 2, 2008 2:48 PM | Report abuse

How quickly will buying HBO eps add up to the amount a subscription costs?

Posted by: Hemisphire | October 2, 2008 3:00 PM | Report abuse

I've not had TV in about 6 years and I really really don't mind. My wife finally freaked and ordered highspeedinternet but I steadfastly refuse to add the TV component. Hulu and suffice. I can even watch occasional SundayNightFootball games, now, via the computer.

We dumped our cell phone with Verizon for 2 pay-as-you-go phones from Virgin: up here in the backwoods of NH, service is so cruddy it doesn' matter WHO you have (Verizon's ad up here should go, "Can ANYONE hear me, now?").

No, I'd say the most expensive part is my constant need to buy new computers; speaking of which, isn't Apple due to release the revised MacBook any day, now??

Posted by: Bush -- not related | October 2, 2008 4:58 PM | Report abuse

I take advantage of my library's DVD collection.

Posted by: A | October 2, 2008 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Recycle that old computer by changing your OS to Linux. Unbuntu is a free download, installs in 30 minutes and boot up is 2 minutes max. The only downside at this time is DVD playback. I get wireless, play my music library, write blogs, letters and e-mail and fix my photos with free applications as good as anything provided by MS, Adobe, or Apple.

Posted by: SoccerMom | October 2, 2008 5:49 PM | Report abuse

We live where no cable is available, but there is plenty of free over-the-air digital TV, including three different PBS feeds (much of which is HD). Every time I see cable TV somewhere I am amazed at how there is NOTHING worth watching anyway (my personal opinion). Being retired there is no one we need to be _constantly_ in contact with, so an AT&T "burner" (prepaid) cellular telephone works fine and gets used about two minutes a week. I really think that if people realized that it is OK to be alone with your own thoughts or just daydream when you have a few idle minutes there would be less spent on high end telephones and all the add-on apps and gaemes. There's no reason a casual, low priority conversation can't wait an hour or a day or even a week until a face-to-face opportunity arises. (Carry a notepad if you need to keep track of things you want to tell someone later.)

We haven't been in a movie theater since sometime in the 70s and I don't think I'm missing anything, what with movies on TV and cheap rentals at the local store.

As was said by an earlier poster I must admit to buying way too many computers! They are all running GNU/Linux though, and lots of free apps.

Our other indulgence is XM satellite radio at about $12 per month.

Posted by: Dev H'dazero | October 2, 2008 7:09 PM | Report abuse

Sorry for the second post, but forgot to mention for SoccerMom, install VLC Media Player ( on your Ubuntu box and that will take care of playing DVDs, as well as just about any audio and video codec you will likely encounter.

Posted by: Dev H'dazero | October 2, 2008 7:13 PM | Report abuse

I don't have cable, but we do get several over-the-air channels and regularly rent $1 movies from Redbox. I also have DSL and telephone with a calling plan where I pay a low monthly rate plus a small charge per outgoing call (Verizon doesn't advertise this plan but they have it if you ask), making my total monthly bill less than $40 for both. I have maxed out the RAM on my nearly four-year old computer and regularly clean the registry, run defrag, anti-spiware, etc., to keep it running well. My parents share my cell phone plan, so we have three phones one plan for about half the price of having three separate plans.

Posted by: Alexandria, VA | October 3, 2008 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Between Hulu, Netflix and my local pub (for sports) Cable is pointless.

One thing that immediately comes to mind is if your computer is less than say 6 or 7 years old and all you do is surf the web, email, and use office apps; you probably don't need a new computer as badly as you might think. Windows tends to clean up after itself much the way a teenager does so eventually the closet (or in this case system directory) becomes unusable. After few years (2 -5 depending on how much you install / uninstall software) it's a good idea to wipe your drive clean and reinstall the operating system. XP currently needs about 1GB of RAM to happily run itself and basic applications these days, so you might have to bump that up. If you follow the Wa Post's Brian Kreb's advice and run XP as a limited user, install a free anti-virus scanner (I like and use Avast), and use a little common sense. You old computer will happily and safely serve your needs for several more years.
If all of this sounds a little more than you want to tackle, ask around. In this day and age almost everyone know at least a couple of tech workers. I have colleagues who refurbish computers as a kind of quiet way to pick up extra cash and I've done it for a few neighbors in exchange for babysitting. Also Google really is your friend the web is full of tech support bulletin boards full of people who are happy to help. Just remember to search first because chances are someone has already asked the question and the answer is ready and waiting for you.

Second start thinking about open source software. Linux has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. You only need to be moderately adventurous to be able to install it. Distributions like Ubuntu and openSuse can be installed and run most of everything you'd ever want with out ever having to touch the command line. Even if you want to stick with Windows there are plenty of open-source applications for it as well. Sun's open office is the first one that comes to mind. If you use office to open, edit and send documents, spreadsheets and slide shows then you probably don't need to spend the hundreds of dollars MS charges for Office. Open Office will read and write to from/to Microsoft formats and with a quick changes in the preferences menu will do so by default.

My grandparents made it through the Great Depression by getting the most out of what they had, relying on barter as much as possible, and generally coming together as a community to help each other out. Those principles still apply to the current situation.

SoccerMom, this link from Ubuntu will tell you all you need to know about getting it to play DVDs

Posted by: Norm | October 3, 2008 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I agree that the fees charged for cell phones (where they make all the money back on the free phones) are out of line. As are the cable fees for premium channels, so is a great place to pick up most of the video you might need. Getting a low cost cell phone plane and Vonage saves a lot of money as well.

Posted by: Kodi Boy | October 3, 2008 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Rob, have you looked at a verizon FIOS bundle instead of DSL? We have dropped HBO since they no longer seems to provide anything worth watching since John Adams. We also find very little worth watching on TV other than PBS. However, I think that our purchase of the Roko box was worth every penny. I have run a ethernet cable to the box and with FIOS, the picture quality is great. We enjoy English drama and find a lot of movies to stream in.

Posted by: Retiree | October 4, 2008 11:50 AM | Report abuse

On TV, if one can live with limited choices cable offers a "low, low" rate not commonly known. I believe it was a requirement of one of the '90s telecom bills. And similarly, one can get a really good TV antenna, which practically no one does anymore. I wonder if CSPAN is on the internet now?

That's all I've got, assuming everyone whittles down their telephone options to what they really need and no more.

Also, I've noticed very few internet forums diagnose computer problems with "check your power supply" which often is the real problem. Knowing that can save many hours and money, and keep the old machines running. And remember you can often spot a blown capacitor visually. Then it IS time for a new machine. And assures one that no, it's not a virus causing the problem.

Posted by: Jumper | October 5, 2008 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Never buy new computers. Buy them refurbished or scratch-&-dent from the manufacturer or off your local craigslist. Craigslist is also a great place to find computer parts and peripherals. You can also buy a barebones desktop or laptop and build your own machine.. it may not end up any cheaper but you'll get exactly what you want.

Instead an HDTV and DVR buy a large LCD computer monitor, a cheap used desktop computer and a HDTV tuner card. Install Windows Media Center or a linux flavor + MythTV( It's cheap and you'll learn a lot.

Get rid of cable & satellite and attach a good HDTV antenna to that cheap desktop's HDTV tuner card and voila.. you've got free HD TV. You can see what HD channels are available over-the-air in your area by going here: And a good place to learn about HDTV tuners and antennas is here:

As for telecom, that can be a little more complicated. I have a pre-paid GSM cell phone; I pay more per minute but pay less overall because I don't use it that much. T-Mobile seems to be the most flexible as far as payment plans.

I pay an annual fee and use Skype for both long distance and local calls. I've even bought a couple of Skype numbers local to my extended family so they don't have to pay long distance to call me.

Posted by: Julia | October 6, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

If you have HSI (high speed internet) Ooma is a good way to go. The Ooma system is one-time purchase of around $250. You'll get: Unlimited US calling with no monthly fees. Features, like caller-ID, call-waiting, and voicemail at no additional cost. The ability to hear messages from any ooma device, phone, or computer.
Low-cost international rates such as Canada 1.4 ¢, Germany 2.2 ¢, UK 1.9 ¢, Japan 4.3 ¢ etc..
Also a new number from any calling area in the US. Since I dropped Vonage @ $25 per mo. ($300 a year). The Ooma has more than paid for itself. I consider it a good investment.

Posted by: Chris Sullivan | October 7, 2008 10:48 AM | Report abuse

We don't have cable and have poor reception on our old TV. But bought EyeTV for $150, and watch all the over air HDTV stations on our iMac.

Posted by: Katherine | October 7, 2008 1:06 PM | Report abuse

I have no land line and my cell costs $15 a month. I use the service that Rebus the Edinburgh detective used in one of his episodes. I was gratified to see my phone vibrating on a night table before Rebus picked it up. I use Net Ten. I purchased the phone at Wal-Mart for $30 and received 300 free minutes. Every two months I have to purchase 300 more minutes for $30 to keep my remaining minutes. I now have 1200 minutes remaining due to the rollover. I obviously do not use my phone that much, but it averages out to $15 per month. The phone is a compact Nokia and is basically a no frills unit. I have voice mail which I do not use because I also have caller ID which I use to save my minutes. I use the phone to make and receive phone calls. That is the purpose of my phone. I do not need to use my phone as a jukebox or video device. Free long distance is also included and no, I do not work for Net Ten. God bless, Saint Ignatius.

Posted by: saintignatius | October 7, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

I got rid of long distance and bought a $20 calling card that lasts forever as I don't have many long-distance friends plus saves on the long distance taxes they charge with regular phone service. I use a Virgin Mobile phone that cost $15 a quarter of the year ($60 annually) as I don't use cell phone much. I found a previous comment about the Ooma system very interesting. That looks like the way to go. Has anyone else tried it? Maybe a test run by Rob would be nice.

Posted by: Joan | October 7, 2008 7:14 PM | Report abuse

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