Chris Armold has heard the siren song of device makers these days: Spend just a few bucks on this new device and you'll save a bundle, they promise.
Sometimes that's true, says Armold, a freelance photographer in Dayton, Ohio, who writes books on collectibles. And sometimes you're better off figuring out how to use what you already have in a new way.
Here's what we found when we went out to talk with consumers about how they are choosing between spending now and saving big in the future, or just hunkering down with the gear they already have.
One of the most talked-about ways to save concerns how you do your talking. Many Americans have already ditched the traditional phone in favor of mobile phones, which offer unlimited evening and weekend calling.
If you're still tied to the notion of having a landline, however, there are options. If you buy an Xlink device, Xtreme Technologies offers users the ability to keep your existing home phones and have your mobile phone services automatically routed to your landlines. That can save on your long-distance bill. The catch: you could burn your daytime minutes and end up spending too much if you talk during the day a lot. And there is the one-time price of the Xlink device (about $110 US).
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, which allow you to chat for low rates — sometimes even free — through the computer offer another cost-cutting alternative.
'I cut down from 2,000 minutes to 1,350 minutes, and I'm seeing a savings of $30 to $40 a month.' —Kevin Kullman, salesman
Armold took a different tack. "I purchased a Magic Jack to reduce my telephone costs," says Armold, who notes that this simple switch has saved him about $360 a year. Now he makes most of his long-distance calls through his high-speed Internet connection instead, and with major savings.
"Because of that little creature I was able to terminate my home telephone account," he says. "I can call all over the place for nothing, and it also saves me a ton of cell minutes as well." (MagicJack plugs into a phone and your computer. The device itself costs about $40, and it has a yearly fee of $20.)
Kevin Kullman, a pharmaceutical salesman in Florida who worries about the possibility of a layoff, turned to Skype to stay in touch with friends and family. "I don't have long-distance anymore, so Skype has come in handy."
Even better: using e-mail messages instead of texting people. Kullman says he now uses LinkedIn, which allowed him to further trim his mobile phone plan. "I cut down from 2,000 minutes to 1,350 minutes, and I'm seeing a savings of $30 to $40 a month. I use LinkedIn to leave people messages instead of texting from my phone."
Frank Lopinto, director of contracts at Information Builders, which sells business intelligence and integration software in New York City, has three daughters at home, ages 11, 13 and 18. In spite of their protests, he figured that downgrading his cable service would save him about $65 a month. "They really miss the Food Network," he says.
He called his cable provider to get a lower rate. "I asked if they could give me a break." Lopinto's provider, Optimum Online, is offering bundle options, which can be an effective money-saving plan. Lopinto tried a plan that included VoIP phone service, high-speed Internet and, of course, a plethora of cable channels. The introductory fee was attractive — but when the promotion finished the bill shot up by 33 per cent to $174 a month. Lopinto downgraded.
Now he's considering whether his own roof antenna might be the best cost-savings bet. "We have five TVs in the house. I've already applied for those government coupons for the analog set-top boxes." Letting go of the digital video recorder feature in your cable subscription can also be a smart choice. DVR costs subscribers $5 or more a month. If you are using this record option only to catch the occasional episode of The Office, Lost or other network fare, turning to your computer would be a cheaper way to see the episode.
Many programs can be viewed online, and services such as Hulu.com even offer many shows that run on basic cable, including those on FX and Comedy Central. The savings might even be enough to let you splurge for a matinee out at the movies once a month. (Bring your own snack, however.)
Renting movies, either from a local shop or by mail from Netflix, has long been more affordable than a night out. Now stay at home options are getting better: the Sony Playstation 3 videogame console includes a Blu-ray player. Many PCs can display streaming high-definition quality content.
When the evening shows are over, don't just shut off the tube. Unplug it or turn off a master power strip to make sure electrical appliances are left in standby mode. Electronics devices continue to draw power even when the screen is dark.
"Consumers aren't always aware of standby power or so-called 'vampire' energy use," says Ronnie J. Kweller, deputy director of communications for the Alliance to Save Energy. "All these electronics with digital clocks and standby mode are drawing power even when they aren't in use."
'These are hard times and high prices get folks' attention, and there is now awareness that you can save money by being energy-efficient.' —Ronnie J. Kweller, Alliance to Save Energy
Kweller recommends that you connect your devices to power strips, which offer two advantages. When you won't use these devices for an extended time, a power strip makes it very easy to turn everything off with the flip of one switch. So-called Smart Power Strips can even detect when a device, such as a TV, is not in use and will completely power-down it, along with accompanying devices such as a DVD player or videogame console.
There is also an "always-on" option that lets cable boxes continue to operate so that you can still record shows even if, say, power to the screen has been cut. Power strips also act as a surge protector to save devices from a sudden jolt of electricity, which can occur during a thunderstorm. Not having to replace an expensive electronic device keeps the money in the bank.
Every penny saved, including in electrical costs, counts during a downturn. "It's human nature that when prices are low you don't pay as much attention to that energy bill," says Kweller. "These are hard times and high prices get folks' attention, and there is now awareness that you can save money by being energy-efficient."