Battling for better bills – Part 1

I think I’ve always been cheap. My wife and I have joked that we’d be those rich people that everyone hates, still using coupons and shopping at Goodwill. This is just something that we’re used to, and it makes you feel better to not only save money, but to “get that bargain” and feel like – in the battle of consumer v. merchant – you’ve won a round. You know that you’re probably paying way more than you should for some things with markups and margins and all that, so any opportunity to “stick it to the man” gives you a little bit of a rush.

I mentioned coupons before, and food shopping is one of the easier places to “save money”, whether it be by using coupons, buying store brands, taking advantage of sales, buying in bulk, or various other methods of saving. If you’re lucky enough to live in a major residential area like I do, you have stores competing to get your business, which leads to big savings. Within a few miles from my house, we have three supermarket chains, a Target, and a Walmart, all competing for my dollar.

That’s all well and good, but what about utilities? Most utilities don’t have competition (how many electric companies do you have?) but some do, namely television, phone, and internet. Often, this unholy trinity of “luxury utilities” gets bundled together for “one low price”, but like any “bundle” or “combo”, you have to look carefully to see whether or not you’re really saving anything, or if it’s worth the hassle. Personally, I prefer to have everything separate; that way, if you have an issue with one service, you’re not obligated to stay just because that same company has your other services, and you don’t run the risk of breaking a contract (which generally any “bundle package” entails.)

So let’s attack these three one by one.

INTERNET

Internet is the newest utility, and often the most understood. For most of us fifteen years ago, paying for the Internet was essentially a monthly check to a service provider (admit it – you had AOL. We all did. It’s OK) and checking to make sure your dial-up service call was considered a “local call” and you weren’t getting charged by the minute. As time moved on (and we moved on from AOL), the focus turned to the service, whether it be DSL, cable, or if you’re somewhere in outhouse country, satellite.

However, just because you’ve selected a provider doesn’t mean that your options reduce. Currently, Time Warner Cable (the cable provider in my area) offers six different speed tiers. DSL options can vary too, depending on your location (more on that in a sec). Speed costs money, and in the case of TWC, the price per month can range anywhere from $20-$75.

How much speed to you need? Well, it depends on how many devices you have going at the same time, and what you plan on doing with them. Generally, anything less than 10 Mbps (megabits per second – the speed data can download to your machine) will see you struggle doing anything except basic email. Sites like Youtube can stutter and pause to buffer often below that level. Take into account multiple users at one time, and it gets worse. Your speed offered only accounts for the household as a whole – if you have multiple machines connected (iPads, cell phones on wi-fi, Xbox, etc) that speed is divided between those devices. Keep in mind that this is only if those devices are in use; however, some devices are still “in use” even if you aren’t physically using them (most computers will periodically check for updates to their software and sometimes download it in the background).

If you think that you don’t need the speed that you’re currently paying for, contact your provider and see about a downgrade. A downgrade shouldn’t affect any service contract (if you have one) and can potentially save you $10-$20 a month. If you find that the downgrade slows you down too much, you shouldn’t have any issues returning back to your original speed.

Usually providers add an additional fee to lease their modem; while this might seem like a good place to cut costs, be careful. Make sure the modem that you buy is supported by your service provider. While there really isn’t anything that you need to do except plug it in, you will spend some time on the phone with customer service in an attempt to get it activated, which can be extremely painful.

Finally, you may just be facing the frustration of seeing your rate go up, then seeing a discounted rate on the company website – often what you used to pay. These promotional rates can drive you nuts, and there usually is a way to get them if you’re willing to take some drastic measures, which I’ll touch on in part two.

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