Cracking the monthly nut

Every month, it pains me to see how much I pay to various companies for an assortment of poorly delivered services, which cost way too much. Sure, I probably have a large cost-of-living footprint, but with some clever lifehacks and more frugal alternatives, I’m betting there’s a way to decrease that footprint without sacrificing much quality of life. The first step is, of course, to take a look at where all the money’s going …

Verizon: $86/mo

$86/mo to Verizon for local and international calling on 3 landlines. Two of those landlines are for Panoptic, one for voice and the other for faxes. The third is the house phone.

One easy way to save $9/mo would be to eliminate the fax line. Currently, I’ve got a fax modem connected to it and use HylaFAX as a fax server and JHylaFAX as a client. I already have a VoIP DID through Junction Networks which I haven’t done much with, except for set up Asterisk to test that it works. I should spend some time getting faxing to work on Asterisk if it’s possible, then get rid of the dedicated fax line.

I could similarly get Asterisk fully set up to answer voice calls as a proper automated attendant/IVR and let it ring-through to my cell phone. I’m paying $9/mo for the Panoptic voice line as well as $8/mo extra for Verizon’s voicemail service. This would be a way to save $17/mo.

Of course, I’d really be saving slightly less, since the DIDs through Junction Networks cost $2/mo each and $0.029 a minute. But, the $8/mo for Verizon voicemail would be the same as a $2/mo DID and 200 minutes a month, which is probably a lot more than I actually use right now.

MCI: $38/mo

$38/mo to MCI for long distance and a toll-free number for Panoptic.

I rarely use US domestic long distance–almost all our long distance calling is international, either to England or South Africa. I picked MCI because it had the lowest rates of the major telcos: for $4/mo, you get the MCI Global Connection calling plan, with $0.07/minute to England and $0.39/minute to South Africa.

The toll-free number costs $5/mo and currently rings into the voice landline. Ideally, I’d get Asterisk set up and have it ring into that.

Cutting costs here might be tough, as my wife is the one who does the international calling and getting her to use a PC-based softphone could be difficult. However, Skype’s international rates to South Africa–$0.068/minute to landlines and $0.233/minute to cellphones–might just be worth the trouble.

Cingular: $155/mo

$154/mo to Cingular for 1,000 shared minutes between two Treo 650’s, including two unlimited PDA data plans at $39.99/mo each and 1,000 text messages at $9.99/mo.

It is mind-boggling that I ever agreed to pay this much for such lously cellphone service. It’s amazing what poor quality we, as consumers, will tolerate. In the 1990’s, the memorable tagline was Sprint’s “so clear, you can hear a pin drop” to Verizon’s “can you hear me now?” The jitter and lag on your average cell-to-cell call is so dramatic that I’d rather text someone than try to make out what they’re trying to say in between entire dropped syllables.

While the shared roll-over minutes between the two phones guarantee that we’ll never exceed our minutes, Cingular’s policy that each phone has to have its own $39.99/mo unlimited PDA data plan is a rip-off. Based on this past year’s usage, it seems that I average 30-50 MB of usage per month, while my wife usually stays under 10 MB. Effectively, I’m paying $0.80/MB for mobile bandwidth while my wife pays $4/MB. Cingular’s data plan pricing for PDA’s is insane.

I guess as long as we want to keep our Treo 650’s and have unlimited data plans, we’re stuck paying this outrageous price. Perhaps its time to upgrade to the iPhone–although whatever we’ll save per month will be spent on buying the phone. Two iPhones on the family plan will cost $109.99/mo. a saving of $45/mo. But, at $800 to purchase the two iPhones, it’ll be 18 months before it pays for itself. Sigh.

DirecTV: $63/mo

$63/mo to DirecTV, so that we can fill our TiVo with crap to watch.

Fortunately, we bought the Series 2 TiVo with a lifetime subscription for $300, but figuring on a 5-year life span on the thing, it’s effectively $5/mo. I can live with that.

However, considering all the trouble we’ve had lately with the shoddy DirecTV receiver–we’ve had the receiver replaced, and are on our second new access card–I’m really starting to see if we’d save money switching to Optimum Online. Unfortunately, the reason why we went with DirecTV in the first place is because Cablevision totally screwed us around on our install order–the installer was over 3 hours late and showed up without the necessary equipment to do the actual install–so we cancelled the install and went with DirecTV.


So, do you see any ways I could shave these monthly costs down? Without simply cancelling these services and “doing without”? Share your tips in the comments below!

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  1. Sprint SERO: Unlimited text and data, and the monthly rate for 1250 minutes isn’t that high.

    Do a web search for a Sprint email address you can use for the referral. That’s pretty much an open secret by now.

  2. I noticed you’re listing only the small things that would only have a minimal impact on your finances.

  3. Stephen: I only listed the small things because they’re the ones that can easily be changed. All the larger expenses are fixed costs that I’ve aggressively reduced: a 30-year fixed mortgage at 5.875%, a home equity line of credit at 8%, around $30K worth of credit card debt at 5.99% until paid in full, $10K of school loans at 7%.

    Unless I can borrow a large sum of money for less than 6% interest, there’s not much I can do about them except try to pay them off faster. Which, if I can reduce my monthly spend on other small expenses, I could put the difference towards paying off the larger debts, faster.

  4. You said it yourself – if you want to keep all the fancy stuff you’re stuck paying the outrageous prices. If you want to make major inroads on your CC and student loan debt then making those tough decisions about what you really want or need is the only way.

    Phones – do you need the landlines at all, or could you just use your cellphone for everything? From your description of your cellphone service the answer is probably “hell yes”, but its worth considering. As for long distance, don’t restrict yourself to the big guys. For example ECG ( ) says their rates are 0.05/min to UK and 0.17/min to SA, with no monthly fee or minimums. And the actual service is most likely provided by one of the majors anyway.

    Treo – maybe you need the unlimited data plan but your wife could do without or with a limited plan. This is really a “do we need it” question.

    TV – go without, and spend more time with the kids! You can’t really justify it as “quality of life” as there’s nothing good on tv anyway :) Get a netflix membership and watch a movie a week for the tube time. This one may actually be easier than the others to get rid of, but TV is such a central part of our culture that we just dismiss it. Try avoiding it for a week and see if everyone goes crazy.

  5. Jeff:

    Cingular requires a “PDA data plan” with their Treo’s (stupid policy, sigh) and the two flavors are 20MB/mo for $34.99 or unlimited for $39.99. Given that the overage is charged per-KB, to save $5/mo isn’t worth the risk that one month my wife will go way over–$5/mo is worth the peace of mind, really.

    With regards to TV, we don’t spend a lot of time watching it, and thanks to the TiVo, we watch it when it’s convenient (i.e., in the evenings after the kids are in bed). The kids have lots of good programming that records throughout the day while they’re in school and the KidZone feature of TiVo lets us ensure that they only watch what we’ve pre-selected for them.

    I think the end result is that the only way to lower costs significantly is to give something up–I was hoping there were cheaper alternatives to the choices we’d made, but it looks like I shopped around pretty aggressively as it is. Oh well.

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