How to save money on your tech bills
By Brian Caulfield
Technology was supposed to help us get more done, more cost-effectively, than ever before. But if you spent 249 bucks on the latest version of Microsoft's Windows and then spent hours trying to install it--or waited in line to spend $599 on the new iPhone only to see Apple slash the price by 200 bucks a few months later--you know that's not always the case.
Keeping your tech toys from gobbling your wallet can be a full-time job. If you're a smart, aggressive shopper, you've already bundled up your voice and video services, you've whittled down your monthly fees through careful comparison shopping, and you've jawboned a neighbor into letting you sharing his wi-fi connection. Good work.
Now it's time to move to the next level: putting technology to work to cut down on the costs of owning all that, well, technology. Here's a quick cheat sheet with practical ways you can use three major technology trends--open-source software, voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and online shopping--to save yourself a lot of money, and a little time, too.
The first step is tracking all that spending--a chore that software packages, including Intuit Quicken, Microsoft Money and free, online services such as Mint.com--do very handily. If you're a personal finance buff, spending a little money on powerful personal finance software is well worth the investment. And at $39.99, the downloadable version of Quicken Deluxe 2008 is quite affordable.
But if you're a financial space case--and a bit of a Web junkie--you can also opt for a free, online tracking tool, such as Mint.com. Not only does it put information from many online accounts in one spot, but it can remind you when your bills are coming due. It can even help you find a better rate on your credit card.
Free calls, cheap DSL
OK, using the Internet to skirt the phone company--and the bills it churns out--just feels good. If you spend a lot of money on the phone, an Internet-calling service from Vonage or your cable company can save you a lot of money. But you don't have to make a commitment to cash in.
If you're willing to do a little experimentation, VoIP can save you a little money and a lot of time without forcing you to make any big commitments. One no-hassle option: Skype, an online service offered by eBay that lets you make calls using a headset and a PC.
Calls are free to other Skype users. Or for $3 a month you can call any conventional phone line in the U.S. and Canada (or 2.1 cents a minute to more than 30 countries). But the real benefit of using Skype is convenience. Because it works like an instant message client, you can see if any of your friends or family are online before you call them. (Finally, an end to the tedious game of voice-message tag.) If you measure your time in dollars and cents, that's Skype's best feature. And you can't get this from the phone company, at any price.
As for the Internet service you'll need for Skype, there are deals to be had--even for broadband service. There's no need to stick with a dial-up Internet connection. While AT&T doesn't push this option, it offers digital subscriber line service for $10 in 22 states, one of the conditions it had to agree to in getting approval from the U.S. government to close its acquisition of BellSouth.
Try online and open-source alternatives
Open-source software is a beautiful thing. The Linux operating system can do some pretty complicated stuff--just ask Google--reliably. But two things it's not: It's not always free (as in free beer), and it's not always easy. Companies like Red Hat make big money dishing up Linux to major corporations. And while Linux can easily master big jobs, proprietary code means that it doesn't always work with movies, music and peripherals as smoothly on the desktop as the alternatives.
Luckily, open source is a much bigger phenomenon than just Linux. And it can even be a hassle-free alternative to pricey, proprietary applications, regardless of your budget. Take Microsoft Office. Microsoft's desktop productivity suite is both expensive ($399 for the standard edition) and feature-laden.
By contrast, the open-source OpenOffice.org productivity suite is free. Best of all, you don't have to worry about entering a product tracking code every time you download and install a copy on a computer. The downside: It doesn't offer full support for certain arcane features, such as certain macros in Microsoft Office. (There is hope, though. Businesses can hire developers to bridge this gap, and the OpenOffice.org developers are working to provide compatibility with more Office macros). Many home users, however, will spend a lifetime cranking out documents without ever resorting to one.
Another bonus: Outside developers are encouraged to dig into the code and add useful extensions to the software. "We have a quickly enlarging number of extensions for people, from things friendly to business... to things that are friendly to researchers," says Louis Suarez-Potts, a Sun Microsystems employee and OpenOffice.org community manager. Version 3.0 is due out next year.
Both Microsoft's Office and OpenOffice.org nicely complement Google's free Google Docs service, which offers a convenient, and free, way to edit and share documents online.
Another money-saving online alternative is Rhapsody, particularly if you buy a lot of music or you're not a iPod aficionado. The service's flat fee offers an alternative to pay-as-you-go stores such as Amazon.com, which appeal to music listeners who want to get access to lots of music every month without stealing it.
Dude, you're getting a deal
Whether you're lusting after a PC from Dell or the latest phone, the rule is the same: Skip the brand-new goods stocked at your local store and check the refurbished goods on your PC pusher or mobile-phone carrier's Web site first.
To be sure, eBay has better deals. If you get a thrill out of spending a little time hunting for bargains, eBay is your place. But buying refurbished is the no-brainer option. It gives you the manufacturer's limited warranty, and much of the feeling you'd get buying new, at a discounted price.