Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Going cheap on services… and liking it!

My family and I moved into a new home south of Grand Rapids in western Michigan over the summer.  Since living here, we’ve made a conscious effort to limit the monthly cost of our “big four” services: Cell phones, “land line” phone line, broadband Internet, and TV.  This is how we’re doing currently:

Service Monthly Cost
Cell phones (2) $16.67
Phone (land line) $0.00
Broadband Internet $19.95
HDTV $0.00
Monthly Total (all services) $36.62
Annual Total (all services) $439.40

So: A land line phone, 2 cell phones, Internet service, and HDTV for less than $40/month; not bad!  Read on for the details.

Cell Phones

My wife Melissa and I both carry cell phones.  Typical month-to-month voice plans run $70 and up for a 2-line “family plan,” but for over a year now, we’ve avoid that cost by using pre-paid plans.  At the time that we dropped our prior month-to-month plan, Melissa did some research on where we could get the most bang for our buck with a pre-paid plan.

We landed on a plan from Alltel offering $0.15/minute calls with no other fees, and prepaid minutes good for a full 365 days when the minutes are purchased in increments of at least $100 (per phone).  So, once per year, we drop $100 on minutes for each of our phones (so $200 total), and we’re good for another year!  It works out to a monthly cost of $100/12 = $8.33/month per phone, or a combined $16.67/month for both.

With Alltel recently having been acquired by Verizon, though, the $0.15/minute prepaid plan is unfortunately apparently no longer available for new customers.  The cheapest flat-rate prepaid plan Verizon is advertising on their site currently is a $0.25/minute plan; there’s probably another wireless provider out there with a better deal.  Fortunately for Melissa and I, though, Verizon has so far continued to honor Alltel’s $0.15/min rate for us, at least for the time being!

The only real downside to this approach has been that our $100/year per phone, with calls running $0.15/minute, buys us just 100/0.15 = 667 minutes of talking per phone – that’s only 56 minutes per month.  Limiting our cell phone use to “emergency” or other quick-duration calls, we haven’t had a problem staying under this modest limit yet, though.  (And even if we do have to buy extra minutes before an entire year has elapsed, we’re still coming out way ahead compared to a month-to-month plan.  Verizon, for one, apparently realizes this, because on their “Plans” page, virtually the entire page is dedicated to marketing their month-to-month plans, with “Prepaid Plans” showing up as just one small link in the corner.  Nice!)

Home Phone (land line)

Since we don’t use our cell phones for any “real” conversations, Melissa needs another way to call her Mom and her friends and chat!  Even though the new normal for many households is to have no land line at all and use cell phones exclusively, we’ve found that it’s working very well for us to use a VoIP solution that comes with no monthly fee at all: A device called Ooma

The first I’d heard of Ooma was when my Dad told me about it just a few months ago, shortly after my family’s move into the new house.  It’s similar to MagicJack in that it’s a “voice over IP” service that you can use “traditional” home phones with and has no ongoing monthly fee; but Ooma differs from MagicJack in that Ooma doesn’t require that the device be connected to a PC (and requires that it’s own software be running on that PC at all times for the phone to work).  Ooma instead plugs directly into a cable modem/DSL modem or router.

Ooma has a somewhat steep up-front cost; currently, it’s going for $215 on However, with a $0 ongoing monthly cost for the life of the device, the break-even point comes up very quickly relative to a $35+/month traditional phone bill (about 6 months, or less) – it’s pure profit after that!

Ooma has been working really great for Melissa and I so far.  Even over our somewhat piddly 768k/384k DSL connection (more on that below), call quality on both ends is crystal clear – I’d characterize it as being as good as a traditional land line, and better than a typical cell phone – and it has yet to drop a call. 

With the Ooma device plugged directly into the DSL modem, phone calls work fine even when someone is using the Internet on the PC, since Ooma does it’s own QoS (quality-of-service) management on any devices plugged in to the network downstream of it.  I have my Ooma hub plugged directly into my DSL modem, and my router plugged into the Ooma hub (so Ooma sits between the modem and the router), and I’ve found this setup to work just fine, both for phone calls and for my PC and other Internet-connected devices.

Broadband Internet

As I mentioned earlier, I have AT&T 768k down / 384k up DSL Internet connection, for which I’m paying $19.95/month – even though I don’t have phone service through AT&T!  In many regions now, apparently, AT&T (and other DSL providers) offer what is called “dry loop” service, where you can get DSL even if you don’t have land line phone service through the same company (or any land line phone number at all). 

Somewhat like Verizon and their “Prepaid Plans,” AT&T hides their $20/month plan in the fine print at the bottom of a page on which they much more prominently offer other plans at $35/month and up.  Even the $35/month figure, though, isn’t bad compared to the price offered by the local cable monopoly, Comcast, whose most inexpensive Internet-only plan, at the time I researched Internet options for my new home, a few months ago – without also purchasing cable TV service – was $60/month!

Obviously 768k isn’t exactly blazing speed; large downloads take a while to complete, and the bandwidth isn’t sufficient for streaming high-def video (e.g. some YouTube movies).  The service has been reliable, though, and I’ve found it to work perfectly well for email, browsing the web, gaming (even with both Melissa and I playing simultaneously on separate PCs), VoIP via Ooma (as described above), and even videoconferencing via the free Google Video Chat with my Dad in Florida.  It also works for me, for large downloads, to just kick off the download before bed and pick up the file in the morning.  (Or, at least, it works well enough for me not to feel too bad about pocketing the difference of $480 that I saved at the end of the year by not going with the faster Comcast service!)


My family just last week, finally, joined the ranks of the HD-enabled: We picked up a 32-inch 720p HDTV.  Previously, the only TV we had in the house was an old “analog” TV that couldn’t receive TV signals, and unfortunately I didn’t jump on the deal to pick up one of the U.S. government digital converter box coupons – now unavailable – that were being passed out for free before the U.S. digital TV transition back in June.  So, we’ve had no TV at all since moving into our the new house earlier this year.  (Admittedly, this was more a burden on the rest of the family than on me, since I tend to spend my free time on the PC, playing games, or reading, rather than in front of the TV.)

Now that we have a TV capable of receiving digital over-the-air signals, I ordered an HDTV antenna from Amazon – an inexpensive RCA ANT1400M Flat HDTV Antenna (currently going for $25) – and it’s been working great!  After some brief fiddling with the antenna – I ended up getting the best results by propping up the flat antenna at about a 30-degree angle, rather than either leaving it flat on the tabletop, or standing it up vertically – we get NBC, CBS, FOX, and ABC, all in great-looking HD.  (We get about a dozen other digital stations, too, including some that I’d never even heard of, such as the kids’ station qubo.)  It was nice to sit and watch some football at home (in HD!) this past Sunday after getting the antenna hooked up for the first time – having the $0/month ongoing cost in the back of my mind certainly didn’t detract from the enjoyment.  :-)

So basically, I’m cheap – but I like it that way

I’ve got the four major “bundle” services running now for a combined cost of less than $40/month – but obviously with some caveats:

  • We have two cell phones – but they’re for limited/emergency use only
  • We have broadband Internet – but only 768k downstream
  • We have HDTV – but only the major networks, plus a dozen or so other random stations
  • We have home phone service - (actually, no real caveat here, it works just fine!)

I can live with those caveats, though, in light of this chart – repeated from the top of this post, but updated to include a comparison to some of the other service options I mentioned:

Service Provider Monthly Cost Provider Monthly Cost
Cell phones (2) Alltel Prepaid (grandfathered) $16.67 Verizon Family "basic" plan (cheapest advertised 2-phone plan on the Verizon site) $69.99
Phone (land line) Ooma $0.00 None ("Who needs a land line anymore?") $0.00
Broadband Internet AT&T dry loop, 768k down $19.95 Comcast Economy Internet, 1M down (cheapest advertised Internet plan; bundle with Comcast cable TV required to get rate) $24.95
HDTV Digital TV + RCA ANT1400M Antenna $0.00 Digital TV + Comcast Digital Preferred (cheapest advertised rate; non-"introductory" ongoing rate) $74.94
Monthly Total (all services)   $36.62   $169.88
Annual Total (all services)   $439.40   $2038.56
Annual Savings   $1599.16   --

So, yeah: I’m cheap, and the services I’ve got do include a few “caveats”… but that extra $1600 in my pocket at the end of every year works out to the equivalent of quite a few dinner dates out at a restaurant for Melissa and I.  :-)


  1. Well, your comparison isn't exactly fair. You need to 'amortize' OOMA, lets say over 5 years. So at $215, that's $3.58 per month. And your HD Antenna is 42 cents / month for 5 years. So to be fair, you should add $4/month back into your cost. Albeit, your Annual Savings is spectacular. I always say, a $1 in your pocket looks better there...then anywhere else. Good job, son!

  2. Hey Dad! That's a fair point. I'll concede I should have incorporated amortization of the Ooma and the HD antenna into my original calculations -- and therefore my annual savings over "traditional" services is more like $1550/year rather than $1600/year. Still pretty acceptable. :-)

  3. Nice!

    If your family craves more TV channel options, and you're willing to bump up the bandwidth on your DSL, you could make a one-time purchase of PlayOn for the Wii ($29 on sale), and stream Hulu direct to your TV.

    What are you paying for trash a month? for new home owners, Allied Waste has been offering a $100/year trash service, The caveat is that you pay it up front. We're going on our fourth year in our home, and Allied has renewed each year.

    John (Watson)

  4. Hey John!

    Interesting, I didn't know about the PlayOn application/service. Any idea whether that would continue to be free indefinitely? I have heard rumors that Hulu will be moving to a pay-for-access model at some point (instead of just free-but-ad-supported like it is now for the Web version). Do you have PlayOn for your PS3?

    You're right, I'd need to invest in a faster Internet connection to get any real mileage out of streaming video. I've been thinking of doing that anyway, though. Still, to my cheap self, the prospect of almost doubling what I'm paying now (from $20/month to $35/month) rankles a bit for not getting "double the functionality" -- doubling the connection speed would make no or little difference in many of the things that I use the Internet for currently (email, web browsing, gaming, VoIP, etc.)

    Regaring trash service, I have EverKept. I'm paying $42 per 3 months for trash service plus recycling service. So it sounds like you're getting a better deal there!

  5. Oh, one other thing occurs to me about the PlayOn service -- the Wii only puts out a 480p signal, so the output wouldn't look super great on my HDTV. Still, I'm all about one-time costs rather than indefinitely-recurring monthly costs, so maybe it's worth it! I'd especially be interested in any cable shows that are on Hulu that I can't get on the major networks for free (and in HD!) via over-the-air.


Non-spammers: Thanks for visiting! Please go ahead and leave a comment; I read them all!

Attention SPAMMERS: I review all comments before they get posted, and I REPORT 100% of spam comments to Google as spam! Why not avoid getting your account banned as quickly -- and save us both a little time -- by skipping this comment form and moving on to the next one on your list? Thanks, and I hope you have a great day!