Daley’s Frugal Communications Guide

Introduction

Welcome to the often duplicated and sometimes imitated Daley’s Frugal Communications Guide, the hardly comprehensive primer for saving massive amounts of money on your communications bills! Originally started as a thread over in the MMM Forums, it’s grown through further personal research and feedback from others within that community to be a relatively decent primer for anyone wanting to save money with their telecommunications bills.

“How much money could I save?” I hear you asking… well, let’s break down my household’s total monthly bills for one internet connection, two phone lines (home, business), two cell phones, and a rich on-demand entertainment catalog for two adults. This is what we’re getting (as of February 2014):

  • 25Mbps cable internet with a 250GB/month cap (Cox – $26 discount offer, 1 year – normally 5Mbps package@$47/mo.)
  • Two Nokia Symbian cellphones using on average 180 minutes a month total (P’tel – $12.50)
  • Home telephone via VoIP with e911 and 250 free outgoing minutes a month to US/Canada plus 1¢/min billing on overages (FutureNine – $8)
  • Two Google Voice numbers (Google – free)
  • One CallCentric account for incoming business calls paired with one of the GV accounts above (CallCentric – free)
  • OTA broadcast television (free)
  • Streaming video via Hulu, CBS, Crackle, etc. (free)

The total cost? Approximately $46.50 a month currently, with a current non-discounted baseline of $67.50. Sometimes a bit higher, sometimes a bit lower as the cell phones are our major wild card. The best part? We could still cut that a few pennies lower if we switched VoIP providers. Don’t think we’re starving on communications with the outside world, either. My wife and I text people on occasion (total of around 50-100 SMS messages a month), and we log on average about 20+ hours of talk time combined.

How did we do it? You’re about to find out.

The first thing to understand is that we have approached our communications needs in a holistic manner, even though our individual services are provided through separate providers. This means you should consider adopting this approach as your understanding grows as well. Anyone can just switch out to a cheaper cell phone bill and claim a savings victory (which it is – and this guide can certainly help you do just that), but by focusing solely on the parts, we can miss how all these services effectively relate to one another. If we miss that point, we might miss out on the greater savings and richer impact these tools can have on our lives simply by working with it as a whole.

Once you’ve learned how to adopt this mindset, you’ll grow to understand how two seemingly different services (like home internet and your mobile phone) are actually more directly tied than you even realized. Even though I have divided each section of this guide up into discrete topics to ease understanding and implementation, understand that each part still relates to one another and your home internet connection is the backbone to the entire enterprise.

The other thing to keep in mind as you read through this often dense resource is that every last service and piece of equipment cited here? The internet, the telephone, the cell phone, the TV, the computers, the tablets… all of it. Not one shred of it is necessary for your day to day life, and you need to put aside the idea that you must have any of it to live. They’re incredibly modern inventions, and civilization existed for generations without these items and services. You are not as important as you may think, and the world is not going to end because you can’t immediately respond to a tweet while you’re standing in line at the grocery store, or you didn’t find out that [generic pretty girl in hollywood] was caught doing [scandalous activity] before she got mocked for doing so by the [late night host in your region].

At their heart, these are nothing more than tools designed to facilitate and ease the spread of ideas and information. I will not deny that they are useful tools, but they are nothing more than more advanced versions of paper, ink, and spoken word facilitated by rapid transit, delivery, and duplication ease. Clearly I value these more advanced tools, otherwise I wouldn’t have dedicated nine chapters and thousands of words to the subject in the first place, but I haven’t lost sight of what they are and neither should you.

Understanding and building upon this idea, the other key to saving so much money on these services in the first place is not to take a top down approach and try to get as much as we can wedged into as small a bill as possible. Instead, we must build up from the base. We need none of it, but as tools, they can still aid us in our daily lives and labors… so we add what we need where we need it at the most efficient price possible, and examine how the virtue of patience may help assist in our decision making process for the tools we choose. It’s quite similar to a more frivolous microcosm of the parable of the wise and foolish builders. By building this communications infrastructure upon a firm foundation of understanding, you will waste less time and money in the long term, and will be able to better rely on those tools actually being there when you need them. Anything gained beyond that is gravy.

Now, let’s dispel some myths.

1) I need a cell phone data plan for my GB and GB of data every month!

No, you don’t. Use your cell phone as a tool. Learn to use its primary function as an emergency communications tool, nothing more. Stop using Facebook, Twitter, browsing the web, streaming music and video, and whatever else you young kids today use cell phones for. Lower priority text communications don’t need much data. You’d be surprised how little Google Voice, Kik, XMS, Nimbuzz, e-mail, IM, and GPS/map data for the times you don’t have a real paper map in the car for the area you’re in can really use. You also must not forget about the free data access available through the multitude of WiFi hotspots around… if you’re concerned enough about data, you likely own a phone that can connect to WiFi. Use it. If you want to be entertained while out and about, use an MP3 player or read a book.

2) I need a cell phone plan for the hours and hours of time I spend a month talking to people!

Unless you’re a road warrior salesman/support guy or drive a truck for a living, no you don’t. Unless it’s business related, you should view phone time as a luxury to be done when you aren’t making money. As such, if you aren’t making money, you’re likely at home relaxing. Using VoIP and data on your home internet connection will always be cheaper.

3) I need really fast internet to be able to watch streaming video and play games and use VoIP services like Skype!

No, you don’t. As you read through, you will learn that 3Mbps is plenty for most folks. Although I wouldn’t recommend in this day and age any lower than a 3Mbps feed, I would be remiss to recommend much more, as well… unless time is money and money comes from moving huge wads of data on a daily basis. For networked gaming, ping time is more important than data speed, and any decent DSL or Cable provider should be plenty. For VoIP, you can almost get by on dial-up bandwidth. For streaming video, 480p is more than plenty – seeing the hair growing out of Bob DeNiro’s mole doesn’t make Heat a more enjoyable film. The only thing that disrupts these services on a 3Mbps line is heavy P2P file sharing, but outside of Blizzard game updates and Linux ISO discs, there’s not much legitimate use out there for torrenting, and smart configuration settings helps minimize that impact anyway.

We may be getting 25Mbps service currently, but it wasn’t for the speed, it was to save money – Cox recently raised their package costs (twice in one year), and the only way we could knock the monthly cost down was to do a speed increase. Their old 3Mbps or 5Mpbs plans are plenty, and if we’re forced to negotiate to keep our rates down after November 2014, we’ll likely just lump the new rates at slower speeds. I don’t like needing to do the discount monkey dance just to get reasonable market rates, and neither should you.

4) Bundling my phone and data into a single portable device like a cell phone will cost less money!

This only holds true if you’re a true road warrior. We’re entering an era of data caps and paying by the MB for what we use, and wireless data is expensive. Given the portable nature of telephony these days, if you don’t travel much or you have WiFi access for say 75% of your time-spent locations, you’re golden. Luxury data usage time can wait until you’re home. Don’t cut that cable.

We’ll look at some providers (and this won’t be exhaustive, just best of the lot for no-contract, no-frills, pay-as-you-go price-performance), some tips, some techniques, and some general knowledge to help get you up to speed on knowing what actually goes into your communications. Since regional issues tend to influence decisions, it would be myopic to focus on single providers for services where providers as opposed to service type can be recommended. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be breaking up services by page. Also note that this is focused more on the frugal home users, though some of the advice can be adapted for more fiscally aware business usage as well.

Disclaimer

One last thing before we get started. There’s a lot of information on the greater Internet about how to save money with all of these services. In that regard, I’m hashing over redundant material… but this guide still brings something unique to the discussion. As with all things of this nature, there is the engineer’s iron triangle at play with the decision making process, and you can only pick two.

For the sake of argument in regard to this guide and the information it covers, we’ll say the triangle in our case is EASY, GOOD, CHEAP.

Cheap is self evident. Good for our purposes as a category will do a blanket covering of reliable service, quality customer support, dependable billing, and faith in the general survivability of the business itself. Easy for our purposes will be defined as anything that doesn’t take any effort or self discipline in usage to achieve by choosing an excess of service quantity, or much effort to set up because the fiddly bits are done for you.

If you want Easy and Good, you need to stick with the major carriers… your Verizons, Comcasts and AT&Ts, and just eat the cost. If you want Easy and Cheap, this guide is not for you. Don’t waste your time reading this, and just go dig around on Howard Forums for a little bit instead. There’s some good folks there, they’ll help you find what you’re after. Just understand that this path is littered with deceptive marketing, shoddy equipment, vendor lock-in, bad math, empty promises, treacherous terms of service agreements, insolvent businesses that vanish overnight, and abusive to non-existent support that makes the major carriers look like saints in comparison.

The Guide is going to assume you’re here and reading this information because you’ve chosen Cheap and Good, and these cardinal points will shape and influence all of the advice and guidance set forth. This also means that you’re going to have to put a bit of effort into these changes to make them work; but don’t despair gentle reader, it’s not as difficult as you might think as most of it simply comes down to a bit of self discipline and changing your usage habits. The rest may be slightly more technical in nature, but not so bad as to require much beyond following simple directions from your chosen provider and a bit of common sense, unless you really want to roll up your sleeves. If you still have questions, don’t be afraid to ask. Just remember, the best customer support is the knowledge you can use to fix your own problems.

I’ve been around the block a few times with this stuff, and the Guide was born out of wanting to help people not make the same mistakes I did in the early days when I started tweaking with the cheap end of the spectrum. As my father has been known to say, “A poor man can’t afford to buy garbage.”  As an addendum to that philosophy, I also believe, “A rich man doesn’t hold onto his wealth buying garbage, either.” That’s the philosophical difference between cheap and frugal, and why they aren’t interchangeable. There’s plenty of cheap guides out there on this stuff, even from financial independence gurus. If you want to be cheap? Go read their suggestions. If you want to be frugal? You’ve come to the right place.

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