Money-Saving Cell Phone Alternatives

Internet PhoneHow many cell phone minutes do you use each month? Chances are it’s a lot fewer than you’re paying for.

But even if you do talk a lot, cell phones aren’t always the cheapest way to make those calls. Sure, there are times when only a cell phone will work. But if you do a lot of your calling from home, switch to one of these alternatives to save big each month.

I’ll start with the cheapest option and work up to the most expensive (but still cheaper than buying minutes from the cell phone company.)

Google has a service creatively known as “Call phones from Gmail” that lets you call any phone in the US and Canada from within Gmail. They recently announced it will be free for all of 2013. I tried this out the other day after getting fed up with AT&T’s poor cell phone reception in my apartment, and the calls were crystal clear. The caller on the other end said it sounded like I was in the other room talking.

All you have to do to start making calls is install a plugin and log into Gmail. They also offer free video chats, which I didn’t test.

Another option is magicJack Plus. While the original magicJack required a computer to use, this one works with or without a computer. And that’s a game-changer, because who wants to wait for a computer to boot up before making a call? Just plug the device into your modem, and after a brief registration you’re up and running. You can even transfer your current number.

They’re doing a free 30-day trial right now, so check it out. After that it’s $20 a year.

Finally, there’s Ooma. Don’t ask me how they came up with a name like that, but according to Consumer Reports, Ooma is tops in call quality bar none. That includes land lines from AT&T, Verizon and others.

The most expensive of the three, it’s also pretty darn convenient. You don’t need a computer up and running to use Ooma. Yes, it works through the internet, but it plugs straight into your modem. Just like MagicJack, you plug your home phone into the Ooma device and start talking.

Ooma costs anywhere from $130-$150 for the device, although I saw it on sale at Costco for $100 recently. The only other costs after that are about $45 a year in government taxes and fees. You may be able to save that in one month by reducing your cell phone minutes.

My take: If you don’t mind using a headset and sitting at your computer, the first option is best. But if you like using an actual phone and enjoy the flexibility to move around the house, the other two are better options.

All three of these services offer unlimited calls over the internet for basically zero dollars. If you’re on the fence about reducing your cell phone minutes, take the leap and give one of these a try. Talking over the internet is a heck of a lot more cost efficient that busting your budget with the cell phone company.

The call quality is much better, too.

Related posts:

Low-Cost Options for Cell Phone Service

Ways to Save on your Cell Phone Bill

Photo by telebiz.com

And the Best Cash Back Credit Card is…

Credit Cards… You didn’t think I’d make it that easy, did you? 

I would if I could. The truth is, I can’t claim that any one card is absolutely best for everyone.

I love rewards credit cards. Getting paid hundreds of dollars a year to use a credit card to buy things I would buy anyway is, well, rewarding.

I use three different cards as part of my strategy. One of those is the Discover More card, which has traditionally been a solid choice for an all-around great rewards card. I recently learned that Discover is shifting its strategy and will now market only one card, known as Discover it. Don’t ask me why “it” is lowercase.

This new card is much more customer-friendly than their previous cards. In the past, there was an initial tier that only gave you 0.25% cash back on the first $3,000 in purchases, and 1% after that. You now get 1% from the start. There’s also no fee for going over your limit or your first late payment. Other benefits include US-based customer service and the ability to choose your due date.

Discover cardholders have the option of converting to the new card or remaining with their old one (I chose to convert).

With these improved terms from Discover, how can you compare their card with the multitude of others out there?

Take a look at your spending patterns. Do you travel a lot? Are you a college student? Maybe the bulk of your spending is groceries and gas. For each of these situations, there are several cards that could potentially work for you.

Before I discuss how to find the best rewards cards, I should mention that if you carry a balance — no matter how large or small — rewards cards aren’t for you. They typically charge higher-than-average interest rates, so any rewards you might get are negated by fees and interest charges. In this case go with a low-interest card, perhaps from a credit union.

My favorite site for comparing rewards cards is CreditCardTuneUp.com. This site lets you input your average monthly spending in 15 categories such as restaurants, department stores and hotels. To get your monthly spending figures, I recommend looking at your credit card statements from the last 12 months.

Based on the information you provide, you get a list of the cards that best match your spending pattern. It’ll tell you what your first year rewards total would be, minus any annual fee.

Another great resource is NerdWallet.com. The idea is the same, but this site also lets you input your credit score and preferred network (Visa, MasterCard, etc.) You have a choice of either a customized list of your best matches or their list of the best credit cards of 2013. On this list they divide cards by category (rewards, no interest, college, etc.) and tell you why they love the card.

More credit card companies are offering a cash or gift card bonus to entice new members. I’ve seen offers worth as much as $625, but more typical offers range from $100-$200. These sign-up bonuses are definitely worth a look as you search for your best card.

There are other things to consider as well. If you frequently travel outside the country, look for cards with no foreign transaction fee such as Capital One and the Discover it. If you fly a lot, be aware of blackout dates and mileage redemption rates. If the card has an annual fee, make sure you’ll spend at least enough to offset the fee.

The key to finding the best rewards card is to look at your spending patterns. Then, use one or both of these websites to compare offers and find the best card for your lifestyle.

Photo by blog.chargesmart.com

Two Strategies to Use Every Time You Shop

Our baby, Elaina

Our first child was born this past November. As other first-time parents know, babies come with a multitude of expenses.

I’m not sure how many Walmart runs I made that first week, but by the end I knew I didn’t want to see that place again for a while.

During that first week I also found myself in another big box store in search of a specific baby item. This store happened to have a generous price-matching policy through Christmas, which I saw advertised all over the store.

I found the item and noticed the price was a little high compared with prices I’d seen online. I weighed whether it was really worth paying an extra $29 to have it immediately.

In this case, because the comfort of my wife and baby was at stake, there was no question in the end that I was walking out of the store with that item in hand.

As I was standing in the aisle though, I got an idea: Let’s see what other stores around me are charging! I whipped out my phone, opened the ShopSavvy app and scanned the bar code. (Long-time YLL readers will recognize this concept as showrooming.)

There on my screen appeared the lower internet price I’d found earlier.

Then I remembered the price-matching signs I’d seen just minutes before. Would they match the online price? I had nothing to lose.

At checkout, the cashier wanted a few more details about the lower price I’d found. After answering his questions and showing him the results on my phone he let me know that yes, he would give me the lower price!

Then my mother-in-law handed me a coupon she found in their ad at the entrance for $10 off. I ended up getting the item for $10 less than the lowest online price I found!

So what are the lessons here? First, download and use a price comparison app on your phone. ShopSavvy and RedLaser are both excellent choices. Now that comparing prices is so effortless, you have no excuse for not doing the research.

Second, always ask about the store’s price-matching policy. Even when you don’t see one advertised. Bricks and mortar retailers are wary of losing business to online sellers. They’ll often give you a break, but only if you ask.

Now why didn’t I tell you which store I was in or what the item was? Because that’s not important. What is important is that you use the tools available to you to get the best price. Use these two tips to do just that.

When Canceling Cable or Satellite, Get it in Writing

More of us are becoming wise and developing money-saving ways like unplugging from cable or satellite service. For the typical family, this saves $80 a month, or nearly $1,000 each year.

And that doesn’t include the time you’ll save by not parking yourself in front of the TV so much.

“This is great!”, you may be thinking. “Who knew I could save so much money from my paid TV service alone!”

Just because you may be thrilled to save all this money, you can’t assume the cable or satellite company will be equally excited to see you go.

When cutting the cord, most people call the company and cancel over the phone. They assume that after hanging up they don’t have to take any more steps.

That could end up being a costly assumption.

Some providers are so sad to see you leave that when you call to cancel they suspend your service for a few months rather than cancel it outright. How nice of them to assume that we’ll miss them so much six months from now that they’ll just start the service back up without our knowledge or permission!

You may even receive a confirmation email of your phone conversation, but you won’t notice this little gotcha until you read the fine print on page 34.

This is exactly what the desperate cable and satellite TV operators are doing. They’re bleeding subscribers and can’t afford to lose you too.

After canceling service, you typically have 14 days to return their equipment. Some providers send you a postage-paid box to send it back in, while others require you to bring it to their local office. Those who don’t take this extra step may notice a charge of several hundred dollars for a cable box and remote on their final statement.

Even when you do send the equipment back on time, the records at the cable or satellite company may become inaccurate over time. If they incorrectly show you as never having returned their stuff, they’ll send your account to collections and you may find yourself getting calls from a collection agency years down the road.

So how do you protect yourself against rogue providers in the cable and satellite industry?

There are two things you must do each time you cancel cable or satellite service. First, get an email confirmation of your permanent cancellation after you talk with customer service over the phone. Look through the email to make sure they didn’t simply suspend your account for six months. You may have to call back a time or two until you get someone who is competent enough to complete your transaction.

Second, before you release the package containing their equipment to FedEx or UPS, get a receipt showing when you sent it. Hold on to the receipt. Then if a collector calls years later saying you owe them for the equipment you’ll have documentation to prove otherwise.

Photo by ehow.com

One Surefire Way to Make Your Complaint Heard

AngryCustomer service, it seems, isn’t a priority for most companies these days.

Whether it’s restaurants denying entry to veterans who require the assistance of a service dog or CVS signing people up for prescription refills without their consent and billing them for it, many companies seem to have lost their focus on the customer.

There’s even a popular website devoted to exposing customer service horror stories.

In the old days, if you had a problem with a company you did one of two things. You either sent them a letter or you set aside a large block of time on Saturday morning to navigate the company’s phone tree in hopes of reaching someone who cared. Your chances of success with these methods were pretty slim.

Thanks to social media, there’s a new way to be heard. Companies are waking up to the fact that if gone untreated, customer complaints on Facebook and Twitter can spread like wildfire.

Many of the biggest ones are spending heavily on their social media presence. I read in the WSJ that two years ago, GM had no strategy for monitoring complaints on social media. Today they have 30 people doing just that.

The power of social media is that anybody can be heard. Sure, some people use this power frivolously, like to complain that their parking spot was stolen or to let us know what they had for dinner. But Facebook, Twitter and other sites also provide an outlet that lets us voice our complaints and frustrations about products and services.

It doesn’t matter whether you have one follower or a thousand – social media levels the playing field. In true David vs. Goliath form, you’re able to bring even the biggest companies to their knees.

If you have a beef with a company and they don’t seem to listen, you now have another way to be heard. Look to social media.

It doesn’t matter how large or small the company. Sure, larger companies are more likely to monitor social media for complaints, but no company wants to tarnish its image by allowing complaints about them to linger. Use their fear to your advantage.

Have you engaged a company through social media to solve a problem?

Photo by siliconangle.com

Be Romanced by the Library

libraryIn my original post about why you should visit the library, I argued that no matter who you are, the library has something for you. Aside from the obvious books, you have newspapers, magazines, movies, internet access, classes and activities for kids. The best part? It’s all free.

We know the library can save us money. But could it make us rich?

I came across a post by Mr. Money Mustache I thought was both entertaining and informative in its description of how libraries can make us rich. In his tongue-in-cheek style, MMM starts off:

A few years ago, I learned the most shocking fact about public libraries:

Not everybody uses them!

“No!”, you may say, “That’s impossible – how else do people get their books?”

The scary answer that I discovered is that some people have developed a habit of regularly buying books which cost them $10 – $30 each, reading them, and then collecting them on an ever-growing series of bookshelves.

The post talks about the excuses people give for collecting books, and the author admits to feeling great when walking past a large collection of books. His collection is large too. But the difference, in his words:

…I have several hundred thousand of them, and a paid staff who roams through my modern curved-glass 20,000 square foot book storage facility, automatically maintaining them and buying more for me constantly. I have so many books that I share them with everyone in my entire city, and we’ve even come to an agreement where we ALL pay just a few dollars per year each for the facility, and yet any one of us can borrow any of the books.

If you haven’t figured it out, they call the facility the “Public Library”. It wasn’t until recently that I started thinking of the library in this way. Instead of each of us maintaining an individual collection of books, why not pool our money to create and maintain something far larger than any of us could achieve alone?

The post ends with a description of all the awesome things his family does in the library. Each family member can indulge his or her interests without taking on extra debt or expense. His family has 30 books checked out at any given time, which is ambitious. But that’s the thing – it doesn’t matter if you don’t finish everything. You didn’t pay for the book, so nothing is lost.

Now that we’re aware of what the library has to offer, think about your current buying habits. How many times a month do you walk into a bookstore just to take a peek, only to walk out with a new title or two? Do you enjoy adding to your DVD collection that never seems to be complete? These things cost real money. Money you’re earning from that dead-end desk job or retail job you hate, day after day, week after week with no end in sight. Have you considered that maybe the reason you’re chained to that job is you’re not visiting the library often enough?

Let’s say each month you buy 4 books at $20 a pop, 2 DVDs at $15 each, and 4 magazines at $4 each. In one year you’ve spent $1,512 and have that much less space in your home. After a decade, that’s over $26,920 compounded at 8%.

Even after 10 years, your collection will be no match for the library. So why compete?

Mr. Money Mustache sums up well the library’s role in our lives:

It romances all of us and sucks us in by catering to every one of our interests.

Be romanced by the library and watch your riches grow.

Photo by www.gomdl.com

Phone Scams are Big Business for Criminals

The Ripoff Alert is an ongoing series alerting you to the latest scams and ripoffs. What to look out for and what you need to know to stay safe. This is #23 in the series. 

Smartphones are everywhere. I remember a year or two ago there were many people I knew who still had old style flip phones. I myself had one until last fall. Now just a few remain who haven’t jumped on the smartphone bandwagon.

We carry these things everywhere with us – to work, on road trips and to the grocery store. Now that so many of us own these mini computers, we have to take a minute to think about how we can protect the information stored on these devices.

Kiplinger has a list of things we need to be aware of concerning phone scams:

1. Your smart phone holds a mother lode of data

2. Think before you click

3. Scammers cast a wide net

4. That big bonus prize? It’s bogus

5. “Toll fraud” could be down the road

6. You can fight back

My thoughts are below.

1. They list some things we now do on our phones including banking, checking Facebook and calling your Mom. You have to start thinking of your phone as a computer. As such, it holds a lot of personal data that could be used against you in the wrong hands.

Lots of folks password protect their computers, and I recommend doing the same for your phone. That’s your first line of defense if your phone is lost or stolen.

2. They offer a common sense solution: “If it’s too good to be true or too enticing to be legitimate, ignore it.” That applies to texts, emails, banner ads, and anything else you may come across.

I recently wrote about scammers’ efforts to target their attacks against us, a crime known as spearphishing. Criminals have more information about us than you think, and are able to use it against us in new ways.

Just delete any emails or texts from senders you don’t recognize.

3. It seems that scammers are always a step ahead of us. They target a wide range of people knowing they only need a few victims to make it worth their while. The article mentions that because of QR codes and URL shorteners, it’s harder than ever to detect suspicious links or websites.

What exactly are the scammers after? Two things: Our money or our personal information (which they’ll then use to steal our money.)

4. I got a text the other day claiming I’d won a $1,000 gift card from Target. All I had to do was respond with some personal information and my “prize” would be on its way.

Now think for a second. Who wins gift cards out of the blue? The scammers know these are tough times and that we’re more vulnerable than usual.

5. One reason you have to be careful clicking unrecognized links is that they could contain malicious code. This code causes your phone to download ring tones or wallpaper without your knowledge or permission, which you’re then billed for by your phone company.

A related crime, carried out by your cell phone company itself, is known is cramming. In cahoots with third-party marketers, they “cram” unauthorized charges onto your bill, hoping you won’t notice. And guess what? Most people don’t. One obvious solution is to go through each page of your bill every month. If you see a strange charge, call your phone company and have it removed.

A more proactive solution is to have your phone company block all third-party charges. That prevents toll fraud or cramming from happening in the first place.

6. The article offer several good suggestions about how to fight back against phone scams. Among them: Complain to the FTC at http://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov; forward spam texts to 7726 to alert the phone company; download and use an antivirus program such as Lookout; and ignore texts you don’t recognize.

It may seem that criminals are one step ahead, but you can level the playing field by anticipating their moves and protecting yourself from their attacks.