Category Archives: Saving Money

My quest for a lower cell phone bill

How we saved $120 on our monthly cell phone bill

iphonexAt some point in the year 2007 I was kicking back watching a flickering image on a bulky CRT television when a breathtaking commercial appeared on the screen.

It was for a product called an “iPhone” and after viewing the ad I unfortunately spent the rest of the evening in the hospital seeking medical help for my four-hour erection.

For years I’d heard that Apple was developing a phone, but that alone didn’t prepare me for watching two fingers zoom in on a digital map. Life would never be the same. My once-amazing Motorola Razr blinked at me softly in the same way a pet might look at its owner before taking one sad, final drive to the vet.

Fortunately for my little Razr, I had at least enough willpower to hold off on buying that first generation iPhone. I’ve been around Apple products for long enough to know that they always hold back some must-have features for later generations. I also have been well aware how overpriced they can be. So I held off as long as I could while the days of my T-Mobile contract ticked down.

When the iPhone 3 was announced, I knew it was time. I was out of contract finally and the latest iPhone awaited. My wife and I hopped into her car to head to the AT&T store to surrender to the irresistible siren call of unlimited data and a full internet experience on a portable device.

With shiny new phones iPhones in hand, mine in black, hers in white, we proudly strode back to her car, excited to try out the new device. I literally watched the dot on the digital map as it moved in real-time all the way home. I spent days ruining my vision discovering new apps and exploring the world through this magical device.

My love for my iPhone waned when Apple pushed out the 4.0 iOS update to my phone, rendering it nearly useless. It devoured the battery within minutes of standby and it would take 3-4 seconds for a character to appear on-screen after being touched. The phone was basically dead. And we were furious that Apple would screw over their own customers like that.

So we trudged down to the AT&T store and bought new phones. We were allowed to retain our unlimited data package if we signed a new contract. Still angry with Apple, I got a new Android phone and my wife got a new Windows phone. And things were OK. I mean it bugged us how much our family plan cost, but what are you going to do, right?

Well, when I finally left my crappy corporate job last year to get ready for Pretired Baby, we wanted to tighten up our finances everywhere we could, but we still had quite a bit of time left on our two-year contract. It didn’t seem we had much choice but to wait.

Our perspective changed, however, when my wife recently got a new job. A job that came with an employer-paid brand-new iPhone. I decided to take the plunge and go for the cheapest possible cell phone plan I could.

Unlike when I was working as a big-shot, always-on, digital marketing genius, I no longer needed to have absolutely reliable cell phone data. I needed a smart phone, yes. I conduct most of my consulting work via email and my clients demand near-instant responses. And, let’s be honest: Once you’ve had a taste of life with a smartphone there is no going back.

I also needed to be able to make reliable outbound cell phone calls when needed now that we have no home phone line. With a baby in the house, 911 access is critical.

What I no longer needed was “unlimited data.” Nor do I need unlimited texting or a large number of minutes.

So in summary, my requirements:

  • Some sort of data package
  • Ability to make outbound calls reliably
  • Cost as low as possible
  • And I didn’t want to buy a new device

After doing quite a bit of research on the various options out there, I decided to try something pretty radical: Combine a very cheap monthly cell plan with a “free” mobile internet device. All of this built on a foundation of Google Voice.

Here’s how it works.

Everything you need for a $10 per month smartphone plan

Everything you need for a $10 per month smartphone plan

  • I transferred my phone number to GoogleVoice and make all my calls through that now.
  • I signed up for a $10/month prepaid plan from AirVoice Wireless. This plan comes with 250 minutes for 30 days of service. You can set it up with an auto-replenish so it essentially acts as a contract plan (with no contract).
  • Combine that package with a Freedom Spot Photon 4G Mobile Hotspot (Black)*, a small WiFi box that becomes my data package. The FreedomPop deal is interesting. I paid $95.99 for the device and get 500MB per month at no additional cost. I justified this purchase because I actually have long-needed a way to have cheap, handy WiFi available when I use my laptop or iPad in client meetings.

It took a few weeks to get everything dialed in and I have it working OK now, although I’m still tweaking the set-up all the time. It’s important to note that if it’s absolutely critical that you have reliable phone service, this set-up is not for you. It’s also not for anyone who doesn’t have the time or stubbornness to make it work.

Critical apps to make a lower cell phone bill possible

I needed a few Android Apps for this to function well. Here’s what I’m using right now:

  • Google Voice App – You make the majority of your adjustments to Google Voice actually through the web-based system, but you’ll still want to get the App. I think the App is actually better for iPhone than for Android for whatever reason. With Android, you can set it up so the phone asks you if you want to make a call with Google Voice or via the cell phone. I find it a little hacky. However, I’m currently doing all texting via the Google Voice App and it works pretty well.
  • Groove IP – This app substitutes for the Google Voice App for making and receiving calls. I first tried TalkaTone based on some opinion I read online, but the voice quality was terrible (a lot of delays and cross-talk) and the interface was very poorly designed. Groove IP felt almost like any other phone and the voice quality has been outstanding. Unfortunately there are some problems (see below).
  • WiFi Priority – This app is allows you to set WiFi priority dynamically so that the phone connects to various WiFi signals in the order you determine. This is important so I don’t use up my FreedomPop data allocation while I’m at home. It also saves me from having to constantly adjust settings on the phone or remember to turn off the FreedomPop. Occasionally it doesn’t switch correctly and I have to manually connect. Not sure what’s causing that, but it definitely is not 100% reliable.
  • Group Ringtones – Not strictly necessary to this structure, but a nice enhancement, Group Ringtones lets you adjust ringtones based on who is calling — but group based, not individually based. My main use for this has been to set up a spam contact group so that I didn’t have to deal with all the spam calls that I started getting on my new AirVoice number (more below).

Now this set-up only works because of one important fact that cell phone providers don’t want you to think about: You have WiFi available almost anywhere you need your phone these days. Think about the two places most people will be using their phone: 1) Home 2) Work. In both places most will have WiFi available. That leaves a very small number of available hours where you have no WiFi. Those are the only times where it may make sense to pay for a data plan.

The Savings

Our bill to the bloodsuckers at AT&T was $130/month. Since my wife’s phone is now completely covered by work, her half was taken care of. That left my $65. Plus we had a cancellation fee to the dicks at AT&T and that was $346.

So expenses were $462 to get set up: the cost of the FreedomPop, a Google Voice activation fee, plus the AT&T cancellation fee. I also bought a few apps to make the system run smoothly, maybe $6 total. And, of course there is the $10/month AirVoice expense. So we should break even in 3-4 months, about three months ahead of our contract expiration so the total savings will be around $340 by breaking our contract early. Ongoing, we will have another $120/month in our pockets. If we took my wife’s surprise free phone service out of the mix, the savings would be just my half — just $55/month. I’d have to wait a full six months to break even, about when my contract would be up. But since we did have the free phone from her work, it made sense to try this a little earlier than I otherwise would have.

The problems

Unfortunately the story doesn’t end there. I’ve been testing this set-up for a month or so and it’s not without its pitfalls. To be fair to all of the companies involved, they weren’t designed for this. This hack is pretty extreme and is, in fact, pretty shaky. So shaky that once I reach the break-even point in a few months, I’m going to probably give it up for something a little more expensive. Issues I’ve found are:

  • The FreedomPop is the weakest link in the chain. Hey, it’s free, what do you expect? Most importantly, the coverage map is extremely limited. This was my concern before I bought it but not being able to find any info out there I decided to give it a try. What I found is whenever I leave the main urban core, the signal disappears. This is not a worry from the perspective of making an emergency call since that’s what the AirVoice is for. However, this renders the map function useless (kinda important when you’re on the road) as well as any other data. No texting anyone that you’ll be late, no checking email, no looking up an address. No checking traffic reports.
  • I’ve been experiencing a lot of crashes with the Groove IP app. They’ve been so random it’s been hard to figure out what’s causing them. Also annoying is that I sprung for the paid app, but the free version had actually been much more stable. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I’m hoping for an update soon.
  • My phone has dropped a lot of calls, apparently because of a “feature” that turns off the WiFi when the screen goes black. I was able to change that setting but unfortunately that in turn causes poor battery life.
  • It’s fairly slow reconnecting to Google Voice as I switch between networks. In fact Groove IP often won’t connect to Google Voice at all until I restart the phone. Sometimes I have to restart the FreedomPop as well (or instead of). In general maintaining a reliable connection to Google Voice just isn’t happening. I’ve never spent more time restarting and checking things. I’m constantly checking for the Groove IP icon to make sure I’m connected (in itself problematic as that indicator is not always reliable.
  • Once I got a new AirVoice number, I started getting spam calls almost immediately. I quickly learned to never answer that number unless I recognized the caller, but occasionally I forget and answer it on instinct. Apparently having a prepaid number labels you as a poor person because the calls I’ve been getting and in-app ads are for things like immigration services and debt reduction services.

So, in short, I’m going to keep testing and saving for awhile longer, but I need more reliability than I’m getting. I know I can get some minimal data for at least $35/month at AirVoice, but $10 sounds so much better! I’ll be sure to keep you updated as I continue my quest to lower my cell phone bill. Other alternatives are Republic Wireless,* which looks VERY appealing and is exactly what the industry needs, but I don’t particularly want to buy a new phone, when my current one works great. Other good options include payLo by Virgin Mobile*, Net 10 Wireless*, Straight Talk Wireless* or PagePlus. Since these are no-contract plans, I may give a few of them a go and let you know how they work out.

The really good news is that Google Voice combined with cheap monthly data options (and the spread of public WiFi) are quickly dismantling the cell phone providers’ overpriced billing structures. I fully expect the average price for a monthly cell phone bill to drop to $20-$30 in 2-3 years.

The only thing I know for sure right now is I’ll never be trapped in another two-year contract again.

UPDATE 8/23/13: Still using this configuration but things have smoothed out quite a bit. The FreedomPop is still the weak link in the set-up so reliable incoming phone access outside the main urban area is nonexistent. However, the GrooveIP software has been working a bit better lately. My main complain right now when I stay within the city core is the switching between my home WiFi and the FreedomPop. It takes awhile to find the connection and sometimes the GrooveIP seems to just give up even though the WiFi is connected. I’ve missed a few calls after returning home from an outing because the GrooveIP lost its connection when I came into the house (as the phone correctly switched the higher-priority WiFi), but it never connected again. Therefore I frequently have to connect manually just to make sure it’s ready to receive calls. Once in awhile I’ll have to do a full reboot of the phone to clear everything out to get it to connect up properly. So, overall, still pretty sketchy, but it’s easy to see that as the technology catches up, this will be the default for all phones. I’m going to give it awhile longer before I seek out a more reliable data connection, but I’ll be keeping my Google Voice foundation for the foreseeable future.  

Update 10/4/13: Good overview of using Google Voice via a computer here. If that would work for your lifestyle, that will get  you to $0 per month!

Update 1/31/14: Be sure to head over and see the update to this story: The latest on my quest to reduce my cell phone bill

*Affiliate link

Chemicals in dryer sheets? — Not for us!

Concerned about chemicals in dryer sheets, we try an alternative

It’s been a quiet few days blog-wise here at Pretired.org World Headquarters. Unfortunately that’s because I’ve been incredibly busy lately. Between my part-time consulting gig, my basement project, dealing with the sale of my fourplex and a teething baby there hasn’t been much time for reading or writing. But since it’s nice, quiet holiday week, I thought I’d drop a quick post just to keep the site alive. (Although weirdly the site traffic has kept increasing even though I haven’t written in a few days. Go figure — maybe I should write less since that apparently makes the site grow!) 

PurEcoSheet - no more chemicals in dryer sheets for us!

PurEcoSheet – no more chemicals in dryer sheets for us!

When I became a semi-pretired stay-at-home Dad one of the biggest adjustments was spending a lot more quality time in the laundry room. Despite their small size, babies generate a LOT of laundry. And the tonnage increased recently when we dropped our overpriced diaper service for diapers we wash ourselves at home. (Yes, I still owe you a post on how the wash-at-home diapers work.)

Even before the diaper piles started growing, we (mostly my wife) started looking around for ways to eliminate toxic chemicals from our home. We’d been concerned about chemicals in dryer sheets for some time, but hadn’t done much about it besides buying the “greener” version at the store. That is until Pretired Baby came along.

Now regular dryer sheets really aren’t that expensive, but anytime you’re using a product for a matter of minutes before it hits the trash, it’s super annoying. And, of course, regular dryer sheets work by depositing a waxy, positively-charged coating to your clothes. This keeps them from sticking together and can also leave a fakey “fresh” smell behind. Do we know what these chemicals are doing to our health? No, we do not. And, of course, by far the worst thing about dryer sheets is you’re always just about out of them at the worst times. You know you are too busy to get to the store when you start using dryer sheets a second time hoping maybe there’s a little bit of coating left on it.

I’d never even considered that there might be an alternative out there, but fortunately there is one.

They’re called PurEcoSheets, and they’re a reusable, chemical-free dryer sheet. No more chemicals in dryer sheets for us! Read more about the PurEcoSheet Reusable Chemical-Free Dryer Sheets on Amazon (yes, that is an affiliate link).

When you see them, the first thing you think is “no way this is going to work!” Weird thing is they DO work. So far I haven’t really noticed any difference in any type of clothing. Even towels come out basically static-free. I’m sure if you were washing a couple fleece jackets, you might need a bit more power and I could see needing an occasional dryer sheet in the heart of winter, but overall, we’re loving the product and it should pay for itself in a few months.

They basically work just like regular dryer sheets, except they’re reusable. You simply toss both of them in to the dryer with your clothes and that’s it. You can just leave them in your dryer so they’re all set for the next load, or you can wash them with your laundry and move them to the dryer at the same time.

So far we’re pretty happy with them. If I come across any disadvantages or issues, I’ll post an update here. I’ll be very interested to see how well they work when we get some dry, winter weather. But if they can’t keep up with the static at that point, we still have some old dryer sheets to use up!

Wasting your money on fireworks is for suckers

Don’t blow up your savings on the Fourth of July

Photo: noppasinw via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Photo: noppasinw via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I still remember the year it happened. Defying all past precedent, our parents took us down the most amazing place on Earth: the fireworks stand.

We had never before gotten fireworks at home for the Fourth. I know some years we’d gone into the big city to watch the big show, my mom ooohing and ahhing at the splashes of light in the sky. Then the inevitable traffic jam home while we kids gave up trying to stay awake and fell fast asleep unbuckled in the back seat.

At 9 or 10 years old the fireworks stand was already legendary to me. Something we’d never experienced firsthand but had learned about through our more worldly friends. They described the sounds, power, height and close calls with voices trembling with excitement. Growing up on a farm in what was basically the wilderness at the time, we hadn’t even seen our neighbors blowing up fireworks before. When my friends talked about buying handfuls of bottle rockets, my mind reeled imagining what a bottle rocket must be like. Does it really make a bottle into a rocket? Wow!

So my brother and I were more than thrilled to be able to pick out fireworks from the stand. We pointed at the brightly colored boxes and occasionally we were steered by our parents away from items that were too expensive or dangerous. Oh man, this would be the best Fourth of July ever!

We were allowed to play on our own outside with the little ones. We put them under buckets, taped them to our army men and lit them and through them to watch them explode in the air. A few went off in our hands, but they were little enough to just hurt — no damage. But it was enough to make it thrilling. For awhile.

The other fireworks had to wait until it got dark for the full effect. An adult had to light most of those for us, carefully lighting the device and rushing away quickly. Then a whoosh of sound, a slight bit of apprehension as we waited to see if it would turn suddenly dangerous, then some light and noise and then just some burned-up paper remained.

My brother and I hoarded some of our little firecrackers for use later in the year, planning some epic explosion. But somehow the reality of the big boom never measured up to the dream.

And so it went over the years. One year we even got to go Blackjack, the biggest fireworks store I’d ever seen. (Which I now consider to be ground zero for idiots. Alert: The design of that web site is even more offensive than the fireworks themselves.) Occasionally we’d hear stories of someone scoring some of the mysterious “M-80s” and I had great fun at a friend’s house one year playing war by shooting bottle rockets across the ground at each other.

Then there was the time in high school when one of my idiot friends shot off a bottle rocket inside the car while we were driving. Or the time just a few years ago when some drunk morons shot a very large bottle rocket (accidentally) across the street, nearly hitting my 2 year old nephew in the face.

One of the most shocking fireworks scenes I’ve witnessed was when I was living in Chicago. I was over at some friends’ house for the Fourth and some of the local residents (clearly not wealthy people, by the way) closed off the street and began blowing up fireworks in the middle of the street. I wish I could begin to describe to you the amount of fireworks these people had. It must have been thousands of dollars worth. The garbage when they were finally done was as big as a large car. Just the garbage!

The problem got a lot weirder when governments cracked down on the danger and nuisance of these firecrackers. That’s when the concept of “illegal” firework came into existence. Suddenly you weren’t cool unless you were sneaking onto the Indian reservation to buy the “good stuff”. Like an arms race for ass-clowns, neighbors would try to outdo each other with bigger and more annoying fireworks.

That’s how things are now. Our neighborhood sounds like a war zone on the Fourth of July, scaring animals, causing fires and littering my yard with bottle rocket sticks, plastic pieces and paper. Perhaps the only thing more annoying than all of that are the bottle rocket scientists who can’t figure out what day it is, blowing crap up for days before and after.

All of this is a long story to explain why I can’t help but grind my teeth when I hear one of these “middle class is struggling” stories. I’m not saying the middle class hasn’t been hammered on several fronts and I more than recognize many people are having a tough time of it these days. But we do need to be honest and admit that a fair amount of this is self-inflicted. And buying fireworks is probably the dumbest way to turn cash into garbage.

Occasionally some bozo will try to pretend that the more crap he buys to blow up at home means he loves America more than everyone else. These fools stamp their feet and whine at every local government attempt to protect fingers, sanity and property claiming it’s their American right and freedom! Please. They’re just consumerist suckers being manipulated into wasting money. If they want to celebrate America, maybe they could spend the evening reading the Constitution or something. The Fourth Amendment is particularly relevant right now if time is short…

Whether you’re trying to get out of debt, trying to reach your pretirement goals or simply don’t want to be an annoying douchebag, skip the fireworks stand this year. Wasting your money on fireworks — such a fleeting moment of excitement — is just not worth it. Enjoy your community’s local fireworks show if you have one, or enjoy the show put on by your idiot neighbors if you like watching money go up in flames. But please, please, don’t burn up your savings on fireworks.

What do you think? Anyone else annoyed and dismayed by DIY fireworks? 

Buying 25 percent of a cow: 100% worth it

When buying the best pays off — buying a quarter cow

quarter cow

What a quarter cow looks like

It was almost a decade ago now that my girlfriend (now wife) and I made the fateful decision to pick up some delicious Jones Barbecue and bring it back home to eat. It’d been a tough week and a Friday night at home watching TV while eating an amazing beef brisket dinner with sides was just what the doctor ordered.

We came home and started mowing our beef like we’d done so many times before, commenting on the spiciness, soaking up the sauce with cheap bread. About two-thirds of the way through the meal, however, she suddenly stood and quickly walked to the bathroom. I set my plastic fork down as the sounds of someone violently puking her guts out immediately ruined my appetite.

Shaken, but clearly feeling better, she emerged from the bathroom with her stomach as empty as it had been 20 minutes earlier.

We didn’t really know what to make of it and just assumed that the spices were too much for her delicate tummy. That theory went out the window some months later when we were cooking steaks at home. Same thing: immediate, violent vomiting. OK, clearly it had something to do with the meat. Could she simply be allergic to cow meat? That didn’t really seem to be the case because we had certainly eaten beef many other times without a problem. And it also didn’t appear to be food poisoning because I never got sick even though I ate the exact same food. Plus, the reaction was so immediate and so violent that it seemed more like an allergy than a bacteria problem.

After doing a bit more research, we realized that it may not be the beef itself, but rather something in some of the beef we ate that was causing the problem. Something she reacted to, but I didn’t. I finally found an article (now long lost) pointing out that most supposed beef allergies are actually allergies to the antibiotics given to cows on overcrowded cattle lots.

This was worth testing. After doing a bit more reading, we found out that corn makes cattle sick so the beef factories (they’re not “farms”, don’t kid yourself) give them massive doses of antibiotics. They, in fact, give them the antibiotics even when they’re not sick as a preventative. Why are cows being fed food they weren’t evolved to digest? Because it’s cheap. Why is it cheap? Frankly because the government subsidizes the landowners to grow lots of corn thus feeding it to cows is a good way to get rid of it.

If you want a wonderful overview of the modern food system with ways to positively rethink our approach to food, be sure to read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. (Did you catch that? My first affiliate link!)

So we sought out grass-fed beef. In fact, you have to look for grass fed AND grass-finished as some “grass-fed beef” is actually corn-finished as a way to add more fat marbling to the final cut. We carefully selected some overpriced steaks that were reliably sourced and well-labeled. Guess what? No problems at all.

The test was repeated many, many times after that point. And so we continued like this for many years, until I finally read the Ominvore’s Dilemma while in vacation in Kauai a couple years ago. This is where I learned of the concept of “pasture-raised” beef. Without giving away the whole book, the idea is that every creature and plant on the farm has its role to fill, which it was given by eons of evolution. So the basic approach when it comes to cows is that the cows eat the grass, the cows fertilize the grass, the chickens eat the bugs out of the pasture so the cows aren’t covered in insects and the whole system is moved around frequently so no part of the system is overtaxed. In fact, interestingly, even the grass did much better as it had evolved to be trampled (creating water pockets) and fertilized regularly. Simply put, the system is in balance. No antibiotics are needed because there isn’t a stress on the system causing illness.

Fate intervened again when our fridge started to die. We weren’t sure if it was going to be savable, but most of the food we were worried about was our frozen stuff. Plus we had an old bar fridge in our basement that wasn’t being used. We decided to spring for a deep freezer and then use the bar fridge as back-up if our refrigerator truly did bite the dust. (We’d been thinking about getting one anyway as a way to be a bit more self-sufficient and to buy in a bit larger quantities.)

So we were all set when we decided to take the plunge and buy our first quarter-cow. It worked out great when my wife was pregnant as she was told to up her iron intake. So about a year ago my wife, then six months pregnant, and I drove up to Snohomish to pick up our meat.

It’s taken us about a year to eat that meat, with the lesser steaks and some of the roasts taking awhile to get through. (It was just a couple weeks ago that we gnawed our way through some nasty chuck steak.) We still have a few pieces left from last year, ribs (I’ve never cooked them, so that’s something I’ll have to figure out) and a couple roasts left. We also gave away all our offal last year (we just didn’t take it this year) and we gave away a few other choices as gifts.

Is buying a quarter cow a good deal money-wise?

Well, we paid $764 for about 120 pounds of beef. That was $511 for the cow and the rest for the butcher’s time. That puts us somewhere around $6/pound. However, we didn’t actually weigh our product, plus we didn’t take the offal, which is included in the price. On the other hand, this is organic and we know where it all came from and, of course, it also includes plenty of premium cuts like T-bones and rib steaks. I’ve heard a clean rib eye can go for as much as $20/pound. There’s also the difference between “pre-hang” weight and the actual weight of what you buy, so it’s a true apples and oranges problem. To really tell you what our value was compared to supermarket meat, I’d have to weigh each cut and compare each one to retail prices and total it up. I’m way too lazy to do that! Instead, I’ll roughly estimate that we eat beef 1.5 times a week on average and that this amount lasted over a year. That is around $63/month, or $15/week. At one and a half meals per week, that’d be around $10/meal (for two people). That doesn’t include power for our freezer and gas to go up and get the meat, but you get the idea.

Bottom line to us is we don’t feel we’re being gouged, we’re getting quality, clean meat and we have it on-hand when we need it — plus, no puking! To us, that’s a great deal!

What do you think? Is clean meat worth it? Has anyone else tried buying a quarter or half cow? 

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