One of the few positives to come out of 2020 was that people found they had spare time on their hands, maybe for the first time in years. Baking homemade bread and cooking exploded in popularity. Home workouts and video yoga took off. Judging by social media, people were able to spend tons of time outdoors with their partners and kids, and even try new hobbies.

I was unemployed this year on sabbatical, so instead of traveling as I’d planned, I had even more free time at home than most! One of my goals was to scrutinize and cut back on my spending without feeling like I was losing anything, and I’ve been happy with my progress. I wanted to share some tips here in hopes that they’re helpful to you.

Video: Go digital and rotate streaming services

You can save a lot of money if you assess your viewing habits and cut back on the amount of monthly charges you’re paying for television and streaming. 

TV

My parents had been paying a lot of money for their cable bill for years. I’d previously suggested services like Sling or Hulu, but never had the time to set one up and let them try it. Plus, it always seemed like too many channels were missing.

When I sat down and took the time to review everything they watched, including local channels, YouTube TV emerged as the best fit for them. I wrote at length about it in two other articles, the first here and the follow-up here. In short, they’re saving over $1000 a year and actually have a better experience (personal DVRs for everyone, watching on iPad, etc.) than they did before. YouTube TV did bump the subscription price this year, which was disappointing, but I’m 100% sure that Time Warner would have increased their cable bill by now as well.

Movies

I dropped my Netflix subscription more than a year ago. Whaaaaat? Yep. And guess what? I haven’t missed it. 

I wrote about changing your perspective back in February. Especially now that so many services have exclusive content, my big suggestion is to rotate your streaming subscriptions. Remember, it’s not cable – you don’t have contracts!! You can turn them on and off at will. Binge Game of Thrones on HBO Max for a month, then watch the entire Disney+ catalog for a couple of months, then hop again.

If you pay for every service all the time, you’re missing out on major savings, and probably have way too much stuff to sift through anyway.

Currently I subscribe to Disney+ ($7/month) and also have Amazon Prime Video along with my membership. Now that I’ve watched most of the Disney catalog, I’m expecting to drop them in a couple of months and switch to a different service for a while. I’ll return to Disney once all of the new Marvel shows are ready to binge. At some point I’m sure I’ll hop back to Netflix to binge their originals. As a consumer, I find this level of choice pretty empowering, and something not possible (practically) with cable or satellite tv.

Cellphone: Using a cheaper MVNO

When I quit my job, I wanted to keep my phone number, so I did a transfer to a standard AT&T plan with 3 GB of LTE data for $66.20/month after taxes. That always seemed a little pricey, but I ignored it because it was a pain to think about and I had better things to do.

Cue 2020 when I literally have nothing better to do! I started looking into cheap cellphone plans, most of them offered by mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs. These are companies like Mint Mobile that advertise $15/month plans and are really resellers, buying access to the same old physical networks of the big providers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile) and selling it to their own customers. So what’s the catch? Well, there are possibly a few – you have to look at the fine print on data usage, you run the risk of being deprioritized during high traffic times (i.e. a “real” Verizon customer may get better data speeds than you when things are busy), and iPhone Visual Voicemail might not work correctly on certain networks. But if you do your homework, it’s unlikely you’ll notice that anything is different, besides having more cash in your pocket every month.

I looked at my options back in April and decided to go with Red Pocket on AT&T. I liked Mint Mobile’s plans, but their only network is T-Mobile, and it sucks in rural areas around here. Red Pocket lets you choose between AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile on their plans, so you get the network that you want.

How much am I paying now? Twenty bucks. $19/month plus taxes and fees is $20.90, and for that I’m getting the same service with the same 3GB of LTE. No issues with Visual Voicemail, WiFi calling and iMessage work fine, it’s been transparent. I’m billed monthly automatically. And if you look for deals on eBay, you can find a full year of prepaid service at substantial discounts, making it even cheaper.

Consumer Goods: Repair, don’t Replace

I broke my iPhone XR camera lens in August. Apple says this kind of damage is irreparable, requires you to swap in your old phone for a replacement, and charges $400. I ordered a kit from Amazon and swapped it myself for $10 and fifteen minutes of my time. It’s indistinguishable from the original.

Near the end of 2019, we picked up an LG front load washer and dryer pair (with pedestals) for $60. The washer was “broken”, and the dryer was fine, the owner insisted we take them as a pair. With a little web searching for the washer ‘dE’ error code and watching a YouTube video on replacement, we had it fixed for $30 and about 30 minutes of time. It’s much nicer than our old washer, so we were pretty stoked. Still are! 

My mom’s oven stopped heating up right after Thanksgiving. We started looking at replacements, then realized they were around $700 and had lead times up to four (!!) months because they were sold out from both pandemic and holiday buying. The burners and broiler are still fine, and a quick search showed the bake element is prone to burnout, a $20 replacement. That didn’t work in our case, but it was worth a shot and only took five minutes to swap out and check. We returned the element, so lost nothing out of pocket. I ended up replacing the bake element relay on the control board (a longer, more technical repair process) for $17 and it works great again.

In this era of cheap, widely available parts on Amazon and eBay, and tons of knowledge on YouTube and blogs, there’s virtually no reason not to at least try to repair most items. You can save a lot of money and it doesn’t necessarily require hours of labor. And less waste, especially of perfectly fine items, is good for the earth. 

Loans, music, more

With interest rates so low, definitely consider refinancing loans that you may have. There are some up-front costs and of course interest gets front loaded when you refi, so take all that into consideration. For mortgages, I recommend using a calculator like the one at Nerdwallet. I ended up refinancing in November with Better.com and lowered my mortgage payment by $300 a month. I paid about $3,000 in closing costs, but actually nothing out of pocket since I rolled those costs into the loan. With what I’m saving, I’ll make that money back in just ten months.

I hate monthly fees, but I love music. Assess your listening habits and see if there are changes you can make, or memberships you can split with family and friends to reduce costs. I personally find that the base Amazon Prime music library (not Amazon Music, that’s an extra $8/month), has a lot of what I like with no extra cost out of pocket. Their library has over a million songs. In addition to that, I pay for iTunes Match to store all of my personal music in the cloud and let me playback anywhere from my phone, that costs $25/year (which equates to $2.08/month). 

I also canceled one of my credit cards that had a monthly fee, and consolidated my spending on just one premium card with travel perks, and a couple of others with no annual fees. 

A penny saved is a penny earned… wait, why do we still have pennies?

The changes I made this year saved me a lot of money, but didn’t cost me anything except a little time. I still have the same cellphone working on the same network. I have plenty of movies to watch, and lots of music to listen to. My rental property didn’t change, except now I have more money that goes to me instead of my bank. Nothing that I did felt like I sacrificed anything, just the process of actually doing the change.

What changes have you been thinking of making, but putting off? A few minutes of your time to just do it can really pay off!

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