Money

Cost Cutting Round 1: Battling 3 Behemoths

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After a decade of retirement when we watched our net worth grow steadily, we began to indulge in the luxury of ignoring our monthly expenses.

But the double-digit market decline last year coupled with high inflation was a wake-up call to review our budget and make sure we aren’t throwing money out the window. So I fired up Quicken, ran expense reports for the last few years, and flagged some categories of concern.

Ironically, they’re almost the same as my blogging partner’s. In his recent post on spending, Chris reported on the reality of inflation in his family’s budget and the common frustration with steady increases in bundled bills for insurance and cable/Internet. It’s not much money as a percent of his budget, and the inconvenience of changing providers is substantial. But it feels like he’s being taken advantage of, and that’s motivation enough to explore alternatives.

I’m in the same boat. So this month I’m going to recount my attempts to cut costs or increase returns in three areas of almost universal interest: online savings, mobile phone, and cable service.

I put several hours into each in an attempt to save money, with mixed success. I’ll report on my findings below. Next month, I’ll explore another half-dozen categories from our budget.

Online Savings

I keep three to six months of living expenses in a readily-accessible savings account. Back when interest rates where in the gutter, I didn’t worry much about what we were getting paid. But that attitude needs to change with rates rising now into the mid-single digits. That’s potentially a couple thousand dollars annually in lost interest income.

Comparison Shopping

For decades I’ve done all my banking at USAA. But I knew there were online banks with better rates. Now it was time to investigate them. I started at Bankrate.com to get a simple sorted list of savings rates. (Be sure to scroll past the featured offers.)

The highest rates were typically at smaller, unfamiliar banks. Yes, they were FDIC-insured, but did I trust them to manage my account efficiently and be responsive with customer service? Would my money be available when I needed it? A computer snafu at the wrong time can feel just as threatening as a financial loss.

I found DepositAccounts.com quite helpful for comparing financial health and customer service at various banks. Unfortunately, horror stories abound in the reviews. Just remember that people seem more motivated to post negative reviews than positive. Many complaints center on funds availability. All banks have a certain “float” time before transferred funds become available and these times are usually well explained.

Switching Banks

I thought I’d found a winner in CIT Bank, which got decent reviews and offered an interest rate over 4%. I went to their website, spent several minutes filling out the online application form, and pressed Enter. Poof! All my data disappeared and I was immediately returned to their home screen with no error message. Sorry, disqualified. I’m not going to trust my money to a bank that can’t offer a bombproof application process.

So I stepped up to a more recognizable name, with decent reviews, and a passably generous interest rate of 3.3%, Discover Bank. Their application process was seamless and in about ten minutes I had a new, empty savings account. I proceeded to schedule a transfer from USAA and that process was equally seamless.

In the weeks since, I’ve been happy with Discover Bank. I messaged their customer service with a question about how they implement two-factor authentication and got a prompt, informative reply.

A week later, because of multiple test transfers I was performing, a fraud alert was raised and Discover temporarily froze my account. Their fraud team answered my call promptly, did a verification with USAA, then unfroze my account. This took about twenty minutes. I was told this is not uncommon with new accounts. Unless it gets to be a major inconvenience, I’d prefer my bank err on the side of caution when it comes to fraud.

Finally, Discover recently raised our rate to 3.4%, then again to 3.5%. Not big bucks, but it shows they aren’t going to play the game of forcing us to open a new account to take advantage of higher rates. Or at least not right away.

Mobile

Averaging more than $150/month, our cell phone bill for two is another non-trivial ongoing expense. But it’s a critical one. I’m leery about giving up the Verizon network, which has served me well in my many far flung travels. But thanks to a recent post on Bearfoot Theory, I’m now aware of a lower cost option that still uses Verizon.

Same Network, Lower Cost

It’s called Visible.com and it’s a separate company, owned by Verizon, that uses Verizon’s hardware but with a different cost and service structure. This appears to be Verizon’s answer to competing with lower cost providers, without muddying their premium brand.

Bottom line, Visible gives you unlimited talk, text, and data and a much lower cost per month in exchange for limiting the speed of your connection and international talk/text in some circumstances. Also, all Visible customer service is via chat, though I usually prefer that to waiting on hold anyway. Visible offers two plans, one for $30/month, one with fewer limits for $45/month. I’ll let you read their website for the details. (Breaking news: Visible has just reduced their plans to $25/month and $35/month through March 31st.)

The key question is how much or how often does that speed limit present a problem? The report from Bearfoot Theory is encouraging, especially if you’re a traveler who uses lots of data.

But Not The Same Service

I started down the road of activating Visible for this post, but ran into some hurdles with transferring my current number.

First, the site seemed to have difficulty recognizing my Verizon account number. Then it requested a “PIN.” Only after some aborted attempts and reading the fine print did I realize this was a special “Number Transfer PIN” that must be generated by the original provider — Verizon for me in this case.

Next I saw that mobile number transfers can take 4-24 business hours to complete and I got cold feet. Caroline is away as I write this so if my phone goes offline I’ll be cut off from the world. I decided to wait and retry this process when she’s home and I have access to her phone as backup.

I’m still planning to try Visible, but as is so often the case, the transition is not quite as simple as the sales pitch promises.

Cable/Internet

I’ve watched with distaste as our Xfinity bill creeps up by $10-20 most years. But until recently I hadn’t taken the time to do anything about it. I still don’t have a solution, but I’ll report on the state of my efforts.

In our area, Xfinity is the fastest available Internet. They’re the only game in town if you demand speed.

Internet Alternatives

Dish is available, at typically slower speeds. And their customer service is unimpressive. I called for a quote and they informed me that Dish was not available in our area, despite the Dish antenna sitting on our roof from the previous owner!

Verizon Home Internet, a 5G wireless service, is not yet available in our medium-sized city.

If you’ve already got an Internet connection, there is much buzz on the web about “skinny streaming bundles.” These give you cable-like service with local channels and live shows over an Internet connection. But the prices don’t seem that skinny to me: Hulu + Live TV currently goes for $69.99/month, and YouTube TV goes for $64.99/month.

Untangling Our Bundle

The problem is getting that underlying Internet connection. As I wrote, Xfinity is the fastest option in our town. It would be nice if I could get cheap Internet from them, then add one of those skinny bundles on top to save money. The crux is trying to pry cheap Internet out of Xfinity.

We currently have their “Starter” package with 500 Mbps Internet plus 125 almost-unused TV channels. How much of our $156 monthly bill goes to Internet and how much to TV? Good luck finding that out. Xfinity does its very best to hide the answer on their web site and in our statement. And don’t bother asking their cantankerous digital Assistant.

Calling works, if you’re able to navigate their phone tree. But don’t bother searching for the phone number on their website. Fortunately Google can find it, and I’ll post it here: 1-800-934-6489.

When you call, avoid getting shunted off to the automated Assistant. Instead say “speak with an agent.” Answer the following prompts with “remove a package,” “downgrade,” and “cable TV.” At last you may be speaking with a human being who can change your service.

I was quoted $78/month after taxes and fees for 400 Mbps Internet or $88/month for 800 Mbps Internet. I was also advised, helpfully, that promotions for contracts with 800 Mbps Internet will be offered on Xfinity’s web site in early March for $70/month.

Worth the Effort?

But, even if I got the best of those deals, and assuming there are no other hidden fees, by the time I add back in a skinny bundle, I only save about $20/month. So far I haven’t been willing to go through all the hassle for that kind of savings.

If you do decide to cancel your cable TV, this article at Reviews.org is worth consulting to get all the details right, including returning your Xfinity equipment. Bring a lot of patience and document every step you take.

I’ve read that you can call Xfinity, ask for their “Retention” team, threaten to cancel your service, and attempt to negotiate a lower price. That’s not my style, but I encourage anybody who would enjoy the exercise to try taking Xfinity down a notch.

I’ve also been attracted to a service called Trim that offers to do the negotiation for you, along with some other benefits. It seems to get decent reviews and purportedly can save you as much as 30% on some bills, of which Trim takes a 15% cut.

So far I’ve yet to take the plunge. One of Trim’s main services is scanning your accounts for and helping you cancel unwanted subscriptions. I can handle that task on my own. I don’t have a problem with forgotten subscriptions. I’m painfully aware of them all each month. Also, Trim interacts with you exclusively through texting, which sounds distracting to me. I’m not looking for another texting buddy right now.

Share Your Savings Wins

OK, that’s the report from my front lines with cable, mobile, and online banks. If you have recent, relevant experience with these three behemoths, please leave a comment below!

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[The founder of CanIRetireYet.com, Darrow Kirkpatrick relied on a modest lifestyle, high savings rate, and simple passive index investing to retire at age 50 from a career as a civil and software engineer. He has been quoted or published in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, Kiplinger, The Huffington Post, Consumer Reports, and Money Magazine among others. His books include Retiring Sooner: How to Accelerate Your Financial Independence and Can I Retire Yet? How to Make the Biggest Financial Decision of the Rest of Your Life.]

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