Saving Money

Editor’s Note: I initially prepared this post before we moved from the NW, so some of the tricks I had used there are no longer applicable.  No longer can I utilize aternative commuting methods, because driving to various sites throughout the day is a part of my job.  Despite this, I still believe there are good tips within this post, and therefore decided to post it anyway.  Also, since writing, I stumbled upon a similar post by Frugal Dad in which he compiles 122 reader-suggested money saving tips.  You can check it out here.
Every time I see an article promising me easy ways to cut costs, and save money, I feel a rush of excitement followed immediately with disappointment.  Most of these articles are full of ideas that I am already doing – bringing my own coffee to work, brown-bagging my lunches, taking the bus, planning a menu, etc.  All great advice!  But not so helpful for those of us already doing it.
I save $1000 every month, sometimes more if I’m lucky enough to get a bonus or a third paycheck that month (I’m paid every two weeks, instead of twice a month).  I am not including my retirement savings in this number.  This accounts for roughly 1/3 of my take-home pay.  But sometimes, I feel like I could and should be saving more.  And so I search for ways spend less, and save more. 
I have compiled two lists below.  The first is a list of unconventional wisdom for saving money.  These are ideas that had never crossed my mind until I was lucky enough to find them.  The second is a collection of my favorite, tried and true tips for saving money.  All tips on this list are things that have, without a doubt, had a substantial impact on my spending habits.
Creative ways to $ave
1.  Remove unused cargo racks – How did this never occur to me?  I have a set of racks atop my car that we use occasionally for bike transport.  But the only purpose they serve when not in use is looking cool.  And how cool can I possibly look driving around, wasting gas?
2.  Keep your eyes open for new restaurants.  They typically offer grand opening specials. – I haven’t tried this yet.  And, I suppose, I could be risking a poor dining experience – we don’t eat out often, and when we do, we like to go places we know and love.  But it might we worth a shot.
3.  Collect vegetable scraps in a bag in the freezer. As soon as it’s full, make a soup out of them. R insists that the best soup bases are homemade.  I wouldn’t know, because I never have enough ingredients at the same time to make my own.  But this is a fantastic idea.
4.  Pay for your laundry and car usage. – Act as if you’ve returned to the laundromat, and pay yourself for each load of laundry.  The idea is that your usage will be reduced, and you’ll have some extra moolah to save.
5.  Switch to cloth napkins. – I think this is debatable.  Sure, you save money when buying napkins or paper towels – which are pretty inexpensive to begin with – but you spend more washing the cloth napkins.
6.  Use you local park’s playground as a workout station.  Monkey bars can be used for pull-ups and leg lifts. The park will also have a trail where you can run. – Makes it kind of hard to justify that gym membership during the summer.  Winter may be a different story.
7.  Plant a tree next to your outside air conditioning unit. By shading your outside unit you may improve the operating efficiency of the overall system by 20%. – I don’t own a home, and don’t use an air conditioner.  And I would also point out that one would either have to wait a long time for a new tree to provide enough shade to make a difference, or they would have to purchase a mature tree – the cost of which may outweigh the savings.  But either way – talk about thinking outside the box!
8.  Stay at a college dorm room when traveling. Many universities rent out dorm rooms at a decent price during the summer. – Speaking of “thinking outside the box.”  I attended a basketball camp in my youth, and we had the great fortune of staying in the dorms.  It was a great experience at the time, but I don’t know how much I would enjoy it in my adult life.  
My Favorite ways to $ave
1.  Keep the Change – This works for the debit card/checking system, and the cash system.  Every time I spend money, I round the amount up to the next full dollar amount when recording the transaction in my budget or check register.  If we spend $50.87 at the grocery store, that $0.13 gets thrown into our change jar.  It can really add up to some substantial savings – R and I have saved up $600 in less than a year with this method! 
2.  Bring lunch from home – R still eats out quite a bit during the workweek.  These meals come out of his personal money, so it’s none of my business.  But I do know that the teriyaki place he visits, which represents the cheapest place he dines, costs him almost $7 per meal, after tip.  Just three days of eating there per week costs him $84 a month.  That’s over $1K a year.  Meanwhile, my “work lunches” budget gets $20/month, only costing me $240 a year. 
3.  Brew coffee at home – I’ve mentioned this before, but this is a great way for me to save money.  However, I do have a boss who walks to get a cup of coffee down the street every day.  At first, I thought about how much money he must be throwing away on his daily caffeine fix.  It took many months for it to dawn on me that he needed a guaranteed escape for just a few minutes each day.  For some, maintaining sanity in a stressful atmosphere may prove well worth the cost of the coffee.
4.  No cable/No TV – When I was growing up, my parents refused to purchase cable tv.  Once I moved out, I continued the resistance to paid television.  And then, about a year ago, R and I gave up our television entirely.  We occasionally watch full tv show episodes online (ABC, NBC, FOX, Hulu, and many others are great places to find your favorites!), but we mainly use our time doing other things.  Not only are we saving money by keeping the cable bill away, but it also helps our relationship – instead of vegging out in front of the tv every night, we have the opportunity to talk to each other, or get out and do something else.  Seriously – getting rid of our tv may have been the best thing we’ve done.
5.  Alternative commuting – My alternative commuting has come up before, but it bears repeating: I have saved hundreds of dollars in gas money by driving to work less.  There’s a great site, Drive Less, Save More, that lets you open a free trip diary and track all of your alternative commutes.  It also lets you see your results, ie. how much money you’ve saved.  In June and July, by alterna-commuting 3 days a week, I saved approximately $240 in gas.  That comes out to about $1440/year.  Pretty substantial.
6.  Mini-trip biking.  R and I live about a mile from the nearest library, and 2 miles from the nearest grocery store.  We tend to make these trips fairly frequently (though, the grocery store trips have been reduced since we started menu planning).  In the past, we would always hop in the car and drive on over.  Now we’ve been hopping on our bikes instead. I don’t have a way to quantify the money we’ve saved, but I feel confident that it has made a difference in our overall fuel consumption.
7.  Library.  I.  Love.  The library.  No joke.  Movies, books, magazines – all can be directed to the local branch, all online.  It’s amazing.  I have saved so much money by not buying the books I want to read, or the patterns I want to knit, or the movies I want to see.  It is awesome.
8.  Menu Planning.  I have gone back and forth over the years with my dedication to menu planning, but it’s due to laziness, and not a lack of effectiveness.  When I plan a weekly menu, I visit the store only once per week.  I don’t have to worry about what’s for dinner that night, or wait for chicken to thaw, because I can take it out the night beforehand.  We eat out less, because we have everything we need to make dinner at home.
9.  Snacks in my desk drawer.  I keep a collection of healthy snacks in the drawer of my desk – keeps me away from the vending machine when I get that mid-afternoon stomach growl.
10.  Rechargeable batteries.  The recharging center was an investment that I was reluctant to make, but it’s turned out to be a great one.  I purchased 4 AA rechargeable batteries.  My digital camera needs two, so I keep two in the camera, and two charged up in the case.  This way, I’m never making last minute stops at the 7-11 to buy new ones after the old batteries run out!  And believe me, this has happened far more than I’m comfortable admitting. 
11.  Digital camera.  When R and I first got together, he tried encouraging me to get a digital camera, but I didn’t want to – I liked having the physical photos in my hand.  But I always bought those cheap throwaway cameras, because I was so terrified of losing a nice one.  I finally received a digital for Christmas, and I’m totally converted.  Less printing costs, less camera costs, and better quality photos – score!  Not to mention the plethra of online companies offering free prints to new customers.  Find out How To Get 1,761 Free Digital Prints!
12.  Empty water bottle.  Bringing an empty water bottle to the airport to fill up on the other side of security has saved me, on several occasions, from purchasing an overpriced beverage once inside. 
And there it is: the best savings advice I have to offer. 

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Not all that long ago, I remember reading about how the paradigm had shifted between the weight tendencies of the rich and of the poor.  While I seem to be unable to relocate said article, the gist of it was this: in the 18th century, a heavier man or woman was considered more attractive.  Their plumpness was indicative of their societal stature, and only the wealthy had some extra meat on their bones.  Meanwhile, the poor and poverty-stricken members of society tended to be quite thin, even malnourished, because of their inability to afford enough food to be gluttonous.  These days, it is more often the well-off members of society leaning on the lean side, while the less fortunate often seem to be a part of the ever-increasing rate of obesity.

The article was an interesting read, and pinpointed several possible reasons for this.  One of them suggested that healthy, fresh food is more expensive and less accessible to those with limited resources.  And with this, I completely agree. 

Each week, R and I review the sale ads for our 3 major grocery stores.  We typically choose the two with the best deals, then plan our menu around them.  One of these stores always makes the list, due mostly to their unbeatable deals on produce.  The problem is, this store is very inconvenient to reach from our home.  The other problem with this store is that the prices on everything else is more than the average supermarket.  We end up driving over 10 miles through a heavily congested traffic artery for well-priced produce.  The reason we do this? 

Fresh, quality produce is expensive.  Too expensive for us to eat as much as we would like, were we to purchase it at the nearby supermarket.

Coming from the almost impossibly eco-friendly NW, we had been hearing murmurs about investing in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).  The idea is that many members of a community will purchase a “share” in a local farm, many months before they see anything from the harvest.  Once the harvest cycle begins, shareholders will receive a box of fresh produce, usually weekly, throughout the growing season.  The farm is provided with a secure market before ever planting the first seed.

We were intrigued.  We even did a little bit of searching, only to find that every single nearby farm had sold out their shares many months before.  When we moved here, R resumed his search and, when he found a farm he liked,  insisted we jump on the bandwagon earlier. 

I was reluctant, at first.  It’s a sizeable investment in an uncertain product.  As “shareholders,” we assume a risk, right along with the farm, and there is a possibility that the harvest will fail to be plentiful.  But once he broke down all the benefits for me, it was hard to say no.

  • The cost of our share is $520 for the two of us.  Whoa!  I know.  But the harvest cycle is 26 weeks, and it ends up costing us only $20/week.  We currently spend quite a bit more at the distant grocery store each week.
  • Did I mention the farm is 100% organic?  The over-$20/week we spend at the store most certainly does not include organic produce.  I guess our cheapness outweighs our desire for toxin-free food.
  • We are supporting a community business, and ultimately helping our own local economy.
  • No longer will we feel compelled to embark on a ten-plus mile journey for fresh, affordable produce, saving us time and gas.
  • Our weekly box of produce is harvested no more that 36 hours before it is ready for pickup.  Imagine how fresh produce tastes when it hasn’t had to endure days worth of extreme refrigeration while in transit to its destination.
  • The CSA sends out a weekly email that includes various recipes, uses, and preservation tips and techniques for the items included in that week’s box.  This came as a huge relief to me, as I had never even heard of some of the crops they are growing!
  • And since I had never heard of some of the crops, I was concerned whether or not I would like it.  Lucky me, the CSA provides a “trade box” at each pickup location (5 of which are in my neigborhood alone!), where members can leave items they don’t like, and take items they do.
  • My final nagging concern was that I could not choose my own produce.  If I wanted corn this week, and my CSA box included only eggplant, my choices would be to a) go to the grocery store and buy some corn, letting the eggplant wither away in my produce drawer, or b) get a little bit more creative with my cooking.  The latter sounds more fun.

We haven’t yet received our first weekly box.  But we have received many messages from the farm, updating us on the status of their crops.  And so far, they all sound like veggies that I can sink my teeth into.  Literally.

A while back, I mentioned my recent commute changes.  Most of my trips are made on the bus, but I occasionally manage to self-propel myself to work on a bicycle as well. 
R started to get into roadbiking a few years back.  When he was initially researching the purchase of his bike, I balked at the grotesque amount of money that people spend on roadbikes.  I mean, they’re bicycles!  Can’t you buy a bicycle at Target for under $100?  He tried to explain to me that weight is of the essence.  Carbon seatposts are all the rage.  Carbon what?  But, okay, honey, you go ahead and follow your passion, I told him, all the while feeling pretty lucky that we weren’t sharing our money.  When he rolled up on his new (read: used) LeMond, and told me he had paid $750 for it, I tried my hardest to keep the shock from visibly registering on my face. 
And I almost managed to maintain that straight face when he pulled on his padded shorts.  Almost.
If you are not already familiar with padded cycling shorts, allow me to provide you with a mental illustration.  Imagine a grown man.  Now imagine him wearing a diaper.  Finally, picture skin-tight black spandex pulled over the diaper.  Laughing?  I was.
He tried to explain the “necessity” of such garments by telling me the bike seat is too hard to sit on for long periods of time, and the padding makes the ride bearable.  Why doesn’t he just get a more comfortable seat, I wondered?  Apparently, cushier seats are heavier – but the extra weight on your ass doesn’t matter…
Anyway, he rode around merrily for many months before he finally convinced me that I, too, needed a bike.  “It’s a great work out!” he enthused, “and so refreshing to get a little exercise before work in the morning.  You’re probably spending more on your car every month than you would need to spend on a bike.   After all, gas is nearing $3 a gallon – you’ll save a lot of money,” he said.  You may be thinking, wow, under $3 a gallon!  So cheap – that must have been a long time ago.  But not really.  Just 16 short months ago.  Either way, at the time, we were all biting our nails down to the nubs in anticipation of $3/gallon gas. 
I agreed to spend $400 on a bike.  This still seemed like an enormous amount of money, but I was paying more than $300/month on my car payment, and $150 on insurance.  Not to mention the cost of gas, and other maintenance.  Add to that the “commuter incentive” offered by my employer – ride to work just 14 days a month, and receive an extra $20!  My optimism convinced me that 14 days a month would be cake.  I quickly realized that was not the case.  Turns out 9 miles uphill is not a very enjoyable way to spend a blazing afternoon more than once or twice a week. 
Channeling the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning, R went about searching the pages of Craigslist for a good bike for my induction into the cycling world.  Within a few days, he had found one that he breathlessly described as perfect for me.  We headed out to a city suburb to take a look, and after a brief test-ride around the neighborhood, we had a deal.  Heading back into town, we talked about the cycling adventures we would go on, the great shape we would be in, and the loads of fun we would have.
I wish I could say I fell instantly in love with cycling.  But it was a slow beginning for me.  I had imagined our “adventures” as leisurely rides in the sunshine, the breeze swaying and birds singing.  R, on the other hand, wanted to push himself (and, by default, me) – and he had a better bike to do it on.  So I didn’t really want to ride very often.  And besides, I’m pretty sure my butt-cheeks were getting bruised by the hard plastic seat.  Every once in a while, I was able to convince myselft to ride to work, but I didn’t enjoy it the way many of my co-workers seemed to.  
Meanwhile, R’s passion for cycling continued to grow.  He set out to build his very own, high-end bike out of a Fuji frame and various components purchased off Craigslist and Ebay.  I must say, it turned out very well – I was impressed.  So while he began his new relationship with the Fuji, the poor Lemond sat neglected in the cold, dark basement.  Until I volunteered to give it a little exercise.  Turns out, $350 makes a world of difference in the quality of a roadbike.  The ride was so smooth, the seat so comfortable, the handlebar so sturdy – I had never known cycling to be this way!  I enjoyed it so much, I ramped up my bike commuting to once or twice a week.  Still not enough to qualify for the alternative commuting benefit, but I felt great.  It helped, I’m sure, that it had become summer, and the sun shined often, while the rain disappeared. 
Here we are, one summer later, and I am again riding to work once or twice a week.  I am not ashamed to confess my lack of dedication to bicycling during the winter months, when the dark and rainy mornings make for a miserable (and not very visible) ride in. 
And I have one more confession to make. 
How do I survive my 20-mile, round trip, commute?  With padded shorts.
As I waited in line at the grocery store several days ago, my eyes scanned the shelves lined with candies and tabloid magazines.  A headline on the cover of one of the magazines, I believe it was a Woman’s Day, bragged about the 184 Ways to Save Money! that could be found inside.  I internally snorted a bit, and wondered why I would spend money of a magazine telling me how to save money – and besides, I could find all the tips I need on any one of the PF blogs I visit. 
It got  me thinking – do people still buy these printed magazines?  I’m sure they do sell some– if their sales flat-lined, I sure hope they would reconsider the monthly publication.  But I certainly don’t buy them.  And I don’t typically subscribe to them.  With so much of the content being digitized, it feels like a blatant waste of money and resources. 
It’s not that I dislike magazines.  For a housewarming gift, my mother generously subscribed us to a cooking magazine.  I love to cook, and I so enjoyed paging through the glossy recipes and articles.  When our subscription was nearing the expiration, we received a bill for renewal.  Imagine my surprise at a $30 price tag for 6 issues of the magazine!  A high-quality magazine, sure, but was it really worth $5 an issue?  After much consideration, I took to the web to look for an online version.  After minimal searching, I stumbled upon a goldmine!  While they did not have the full issue in online format, they had a lot.  As in, a lot more than I could possible want, need, or have time to explore.  They had recipes, cooking tips, gadget reviews, even archives – the kind that don’t collect dust on my bookshelf.  So we decided not to renew.  And there have been times when I miss the excitement of seeing a new issue in the mailbox, but I believe the $30 is better spent elsewhere – like on the ingredients to make some of the gourmet dishes within the (digital) pages.
There’s another thing that caught my attention on this subject recently.  A few monthly publications have taken to the web to publish a full online version of the magazine, cover to cover.  ReadyMade Magazine, for example, is now publishing a digital editionof their magazine.  It is a cover to cover representation of the entire current issue, fully viewable within your internet browser.  This is even more exciting, due to the nature of the magazine – if you’re not already familiar with ReadyMade, please, please go check it out.  It. is. awesome.
And really, these online versions make a lot of sense.  Think about all of the costs associated with a physical copy of a magazine.  I know this exercise is used often when discussing the true cost of food, but I think it applies here as well.  Let’s take ReadyMade for example, just because I love them so much.  A highly talented team of writers, artists, editors, photographers, editorialists, reviewers, etc. spend weeks developing articles and layout.  Much of this is already done digitally, and everything is stored digitally.  Then, the digital issue is sent to a printer, where it is made into, by my best guess, several thousand paper copies.  The current issue has 90 pages, which ends up as about 45 pages making up the inside of the magazine.  That’s a lot of paper.  From there, the magazine must be distributed.  Perhaps the issue is distributed directly from the publishing house, but I am skeptical that the publisher would want to assume all of the responsibility of properly distributing the magazine around the country, as well as bookstores, grocery chains, etc.  To the cost of paper and printing, we can now add distribution – whether that is reached in terms of postage or fuel, it’s not cheap.  And when the magazine finally reaches the home of the subscriber, it is (hopefully) perused, then stored on a bookshelf or thrown away.  Either adding clutter or waste. 
Many will say they keep back issues of favorite publications for reference – and I think that’s great.  I frequently return to old magazines, cookbooks, and reference materials when I’m looking for something specific.  But I eventually run out of space, and I tire of staring at the dusty spines of long forgotten publications, and my shelves are purged of material that’s no longer useful. 
There is an Archive button in the ReadyMade digital publication, but I can’t seem to view archives with it.  Glitch?  By design?  Not sure.  I also wonder if the archives are available only to digital subscribers.  In any case, I will continue to check back every couple of months for the new issue.  And I think we will see more and more monthly publications taking a similar leap into the 21st century.  As their distribution costs rise, their subscribers will be less able to pay for what is considered, by most, as a non-necessity.
When I started with a previous employer, I quickly got into the habit of bringing my lunches.  We were given only 30 minutes for a lunch break, and the building was situated in an area with few nearby restaurants – particularly quick ones.  I would enjoy my lunch in the breakroom, nose buried in a book, and enjoy myself for a half-hour.  At the time, I was low on the totem pole, and few people would feel the need to discuss work-related issues while I ate.
My brown-bagging has continued, and I still bring a daily lunch into work with me.  It is a rare occasion that I eat out.  This, as many other PF bloggers have pointed out, saves a boat-load of money.  But I’ve run into a problem with this.  In my current position, I am a systems administrator.  I deal with servers, security, network, user support, and anything else that plugs in.  There is always something that needs to be fixed.  These days, when I take my lunch into the breakroom and crack open a book, it seems I’m constantly interrupted by a colleague.  I am not anti-social, and I would normally welcome a conversation, but these interruptions are typically work related.  And rarely emergencies.  More likely, the person will see me sitting with my lunch, and they will remember that they’ve been meaning to ask me to fix something.  So they will come over and talk to me about it.
If this were to happen occasionally, I might not mind.  But when it happens several times a week, I become a bit frustrated.  It seems that, if I’m lunching in the breakroom, I am an open target for anyone who comes in to refill their water bottle.  I’ve considered taking my lunch outside, to enjoy in the sunshine.  The problem is, there is no outdoor seating, and I work on a very busy, industrial street.  Diesel truck fumes are not the type of flavor I’m seeking in my lunch.  Also, in a climate that fills with rain 9 months out of the year, where would I eat when the sun won’t come out?
While I think the position I have contributes to the number of interruptions, I am quite sure I am not the only frugal luncher who endures this.  My lunch break is a time when I like to take my mind off the job – it’s a break
How am I handling this?  Not as well as I would like.  For now, I’m following the grin & bear routine.  Occasionally, I’ll walk a mile to the park and have lunch there.  And I’m eating out more often.  For now, I don’t have a very good solution.  I just wanted to vent.

For the past two years, I had been a reluctant participant of the “lone commuter” population.  Each morning, I bravely endured the clogged arteries of the heart of the West Coast: I-5.  My office is, quite literally, as far from my house as it can be, while still residing in the same city limits.  The actual distance is nothing to complain about, clocking in at just under 10 miles each way.  But the traffic!  There were days when I pulled up to work almost an hour after I left my home.  10 miles.  In an hour.

Add to the above situation a severe case of road rage.  Certainly not the “I’ll kill your dog” kind of road rage, but the “so tired of being cut off, tailgated, honked at, not let over, brake-checked, and getting flipped off that it puts me in a bad mood all day” kind of road rage.  Maybe “rage” is too strong a word. 
Extreme Road Irritation – though that almost sounds more like a rash description.
So, mix my anything-but-delicate condition with a rapidly rising fuel cost, and voila!  A new “alternative” commuter.  Between my bike and the bus, I manage to get to work every day, while using less than a tank of gas every month. 
My employer generously provides a transit pass to all full-time employees.  With this, I can take the bus, the train, or the tram to get myself from point A to point B.  I had dabbled a bit in the bus-riding routine, but could never fully commit.  Until keeping my car feuled began to hungrily swallow nearly a third of my budget.  It was about that time that I walked my lazy bum down to the nearest bus stop.  Turns out, one bus will take me all the way from my neighborhood, through downtown, and out on the other side, where I work.  The unfortunate part is that it takes an extra half-hour to get there.  Each way.  Which, I confess, initially dampened my enthusiasm for public transportation.  But when I finally gave it a shot – it was as if a whole new world had been opened up to me.  I finally had a few moments to myself to enjoy a good book.  There were no veins bulging from my forehead after getting cut off.  I was – relaxed.  Calm.  Actually enjoying myself. 
I continued catching the bus, and it’s easily become my preferred way of getting to work.  On Wednesdays, I participate in an event that happens right after work, and I drive my car in order to make it on time.  But I always feel a little bit disappointed to be stepping into my car, instead of onto the bus.  The walk from my house to the bus stop gives me 10 or 15 minutes to enjoy the morning, something I rarely have the opportunity to do if I’m gritting my teeth behind the wheel.  And driving means I won’t get to read the book that I’m dying to finish, that I need to return to the library the next day, and I can’t renew because there’s a hold on it.  As with anything, there are a couple of drawbacks to my new commute.  The additional time investment, as mentioned above, is kind of a bummer.  Following the bus’ schedule can occasionally be irritating – I have to wait for it to show, instead of jumping into my car – especially on days when I’m already running late.  But for me, the pros far outweigh the cons.
My goal for the month of June was to limit my car-commute to 2 days per week.  I met that goal, and have continued into July.  As I enter the eighth week, I still enjoy the bus now as much as ever.  Of course, there are a few riders who could probably stand to learn some consideration – like the guy who kept whacking my head with his bulky backpack.  Or the lady sitting beside me who insisted on having her newspaper open full spread – even if that meant half of it was in my lap.  But the majority of other riders are probably just like me – trying to make it home, after a long day at work, and saving themselves a few bucks. 
So next time the guy next to me has his music turned up so loud that I feel like I’m stagefront at a rap concert, or the lady across the aisle is screaming into her cellphone, I will just look at the bright side: at least they didn’t cut me off.

I am the recent victor of a grueling battle to defend what is rightly mine.  I’m not talking about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness here.

No – I am talking about rollover minutes.

Alright, so perhaps the title leans a little on the dramatic side.  But it was a fight, nonetheless.  You see, I have been over-paying my cellphone bill for well over 3 years.  When I was preparing for a cross-country move, I needed a new wireless provider.  My phone at the time was through a local company, and I basked in the glory of unlimited calling, text messaging, three way calling! all for under $30 a month.  It’s hard to recognize what you have until it’s gone.  I was dismayed to find most national carriers wanted a LOT more of my money to keep me connected, and I was faced with the arduous task of estimating the minutes I would need. 

It’s not as easy as one would expect.  My former provider was unable to give me any insight about my previous usage.  I planned to sign up with the same carrier as many of my close friends and family members, and those calls would be unlimited.  And, truthfully, I expected to be lonely and in frequent need of familiar voices back home.  So I signed up for two years with Cingular (now ATT), choosing a plan with 600 anytime minutes, with rollover, unlimited nights and weekends, and unlimited mobile to mobile.  My free phone arrived in the mail only days later, and I excitedly began chatting with zeal.  Then my very first bill came. 

I stared, stupefied, at the little digits on the page.  How could this be?!  Immediately, I dialed up Cingular customer support, begging for resolution.  When the operator asked how she could be of assistance, I struggled to pull in a deep breath.

“I just received my first bill…and, um…well, I think I’ve miscalculated the number of minutes I will need,” I sighed.  The woman on the other end began to tell me about overage fees, and the exorbitant cost of using more minutes than my plan allowed.  She went on to explain the many plan options they offer to accommodate loquacious folks like me. 

Confused, I had to interrupt her.  “More minutes?  I don’t think you understand – I used less than half of the minutes on my plan.  It needs to be changed to a plan with fewer anytime minutes!”  Her demeanor noticeably changed, and she informed me that I was already signed up for the minimum plan available, while still qualifying for rollover.  I believed her – until I misplaced my phone and went to visit one of the stores to get a new one.  There, the helpful salesman said I can get a plan for 450 minutes, with rollover.  The catch?  I would lose any rollover minutes I had accrued up to that point.  Well, I didn’t like that one bit.  So I thanked him for his time, and left – without a new phone, or a new plan.  Good thing, because my phone later turned up under the seat of a friend’s car.

That was 2 years ago, and this would be the end of the story were it not for a most helpful post by the Village Idiot outlining several ways to trim the cost of your cell phone bill. 

I found myself back on the phone, but this time with ATT.  Not sure why they changed their name back, but beyond my scope of concern.  When I told them I wanted to reduce my number of anytime minutes, the gentleman on the other end began to launch into the whole spiel about losing rollover minutes.  After he finished, I did something crazy:

I requested to change my plan to fewer minutes, as well as keep my rollover minutes.  And the strangest thing happened – he agreed! 

As I prepared to pay my lower bill this month, and gazed upon my large cushion of rollover minutes, I began thinking.  Maybe all I need to do in order to save money is simply ask.  Fear not, I am not becoming a panhandler.  Rather, I am becoming an opportunist – without the negative implications.  I am simply recognizing opportunities to ask.

The other day, I needed to get my oil changed.  As I pulled into the drive, the service technician was outlining all of the services they provide.  One of these services was a check of break lights, headlights, turn signals, etc.  If needed, they would replace the exhausted bulb.  As it happened, my tail light needed to be replaced (I had, months ago, attempted to replace it myself – but it’s harder than it looks on the type of car I had!).  With my new-found confidence, I asked him to throw in the tail light at no cost.

He agreed.