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Tech Tactics for Hard Times

In these tough times, resist alleged must-have features, such as 10 megapixels on a digital camera.
In these tough times, resist alleged must-have features, such as 10 megapixels on a digital camera. (By Tami Chappell -- Associated Press)
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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, October 2, 2008

News flash: The economy stinks.

It's not a good time to be throwing money at things that don't rate as necessities -- a description that applies to many of the goods and services reviewed in this space.

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Inconveniently enough, though, the stuff of a technological lifestyle -- the hardware, the software, the services -- can add up to a large fraction of your budget. And a lot of these items do count as essential by many people's reckoning. So how can you chip away at that figure?

The obvious answer is to do nothing: That is, don't buy new things. Stick with last year's camera, the computer of 2005 and the printer of 2003. This option isn't always viable, however. Gadgets break, and technological progress can make using an older but still functional model seem painful.

When that time comes, you can still shop defensively. Employ price-comparison sites, like PriceGrabber ( http://pricegrabber.com), Yahoo ( http://shopping.yahoo.com) and Microsoft's Live Search Cashback ( http://search.live.com/cashback), to locate the cheapest deal. Resist the temptation of this year's alleged must-have feature -- say, 10 megapixels of resolution on a digital camera or 4 gigabytes of memory on a laptop -- to buy whatever people were excited about a year ago and which now costs less.

Buying used hardware can also slash costs, though some devices, such as laptops, tend to age poorly.

And, of course, decline "upsells" like fancy cables or extended warranties. (Instead, if you can, buy with a credit card that extends the manufacturer's coverage for free.)

Software provides another way to trim the tech budget. Investigate free and open-source alternatives to commercial programs. For example, try OpenOffice ( http://openoffice.org) before you drop $150 or more on Microsoft Office.

But your greatest savings by an overwhelming margin are not in one-time hardware or software purchases, but in the subscriptions that make up most of the operating costs.

With cellphone, land-line, TV and Internet services, you can easily hit $175 a month, the equivalent of two laptops a year.

Some of these cutbacks ought to be obvious. Many people have ditched land-line phones, but if that's not an option (say, if your DSL requires a voice line) you can still pare your service to the minimum. Drop features like call waiting, and switch to a metered-rate option that only includes a set number of outbound calls, after which you pay about a dime per call.

You should also stop making long-distance calls from your home phone. Use your cellphone, even if you have to wait until after 9 p.m. to take advantage of the unlimited off-peak calling provided by most plans.


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