I’m a big fan of those Coinstar coin-counting machines you find in most grocery stores, but it always seemed like a raw deal having to give them nearly 9% of my money just to count it. Maybe I was a bit lazy giving up that big a cut when I could have rolled the coins myself and taken them to a bank. But I dump my fishbowl of loose change into the hopper without guilt now that you can get your money back as a gift certificate for Amazon or Starbucks — and at 100% of the value of your change with no fees. It’s a great system, especially since now you can take your gift certificate and go instead of standing in line at the checkout to get your receipt exchanged for cash.
Chat rooms and email mailing lists are fine for some types of group conversations, but if you really need to get a group of geographically diverse folks together for a chat nothing beats an old-school conference call — especially when some members of the group are technologically challenged. My own large family has been making great use of freeconference.com for phone-based family meetings. To join in, each participant just makes a regular toll call to a number in Iowa (usually via cell phones with no long distance charges), then enters a numerical code that we agreed on in advance. The service takes care of the rest, automatically linking everyone who entered the same code with a minimum of fuss. There’s no charge other than long distance, it works reliably, and best of all anyone who can dial a phone can join the conversation.
There are lots of companies that bend over backwards and offer lots of sweet deals to get you as a customer, but not everyone realizes these same companies are often willing to sweeten the deal to keep you around, too:
Cell Phones – Once a year or so call your provider, mention that you’re looking around at other companies, and ask if they can do better (it wouldn’t hurt to have a specific deal from another company in mind). The result is often a credit toward a new phone or some extra minutes thrown in every month.
Satellite TV – DirecTV and the rest are in cutthroat competition with the cable companies and each other, so they’re often good for either a hardware upgrade or a few months of free movie channels once you’ve paid your bill for a year or so. And if you have a service upgrade in mind that would result in an increased monthly revenue to them, they’re practically putty in your hands. Push for all the hardware plus installation for free and you’ll often get it. The same advice probably doesn’t apply for cable companies since they usually don’t charge you for hardware, but it can’t hurt to mention you’re thinking of going with satellite and see what they say.
Credit Cards – As anyone will tell you, the best way to save money with credit cards is not to use them — or at least pay off your balance every month. Still, you can take advantage of the fact that a customer with good credit is very valuable to the folks hoping to get you into serious debt. Even if you don’t use your card a lot, make a habit of calling the company every year and asking if they’re offering you their best terms. Don’t be afraid to mention that you’ve been offered a different card with a better interest rate. Use the same method to get any annual fees waived. There’s no reason to pay an annual fee for any credit card when so many don’t have them.
Most folks I know grudgingly accept that printer cartridges are ridiculously expensive, which is part of the reason printers are often ridiculously cheap. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Next time you’re printer shopping, hit eBay and search for that exact printer model. Odds are if it’s any brand but HP or Lexmark you’ll find tons of amazingly cheap cartridges for sale. If you don’t see any listed, give that model a pass and try a different one. What you’re looking for are generic, brand-new (not refilled or reconditioned) cartridges made for your printer. Once I discovered this my printing expenses plummetted. And while I wasn’t very happy with my one foray into reconditioned cartridges, I’ve had near-perfect reliability from the brand new knock-offs I buy in lots of 12 or so on eBay — often for $2 to $3 per cartridge including shipping. For example, a four-pack of cartridges for my Canon Pixma MP780 costs $40 plus shipping at Amazon. But instead I recently ordered 18 generic cartridges on eBay for a total of $32.50 shipped. Epson and Canon are always good bets for generic cartridge availability, but they’re not the only ones. Just be sure to confirm before you buy that otherwise cheap printer.
If you’re a Netflix customer I don’t have to tell you how awesome it is, and if you’re not you may think you can’t justify spending 18 bucks a month for the standard membership plan. But in asking around I realized that plenty of folks — including current members — didn’t notice that a few months back Netflix added several plans that go as low at $10 per month. So if you’re a current member and feeling wasteful when you leave a couple discs on the coffee table for two weeks without watching them, you may be better off downgrading. Just click on “Your Account” then “Change Membership” to see the various plans. And new customers can now sign up at any price level — not just the standard 3-at-a-time plan. Not exactly an insider tip, but it’s a good way to shave a few bucks off your monthly expenses without giving up a great service.
I must admit I’m a bit addicted to Woot, a funky online store with an even funkier business model. Just don’t look for store categories or product comparison tools. They sell just one thing at a time, and each night at midnight Central U.S. time a new product goes on sale. If it sells out — and many items do — the sale is over. But either way that day’s Woot gets replaced the next night and the process repeats. The products skew geeky (speakers, MP3 players, cameras), but the Wootsters aren’t afraid to throw in a lemonade maker or the infamous Bag O’ Crap (a bag of God-knows-what for a penny plus shipping). And even if you don’t end up buying, the wacky product descriptions and raucous discussion forums are worth the trip.
Check out Woot