6 Ways to Save on Your Cable Bill

Ivanko_Brnjakovic

It’s a great time to be a pay TV (aka cable) consumer. Really. After decades of helplessly paying skyrocketing TV bills (helpless because many consumers were stuck within monopoly situations) the worm is finally turning. New entrants like Verizon’s FiOS and SlingTV have created genuine competition, while the “cord cutting” phenomenon has helped many consumers ditch traditional pay TV altogether.

The pay TV industry is losing hundreds of thousands of customers every quarter, but roughly 100 million people still pay for TV in the U.S., so reports of the $100 cable bill’s demise are premature (the average cable bill really is $99). In fact, a recent survey by Consumer Reports found that 68% of Americans still pay for cable or a similar service, leading the magazine to conclude that only a “trickle” of people are really leaving pay TV.

In other words, pay TV bills are probably here to stay for a long time. So you might as well avoid the minefield of gotchas that pay TV creates, and save yourself a bundle. If your monthly bill reaches into the triple digits, you might be doing TV wrong. Here are six things to consider.

1. Skinny TV

If you aren’t part of the trickle of cord cutters, perhaps there’s a middle ground you should consider— cutting back, but not completely cutting the cord. This group has been dubbed “cord shavers.”

About 11% of TV fans in the Consumer Reports survey said they had trimmed subscriptions as a way of saving money. Many took advantage of the latest trend in pay TV offerings — so-called “Skinny TV.” Pay TV firms have finally heard the message that consumers don’t watch 150 channels, and don’t want to pay for them. So providers, led by Verizon and Comcast, have come up with new bare-bones bundles that cost around $50. If you have an average cable bill and switch to a skinny package, you’ll save $600 annually. That could pay for a nice new TV … or a subscription to streaming services like Hulu or SlingTV, and still leave you with money left over.

2. ‘Promotion Pricing’

By now, the game is well-known — threaten to cancel, and get a special deal from the cable or satellite “customer retention department.” Everyone seems to know about this, but consumers still get distracted or can’t be bothered and overpay. Paying full price for TV is like paying MSRP for a new car. It’s only for suckers. Make sure to call periodically and ask about your rate. Notice when competitors like FioS arrive in your neighborhood, because competition always makes providers more amendable to cutting deals.

Again, I know you know this. That’s why the real game isn’t about getting promotion pricing, but keeping it.

3. Have a Calendar

We’ve all been there, happily paying our discounted $55 cable bill, when one day, we notice the bill is now $132. Yikes! What happened? The promotion period ended, that’s what happened. If you are lucky, you notice it during the first month and negotiate a new deal— and perhaps even score a refund of that month’s overpay. But many consumers are busy, and don’t notice the increase, and pay for months until they realize just how much the bill has soared.

Whenever you score a special deal from pay TV, it always ends. And it ends rudely. One of the most critical tips to avoiding the dreaded bill doubling is to mark a calendar every time you negotiate such a deal with a reminder to call again before your deal expires.

Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. Here’s a fresh tip I learned recently. Reminiscent of the old days of cellphone contracts, it can be very hard to learn exactly when your discount period ends. It’s often not on a monthly bill, or even on your website profile anywhere. You’ll probably have to call and beg to find out. That’s why it’s so important to write it down when you strike the deal.

But there’s still something else about promotion pricing that might trip you up.

4. Make a Well-Timed Call

When I called my pay TV provider recently to bargain for a continuation of my promotion pricing, I was hit by a new wrinkle: There was nothing the agent could do for me. I called too early!

I had to call within seven days of my promotional price ending, I was told. Until then, the rep couldn’t sign me up for a new “save the customer” deal.

This is starting to feel like the old rebate game, now. The more rules, the more likely consumers trip up. So make sure your calendar note is very precise. And please remind me in about two weeks that I have to call the cable company again.

5. Cut Down on Box Rentals

The old advice to save money on cable was to buy your equipment, rather than rent it. A cable box might cost $50 to buy, but $4 per month to rent, meaning the purchase paid for itself within a year. Recently, that equation has become far more complex, as cable boxes have become more complex. They now support HD, DVR, high-speed Internet, and even wireless networks. So it’s not as easy to buy your box, and in some cases, it’s not realistic.

However, a big mistake consumers make now is paying for boxes they don’t really need. Now that it’s relatively easy to stream channels to smartphones and tablets, it’s quite possible your family only needs one box. Maybe you can add a Roku device or Chromecast to your bedroom TV and skip the box rental for that unit. Maybe you can watch movies on your tablet and skip the box/TV altogether.

Even more promising: The Federal Communications Commission is trying to open up the “box” market to even more competition, which should bring prices down for everyone and spur creativity. To some extent, that’s already happening. Comcast, for example, recently announced it would experiment with boxless delivery of its channels, and let consumers use an Xfinity app instead. Progress!

6. Do You Really Watch That?

All these changes really add up to one big question every consumers should ask themselves: Do you really watch that? Do you really need the all-in 300-channel package from your TV? Is it possible that a $50 skinny TV package would be good enough? Would Sling TV’s 20 or so channels at $20 a month, plus a decent antenna for free over-the-air TV, do it for you? Or is Netflix binge watching, which can cost even less than $20 a month, enough to satisfy your screen needs?

Do a TV-watching audit during the next month or two. I’ll bet you’ll find that you can replace about 95% of your TV/screen habit with less than 50% of the cost. That’s an equation you can’t resist, and could really help you cut your monthly bills. Live, local sports is still the holdout, but with all the money you’ll save, you can probably afford to eat out at your local sports bar with the savings. And you might make some friends, too.

And remember, if you’re applying for new cable service, chances are the company is going to run a credit check. It’s a good idea to do your own credit check before applying for cable so you can be sure there aren’t any surprises on your credit report. You can start by checking your two free credit scores, updated every month, on Credit.com.

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Image: Ivanko_Brnjakovic

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9 Home Improvements for Your Best Summer Ever

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Summer is just around the corner, so the time is ripe for thinking about some home improvements that can help you enjoy the longer, warmer days to their fullest.

Here are nine things you can do now that won’t break your bank account (or housing budget) and will ensure you get your summer off to a great start.

1. Buy Some Plants You Won’t Kill

Plants can add a ton of beauty to your yard, patio or porch, but they can also be expensive, especially if they die because you don’t have the right soil or you put them in too much or too little sun. If you don’t know a lot about what kinds of plants do well in your region or those that are easiest to care for, reach out to your local county Cooperative Extension Agent, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They offer free services and seminars, soil sample testing, advice on plants that do well in your area and even Master Gardener certification.

2. Get Your Grill in Tip-Top Shape

Nothing ruins a good barbecue faster than a dirty or broken grill, so before you head to the grocery store for provisions, do a thorough clean and check of your grill. If it’s a gas grill, it’s a good idea to check the burners to ensure they haven’t corroded. They should light quickly and burn evenly. If they don’t, it might be time to buy some replacement burners. Same goes for your ignition switch.

If your grill looks a bit worse for wear, you might also want to consider sprucing it up with a fresh coat of high-temperature grill paint.

3. Make Any Needed Repairs to Patio or Lawn Furniture

If you store your furniture, now’s the time to dig it out and give it a good scrub. You’ll also want to make sure it’s still sturdy enough for a full summer of use. Are the frames rusting or broken? Are the joints fast? Are there any rips in the fabric and can it be replaced? How about your seat cushions? Check it all out so you’re not having to apologize to guests later.

4. Lighten Up

How’s the lighting in your outdoor living space? Replace any old melted candles with some fresh new ones and check strings of lights for any broken or burned-out bulbs. If you don’t have any outdoor lighting except for your porch light, consider adding some. Uplighting under trees can be a lovely accent.

5. Don’t Bug Out

Along with the longer, warmer days come mosquitos, flies and other critters that can make being outdoors less than enjoyable. And who wants to coat themselves in stinky bug spray every 10 minutes? Consider some citronella candles, bug zappers or, if you have the budget, a mosquito trap.

6. Get Your A/C Serviced

To avoid your air conditioning going out on the hottest day of the year, consider spending some money now on a service call to have a technician come out and check your unit, especially if it’s older and out of warranty. Spending some money now on preventative maintenance can save you the hassle and possibly bigger expense later on. (High credit card balances related to home repairs or otherwise could hurt your credit. You can see where you currently stand by viewing your two free credit scores, updated each month, on Credit.com.)

7. Check Your Insulation

How old is the insulation in your house? It’s just as important in the summer months as it is in winter when it comes to keeping your monthly utility bills in check, so if you didn’t take a look last fall, you might want to do so now.

If you know what you’re doing, take a crawl through the attic and check the depth of your insulation. Energy.gov has some tips for how much you need when it comes to different types of insulation. If you don’t know what you’re doing, or if crawling around in the attic sounds like your own personal horror movie, hire someone to come check it out for you.

8. Check Watering Hoses & Sprinkler Systems

If you store your watering hoses for winter, it’s a good time to check them for leaks and to see if any of the fittings or washers need replacing. It’s also a great time to have your sprinkler system inspected for leaks, broken heads and other issues.

9. Service Yard Tools

If you mow your own yard, now’s a great time to get a tune-up on the lawn mower and have the blade sharpened. While you’re at it, you can also have the weed whacker, chainsaw and leaf blower tuned up as well so they’re running smoothly all season long.

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Image: Ingram Publishing

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