Tag Archive | utilities

Review: $30 Verizon Wi-Fi Smart Phone Plan

Big news: I got a smart phone.

I know, I just extolled my dumb phone in In Praise of Old Technology. But when Neil got a mobile upgrade at work and got to keep his iPhone 5s, it seemed like the right time to make the switch.

I knew it was inevitable. I was having problems receiving texts that contained emoticons—which comprised a lot of texts from a lot of my friends :). It rendered the whole message unreadable :(. I also couldn’t respond to group texts.  And I got lost on the way to basically anywhere off the beaten path.

There were other things I LOVED about having a dumb phone: no temptation to waste time online, my kids couldn’t ask me for constant entertainment, and my battery life was amazing. Once after a vacation I didn’t unpack my phone charger until 5 days had passed!

Anyway, my time had come. Now what phone plan to get? I’ve had Verizon for 10 years. Don’t judge me. Every time I start thinking about switching to a less expensive provider I hear awful things about it from a friend. Since Neil’s always had his phone paid for by his employer, who also discounted my dumb phone plan for a while, I’ve never been motivated to change.

I’m definitely not one to scoff at small savings that add up in perpetuity. But this is one area I’ve been willing to pay $5-10 more per month to avoid 1.) the cost of purchasing a phone and 2.) the hassle of changing phone plans. Because let’s face it, dealing with phone companies is a hassle.

While we’re on that point, let me clarify: I’m not in any way affiliated with Verizon. My recent experience with them has been a hassle. But I do think this little-known plan I’ve stumbled upon is pretty sweet—too good to keep to myself.

The plan is a $30 per month, prepaid Wi-Fi only smart phone plan. Talk and text are unlimited, of course.

This plan is not clearly visible on their web site. To find it, you have to begin the process of signing up for a different prepaid plan, and then go to the  shopping cart page where  you can downgrade to the $30 Wi-Fi plan.

Why it’s awesome: Almost everywhere has Wi-Fi now. It automatically connects to my home network. If I’m somewhere without Wi-Fi and really need it, there’s probably a McDonald’s or somewhere nearby where I can get it.

Thirty dollars per month is the same price I paid for my very first cell phone plan when I went off to college 14 years ago. I realize the market has changed a lot, but the fact that I haven’t increased this expense is nice!

I’m also not tempted to be browsing the Internet needlessly while out and about. I won’t bother getting on Wi-Fi unless I actually “need” to. Hey, price-checking is necessary! Plus, I’m usually surrounded by people (including my husband) who have data plans so I can just be that annoying person who asks questions and lets someone else look up the answer. (I consider this a great way to serve my husband since he loves looking at his phone!)

For directions I use the GPS on the Google Maps. I downloaded a map of my area—and it’s a big map. While offline, it can search nearby for open-ended destinations like “library” or “Indian restaurant” (both important!) and find it without an address. Then it offers offline directions, map, and navigation just like an old school GPS.

Having those maps downloaded is actually better than using Verizon’s network because it’s not dependent on signal strength. Just last month, we were driving back from a church retreat in the middle of nowhere and Neil’s phone service wasn’t working as we left. Because I had the map saved, Google maps app navigated us without a problem.

Drawbacks: sometimes there is no Wi-Fi available. This requires more planning ahead, including downloading maps, coupons, and other information ahead of time. You could probably get something similar for $5-10 less with a different provider.

I recommend this plan for anyone:

  • Interested in switching from a dumb phone to a smart phone
  • Who is home a lot and is paying for Wifi there, or has access to free Wifi most of the time.
  • Values having very reliable phone service.
  • Who (like me) reguarly gets lost in the middle of nowhere and doesn’t have a GPS.
  • Who comes by a good free smart phone and is ready to make the change.

Someday I may want data, at which point it’ll be time to shop around. For now, I’m happy with my Wi-Fi only plan, great service, and being able to keep my phone.

Would you ever consider a Wi-Fi only plan? Any recommendations for data plans with reliable service? 

Who Ya Gonna Call? About Utility Bills

Last utility post, I promise! Today we’ll cover how we save on water, as well as services like phone, cable, and Internet.

On Water

Water is not a very expensive utility for us, but we’ve found ways to cut back on this precious resource.

  1. Your toilet is the #1 household user of water. If you’re like me and pee often, you might institute the old rhyming rule. I’ll just leave it at that.
  2. Wash not, want not. Your washing machine is mostly likely your #2 user of water. We don’t wash our clothes too frequently. Instead we re-wear our clothing if possible, except anything obviously stinky or dirty. Washing full loads is more efficient than smaller ones.

Clothes aren’t the only things we avoid over-washing. We rarely wash our cars. We only bathe the kids 1-2 times per week. We don’t shower every day. As far as I can tell, the notion that every person and clothing item needs to be washed every single day is a relatively modern cultural construct. Ben Franklin claimed cleanliness is next to godliness, but if he was anything like his contemporaries, he probably bathed only once per week at best.

3. We have a rain barrel. Our summer water bill used to go up by 50% in July & August because of our garden. Now we harness nature’s provision by collecting it in a rain barrel connected to one of our gutters. Naturally we got the barrel for free and rigged it up ourselves. Not only has our water bill gone down, our sewer bill (which is separate) is also noticeably lower.

In the garden, we’ve also employed soaker hoses to reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation. Timing watering in the mornings and evening also minimizes this. We have never watered our lawn.

4. Set back your hot water tank temperature. The EPA recommends setting it to 120. This change will show up in your energy bill. And it’ll prevent people from hurting their hands when ridiculously hot water gushes out of the faucet. (While you’re checking temps, set your fridge to 38 and your freezer to 0. Lower temps waste energy without preserving food differently.)

5. Having international friends, and visiting India and the American Southwest, really puts our water use in perspective. One friend would catch all the water in a glass while waiting for tap water to warm up. A Drop in the Bucket details another friend’s water use experiment. Her family of 5 carried all their water around the block before they could use it–for a month!

That’s it for water. Now let us abruptly transition to other utilities/services with a monthly bill. If I could sum up my advice on these, it would be to periodically call your providers to ask for better rates.

Call Me Maybe

About once a year I check in to ask if there is a better price available. Over time, I’ve saved hundreds of dollars by doing this, and the call is usually not too time-intensive.

Neil’s employer pays for his smartphone, and I have a dumb phone with a prepaid plan. I could shop around for a better plan now that the cell phone service market has expanded, but the headache of switching and the ROI time involved with getting a different phone doesn’t feel worth the $5 or $10 per month I’d eventually save. I might just hold out until my dumb phone becomes obsolete and I relinquish my identity as the last human on earth to have one. No doubt the day is drawing near.

Discount providers or family plans are good ways to save, as is monitoring your data usage.

Taming the Tube

We don’t watch much TV so it’s never made sense for us to spend a lot on it. For years we used the good-old-fashioned rabbit ears to receive a few basic channels. At $15 this purchase was well worth it.

Another “free” or cheap TV source is Amazon Prime. We’ve always qualified for Student or Family memberships (free or $39/year); apparently we are always in school or making babies. Sometimes Amazon offers a media credit if you opt for longer shipping times. We racked up some credits this way while Christmas shopping.

We’ll watch free stuff on Hulu, get DVDs from the library, borrow movies from friends, or occasionally rent a 99 cent video. If we want to watch streamed media on our TV instead of the laptop, we use a $3 HDMI cable (purchased on ebay) to connect the two. Check out this post comparing the cost of various streaming options.


Though the Internet is not actually a necessity, it’s become a non-negotiable for us. Our bill periodically increases without warning, and each time we call and negotiate it back down to $35/month.  It’s a pain in the neck but if we ask for promotions we always have good luck. Neil is better at this but I’ve also had success.

So who ya gonna call? When it comes to services like cell phone, Internet, and TV, it pays to call and ask for promotions, discounts, or better rates about once a year. Cite your loyalty over time, competitor’s prices, and any problems you may have experienced with the service. These savings add up across utility bills and over time to make a noticeable difference for us.

Who ya gonna call and save on utilities? How do you keep these costs down?

Pretend to Be Warm

Last week we shared how we keep our electric bill at less than half the national average. But to be clear, our home’s furnace is fueled by natural gas. So today let’s look at how we keep our gas bill low, too. Even during last year’s winter, which was the coldest on record in our area!

We spend less on heat with a few simple, straightforward strategies:

  1. Set the thermostat back. We keep it at 65 degrees night & day; I know people who go much lower than we do. Before kids we set it back more at night, but below 65, they seem to wake up more. And sleep is one thing I’m willing to pay for.(Sorry world, I’m an ignorant Fahrenheit-user.)

Your gas bill will increase or decrease about 3% for every degree you change the temperature from 68 full time.  So if you keep it at 72 around the clock, you’re paying 12% more. Comparing 65 to 72, we’re saving 21%. For our typical bills, that equals about a $20 difference. We save even more by employing these additional strategies:

  1. Winterize. Proper insulation makes a huge difference in maximizing your furnace’s efforts. You’ll feel cozier and spend less–insulation has a good return on investment. Caulking and weatherstripping can also help seal in warmth, reducing drafts and heating costs. Newer windows will also make your room feel cozier, but the ROI is dismal…essentially non-existent.
  2. Build a fire. We have a fireplace with a heat exchanger that helps warm our house. So we have found lots of free firewood, which Neil splits for exercise, and build fires to supplement the furnace’s efforts. You can read more about that in our firewood post, which describes different heating apparatus as well as how to get & split free wood.
  3. Space heaters are an accessible alternative to the fireplace. It costs less to heat a small space with one than it does to raise the temperature of the whole house via the furnace. Electric blankets are similarly efficient.
More snow hut.

More snow hut.

5. Wear clothes. Seems obvious, but we pile on the layers. My typical winter uniform includes a long-sleeved tee, a wool sweater, one of Neil’s fleece jackets, jeans, and wool socks or fleece slippers. Sexy, I know.

Neil also lives in wool. I truly feel sad for anyone with a wool allergy. It is so much warmer than cotton!  Wool socks and sweaters are available in abundance at thrift stores. If you are just going to wear it around the house it doesn’t have to fit or look perfect. I’ve found some amazing pieces there, including one with a skier knit into it! And a pair of J.Crew wool harem pants that unfortunately were too many sizes too big to even stay on my body. It’s probably for the best as I never would have changed out of them, ever.

On kids—aside from not wanting to wake up every hour to put more blankets on them, I’m convinced that kids are highly adaptable. Mine are more used to our 65 house temp than I am. And whatever gene causes certain men to wear shorts till Christmas, my son has it. (Neil doesn’t.) And my daughter would wear nothing but a diaper underpants if we let her.  (Yay! She’s potty trained! That’ll save us $30 a month.)

6. Cooking—We have a gas stove & oven. I don’t worry too much about cooking for optimum energy use except to avoid heating the place up during the summer. I do prefer the pressure cooker or slow cooker for long cook times so I can be lazy. And these appliances are much more efficient than the stove or oven.

I also try to bake as much as I can at once. For example, I might bake chicken and line the sides of the oven with potatoes followed by a loaf of bread. It’s not going to make us rich, but we prefer to conserve resources when it’s possible.

7. Our sun room. Some days, even if it’s cold, it gets hot in our sunroom and we open it for some “free heat.” My son likes to check the temperature in the sun room on sunny days, and once reported that there was only free cold that day. Of course we don’t want any of that!

8. Random–My other pretend to be warm strategies include drinking tea, dancing, or snuggling my kids. Filling a 1-liter bottle with water and microwaving for a few minutes makes a good foot warmer. Building a snow hut also gets the blood moving.

How do you pretend to be warm in the winter?

Hippies, Hustlers, and Vampires (or Electricity Part 2)

Photo by Neil Brooks

Photo by Neil Brooks

In The Electric Slide: Cut Your Electric Bill in Half we bragged that our electricity usage is less than half the national average, shared our free utility tracking spreadsheet, and suggested tips for low-cost lighting. Today we’ll share the rest of our low maintenance tips for lowering your electricity bill. No unplugging coffee makers involved.

The Hang-Drying Debate

When we first moved our office into the basement to make way for Baby #2, I would go downstairs to get a book and by force of habit, find myself in the laundry room. So step into my office & I’m tell you how to do laundry for less.

  1. Wash in all cold water. 90% of your washing machine’s energy use goes to heating the water. This makes more of a difference than having an HE washer.
  2. Wash full loads. As a mother, I’m a little jealous of anyone who could even consider washing a small load. But all sizes use about the same amount of electricity, so it makes sense to fill ‘er up.
  3. Give your dryer a break. This point is a little more controversial, so here’s my take.

While hippie types dare not waste earth’s precious resources on what the sun can do for free, high-earning hustlers scoff at the time squandered when you could be launching your next business.

I find myself somewhere in between these two extremes. While at home with my kids I can spare 5 minutes a day to hang clothes to dry. Call me uninspired, but I’m not going to be doing anything super-lucrative in 5 minutes a day. When I stopped using our dryer our bill dropped noticeably. Whether it’s worth it to you is a personal preference.

Hang-drying has other advantages, too. It can prolong the life of your clothing and sun-drying can help sanitize and freshen it. Hanging laundry also reduces the amount of ironing needed. To reduce wrinkles, I snap anything I’d iron, fluff it in the dryer for 3-4 minutes with other items from the same load, then put in on a hanger to dry. This is also the best way to reduce the “crispy” feel many moderns don’t appreciate in laundry.

In the summer I dry outside (free laundry tree from a friend), or in my sunroom if it’s raining. In the winter I dry in the furnace/laundry room, which is doubly efficient as the by-product heat of the furnace accelerates the drying time. I have drying lines in the laundry room but also use a small collapsible drying rack like this one.

Hang-drying, like many other frugal habits, doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Any time you forego the dryer saves money. Viewing it as classic rather than extreme frugality also helps.

Playing Vampire-Slayer

Now to the question of whether you should spend your life unplugging all your electronic devices. The short answer is: no! The long answer is…

Think of vampire load as a leaky faucet. It slowly wastes a resource even when you’re not using it. New electronic technology doesn’t draw “vampire load” when devices aren’t in use, and constant plugging and unplugging of items used on a daily basis, such as coffee pots, toasters, or electric kettles, could more quickly wear out the outlet, which cost much more to replace than the dollar or two per year in vampire load.

You will find silent leeches among older entertainment equipment such as amplifiers, CRT & plasma TVs, and elderly desktop computers. If you have an office or living room power strip with lots of gear plugged in, it makes sense to turn off the strip when the devices aren’t in use. Smart power strips are also a great option; they automatically shut off to reduce silent draw during periods of non-use. We scored a free smart power strip by requesting a free energy savings kit from our electricity company.

Certainly worth slaying are old appliances, though they’re not really vampires since you know they are using energy if they’re running. An old refrigerator or freezer can really run up your bill. Consider consolidating to one unit and/or replacing with HE equipment. About three years ago we purchased a new deep freezer for storing our backyard chickensfruits of the garden, and meat stock-up sales, and it clearly isn’t killing our bill.

Assorted Tips

Air conditioning: Embracing our four-season climate helps us weather varying temperatures without racking up outrageous utility bills. We use our A/C sparingly in the summer, though we’re grateful to have it during especially hot weather and when hosting.

Sleep: We love white noise for sleeping and now use a white noise app instead of a fan. An app or inexpensive white noise machine uses significantly less energy than physically rotating fan blades. Battery alarm clocks are also efficient since they use no electricity and the batteries can last over a year.

Everything else: Michael Bluejay created an epic site about saving electricity, complete with lots of calculators. If you want to know how much you spend to do anything involved electricity, check out his site. If you’re super nerdy like us, ask your local library if they lend watt meters, also known as a power meter or Kill a Watt meter. You can plug devices in to it find out how much electricity the device is using.

Don’t forget to track your changes! Here’s our free electricity tracking spreadsheet in case you missed it.

Are you a hippie or hustler when it comes to hang-drying? What are your other energy savings tips?

Fuel Your Way to FIRE with Free Firewood


A small sample of Neil’s wood pile.

This post was written by Neil, whose free firewood acquisition skills saved us hundreds this year, and keep us warm and cozy through our long winters. Here he’ll share about the best wood-burning equipment available and how to come by this fuel for free. 

Nothing is better on a cold winter’s day than warming yourself by a wood fire roaring in an efficient apparatus in your home. Especially if you’re a thermostat miser like me and free firewood is your only hope of thawing out in a blazing 75-degree room. A warm blaze also offers free entertainment for many of the social functions we host throughout the year.

Depending on where you live, firewood can be an excellent primary or secondary heating source. Two years ago I spent $200 on a cord of wood. This past year, I’ve collected a cord for essentially free, and I’ll use it to reduce my gas bill for heating throughout the winter. Help fuel your way to FIRE (financial independence/retire early) with free firewood.

Wood burning apparatus

To determine if firewood is a good heating source for you, take a look at the equipment you already have in your home. First, of course, you’ll need an apparatus to burn wood. There are many different kinds. Regular fireplaces, fireplace with heat exchanger, wood stove, wood stove insert, wood furnace, outdoor wood furnace, even wood-fired boilers. Most people have just a regular old fireplace. Unfortunately, this is not a viable way to heat your house, or even supplement with wood. Regular fireplaces use huge amounts of air from your house to burn the wood and push the smoke up the chimney. This causes the wood to burn quickly and attractively but is very inefficient. The air in your house is finite and generally sealed from the outside, meaning the air will be drawn in through leaky doors, windows, and outlets. Really nice fireplaces solve this problem by having a special duct from under the fireplace or through the wall to allow outside air into the fireplace and then up the chimney. This is a great improvement; however, very little heat will actually be transferred into the house without some sort of heat exchanger.

One product that allows some of this heat to be transferred into the house is called a grate heater. This product is basically a tubular rack that holds the burning wood and has air blown through it and into your house. This is a great product and has enormous BTU claims considering its relative simplicity: 40,000 per hour. Considering the rule of thumb for BTU/hr for a house is 20 per square foot, that means it should be able to heat a 2000 square foot house! I would never expect it to accomplish that feat, but it is an impressive claim. (http://www.wikihow.com/Calculate-BTU-Per-Square-Foot)

The cozy grate heater is the entry level into efficient wood heating. Next up in terms of efficiency is the wood stove fireplace insert. This is basically an approximation of a true wood stove shoved into the space your fireplace goes. It is way better at heating your house because not only does it have a heat exchanger, it also is much better at regulating how much air is being drawn from the room. This means it uses way less fuel while creating more heat. Even more efficient is the wood stove. A wood stove generally has the largest heat exchanger and ability to regulate air flow, making it the best choice for anyone who depends on wood for heat unless y get really serious and upgrade into wood burning furnaces and boilers.


I could barely fit this pile in one photo.

Finding free firewood

Getting firewood, like anything, can be about as cheap or expensive as you’d like. There is a local guy near me who sells pieces of wood for 50 cents apiece, ouch. Careful watching of Craigslist, however, can yield almost free wood provided you’re willing to do some work for it. Set up a notification with the keyword “firewood” for your city’s free section. CL rules apply for firewood, too: don’t drive far.

Aside from CL, keep your eyes and ears open. Once people know you’re the family that takes firewood, you’ll start getting offers. Let word of mouth brings you tip-offs from friends, acquaintances, and family members who are looking to get rid of wood. Also, listen for the sound of a chainsaw. It’s unmistakable and can be heard for miles. If you can track it down, you’ll likely find a good source.

Keep your eyes peeled for wood on tree lawns, plus fallen or felled trees in people’s lawns. I’ve been known to knock on doors, asking homeowners if are looking for help getting rid of unwanted wood. Stop by your city’s brush drop off site; I regularly fill my hatchback with pine (for outdoor fires) and even good hardwood from ours. Get in touch with local arborists. They often have to pay the dump to take wood after a job! They’d be happy to hand it off for free or a nominal fee. Don’t be afraid to ask, worst they can say is no.

Here's the rest of it.

Here’s the rest of it.

You’ll often have to be willing to haul, split, and stack wood yourself, but it’s all part of the fun. As the old saying goes, wood warms you once when you split it and again when you burn it. I’d add it also warms you when you move it from your car to the yard, when you stack it after splitting, and when you move it into your house for the blaze. It’s all part of my winter exercise routine. You won’t see me on a treadmill; I enjoy exercise that is outdoors and productive. There’s a real satisfaction when a sharp ax busts through a thick log. I recommend the Fiscar’s long-handled ax and a decent canvas log carrier. I also recommend cleaning out your chimney every season or so. I use this: http://www.amazon.com/Gardus-RCH205-Sooteater-Chimney-Cleaning/dp/B0010H5JXA/. If this is all too much for you or you’re unable in your current situation to burn, get one of these: http://www.amazon.com/Yule-Log-n/dp/B00E4V0IW6.

There is something quite mesmerizing and universal about staring into the flames of burning wood. Christmastime isn’t complete without it and it might even save you some dough on your next heating bill. Just make sure not to pay much for your fuel and enjoy the exercise it provides.

What are your tips for getting firewood? What other ways do you offset heating costs?