When was the last time you bought a roll of film? An encyclopedia? A paper map? When’s the last time you saw a pay phone?
My answers: 2004. Never. Never. Can’t remember.
Yet I essentially have all these things and more in my pocket – on a 5-ounce device one-third of an inch thick. Smartphones save us time, gas, and money.
But technology also makes it easier to waste money.
1. PC tuneups
Computer software can update itself – but computers can’t. As they collect tons of files and run newer, bigger, and better programs, they get slower. You can’t expect a 5-year-old computer to run like new, no matter what you do to it.
But TV commercials and Web ads will tell you otherwise, peddling paid “solutions” that claim to make your computer run better and load things faster.
In 6 Free Ways to Save Your Digital Life, I explain how to get a reliable, free antivirus program, automatically update your software, and back up your files online so they’re not taking up computer space – all things that will help keep your computer running smoother for longer. Beyond that, it’s up to you to be a careful user and not install lots of silly toolbars, casino games, or other software you don’t need.
2. Friend finders
There are lots of subscription services online to track people down, look up their phone numbers and addresses, and otherwise stalk them.
But the best, most widely used social networks are free – like Facebook. When I joined Facebook in January 2005, only geeky college kids were on it, so it wasn’t a great way to reconnect with old acquaintances. But now, even my grandparents are among its 901 million active users. (Which is almost a third more users than those claimed by subscription site MyLife.) The question is no longer whether John Smith uses Facebook, but whether you can pick out his photo, job, or location among the hundreds of John Smiths who do.
Why would you pay a fee to “see who’s searching for you” when everyone you’ve ever met is already on Facebook? The only reason I can imagine is that you’re spending too much time watching TV commercials.
3. Optional CDs
When you buy digital software, you sometimes get the option to purchase a physical copy on CD for $10 or more.
Provided you have a CD/DVD-writeable drive, you can buy a spindle of 50 CDs for $10 online and burn a copy of the download yourself. But with Internet connection speed and thumb drive capacity improvements in the past few years, I can’t remember the last time I had to use a CD, anyway.
4. Extended warranties
Adding a year or two of protection to your electronics is rarely worth the cost, especially if it doesn’t include tech support or requires you to mail in the device for repair and live without it for weeks. An extended warranty often costs as much as the average repair job (about $150), so you might be better off taking your chances. Plus, your credit card might automatically extend the warranty. For instance, purchases with an American Express card will add an extra year of protection at no cost.
5. Ringtones and useless apps
How much money do you really want to spend for a few moments of embarrassment when your phone goes off in public? At a buck or two for a 30-second snippet of a song, this just doesn’t seem smart. That money could be going toward your texting or data plan.
If you have a smartphone and own the full version of the song anyway – whether it’s an iPhone, Android, or Windows Phone – you can make a custom ringtone for free.
Of course, you’re also at risk of buying all kinds of ridiculous apps you’ll get a chuckle out of once – and never use again. Stick to free apps and the ones you really need, or at least wait for sales.
6. Buying rent-to-own
Sure, you can buy a new laptop for $40/week from a chain like Rent-A-Center. But rent-to-own is the most expensive way to buy something, because you can end up paying the equivalent of 300 percent interest before it becomes yours.
You’re way better off financing it on your credit card, where even the worst interest rates are much better. But the smart way to buy tech – or anything else – is be an adult and wait until you can pay cash.
7. Paying a techie for simple repairs
If you’re paying a tech store $30 to $100 to perform simple computer tasks such as installing software or burning a DVD, you’re overpaying by 100 percent. (But note that such stores might do those PC tuneups for free.)
Family and friends often turn to me to fix their tech problems, and a lot of the stuff is so routine to me I don’t have to think about it. And I’m not a tech wizard – I didn’t take any classes or even spend a lot of time reading about it. I just learned by doing it.
Know what I do these days when I’m (frequently!) stumped by a problem? Go to a search engine and paste the error message in quotes. Or, just ask a question in your own words. Trust me, no matter your problem, it’s been solved many times before. Proof: Click here to see how many people have dropped their iPhone in a toilet.
8. Being a day-one buyer
Living on the cutting edge means paying the most for the least polished version. Early adopters get to look cool, but they’re subsidizing improvements, learning about flaws the hard way, and paving the road to a larger, cheaper marketplace for everyone else.
Waiting even a few months after a product’s release lets you take advantage of user reviews – and if the price hasn’t gone down, it’s not going to go up. Even Apple’s super-hyped products see small discounts days after release.
9. Renting a router/modem
Where I live, the cable company charges $7 a month to rent one of the modems required to connect to the Internet. In years past, Ma Bell used a similar concept, renting phones to their unwitting customers for decades when they could have bought their own for $20.
Modems typically cost less than $100 to buy outright – they pay for themselves in 14 months or less. Of course, renting also means that when you have connection issues, they can’t blame your equipment. If that’s a concern, call the cable company, tell them it’s a rip and ask for a discount. In fact, ask for a discount on your entire bill while you’re at it.
10. Buying a huge data or texting plan
Phone companies like Verizon keep shuffling their business models to keep things profitable as heavy data-using devices like smartphones and tablets fill up more of their networks. So if you aren’t paying attention to your plan, usage, and the latest offerings, you could easily be overpaying.
If you’re not grandfathered into an unlimited data plan (which you may lose when you upgrade devices), take a close look at your next billing statement and check if you could safely drop down to a lower pricing tier.
When your devices are in range of a Wi-Fi connection, change your settings to use that instead of the 3G/4G network to reduce the data use you’re charged for. (Using Wi-Fi for Web browsing will also save battery life, but shut it off when you aren’t using it or you may see the opposite effect.)
We’re all guilty of some tech mistakes – if you’ve learned from them, please share your insights on our Facebook page.