Buy nothing - the affordable choice

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 on this page.

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 PriceSpy (www.pricespy.co.nz) or PriceMe (www.priceme.co.nz), 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, which now costs less.

Buying used hardware can also slash costs, but some devices, like laptops, tend to age poorly.

And, of course, decline upgrades, such as fancy cables or extended warranties.

Software provides another way to trim the tech budget.

Investigate free and open-source alternatives to commercial programs.

For example, try OpenOffice (openoffice.org) before you drop $300 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 a laptop 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 caller id.

You should also stop making long-distance calls from your home phone.

Use your cellphone, even if you have to wait until after 7pm or the weekend to take advantage of the unlimited off-peak calling.

Cellphone service, in turn, offers easy savings if your plan includes excess minutes, video or audio streaming, or navigation services that you rarely use.

In most cases, you can change plans without penalty.

If you're out of a contract and rarely use your phone, consider whether a prepaid service would be a better deal.

Then look at TV - probably your single most expensive service.

Do you need all the channels you are buying? Internet access, by contrast, doesn't offer much pricing flexibility.

You typically buy a broadband connection as an indivisible whole, without any options that you can later decline.

You should, of course, consider what other broadband options reach your home; for example, DSL typically costs less than cable-modem service.

But broadband Internet, unlike TV and land-line phone connections, can also duplicate those services if you're willing to put it to work.

And now's the time to try out that potential.

Consider long-distance calling.

Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) calls cost far less than land-line calls over long distance, and doesn't carry the time-of-day limits of cellphone long distance.

EBay's Skype (skype.com), for instance, allows free computer-to-computer audio and video chatting, plus computer-to-phone calls for a few cents a minute, whether you're calling Christchurch or China.

Cheap corded and cordless VoIP phones can plug into your home network and free you from talking through a computer's microphone.

You can also turn your broadband connection into your TV service.

The networks offer free streaming video of most shows at their own sites.

- Rob Pegoraro

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