21 Ways to Tame Your Tech Budget

CR shows you how to save on cable, phone, streaming, printing, shopping, and more without sacrificing convenience and fun

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Don’t look now, but there’s a good chance your monthly budget is taking a bigger hit than you think from all those streaming options at your fingertips.

In an era flush with low-cost digital subscriptions, most people barely think twice about tossing a few dollars here and there for creature comforts like Netflix, HBO Go, and Spotify. But if you don’t watch closely, it’s easy to lose sight of what those charges do to your bank account.

In a recent analysis conducted for The New York Times, the online budgeting tool Mint revealed that users spent an average of $640 a year in 2019 on assorted subscriptions—everything from cloud storage to music streaming services to productivity and dating apps.

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How crazy is that?

And that figure doesn’t take into account the ever-expanding list of gadgets we purchase to enjoy those offerings. Think smart TVs, smartphones, laptops, tablets, streaming media devices, smart speakers, and smartwatches.

Do you really need to pay all that money to keep up with the Kardashians?

No, not really. That’s why we put together this list of simple tips to help you tame your tech budget. Ready to start saving money? Here goes ...

Cancel Unwanted App Subscriptions

Android and Apple make it relatively easy to identify entertainment apps and services that may be needlessly draining your bank account. With a few clicks, you can quickly decide which ones to nix.

On an Android device: Open the Google Play Store app > tap the Menu icon (three bars) > Subscriptions.

On an Apple device: Open Settings > tap on your name at the top of the screen > Subscriptions.

Potential savings: More than $50 a year for canceling one or two unused subscriptions.

Review Your Monthly Fees

When confronted by line after line of itemized charges on a bill, it’s tempting to skip to the balance due and write a check. But doing a deeper dive can net big savings. For example, you might find a $15-per-month charge on a cell-phone bill for insurance on a phone that’s now 4 years old. On a cable bill, it could be $12 per month for a DVR you no longer use now that you stream your favorite shows.

Potential savings: More than $100 per year for canceling just one unnecessary charge.

Go All-In on Amazon Prime

If you’re paying $119 per year for free shipping, why not take advantage of the thousands of free movies and TV shows that come with it? Prime members also have access to free digital editions of select magazines (including National Geographic and Better Homes & Gardens), books, and comic books—plus more than 2 million songs. Video fare includes award-winning series like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and HBO classics such as “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “Deadwood.”

Potential savings: If there’s enough to coax you into cutting HBO, Netflix, and other streaming services, you could save hundreds per year.

Break Up With Netflix

Netflix is an enormous general store of movies, TV shows, and hugely popular original series like “The Crown” and “Ozark.” But if you can live without Her Majesty, you may be able to drop this $9- to $16-per-month streaming habit without feeling much pain. Disney+ costs just $7 per month and features “Star Wars,” Marvel, NatGeo, and, of course, Disney content. Hulu offers heaps of shows (with advertisements) for $6 per month. As noted above, Amazon Prime members get a hefty library of free video content. And there are loads of other free options (see below). If you subscribe to Netflix because you’ve always subscribed to Netflix, it could be time to make a change.

Potential savings: At least $108 per year.

Stream Movies Free

More than a dozen streaming services offer movies, TV shows, and other programming without requesting a single penny. Yes, they make you sit through some ads and view content in regular HD video (instead of 4K), but hey, that’s a small sacrifice for the savings. Like Hulu and Netflix, the free services are available on most streaming devices, too, making it easy to watch on your TV, laptop, or tablet. Don’t expect the latest fare, though. The options are more like “Teen Wolf” and “Lethal Weapon.” Ready to give it a try? Check out Crackle, Kanopy, Pluto TV, Tubi TV, Vudu, and Xumo.

Potential savings: More than $100 a year if this helps you cancel one paid streaming service.

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Cut That Cord, Once and for All

Deciding to cut the cord used to be simple: Most any live TV streaming service was cheaper than cable. But now that live TV streaming providers have raised their prices, the math is trickier. Even so, cord cutting still makes sense for many, especially if you can use an antenna to get free network content, or you're satisfied with limited TV streaming packages from companies such as Sling, which offers a limited selection of networks starting at $20 per month.

Potential savings: Easily $700 or more per year, depending on the cost of your current service and what you replace it with.

Sign Up With a Low-Cost Cell-Service Provider

A Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) is a relatively new form of cellular service that operates on the same networks used by AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile but can offer cheaper plans because it doesn’t have to build and maintain towers.

How much cheaper? Straight Talk offers unlimited talk, text, and data for $55 per month. For the same service at AT&T, you pay $65. Visible has an unlimited plan for $40 per month. At Verizon, it’s $70.

CR members tend to give high marks to customer support provided by MVNOs. This could help explain why Consumer Cellular, Google Fi, and Ting routinely finish atop our cell-phone service ratings.

MVNOs do have drawbacks. During peak demand, MVNO customers may experience slower service than those of AT&T, Verizon, and other major players. And very few MVNOs have a physical location you can head to for in-person tech support.

Potential savings: Up to $360 per year.

Spruce Up Your Phone

In an age when a brand-new phone can cost $800 or more, it’s tempting to hold on to the model you have for as long as you can. One way to extend the life of your phone is to replace the battery, which often fails to hold a full charge after about two years. At the Apple Store, the out-of-warranty cost for the repair is $69 for newer models (the iPhone X and later) and $49 for earlier versions. Best Buy’s Geek Squad will provide the service for Galaxy models from the Note5 to the Note9 for $60. Toss in a shiny new phone case and you’re still saving yourself a chunk of money by waiting another year to upgrade.

Potential savings: Close to $300, probably many times more by deferring the purchase of a CR-recommended phone.

Buy Refurbished

Apple, Dell, and Samsung sell refurbished laptops, smartphones, and tablets. Buying one is a great way to save money. On Apple’s website, for example, you can purchase a refurbished iPhone X for $599. A new X costs $899. Interested in headphones or speakers? Bose and Sonos also have programs. According to a 2018 survey, 82 percent of more than 3,000 CR members with a refurbished smartphone said they were highly satisfied with it. But before you begin, do a little homework.

Look for products that are “certified pre-owned.” Make sure the refurbishment includes a new rechargeable battery and all of the standard accessories.

Insist on a warranty. Without one, you have no protection.

Ask about the returns policy. Some problems take time to surface, so it’s best to buy from a retailer that gives you at least a month to return the product.

Potential savings: You can easily save $100—much more depending on the product.

Skip the Extended Warranty

CR research shows that members who purchase extended warranties and service contracts for laptops rarely use them for repairs. Not only that, the median cost of the extra coverage is about the same as the median cost of a single repair. The survey results for desktops and tablets are very similar. Bottom line: If you have a habit of dropping your phone, it might make sense to spring for the added protection. Otherwise, put the money into your savings account just in case you need it. The stats say you’ll probably get to keep it.

Potential savings: $100 or more for a laptop or smartphone.

Buy a Phone Case

Dropping an unprotected phone can be a costly fumble. The out-of-warranty cost to replace a cracked screen on the iPhone 11 Pro Max is $329. For an iPhone X, it’s $279. And Best Buy’s screen replacement service for Samsung phones starts at $200. Inexpensive cases are available for less than $20, and CR’s testing shows that even a flimsy case can provide enough protection to keep a screen from cracking in many instances.

Potential savings: $200 or more.

Conserve Printer Ink

According to our testers, more than half the ink you buy for an inkjet printer may never wind up on the page. It’s used instead to clean the device’s printheads. But there’s a simple way to reduce that loss: Just leave your printer powered on around the clock, which keeps it from triggering a maintenance cycle every time you use it, noticeably reducing ink consumption. For projects that don't require flawless presentation, you can also print items in draft mode, which further reduces the amount of ink you use.

Potential savings: $20 to $30 a year in replacement ink costs.

Buy a Tank Printer

If the printer in your home gets heavy use—churning out recipes, book reports, sports schedules, plane tickets, graphics-heavy school projects and the like—consider buying a tank printer, such as the Canon Pixma G4210. Like other reservoir models, it requires a larger investment upfront ($280) but provides significant savings by doing away with pricey replacement cartridges in favor of tanks replenished from low-cost bottles of ink. To keep the thing running, you’re looking at a typical cost of just $6 a year; typical inkjets can top out at $100 a year. Better yet, tank printers earn higher satisfaction scores from CR’s members than cartridge models, according to our survey results.

Potential savings: $30 to $50 a year in replacement ink costs.

Shop at the Right Time

The holiday deal season in November and December is generally the best time to shop for electronics, but you don’t have to wait until year’s end to get a good deal. Here are the other times you can save, based on a CR analysis of pricing data.

January: Sound bars and TVs.

February: Smartphones and tablets.

March: Cameras.

May: Portable Bluetooth speakers, camcorders, and smartwatches.

July: Home security cameras.

August: Chromebooks, desktops, headphones, laptops, and printers.

Potential savings: 25 percent or more off regular prices.

Buy Your Cables and Dongles Online

Some retailers will give you a deal on a TV or a laptop, then try to make up part of the difference by selling you overpriced accessories. Need a high-speed HDMI cable for your new set? The store might try to sell you a 10-foot cable for $20 or more that you could buy on a site such as monoprice.com or Blue Jeans Cable for less than $10.

Potential savings: At least $10, and probably much more.

Embrace the 30-Day Trial

Amazon Prime, Disney+, Netflix, and Spotify Premium are just a handful of the services that offer free trial periods (some are only seven days, but you get the idea). Taking advantage of these is a good way to decide whether a service is worth paying for. But if you’re strategic, you can use a free trial period to, say, entertain grandkids or save big on Amazon Prime Day. Be sure to mark your calendar so that you don’t forget to cancel the service before you have to start paying for it.

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Stop Renting Your Router

Instead of paying $5 to $10 per month to lease a router from your cable company, consider buying one. You’ll find options that practically pay for themselves in a year’s time. The OnHub AC1900 from Google and Asus, for example, sells for $85. If you have a modest-sized home, choose the TP-Link Archer C7, which costs only $60.

Potential savings: Up to $120 per year.

Use an Indoor Antenna

Chances are good that you can get dozens of over-the-air channels using an indoor TV antenna. In a recent CR test of antennas, the Mohu ReLeaf came out on top. It costs about $30, much less than a single month of basic cable.

The number of channels you’ll be able to receive depends largely on where you live. To find out how many channels an antenna in your home is likely to pick up, enter your address at the Federal Communications Commission’s DTV Reception Maps website. Be sure to buy a model from a retailer with a liberal return policy, just in case. Placing the antenna close to a window and higher up tends to optimize reception.

Potential savings: Hundreds of dollars per year, based on the cost of the cable subscription you cancel.

Buy Last Year's Model

Few products make big leaps in technology from one year to the next. OLED screens have been available on smartphones for a while now, for example. The same goes for high dynamic range in TV sets. That means you don’t have to spring for the latest model when you shop for those products, even if you want high-performance features. Why not save a bundle by going with the version that’s just passed its birthday? Here are a few examples of slightly dated products that deliver on performance and savings:

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Go Second Tier, Without Regrets

Top-of-the-line products rarely disappoint, but they do come with hefty prices. If you can live without the latest and greatest features, you can often find recently released, lower-cost alternatives from the brands you trust. Here are a few smartphones that offer great value and performed well in our testing.

Buy the Lesser-Known Alternative

There’s no law that says you have to go with Apple’s high-priced AirPods just because they’re popular. If you’re willing to pass on the crowd favorite, you’ll find true wireless models that perform just as well at a fraction of the price. In fact, Samsung’s $110 Galaxy Buds deliver better sound than any Apple AirPods model, according to our testers. The JBuds Air earphones from JLab Audio beat most AirPods for just $50. Looking for similar bargains in other product categories? Consider Edifier S1000DB speakers, sold in a pair for $350; the OnePlus 7T smartphone, $500; and the 8-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab A tablet, $160, below.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the June 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Correction: An earlier version of the article indicated that the iPhone 11 has an OLED screen. This Apple smartphone has an LCD screen.