While inflation may have pushed product prices ever skyward over the past decade, the oughts weren't a complete drain on consumers' wallets. In fact, looking back, many of the innovations of the past 10 years were geared toward saving us money.
Think about it: When was the last time you were shocked by a long-distance telephone bill or spent money developing photos you didn't want? Here are our top 10 money-saving innovations of the last decade.
Telephone companies used to love long-distance relationships. Lovers separated by vast distances made them rich, after all. To access the industry's dedicated system of telephone lines and switchboards, one had to pay those dreaded long-distance fees; that is, until Skype (and its peers) arrived on the scene.
Skype replaced telephone lines with Internet connections. By routing calls over the Web, the cost was cut down to nothing, or close to it. Suddenly, Ben in Boston could talk to his heart's content with Brandi in Budapest.
Skype also drove down the prices that cell phone companies charged for long distance calls, and it also introduced many Americans to video conferencing. Now those lovers can gaze into one another's eyes, no matter how far apart.
The power of group purchasing and the Internet gave birth to one of the hottest new money-saving strategies of the late 2000's: Groupon. The site solicits special deals from local companies in dozens of locations, offering products and services at a fraction of the price -- as long as people are willing to pay upfront and as long as a certain number of customers are willing to sign up.
Deals are posted once and range from restaurant and hotel discounts to flying lessons to teeth whitening to just about anything else you can imagine.
For years, we suffered under the tyranny of Blockbuster, paying for three-day rentals and steep late fees, with the need to travel to sometimes inconvenient locations. Then came Redbox. The company, which rented DVDs from a device resembling a soda machine, cut the price to a dollar a day and made the process, dare we say... convenient.
The vending distribution meant that the movies could be offered in many more locations, increasing accessibility. While streaming video will eventually make Redbox obsolete, in the 2000's this innovation drove down the cost of movie entertainment and helped to drive companies like Blockbuster into bankruptcy.
We are a nation of willing video entertainment addicts, and have depended on broadcast television for our fix since the early 1950's. However, as Internet bandwidth expanded in the oughts, we found more and more video entertainment just a mouse-click away. From homegrown clips on YouTube to entire network TV shows on sites such as Hulu.
Some people have even ditched cable television altogether, watching what they chose via their Internet connection instead. As more and more network shows are also made available on the Internet, the line between cable and Internet will continue to blur. If providers have their way, we'll eventually have to pay something regardless of the method of distribution. In the oughts, though, the Internet brought us a lot of free TV.
One tech blogger recently calculated that his iPhone replaced no fewer than 23 gadgets: GPS, MP3 player, handheld gaming platform, camera (both still and video), e-reader, calculator, voice recorder and more.
The smartphone also helps us save money in other ways. For example, it allows us to access our bank accounts on the fly. It shows us the most efficient, frugal way to get where we are going. It allows us to comparison shop at the point of purchase. The iPhone has become a convergence device that is already indispensable for many of us.
6. Online Banking
Remember balancing a checkbook -- in the actual checkbook? For those of us who are too preoccupied with life to sharpen a pencil and do the math every time a bank statement arrives, online banking has been a godsend. Now, with just a few clicks of the mouse, we can check our account balance to avoid overdraft charges, pay off credit card balances before they accrue interest, check investments and move them to more lucrative alternatives, and transfer money between accounts.
The latest technology even allows us to deposit checks using a smartphone. If time is money, online banking saves us here, too.
7. Price-Comparison Websites
How many times have you found yourself standing in front of a store display wondering if the wonderful deal it promises really is a deal? Thanks to smartphones and price-comparison websites, that's no longer a problem.
With smartphone apps, such as Red Laser and TheFind, you can scan the bar code of the product while in the store and it will respond with the price of other vendors and the location of those stores.
If you're shopping online, it's even easier. Websites, such as Pricegrabber, will scour the Internet to find the best price. For local price comparisons, sites such as Milo will tell you if you're getting a good deal and who locally may have the same items in stock.
8. Coupon-Code Aggregators
Coupon clipping at the turn of the decade used to be a maddening process. Not only must we sort through magazines, newspapers, direct mail and other piles of paper, but then we had to go online and try to search for whatever coupons we could find there, too. Thankfully, the 2000's brought us coupon-code aggregators, websites like RetailMeNot that pull together into one place coupon offers from companies around the world.
Aggregators made coupons searchable by store and made it easy to find and print relevant coupons for both brick and mortar and online stores. In fact, once coupon-code aggregators arrived we really didn't have any excuse left not to save.
9. Digital Cameras and Home Photo Printing
You may miss the guy who works at the photomart but you probably don't miss waiting three days for prints that didn't even turn out all that great. With today's digital cameras we can take a photo and print it out on our home computer in a matter of minutes.
No longer do we need to print out a full roll of film, either, only to find that half of the shots are unworthy. And while printing pictures at home may not be the bargain you might think (add up the cost of the printer, ink, and paper) it has served to drive down the cost of third-party processing.
The cameras also offer far more features for far less money that the 35 mm ones did just 10 years ago.
10. Buying Used
There was a time, before the Great Recession, when shopping at thrift stores was pretty much relegated to the impoverished and the extremely frugal. However, those times have changed. As our stock portfolios tanked, many Americans trimmed expenses by hitting the Salvation Army store, yard sales, eBay, consignment shops and other places where gently-used products with life left in them were for sale.
The delight many people experienced in uncovering treasures among the dreck will keep them coming back, even when the economy truly recovers. Buying used is the new chic.
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