The $1,000 Challenge, Part 2: Turning Down Your Utility Bills

Electricity Meter, Close Up
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In the first installment of The $1,000 Challenge, we tackled the easiest spending category of all to cut -- junk spending on things you won't miss because often, you don't even know that you're paying for them.

And cut we did.

How easy was it? One reader, Kristen, commented that she found an overlooked monthly charge that will save her nearly $225 a year. Another reader cut more than $120 a year by canceling an old email account. And when I originally did the experiment on my own "miscellaneous spending," I found $132.89 a month that was easily cut.

This installment -- utilities spending -- might take a bit more effort, but it's still a fairly easy place to find big savings without a lot of pain. Basically, if it comes out of a wall in your house or apartment (or in through the electromagnetic spectrum), we're going to try to cut how much it costs you this week.

The biggest savings will come from things like cable, Internet and cell phones. The companies that provide these services are in competitive industries, and new bundles, plans and options are being introduced all the time.

Sometimes, All You Have to Do Is Ask

One easy and often-overlooked method for saving on theses services is to just call your current providers and ask for cheaper plans. In our case, I'd signed us up for the minimum package of cable channels when we moved to Detroit; but a few years later, the company had introduced a new, cheaper option. In the case of cell phones, it was the same thing: we'd signed up for the basic calling plan, but a new one had been introduced since then that was cheaper.

If you go a little further and do some comparison shopping, you can find even more savings, but make sure you sort out introductory specials from long-term, ongoing rates. When I tackled my utilities, I received more than $600 in temporary price breaks and rebates, which was great. But we're focusing on finding permanent, ongoing savings for your budget. Don't get fooled by a super-low intro-rate deal that will actually cost you more per month when the initial discount expires.

You should also consider bundles. You can get cable,
Internet and phone service in one package, along with some nifty extras, such as digital video recorders or a built-in WiFi network. There are no extra charges for long-distance calls (though people in blackout-prone areas may want to keep a conventional land line, which will work during a power outage). Just grab last month's bill or look up what you're paying online, and start shopping.

The only reason to check more than one month's worth of bills is if you're sometimes charged for time, text or data overages on your cell phone plan, if you have varying long-distance charges, or are paying extra for on-demand movies and videos. In those cases, look for a plan that can give you those extras at a discount. If all your movie-viewing is from on-demand, maybe it's time to cancel your premium channels and consider renting movies from Netflix or other services -- or borrowing them free from the library.

Call Me Thrifty

Will cell phones, you provider can offer an analysis of your usage, and there are online comparison sites, such as, which can analyze your calling patterns and recommend alternatives. (I didn't find to be entirely accurate in estimating my costs, though, so double-check any calculations against a few of your recent bills. The recommended plans did, however, save me about $40 a month.)

Also check out prepaid cell phone plans, especially ones that will let you roll over any unused minutes from month to month, which can make sense if you aren't a heavy caller. If you're really looking to save, cut down to just one phone, either a land line or a cell.

How aggressive you get should depend on how much you want to save. You can cut down to one prepaid cell phone, use library Internet access, borrow DVDs from the library, and cut out a lot of costs right there. You don't need cable or satellite service to go with an HDTV; you can receive high-definition broadcast signals over the air with an HD antenna. The Consumer Electronics Association has even created a website designed to help you figure out which type of antenna you need.

Some folks are cutting their cable altogether and in favor of streaming services. Using one of these will require you to keep Internet access, possibly at a higher speed than you're paying for now. There are streaming options over the Web, such as Hulu, and there all manner of little black boxes that will connect the Web to your TV and give you access to most -- but not all -- programming for a monthly subscription charge. Apple TV is one; TiVo Premiere service offers most cable channels; and there are gizmos available from Roku, Vizio, Simple.TV, among others. You also have options through Amazon, iTunes and even game systems such as Xbox and Wii. Be careful that you don't end up spending more than you'll save buying cables, boxes and other gear.

Water Works and the Electric Company

When it comes to major utilities, such as water, gas and electricity, you don't have as many options. Some states have competitive electricity markets,
and you can price piped-in natural gas vs. propane, but that's about it. Your best bet for savings here is conservation. But don't install $5,000 worth of insulation if it's only going to save $12 a month on your bill. Many power companies will do home energy audits to give you savings ideas, including some that can be pretty cheap.

Many electricity providers also offer a discount if you shift some of your power usage away from peak hours. But in most cases, finding savings on those old-school utilities means fixing leaky faucets, insulating windows and closing the heat registers in unused rooms. And while it won't cut your overall costs, subscribing to level billing -– which averages your annual utility spending and gives you a fixed monthly payment -– does make it easier to plan and budget during the year.

It goes without saying that if you are severely crunched for cash, check out all your options for help, from home heating assistance in your state to discount cell phone plans for folks on public assistance. Start with your local human services agency and the United Way.

Overall, I bundled our Internet, cable and phone, cut out my long-distance service, and found a few suspicious extras that mysteriously had been added to my phone bill, and saved $139.39 a month, after all the rebates and temporary discounts.

You can find more detailed suggestions in my book, "The $1,000 Challenge." Make sure to post your ideas, tips, strategies and how much you find to save here in the comments or share them on the Facebook page. Just grab a bill and start today.

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With Fuel Assistance and Obamaphones/Computers, why would a Democrat care.

January 24 2014 at 1:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Reviewed my cable and phone bills and after two quick web visits, I'm saving $18 per month...with some extras I found during week 1, I'm up to a total of nearly $300. Thanks for the advice and the weekly column to help remind me to keep it up. Also I know that you aren't advocating tracking every purchase, but my husband and I have found using an app to manage our budget every time we spend something isn't that hard and keeps us on track.

January 20 2014 at 2:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Hi Den

Just keep cutting and cutting all of the modern day conveniences until we are left in our stone age huts. Our very way of life is being degraded, death by 1000 cuts. The real problem is a governrnent that taxes too much, spends too much, and stands in the way of economic growth. This is the progressive liberal way of life, and yes GW was part of it, but Obama is worse. Get your string and tin cans out, that will be your device of communication soon.

January 14 2014 at 11:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Zachariah Adams

Switching providers and signing up for the lower introductory promotion plans are the easiest and quickest way to cut cost off your bill. Or joining a Multi Level Marketing company that pays for your energy/gas bill and cell phone bills is another way of cutting cost. Thats what I did and its saving me alot of money. Check it out. You can also email me if you have questions. But if your interested check out the link provided.

Copy and paste the above links to find out more or email me at

January 14 2014 at 8:16 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Zachariah Adams

Switching providers and signing up for the lower introductory promotion plans are the easiest and quickest way to cut cost off your bill. Or joining a Multi Level Marketing company that pays for your energy/gas bill and cell phone bills is another way of cutting cost. Thats what I did and its saving me alot of money. Check it out. You can also email me if you have questions. But if your interested check out the link provided.

January 14 2014 at 8:13 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Since the Great Recession began (and no, it hasn't ended, not by a longshot), I have learned to live on less.....a lot less. No cell phone, no eating meals out, no movies (RedBox is $1.30 per rental), no credit cards, just pay cash as you go. Still driving a 12 year old car so no car payments. Forgotten e mail accounts? My e mail has always been free. Always wash clothes in cold water, and don't do a load unless it is a full load. Don't use stamps as I pay bills on line. Use the computer at the library for internet access. As for food shopping, always cut coupons and buy in bulk when on sale. And, there's nothing wrong with eating leftovers or freezing food ahead of time. Cooking is a lot cheaper than fast food or eating meals out.

January 14 2014 at 4:36 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

you aren't giving me any advice on saving money that my family hasn't already been practicing. we don't have any cable. there is so much crap out there, that there are very few shows worth watching, and we have been using Netflix or Amazon show subscription, or watching the shows directly on the network websites, for YEARS. we don't have a landline phone, and don't have any cell phone plan. we have 3 pay as you go phones that cost us a grand total for all three of only $25 a month. we don't mail our bills or send cards and letters through the mail, so why need to subscribe to for the few stamps we need, we can buy them at the post office! we have used FREE email for 15 years, so we don't have "forgotten" email accounts that we are paying for. we bought a 2 bedroom condo where we pay less on our mortgage and home owners dues that we would on monthly rent somewhere. we are quite lucky in that we are insulated by the units above and to either side of us, and we never need to turn on the heat. I already wash all our clothes in cold water, if that is going to be a future bit of wonder advice from you, and also do price comparison shopping, thrift store shopping and take advantage of Albertsons's buy 1 meat get 2 free offers and buy most products when they are on sale. so, bye-bye, I am unsubscribing from your "words of wisdom" RSS feed, as I can see after reading two postings that you aren't going to save me a dime. do you spend less than $1000 a month total? on housing, gas, groceries, clothing, utilities, etc.? because we do (that is per person, as we are a family of four, AND that includes putting some aside for savings every month)

January 14 2014 at 8:03 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to ModestPrude's comment

So go write your own book.

January 14 2014 at 7:22 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Brian O'Connor

Sorry to see you go -- your tips could be very helpful to the rest of the readers here. And you MIGHT just learn something from some other commenter in the remaining eight weeks, if not me.

January 17 2014 at 8:52 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Getting your TV content online is called streaming. Why is streaming better than cable ? With cable you have to wait on a tv schedule. With streaming, you can "click" on it any time you like.

Those new electronic electric meters are a major boom to savings. They are very accurate
and show you exactly how many watts you are using at any given time. You can use this as a measuring instrument and test everything in your house. How ? Turn off everything except
the device you want to check. For example, your fridge says it uses 120 watts but how much is it actally using ? Maybe it's time for a new more efficient model.
If you turn everything off in your house, your meter should read zero watts. Mine didn't. It showed 19 watts. How ? Even turned off my tv was using 2 watts and my range was using 17 watts for the electric clock. I disconnected the clock and put the tv on an outlet strip so I can disconnect it when it's off. Only 19 watts , so what ?
19 x 24 x 31 days is 14,136 or 14 kilowatt hours added to my bill for basically nothing.
I use a battery wall clock and crank-up timer instead of the stove clock. The battery lasts 3 years and costs 99 cents.

I actually invented a solar laser that bounces sunlight between solar panels achieving double efficiency, but before you invest $10,000.00 in a solar energy system for your home consider this. Most electric power utilities sell stock or shares and they pay a dividend, some as high as 5% return. Instead of a solar power system, you can buy $10,000.00 worth of electric company stock and get them to pay you $500.00 a year and use the $500.00 to pay a big chunk of your electric bill. The advantage is most increase their dividend from time to time, and you can sell the stock anytime you like. If you sell your house, you still keep the shares.

January 14 2014 at 6:53 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to alfredschrader's comment

They spy on you!

January 14 2014 at 9:57 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to jdykbpl45's comment

Paranoia runs deep.

January 14 2014 at 12:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

After many years, I thought I finally found the "They" that is spying on us but.... After I went around the block and came back, turned out it wasn't "They," it was.... "The Y"

January 14 2014 at 3:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down