Q. I'm paying too much for too little — almost $200 for cable, Internet and phone. How can I cut those costs?
A. You're definitely overpaying, and you're not alone: I've heard this lament from many people, up to and including my own mother.
Your easiest and first option should be to threaten to fire your current service, then see what kind of a discount it offers you to stay. If it isn't sufficiently generous — as in, compare its proposed price break to the deals its site touts for new subscribers — it's time to look for alternatives and then make good on your threat.
Assuming you have multiple broadband providers reaching your home, your mailbox has probably been stuffed with under-$100 offers for "triple-play" bundles of TV, Internet and phone service. They can look tremendously attractive, but you need to watch out for TV-equipment costs that are rarely included in those promotions and can add $5 to $20 per month, per set, for a tuner or a digital video recorder.
(Unless you want to watch only local channels and little else, about the only way to opt out of renting a cable box is to pay for a TiVo instead. With satellite, you don't even have that option, and you have to rent the hardware.)
Do that math, and if a different triple-play bundle really will save you money, go ahead and switch. (That's what my mom did, in case anybody's curious.) But if you haven't been heavily using all of your current trio of services, you may find it cheaper to buy TV, Internet and phone separately — or perhaps get rid of one of those subscriptions.
Of those three, television usually permits the most freedom to shop around. As long as your home has a clear view of the southern sky, you should have three options: your local cable company and the DirecTV and Dish Network satellite services. A lucky minority can also get TV from a fiber-optic service like AT&T's U-Verse or Verizon's Fios.
But you can cut the TV cord if you have good over-the-air reception of local stations or are content with such Internet video services as Netflix and Hulu (via a "smart" TV's built-in apps or by connecting a Roku box or Chromecast receiver). At a minimum, you can zero out some cable/satellite-box rental costs by switching a second TV at home to broadcast or Internet only.
Internet access, however, allows much less flexibility. Most U.S. residents can choose between cable and digital-subscriber-line, but that second, phone-based technology often fails to deliver sufficiently fast speeds — figure at least 5 million bits per second — for high-definition streaming video.
Using a portable wireless device like a MiFi or equivalent is an idea, but not a good one unless you don't use the Internet much. Wireless can easily reach top 5 Mbps — and prepaid options cost about the same as many cable and DSL plans. But they usually come with data caps that rule out watching much video online.
(If you do go with cable Internet, remember to buy a modem instead of renting one.)
The least valuable component of a triple-play bundle is phone calling: Those deals usually include gold-plated voice service — caller ID, conference calling, free domestic long distance, etc. — that only matches what you get for free on any wireless voice plan.
If you must keep a land line, drop any long-distance service (you can make free long-distance calls via Google Voice from a regular phone or over an Internet-calling app). Drop add-ons like voicemail (get a cheap answering machine instead) and Caller ID (let the machine screen calls for you).
With some carriers, such as Verizon, lower the bill further by switching from a flat-rate plan to one with a limited number of outgoing calls or one in which you pay for each call placed.
But if you're already paying for wireless phone service, the most cost-effective move will be to follow the example of more than a third of U.S. households by dropping land-line service entirely.
Tip: YouTube finally coming to Roku
One of the weirder schisms in the tech industry quietly ended in mid-December, when Roku announced the long-awaited arrival of a YouTube channel on its Internet-media receivers. It's already available on Roku 3 boxes and should be making its way to other post-2011 models in the coming months. To see if it's available on yours, go to the Channel Store on your device or see if you can add it via Roku's site.