tao of cheap

Discovering the Tao of Cheap

I recently came across the concept of the three jewels of Taoism accidentally.  The monk training “Grasshopper” in season 1, episode 8 of Kung-Fu (1973) refers to the three jewels, the second of which is “…frugality, that I might show generosity to others.”  This allusion encouraged me to investigate Taoism as I consider my own Tao of cheap.
teaching the tao

I had a vague concept of Taoism as a sort of minimalist, ascetic, transcendental philosophy, but I had never taken the time to investigate further.  After reading the Tao Te Ching, “The Way of Virtue Book” written by the sage Loazi in the 6th century BCE and visiting some helpful websitesI realized that the text offers great insights on the philosophy of being cheap.

It is true, as “Grasshopper’s” master teaches, that frugality enables generosity, but the value of the Tao Te Ching regarding simplicity, avoiding materialism, and seeking contentedness goes beyond this principle.

What is Taoism, and what does it have to do with getting me what I want?

The Tao Te Ching has been translated into a gobzillian languages and has influenced artists, scholars, and leaders for millennia.  Although Taoism is considered a religion as well as a philosophy, the Tao Te Ching barely refers to matters of faith or the supernatural.  It is more of a playbook for a life of contentedness.

the birth of loazi
A painting in the Green Goat Temple in Chengdu depicts the birth of Loazi

It is kind of like the opposite of The Secret endorsed by Oprah, Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, and others. The Secret is basically the concept of bringing your desires into reality through visualization and positive vibes.  The Tao, on the other hand, suggests that you eliminate desires to reach a state of naturalness that enables true contentedness (and, ironically, leads to what you might have desired in the first place).

The Tao teaches that striving not to strive will deliver that for which you would have been striving. (Say what now?)

The Tao and frugality

Since we are striving not to strive, what will we attain?  The idea is that attaining respect, money, happiness, etc., comes from not seeking respect, money, happiness, etc.  It is an appealing contradiction.

So if I want to be rich, all I have to do is strive not to be rich? Exactly.  Eliminating the desire to “be rich” ultimately facilitates the accumulation of wealth.  I would argue that possessing means is not exactly what our society means by “being rich.”  For many of us, “being rich” is more about image, materialism, and lifestyle than net worth.

Relate post: Reducing the Costs of Fun

Quotes from the Tao Te Ching regarding money

tao te ching calligraphy

The Tao of cheap and materialism

“Not to desire material things is to know the freedom of spirituality; and to desire them is to suffer the limitations of matter.”

If you are always looking for the better car, clothes, house, etc., when will you find contentment?  You are training yourself to be in a state of perpetual want. Practice taking joy in what you have rather than focusing on what you lack.  If you practice seeking the attainment of joy rather than practicing the experience of joy, you will rarely find it.

“Here are the four fundamentals of true spirituality: recognize simplicity, cherish purity, reduce your possessions, diminish your desires.”

Enjoy the simple pleasures of life.  Spend your life enjoying what you have rather than focusing on what you desire.  You may find that your desires diminish, or even realize that your desires were misplaced from the start.

Related link: Living well, spending less

“Trifles and dainties attract the passing people, while the Tao goes unnoticed.

When looked at, it is not much to see; when listened for, it can scarcely be heard; but when put into practice, it is inexhaustible.

The world will go to those who seek the Tao; they will find contentment, peace, and rest.”

“The way of Tao is simple – stop striving, defeat desire.  In the absence of striving, there is peace; in the absence of desire, there is satisfaction.”

Contentment, unlike material possession, is limitless. You can easily spend your life lusting for material possessions or luxurious experiences.  If you do so, you will experience a life of want rather than a life of plenty.  Not only will you misplace your focus on passing fancies, you may ultimately lead to your own anxiety and deprivation.

tao of cheap camping
A picture I took recently on a camping trip.  The view was the same from my modest tent as it was for my neighbors in expensive RVs.

Imagine a man who always seeks the best for himself.  He finances the best car, gadgets, house, and vacations.  He works at a job he hates in order to attain fleeting moments of satisfaction.  He ends up paying a great monetary and emotional cost.  Not only must he live with the anxiety of his debts, he fails to fully experience the luxury of his life as he continually turns his mind to what is next.

“Overindulgence creates waste. Hoarding invites loss.

The man who is content with what he has is not in danger of loss.

The great Way is very plain, so the proud prefer the bypaths.

When the palace is splendid, the fields are likely to be weedy and the granaries empty.

To wear jewels and silks, to flash your weapons, to eat and drink excessively, to store up wealth and treasure – this is the way of robbers.

Pomp is contrary to the Tao.”

As the Notorious B.I.G said, “More money, more problems.”  As Tyler Durden says in Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you.”  Once you have the biggest house, sweetest ride, and freshest threads, they bring you anxiety.  You must protect what you have or compete for whatever is next.

Our society does not celebrate modesty. You must decide for yourself that modesty and frugality (being cheap) are virtues. Modesty is not a crime. Your worth is not defined by what you have or what others think of you. Concentrate on doing what you love and enjoying what you have, especially the joys of life that are available to all.

taoism and frugality yacht
“Sure, this yacht is nice, but what I really need to feel good about myself is an island.”

Taoism and generosity

“The Tao has three treasures which the wise guard and cherish; The first is compassion, the second is economy, and the third is humility.

…if you are economical, you can be truly generous…”

When people think of those who are economical, cheap, or frugal they imagine miserly (from the same root at miserable) figures like Scrooge McDuck, Shylock, or Silas Marner, but being cheap, as the Tao suggests, is not in opposition to generosity.

In what ways can economy (being cheap and not having much) lead to generosity?

If you have spent less on yourself, you can spend more on others.  Will it bring you more joy to have the most luxurious car on the block or to show generosity and charity?

If you spend less time and energy striving, you have the time and energy to be generous with your time and care.  For example, the parent who spends less time at work can spend more time with their children.  Is the money or the time the greater gift?  Is it your concern for your child or your own ego that is really motivating you?

taoism and frugality

Related post: Best Homemade Gifts for Adults

“This is the Tao – it diminishes those who have abundance, and nourishes those who lack.

The human way is just the opposite – creditors take from those who lack and lavishes those who already abound!

Where are the wealthy who will use their riches to save the world?

The wise earn much, but claim it not for themselves. They accomplish much, but are not attached to their accomplishments.

They succeed abundantly, yet make no show of their success.”

The Tao is the great equalizer.  The Tao Te Ching suggests that you can feel rich without having to attain wealth or deal with its complications. Would you rather live a cheap lifestyle and be happy or live in luxury and be miserable? One who relishes in the simple joys of life has more than that rich person doggedly striving in opulence.

Applying the Tao of Cheap

I am not some kind of contended Buddha sitting in a pile of cherry blossoms writing haiku (although I do look the part).  I love stuff.  I love luxurious foods, neat experiences, tools, gadgets, and modern conveniences.  This is why I think Taoism is important for me to remember as I explore the Tao of Cheap.

Greed and materialism are innate.  I am no exception, but keeping these desires in check is healthy for my state of mind. We could all benefit from learning to be happier with less, striving for simplicity, and limiting our materialism.

The irony of the Tao of Cheap is that by striving not to strive and practicing frugality you find abundance.  You find abundance not only in the spiritual or mental sense but in the very real material sense.  You spend less on stuff and realize over time that you can buy whatever you want.  Further, your practice has diminished your desires to the point where what you want is quite minimal.

By combating your material desires and developing your Tao of Cheap, you have effectively increased your spending power in two directions.  You have more to spend but have less that you want to buy. The Tao of cheap creates an affluence of frugality.


aldi store front
Is Aldi worth an extra trip?

Aldi is worth an extra shopping stop.

Philosophers and pundits have pondered the question “Is Aldi worth an extra trip?” since time immemorial. There are lot of expenses in your life that you cannot control.  However, The cost of groceries is not one of them.  Even though Americans are very fortunate in that we spend a very small fraction of our income on food, there is no reason that you cannot save by shopping around. I know which stores in my area have the best deals and best departments.  At Trader Joe’s you can bet that I am stocking up on cheese.  At Wegman’s I am definitely getting some steak and probably some fresh fish.  If I am at the Co-op, I am getting nuts in the bulk section.  At the Dollar Tree I am getting personal care stuff. (After all, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.) The Fresh Market in Cheltenham has the best produce.  Why not get the best values your area has to offer?

If you you ever shop around, you should definitely add Aldi to your rotation. Aldi is a bit out of the way for me, but there are several examples that prove that Aldi is worth an extra trip.

Related post: “Top 15 Grocery Store Rip-offs

Aldi is worth an extra trip if you are stocking up.

I am not saying you need to drive for hours, but there are several reasons why Aldi is worth an extra trip if it is available to you.  Fortunately, most of these reasons are shelf stable, so you will be stocking up.

You don’t have to be an extreme coupon-er to take a page from the extreme couponing handbook. I tried extreme couponing for a while, but decided it wasn’t a good use of my time. The main way that coupon-ers save is by stockpiling shelf-stable products. Therefore, Obsessing over clippings, codes, apps, and combining offers is not required.

stockpiling food
“Don’t smile like that while massaging my olives, Mildred. It’s creeping me out.”

You can get similar savings buy stocking up on good deals when you find them; you just need to figure out a storage solution.

NOTE: I am not saying that you should to have a doomsday bunker full of deodorant (and I am not saying that you shouldn’t.) You might start your stash with a few extra boxes of pasta, cereal, or olive oil – you don’t have to go crazy.  In the olden days a stockpile was simply known as a pantry.

is aldi worth an extra trip stash 1

is aldi worth an extra trip stash 2

I use this ugly, old hutch for my stash.  (Hey, it came with the house.)  Whatever you decide to use, make sure it is convenient and comfortable to access and organize or you won’t use it.  Boxing stuff up is a mistake.  If you are using open shelving, consider putting only cans on the bottom so that you don’t attract vermin.


As a bonus, you will be amazed how often your stash will bail you out when you are under-the-gun to come up with a dinner.

Top 11 buys at Aldi:

11) Random non-grocery stuff

I don’t know why, but Aldi always has a random selection of household goods.  Sometimes they have tools, plumbing fixtures, patio furniture, slippers, small appliances – you name it.  Just be aware that these items rotate quickly.  I wanted to get a second step-stool one time, but I acted too late.

Is aldi worth an extra trip camping sink
On this last trip, I found this neat collapsing camping sink thing.

10) Gluten free products at Aldi

I like my food to be gluten-captive, but I am not prejudiced – some of my best friends are gluten free.  I was pleased to see that Aldi has some cheap, gluten-free products now, so I picked some up for company.  In fact, Aldi has a lot of products for people with different food concerns.gluten free at aldi

9) Dressings and marinades

A large bottle of salad dressing for 89 cents!  What else can I say?  These things are usually three bucks.

is aldi worth an extra trip dressing

8) Whey protein powder

I exercise religiously – every January 2nd, without fail.

When I do exercise, I like to be able to function the next day.  I find that a protein smoothie soon after exercise makes a huge difference, but protein powder ain’t cheap.  If you ever buy whey protein, you know that a huge jug for 14 bucks is a great deal.  This would be my number one answer for “Is Aldi worth an extra trip?” but not everyone needs it.
whey protein at aldi

7) Flour (and other baking staples)

My wife is a serious baker and will only use King Arthur flour.  I am not so picky, so getting a sack of flour for $1.39 is right up my alley.  I can save the three bucks and get some fancier toppings for my homemade pizza.

Related post: “Gourmet pizza for the kneady

6) Cooking oils and sprays

Whether it is cooking spray, olive oil, or regular corn oil, Aldi is the place to stock up.

“Is Aldi worth an extra trip?” Is a bear Catholic?

5) Anything in a can

I generally need a lot of canned beans, canned tomatoes, olives, and the like.  I would rather make a trip to Aldi than waste my time trying to find coupons for this type of thing.cheaped canned stuff for is aldi worth an extra trip

4) Breakfast cereal

If I buy the store-brand cereal at ACME on sale, I will pay $2.50 a box.  Aldi has them beat buy a good sight, and I actually like their shredded wheat cereal better.

cereal at aldi

3) Pickles

Pickles are literally 1/3 the price at Aldi.  I can’t taste the difference.  If I buy five jars for my stash, I am saving ten bucks in the long run.  Maybe more as pickles appreciate.  I bet Warren Buffet has a whole basement full of pickles.

2) Salsa

Salsa is a rip-off at most grocery stores.  Making it yourself is a great option, but sometimes you are just too lazy.  I refuse to pay five bucks for a jar of tomatoes and onions.

jars of salsa is aldi worth an extra trip
Big jars of salsa for $1.29

1) And the winner is… CRACKERS!

My household goes through a lot of woven wheat crackers  When you think about all of those tiny looms, it is no wonder that they are usually three dollars a box.  Aldi has a larger box than Triscuits and at a fraction of the costs.  This deal alone answers the question, “Is Aldi worth an extra trip?”

cheap crackers at aldi
“It was an honor just to be nominated.”

Before heading to Aldi for the best buys, know that Aldi is different.

Aldi keeps their prices so low by streamlining their process and minimizing staff.

  • There are no employees in the aisles to answer your questions.
  • The food is stacked in a utilitarian fashion – no fancy displays.
  • You will have bag or box your own stuff after you leave the checkout.  Make sure to bring some bags or boxes.
  • They do not carry multiple brands of the same product.  If you really like a particular brand, you will have to go somewhere else.
  • There is no bakery, deli, or butcher shop.  Whatever is packaged is what they have.
  • You even have to return your own cart.  They ensure this by making you deposit a quarter to receive your cart, so put one in your pocket before leaving your car.
is aldi worth an extra trip carts
You bet your a$$ I’m going back to get my quarter.

I actually find that this simplicity makes shopping better.  If you can live with their set-up, Aldi is worth an extra trip in your shopping.  If I can save $50 from one extra trip, it is worth it to me.  Thank you for reading “Is Aldi worth an extra trip?”

Related post: Money-saving Grocery List

willpower and spending featured

Willpower and spending

One of my Cheapist thrills is my public library.  I rarely set foot inside, but I download e-books and audio books regularly.  I have been listening to The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal.  She illuminates why our best intentions so often fall prey to our illogical impulses, including when it comes to willpower and spending.  The writing is accessible and applicable and the case studies are fascinating.

I was hoping for an advantage in controlling my diet, but McGonigal addresses a wide range of willpower challenges including spending habitsThe biggest take-away for me is that willpower, as a character trait, doesn’t exist.  There are behaviors and situations that help and behaviors and situations that sabotage.  When someone’s habits and life conditions enable them to make good choices, our perception is that they have “willpower.”

The people with “strong willpower” are just people whose behaviors and situation enable the logical, long-term thinking part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) to control decisions.  People who demonstrate behaviors that run contrary to their rational, long-term goals (based on the primitive mind and the brain’s response to temporary stimuli), have “poor willpower.” She encourages the reader to “become a willpower scientist” and to make themselves the subject of everyday willpower experiments.

Main ideas about willpower from Dr. McGonigal

Understand that different parts of the mind give different messages.  Imagine the motif of the angel and the demon sitting on your shoulders. You can change your behaviors and situation to give your willpower mind the advantage.  Following some key behaviors will enable you to have what we perceive as willpower.

brain illustration

Realize that almost everyone is totally oblivious about how they make decisions.  We think that we are free to make our rational choices, but researchers (and advertisers) have demonstrated repeatedly that this is not the case.  If a scientist can predict your decision with incredible accuracy by manipulating stimuli and conditions, how much choice did you really have? We interpret our decisions as a choice when it is often our hormones or primitive impulses calling the shots.

Think of willpower as a battery that can be charged or drained.  If your will-power mind becomes over-taxed or stressed, the impulsive mind takes control.  We celebrate people who seem to have an iron will, but, for most of us, this drive for “mind over matter” often backfires.

willpower battery

Dopamine is a fiend. It is an anticipation hormone, not a happiness hormone.  Pay attention to how willpower challenges induce anticipation.  Remove or avoid unwanted dopamine manipulations when possible.  We mistake the excitement of wanting for happiness.  For example, we are driven to eat some cake, but while we should be enjoying the cake, our mind is already preoccupied with getting another piece.  The cake does not deliver the happiness that the dopamine promises.  Pay close attention to what you are actually feeling.  Are you really getting satisfaction or just the constant promise of satisfaction?

Even though conventional wisdom tells you to “put it out of your mind,” don’t try to block thoughts, it doesn’t work. “Surf the urge” by stopping to think about what you are feeling, what you want, why, and what it will feel like if you act on the impulse.  Usually this kind of introspection will help you make the logical choice.

Beating yourself up for a setback causes increased setbacks.  Don’t say, “Well, I’m going to punish myself at the gym for this setback.” Nor should you say “Well, I’m a loser, I might as well eat the whole thing.”  You are a human being and you have challenges and setbacks like every other human being.  One setback (or even many) does not change your worth or what you want for yourself.

man who lost willpower

Use meditation (the willpower of denying distractions) to strengthen your prefrontal cortex.  I don’t believe in any kind of higher plane or transcendence, but meditation (especially if you think that you are terrible at it) actually changes your brains behavior.  Meditation can put your mind in the right frame of mind to make logical, long-term decisions.

meditating increases willpower

Use breathing (very slow and mindful) to manipulate brain activity.  The closest physiological signal that your mind is primed to demonstrate “willpower” is the what Sciency-ologists call heart-rate variability.  Very slow breathing actually puts your mind in the willpower zone.  I don’t really understand it, I’m not a seismologist, but McGonigal explains it well.

Stress, poor health, and tiredness drop heart-rate variability (the best physiological metric of willpower).  Exercise, sleep, and take care of yourself.  Deciding that your iron will can overcome poor conditions is a losing strategy. If you just drive yourself without taking care of yourself, you are sabotaging your mind.

Avoid unnecessary stress. You might think that you are avoiding stress (Isn’t everyone?), but do you like scary movies or CSI shows? How about those sensationalized investigative shows or even the news?  You may be enjoying the show, but it is putting your mind in a state to act on impulse.

scary news image

Find ways to increase your “I want” power.  Create reminders of your real goals.  What will it be like when you have started to follow the behaviors that you want to follow?  Can you envision the positive changes? How can you create a visual or consistent reminder of your thoughtful mind’s desires? This does not apply if your long-term goals include eating cake daily, declaring bankruptcy, and ruining your relationships.

Pre-committing works.  Telling others about your goal helps.  Establishing a irrevocable commitment helps.  For example, if you are going to run your first 5K, pay for it in advance, find someone to run with you, and tell others that you are going to do it.  You may feel like you are risking embarrassment, but you are much more likely to go through with your plans.


Social pressure works.  Despite what we may say or believe, we are profoundly influenced by the behaviors of people around us. Behaviors are contagious; realize that the people you spend time with influence your behavior. On the plus side, this works for good behaviors as well.

Don’t lie to yourself about what you deserve.  As Clint Eastwood said before shooting the town’s sheriff, “Deserve has nothing to do with it.” People say, “I haven’t gone to the mall all week, I deserve a new pair of spats.” (Yes, I hear people say that all the time.) Sabotaging your long-term goals because you have been working toward them makes no sense.  (But I have been so good this week!)

Related post: The Tao of Cheap: What Taoism Teaches about Money

Don’t lie about your future self.  Your primitive brain is programmed to reward your current self at the expense of your future self.  This made more sense when humans were scavenging in the savanna and living day to day.  Your future self will not be happy to pay for today’s bad choices.  You might think, “I’ll eat out less when work isn’t so crazy; my future self will be happy to cook and do the dishes.” Your future self will not be happy cook and do the dishes, and work will always be crazy. Your future self will not be happy with the credit card bill from your past self. Your future self will not have more patience, time, money, etc.  Do your future self a favor and stopping using them as an excuse.

sink of dirty dishes

Willpower and spending habits

McGonigal relates many of her willpower examples to spending.  She addresses spendthrifts in some examples, but she also analyzes what is going on in the psychology of a bargain hunter.


I love stores like Harbor Freight, Ollie’s, Dollar Tree, Ocean State Job Lots, etc., because I feel that I am beating the system and thumbing my nose (literally) at all of the suckers spending more.  I must remind myself that when I am bargain hunting, I am psychologically identical to someone in a designer boutique.  My dopamine is firing.  I am being manipulated by “halo” words like “mark-down” and “close-outs.” A bin of factory seconds has the same effect on me as a glamorous Gucci installation on someone else. Am I thinking about the money I am “saving” and not about how much space I have left in the garage?  Is keeping the money (and my long term goals) worth more to me than the items in question?  Am I tired or stressed? Are the other crazed bargain hunters influencing my behavior? Will I be as excited about the deal when I get home?

Conclusions on increasing your willpower

Be mindful of your mind.  What is going on beneath your present decisions? Is your rational, long-term mind really making the choices? Is the deal, item, bad habit, or treat really that great or is has your impulse mind taken the wheel?

I have done a poor job relating how fascinating this book is, but if you want to be more mindful of your choices and behaviors, The Willpower Instinct offers amazing insight and is easy to read (even if you are not a Scientologist).

spending less on TV main

Should You Cut the Cord to spend less on TV?

It depends on what you value.  I think most people would like to spend less on TV, but many never take the time to calculate what they spend on subscription TV, streaming services, and premium add-ons.  Add up what you are spending and think about what TV is worth to you.

What does “cord cutting” mean to you?

Data show that more and more people are cutting the cord and ditching their subscription TV service to spend less on TV, but are they really “cord cutters?”  That depends on your definition. Does it include those dropping local cable service and picking up a subscription live TV streaming service? How about people dropping cable and picking up several a la carte services for non-live TV (Hulu, Netflix, HBO Now, CBS All Access, etc.)?

Perhaps you are a hardliner and require the ritual murder of everything with a screen at moon-rise of the winter solstice. (Yes, I’m including you, calculator).

Spending less on TV destroyed TV
Photo by Robin Jacob

Unless you are seeking some kind of moral or intellectual authority, the requirements for calling yourself a “cord cutter” are immaterial.  What matters is finding the right solution for you.

Do you want everything but are mainly trying to spend less on TV?  How high is your tolerance for commercials?  Are your viewing interests very specific?  Are you trying to do something more enriching with your free time?

Now, more than ever, you can customize to fit your needs.

Different forms of cord cutting to spend less on TV

1) Switching to full-service streaming.

If you still want your complete, live cable TV, but would like to spend less on TV, there are several streaming options for you.  Consumer reports has a great article comparing the services and so does PCmag.com.

  • Make sure your device will support the service.  Do you have a compatible smart TV or will you need an accessory for streaming like a Roku Stick?
  • How fast is your internet? You may find that the drop in audio-visual quality is a deal-breaker.
  • Check the channel package carefully.  Do your research to make sure that the package in question includes your favorite shows, teams, etc.  If you are a sports fan, make sure that the games you want won’t be blocked due to broadcast restrictions.
  • Consider the DVR features.  Cloud DVR (shows are saved remotely on the provider’s server) can add costs and get a bit complicated.  For example, Sling TV’s cloud DVR does not work on all channels.

steaming cable to spend less on TV

Whatever the advertisements may say, full service streaming replacements like Hulu with live TV and PlayStation Vue are not cheap, so you might decide it is better to keep your internet and TV subscriptions bundled and not spend less on TV.

2) Old-school terrestrial broadcast

Depending on where you live, a cheap HD antennae may meet your needs and help you spend less on TV.  (They can be as cheap less than $20.) This is especially true if you only care about the evening news, network shows, big events, or if you just turn TV on for occasional background noise.

Your smartphone can help you get the most out of traditional broadcast TV: the DTV Antennae app will help you position your antennae, and the Guide app replaces your cable channel menu.

What you might need:

HDTV Antenna

Depending on where you live, you may want to invest in a more substantial antenna (indoor or outdoor).  They range from $50 to $200 dollars.  Many claim to have a range up to 120 miles.  A smartphone app can help you determine where the broadcast towers are in your area (it is pretty neat and very simple).

save money on TV antenna app


Make sure that your TV is equipped with an HD tuner, or the signal will do you no good.  If your TV does not include an integrated HD tuner, you will have to purchase a separate HD tuner (they range in price from $50 to $100)

DVR (made specifically for traditional broadcast)

If what you want to watch is available through terrestrial broadcast, consider buying a DVR.  You can skip all of the commercials and watch the news whenever you want.  If you set the DVR to record the evening news and your favorite network show, you could be all set.

The DVRs made for recording terrestrial broadcast range from less than $50 to $100 and have various features.  The simplest ones let you set the channel and time but do not have a guide.

spend less on TV family time

3) A la carte digital services to spend less on TV:

Services like Netflix and Amazon Prime offer wide variety of shows. If you have more specific interests (old movies, British shows, baseball, etc. ) there is probably a service for you.  BuzzFeed has an article listing the more esoteric streaming services and their costs. This option minimizes commercials, but the cost of multiple services can add up quickly.

bollywood movies
Bollywood movies through Spuul

4) Hard core cord-cutting:

Perhaps you want to make screen time a thing of your past.  How much would your life change? What would you do with the savings? There is only one way to find out.

My “cord cutting” approach to spend less on TV

I love TV.  I love cable TV.  I have a top-of-the line Smart TV.  I love weird shows about sasquatch, alternative lifestyles, pressure cookers, and people falling off foam towers.  However, I don’t like wasting money (especially on perpetually renting a DVR from my local provider) or watching commercials.  I decided to “cut the cord” about a year ago, but I knew I would need to take a moderate approach.

We have had a Verizon Fios bundle for a while now (TV, internet, and home phone).  We kept our high-speed internet but dropped the home phone and TV service.  I picked up a $10 antennae and kept the Netflix and the Amazon Prime.  For me, these two streaming services are an excellent value and provide more than enough choices. We did not add any additional a la carte subscriptions, so we are spending less on TV (about $80 a month.)

I am still considering setting up a DVR to record antenna TV.

netflix to spend less on TV

Reflections on cutting the cord

The best part for me has been spending less on TV.  It has also meant that I watch a little less TV and far fewer commercials.  There are so many interesting things to watch on Netflix, Prime, and YouTube, that I don’t miss the cable shows.  I read more books, listen to more podcasts, and spend more time futzing around in the garage.

Related post: “If you are not using your public library, your life is a sham.”

The worst part of the experience relates to sports.  Subscriptions can overcome this problem, but I have been unable to watch the Phillies or Flyers regularly as they are usually broadcast on NBC Sports (formerly Comcast Sportsnet).  You need a subscriber password to stream NBC Sports, and listening on the radio is a poor substitute.  I could get a friend to give me their password, but I don’t really feel good about that.

I would still like to overcome the sports issue, but I am not planning to add a TV subscription any time soon.  Regarding commercials, I am now completely spoiled.  When I do watch terrestrial broadcast, I find the commercials insufferable.  Overall, I have been very pleased with spending less on TV.

Do you have some opinions or tips about cutting the cord?  Please leave a comment.

bikers on smartphones

I may have been the last person in Philadelphia with a flip phone, because I was unsure of the cheapest way to have a smartphone.

I was mocked at work and on the street.  Little kids driving their big-wheels would stop to stare at me (and take pictures with their smartphones).  My neighbor thought it was a social services phone that can only call the hospital. My flip phone caused car accidents (because drivers would see me using it and laugh uncontrollably). When my wife called to me she would ask me if I was alone – not because she wanted to say something romantic but because she was concerned about my dignity.

But I stood against the tide. I didn’t need a smartphone for work, found them annoying, and thought the data costs unreasonable.  I had my small tablet, a decent camera, my GPS device, and my good-ol’ flip phone (which was indestructible, cheap to replace, and only needed charging once a week).

Every time I thought about getting a smartphone, my research on the cheapest way to have a smartphone was inconclusive.

old-fashioned phone
“Yes, I am satisfied with my current service.”

Finally, a friend who switches phones and plans compulsively clued me in to the cheapest way to have a smartphone.

Years of dissatisfaction with phone companies

Since I don’t really like talking on the phone, I have always been looking for ways to save on communication. For years my wife had a smartphone, and I had a basic phone.  I didn’t enjoy dealing with Verizon’s nebulous pricing and was frustrated that they they would not activate a smartphone with no data plan (I had read that AT&T would do this for a while but then stopped.)

Even though we had a Verizon discount through my wife’s employment, I wanted to see if I could do better. I bought a cheap, unlocked, basic phone and switched to Consumer Cellular (you know, the one in the AARP magazine), but was still stuck with extra devices. On the plus side, the phone I found on amazon had an FM radio and terrestrial TV antennae.  Believe me, this model got me a lot of attention from the ladies!

weirdest phone ever
Watching local TV on my phone with a terrestrial antennae? Yes, please.

When a friend told me about his new solution, Google’s Project Fi, I had finally found the cheapest way to have a smartphone. (Thanks, Tony.)  I could have a smartphone, clear billing, and simply leave the data turned off.  I haven’t looked back.  I pay $20 a month plus $5.72 in taxes and stuff.  This was less than I was paying with Consumer Cellular for a basic phone.  I usually only turn on the data when I am killing time or getting directions.  When I do turn on data, it only charges me for what I use.  I may pay $27.32 instead of $25.72. If I can convert my wife, I will pay even less (five dollars less for additional lines).

Are you right for the cheapest way to have a smartphone?

We are going to talk about the two cheapest ways to have a smartphone: TracFone and Google’s project Fi. However, there are some limitations that will be deal-breakers for some. Ask yourself some important questions before deciding what smartphone options are realistic for you:

  1. How important is having a particular smartphone model?
  2. How often do you travel internationally?
  3. Am I going to pay for the phone up front or have the costs dispersed into my monthly bill?
  4. Am I have heavy data user?
  5. Do I call or text a lot?
  6. Is wifi generally available to me?
  7. Do I live in or frequent areas with spotty reception?
  8. Am I going to want to insure my device?
  9. Is electronic billing acceptable to me?
people looking at smartphones
Creative Commons photo by Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería

The two cheapest ways to have a smartphone

Cheapest way to have a smartphone: Google’s Project Fi

This was the solution that my friend told me about, and I love it. My bill is $20 a month plus $5.72 in taxes and stuff.  I usually only turn on the data when I am killing time or getting directions.  When I do turn on data, it only charges me for what I use.  I may pay $27.32 instead of $25.72. If I can convert my wife, I will pay even less.  I can make calls through Wi-Fi and have the combined coverage of three networks.


PROS of smartphoning with Project Fi

  • Cheap (and clear) billing
  • Easy and cheap international use (Just use it, and don’t worry about it.  No notifications or changes required.)
  • Easily turn data off and on.
  • Share data with another device.  They will send you the SIM card for free, but make sure the device is on the list.  They are just happy to have you using more data.
  • Seamlessly synced to your google stuff

CONS of smartphoning with Project Fi

  • Automatic billing only
  • Paperless billing only
  • Coverage not as good as Verizon (on a recent trip to Canada, my wife’s Verizon phone won easily). Consider where you live.
  • Very limited phone selection (When I signed up the cheapest phone was the Nexus 5x.  Now the cheapest new phone is the Moto X4 at $324)
  • Android only

TIPS for cheap smartphoning with Project Fi

Pay for your smartphone up front.  If you can’t pay for it up front, you probably should not be buying it.  Paying up front will keep you from spending more than you should.  If you pay for your phone up front, you will probably take better care of it.

Buy a cheaper smartphone.  Now that Project Fi has been around a while, there are older phones that will work on the network.  The Project Fi website states, “Project Fi is available on the Pixel, Android One Moto X4, Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X, and Nexus 6.” These must be the North American versions of these models.  Click this link to see more detailed information about compatible devices.

As I write this, you can buy a refurbished (by LG) Nexus 5x for $150 on amazon.

Don’t buy smartphone insurance. I am a strong believer that most insurance is a scam, and smartphone insurance certainly is a scam.  Project Fi will sell you device insurance for $5 a month plus a $80-100 deductible depending on the device.  You are much better off buying a cheaper smartphone and buying a cover.  Un-filed claims are never denied.

Use a sim card to share your data with a compatible tablet.  For example, you could give a compatible device and the sim card to your mom so she could use your data when she was travelling.

Take advantage of calls through Wi-Fi: My father-in-law was shocked to see me recieving a call in his front yard.  His area (a forest near the Canadian border) has no coverage from any network.  He asked me about it, and I explained that the smartphone must have been going through his satellite internet connection.  However, I have noticed that this does not work well on the slowest satellite internet connections.

phone flirting

Low smartphone costs with TracFone

For some, a pre-paid smartphone through TracFone may be appealing.  They have many plans and some are very cheap.  You must buy the phone through TracFone, but they have some very inexpensive models.

You can achieve cheap smartphoning through tracfone, but it gets a bit complicated.  The details of the plans are complex.  The features are complicated.  The service area issues are complicated.  Tracfonereviewer.blogspot.com has an in-depth article explaining some of the complexities.

The main benefit here is if you are doing nearly all of your smartphoning through Wi-Fi. However, as far as I can tell, making calls and texts through Wi-Fi without using your minutes may not be possible based on your device plan, the device itself, device settings, or region.  You may need to go through an intermediary app like Google voice.

In short, if you enjoy exploring the intricacies of features, plans, specifications etc., then TracFone may work for you.  I tend to believe that anything that is made this complicated is out to get you.  I think that TracFone is the best option only if you barely use your phone for anything.

The Cheapest Way to Have a Smartphone conclusion.

Having a smartphone can actually save you money, as long as your bill isn’t too high.  Using electronic tickets, parking apps, digital coupons, E books, etc. can save enough that you offset your bill.

Related post: Get the Most from Your Public Library

For me, the choice was simple.  The TracFone option is all about using complexity to find an advantage where Google’s Project Fi is all about simplicity.  The bill is simple, the user experience in simple, integrating with google services (photos etc.) is simple, and the device selection is limited.

My takeaways:

  1. Get a cheap smartphone (maybe even used) that works on Google’s Project Fi.
  2. Get a protective cover and skip the insurance.
  3. Sign up for Google’s Project Fi.
  4. Put in the wi-fi passwords for your home, your gym, your work, your favorite coffee shop, etc.
  5. Turn off the data except when you need it.

I am by no means an expert on coverage, features, phone specs and the rest.  Was “The Cheapest Way to Have a Smartphone” helpful? Is my conclusion dead wrong? Did I miss an important factor? How do you use your smartphone to save money?  Please leave a comment.