How Cox Prevents Me from Saving Money with Their Competition

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About six weeks ago, I read about Playstation Vue. I'm not a console gamer, so I don't typically follow anything with the word, "Playstation" in it. However, Playstation Vue is an Internet cable service. You stream cable channels. Sling TV works the same way. The prices are cheap at around $25-30 a month.

I dismissed Sling because it doesn't have DVR. Other than football, I watch everything on DVR. However, Playstation Vue solved that with a $30 package of every cable channel that I care about with DVR. I'm paying Cox Communications $85/mo. for some extra channels that I don't care about. Saving $55/mo. is $660 a year. That's worth looking into, right?

[Note: I couldn't Playstation Vue's $30 plan on their website today. I think they are hiding it. For proof of it's existence (at least in the past), I present CNET's comparison of Playstation Vue and Sling. Also, I've read that Sling will be getting DVR at some point soon.]

Today there's a new option to look into, DirecTV Now from AT&T. It's Internet TV like Sling/Playstation Vue with no cable boxes or dishes to install. It's $35 for 100 channels and only $5 to add HBO if you get in on the promotional price (which I think you can keep forever). However, they don't have DVR, and they are missing CBS (there goes my football) from the channel line-up. It's not a good fit for me yet, but for some people, it's got some potential. The Verge gives a great review of the pro/cons of DirecTV Now. I'm still wrapping head around whether I'd get live NBC, ABC, and Fox as I thought all those channels were run by affiliates.

Cutting the cable

And to complicate matters even more, Cox has their own discount service, Contour Flex Economy, with 110 channels at $35.

Between Playstation Vue and Cox's own cheaper service I should be able to save somewhere between $45-55 a month...

... then I remembered that dealing with Cox logically or reasonably has been a waste of time (such as in this article or this one.)

I figure, let's give them one more try. I call up and explain that I'm dissatisfied at paying $85 a month for cable television when my needs are met by their cheaper $35 plan or Playstation Vue. They have their "specialist" review my bill and I wait on hold. She comes back tells me almost exactly what The Verge said in their review of DirecTV Now above. Here's what the Verge said:

"Will it save money compared to what you’re paying Comcast or whoever now? Yes for some, no for others. Internet bills have a way of suddenly increasing when you call the cable company and cancel half of their precious double play."

My Internet price is $65, but it would go up to $80 if I switched to a lower tier TV service (or out of it completely). This effectively raises the price of any competing service by $15. If I'm playing $150 ($65/internet, $85/television), then a move to $80 Internet means that my savings on another $30 television plan is only $40/mo ($150 - ($80 + $30)).

Once again saving $40/mo. isn't bad. So I go forward with that. Unfortunately, that's a dead end too.

I'd also lose my $50/mo. promotional bundle savings as part of not having the appropriate levels to qualify triple play (or Cox's nomenclature for it) of television, internet, and phone. As I wrote over a year ago, I keep Cox's phone in my basement for that discount. The $50/mo. promotional bundle is really worth only $20/mo. to me, because the phone costs another $30/mo. I explained that I feel the phone bundle is a Trojan Horse waiting to add another $30 to my bill if I forget to call up and get a new promotional bundle every 6 months.

With the promotional bundle being worth another $20 (after the telephone shenanigans), my switch to another television service (forfeiting this bundle "discount") would make my savings probably closer to $15 or $20 a month.

To put it simply, I'm paying $129.97 for the two services I use (television and internet) and any change puts me at $80 for a internet, plus the cost of the of the other service. The other services have their drawbacks such as no DVR or limited time DVR, possibly limited local channels, limited sports packages (no NESN for me I think). For me, that's a lot to give up to save $15 or $20 a month.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

Unfortunately there's really no place to go. There's no competition for Internet services in my area. After Cox the fastest internet available is DSL that seems to top out at 3Mbps download. That's only 12% of the FTC considers to be a broadband connection. It's actually quite common as telecom companies appear to split up territory to avoid competition.

I talked to an advanced representative from Cox who called back about my concerns (kudos to them for that). She explained that they bumped up the download rates from 25Mbps to 50Mbps at no cost. I said that's great, but it's like offering to give me 50 gallons of gas and watch it 25 of them spill on the ground. I'd rather have the amount of product I use at half-price. Of course that's not an option on the table and I understand Cox's reason for it. They want to get the most money from each customer. If they made a $40 tier providing 25Mbps of service, I could easily get Playstation Vue. It would be a total of $70 for what I'd want with Cox getting $40 from me. Instead they'll get $130 from me.

I'm envious of Justin of Root of Good who is paying $34 for his 50Mbs service. That's not part of a bundle or a promotional price (as far as I can tell). As we discussed in the comments, there's actual competition in his area with Google Fiber coming and 1Gbps service. The same service is $80 for me. Cox, that isn't cool... and you can't take the high road and say that you doubled the speed because he's getting the same speed.

How Can This Be Legal?

I wish I had an answer to that question. I simply don't know. I'm not a law expert, but it feels like this is like Microsoft antitrust case. In that case, it is my understanding than an alleged monopoly (Microsoft) used it to undercut the competition's (Netscape/browser) industry. I don't see how this really is any different.

If we are to believe The Verge article (which I do considering the authors and source of the article and my experience) the internet access business is a monopoly seemingly divided among different competitors. And while I can't feel too bad about Sony (PlayStation Vue) or AT&T (DirecTV Now) for not making a few extra dollars, the monopoly bundling makes their product pricing not very competitive.

If such bundling didn't take place and/or if I could price-match Root of Good's $34 Internet-only service, the pricing of PlayStation Vue is extremely competitive. It's not Playstation Vue's fault that Internet bundling harms its television service and I'm not sure what they do about it. (They can't really charge less, because they need to pay the networks too.)

When I've written about this kind of thing I've gotten quite a few comments supporting it. I wonder if our representatives in the government are listening. I think they should be. However Gizmodo wrote in 2011 Why the Government Won't Protect You from Getting Screwed by Your Cable Company. They tried to start a campaign to change things then. Five years later, it's hard to say that much progress has been made.

Mr. Trump, I know there are a lot of things you want to fix. Many of them, such as the Affordable Care Act get to be real thorny. There are others that the people are very, very divided on. I think almost everyone can get behind $34/mo. broadband internet and the choice of $30-$40 cable package that works for them, right? This is easy, low-lying fruit that will have a very visible impact on the people.

I know it's early to think about getting re-elected, but take a minute to think how easy it would be to say, "The average person has saved more than $500 a year on their telecom bills because I made real change." I have to think voters, regardless of their political affiliation would say, "He's got a great point."

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Posted on November 30, 2016.

I Am an E-Content Hoarder

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Today's article comes from Kosmo who writes for this site from time to time. This topic hits home with me. I'll share my thoughts at the end.

I have a secret addiction - I hoard e-content.  I currently have a staggering 204 books in my Kindle ebook collection, most of which are unread.  I also have 29 audio books, including the entire run of the Dragnet radio show - 138 hours (which cost just one Audible credit).

On the surface, this seems absolutely crazy.  Why would I do this?  Mostly, it's about the price.

  • Free - Quite a few of the books in my collection are free, either via a free trial or a temporary book giveaway.  I've been playing the free trial game with Audible for quite a while now.  I'll get a free trial, cancel for a while, then sign up for another free trial when I  become eligible again.  A twist on this strategy is taking advantage of very cheap (but not free) trials.  I've used the $1.95 per month trial a couple of times already.  I used one of my monthly credits to pre-order the audio version of John Grisham's The Whistler.
  • Cheap - One of my favorite authors is Lawrence Block.  Block has been writing since the 1950s and has a sizeable catalog of work.  I track him on eReaderIQ (a site that alerts you when book prices drop), and every once in a while, several of his books are deeply discounted.  My "automatic" price point seems to be $1.99.  If I see any of his books priced at $1.99 or less, I'll immediately buy it, no questions asked.  If it's $2 or more, I'll often buy it, but I'll actually think about it for a moment.  I almost always like Block's books, so it's usually a good decision.
  • Other - I'll also buy books that cost more than $2, especially when they are on sale.  My thought process is that I have 30 or so years to read all of these books, and that my reading time should increase as the kids get older and especially after retirement.  It makes sense to me to hedge against inflation by locking in the current cost.  It also allows me to make sure my favorite authors gets the money while they are still alive - and protect me from estates that can be rigid on pricing (example: John D MacDonald's Travis McGee series is priced at $11.99 for Kindle versions - 30 years after he died).  Additionally, I can read the same book multiple times before now and my inevitable demise.  It's a gift from current Kosmo to future Kosmo.

You might have realized that there's a risk to my hoarding.  If the Amazon ecosystem crashes, I could be left with absolutely nothing.  Although I am cognizant of the risk, it's not something that greatly concerns me.  If Amazon were to fail in my lifetime, I'm confident that one of the market leaders at that time would snap up the rights to Amazon's library and would provide continued access for Amazon's customers - it's a logical way to turn Amazon customers into their own customers.

Other ways to get books

  • Your library - Many libraries give you the ability to borrow Kindle books via the Overdrive app.  In most cases, the Overdrive app hands you out to a "checkout" process in Amazon, and the book appears in your list of Kindle books.  Why is Amazon partnering with Overdrive?  Because they're hoping you decided to buy the book and buy from Amazon.
  • Kindle Unlimited - Kindle Unlimited gives you access to a selection of Kindle books and Audible audio books for a monthly subscription of $9.99 per month.  It's a limited subset, but there's still quite a lot of content.  Like most Amazon subscriptions, it's a free 30 day trial.
  • HumbleBundle - Several months ago, Lazy Man made me aware of a deal (as he often does).  15 murder and mystery books on Humble Bundle for $15.  I had not heard of Humble Bundle before, but I was aware of the book publisher (Open Road) and the authors, which included Michael Crichton, Lawrence Sanders, and Randy Wayne White (as well as a number of authors I wasn't familiar with).  It took an extra step to get the books into my Kindle library. but it was worth it.
  • ARCs / Author giveaways - If you run a site that does book reviews, you may be able to get Advance Review Copies (ARC) direct from the publisher.  I sort of fell backwards into the ARC world, with my interactions with my favorite author somehow landing me on an ARC list for Random House.  Every few months, I'll receive a few free (print) books in the mail.  Naturally, they do expect you to actually write a review of the book - that's the whole point of giving away early copies.  GoodReads does something similar, allowing you to sign up to receive free copies of a book.  My understanding is that GoodReads takes user activity into account - so someone who routinely leaves reviews on GoodReads has a better chance to win that someone who doesn't.  I've entered several giveaways on Goodreads, and recently won one.

Are you a hoarder?  Where do you get your books?

Lazy Man's Confession

I am a hoarder of electronic content as well. Much of my hoarding is limited to websites. I have over a hundred tabs open on my Firefox browser right now. Every few months I declare bankruptcy and push them all away into OneTab. Once they are there, they are out of sight and out of mind. Then I accumulate more articles that I should read and act upon.

As for books, I don't hoard them very much. I probably have 50 of which 40 were probably free. The other ones might have cost a buck each. Typically, I pay that dollar because I happen to know the authors. They are fellow writers and I want to support them. I have also played the Audible game that Kosmo describes above. I just never listen to the books. Why? My mind is usually actively engaged in something whether it's writing an article or otherwise. The books that I'm interested in are typically deep thinking ones as well. It's hard for me to focus on both.

Unlike Kosmo, I have little optimism that I'll catch up on them someday. Why? People keep creating electronic content. It's not going to end any time soon. This very article is proof of that. I would need to be in a place with no internet connection for at least a year to make a dent in all the things that I've marked as notable reads.

I add something to Kosmo's questions above. How do you deal with information overload?

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Posted on November 15, 2016.

NEST Thermostats Do NOT Save You Money

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... at least for me they didn't.

Two years ago, I asked whether I could really save money with Nest Thermostats? Yesterday, I learned the hard way that the answer to that question is no.

When I ask the question, I had convinced myself the auto-away feature and the ability to turn it off by my phone saved me around $25 a year vs. a regular programmable thermostat. After all, that's only $2 a month, right? In reality, I almost never used my phone to shut off my Nest. The auto-away feature doesn't do too much because my schedule is typical and I could program it with a regular programmable thermostat.

The Nest itself starts off as a fairly expensive device. The 3rd generation retails at ~$250. I was able to get two of the 2nd generation ones at $120 after rebates from my energy company and cash back on my credit card. I was lucky, I haven't seen any generation at that price since.

Last March my Nest downstairs started behaving really weird. After a call to the cooling company that set them up along with the central air in our house, it was determined that the base was defective. Nests come with a base that attaches to the wall and a "head" that goes on top which works as the screen and dial/input device. After the technician explained it to Nest, they sent out a new base. It was a relatively easy fix and I was back rocking the world of Nest thermostats again.

A couple of days ago, my Nest upstairs started behaving really weird. On the coldest day of the year, the A/C kicked on and wouldn't shut off. We had a problem with the A/C kicking on before and it was actually the cooling unit, not the thermostat. This time, I figured it was the same problem, one year later. Yesterday, the day the technician is coming out, I notice that the Nest is registering that it is 81 degrees and it's no where near that. The Nest also isn't showing that it's cooling, but it's running the A/C non-stop.

The technician looks at it and explains that the base is busted. I figure, "No problem, I'll call up Nest and they'll ship me out a new one like they did 7 months ago."

Nope. The 2-year warranty expired in February. They shouldn't have technically sent out the base on the one that broke in March.

I can't even buy a replacement base. Nest isn't allowed to sell them. The only option was to buy a new Nest. This is despite the fact that I have a working head unit.

At this point I'm frustrated on so many levels. I almost felt bad for Michelle P, the Nest Senior Technical Support, who took my call.

I'm frustrated because:

  1. The whole point of Nest is to save people money. That's the sales pitch.
  2. I spent $159 on the house visit to find out that it was my Nest going crazy. Michelle said I should have called them first. Well, my experience told me it was likely the cooling unit itself. Also, I find it odd that they'd suggest, "Well, you should just assume that our product is just junk and we're the problem."
  3. They actually think I'd be interested in buying another Nest. That's after the two previous Nests were defective. And after they refused to allow me to buy the $10-15 part to make it work again.

Michelle tried to explain the 2-year warranty is like an iPhone. I might have cut her off early, because that's so far off-base. The expectation of a thermostat is that it lasts for years and years. In my parent's house we had the old dial ones for at least 25 years before switching to the programmable ones. Those programmable ones have lasted another 15 years. I don't know how much they cost back then, but they probably were around $39 or less.

So my expectation was that a $250 thermostat designed to save me money would last at least 15 years. After all it has no moving parts like my washing machine or dryer. Unlike a computer, it isn't going to go obsolete because the software doesn't need to change. Unlike an iPhone, I'm not bringing it around with me subjecting it to drops or any kind of stress. If anything should break, one would think it would be the head part that has the guts of the computerized thermostat, not the base.

Michelle tried to be helpful in offering a 20% voucher off a new Nest from the website. Even if I was interested in buy another lemon from Nest, the Amazon is selling the same Nest for 24% off. Nest's very limited "olive branch" to make me happy backfired as I would lose money by taking advantage of it.

I'm so frustrated by this experience that I can't think of a good way to finish this article. I think you should beware of a wolf in sheep's clothing. On one hand there's the marketing pitch that a product may save you money. On the other, there's the policies that end up costing you a lot more.

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Last updated on November 2, 2016.

Amazon’s Music Unlimited Has Pretzeled My Brain

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I have three super powers:

  1. A great grasp of logic.
  2. A great sense of "value" (at least as it pertains to myself).
  3. The ability to write with humility.

Okay, maybe I only have two super powers... and they aren't very "super."

Part of this is why I can look at Beachbody Shakeology and say, "Hmmm, $4 a serving for what looks to be a $1 or $1.50 product seems fishy." It's what Spider-man would say has his Spidey-sense tingling.

Years of frugal shopping have trained me to do this automatically at grocery stores, restaurants, almost everywhere. Just like how you can't look at words and shut off your ability to read them, I can't shut off this subconscious calculator.

Then Amazon Music Unlimited was unleashed on the world.

When looking at the pricing options, my subconscious calculator says, "division by zero."

Why I Find Amazon's Music Unlimited Pricing So Difficult

Before I get to that, I should explain what Amazon Music Unlimited is. At the risk of over simplifying it is a subscription service to pretty much any song that you'd ever want to listen to. There's going to be some gaps, obviously, but I read it is tens of millions of songs, which is on par with Spotify, Apple, and Google's offerings. To make it easier, I'll use the abbreviation SAG to refer to them.

Let's start with the first thing. If you are NOT an Amazon Prime member the price is $9.99 a month. I think that's the same price as the SAG options. That means it isn't so much as a financial choice rather than a preference or convenience based on what ecosystem you may be in.

If you are a Prime member (like me), things get very interesting. Let's pretzel!

First, Prime members already get a music subscription library, Prime Music. It seems have a few million songs. I can get a lot of my favorite Jack Johnson songs, but not the ones from the Curious George movie. There are some Liz Phair songs, but not her early stuff. Prime Music has a lot, but it's not close to everything.

The best part Prime Music comes as part of the $99 annual subscription. So some part of my $8.25 a month already goes to that. Let's call that $2, because I get some 2 day shipping and the kids watch some Go Diego Go! and Tumbleleaf

To get Amazon Music Unlimited, I'd have to further spend $79 a year, or $6.58 a month. There's a monthly subscription price if I didn't want to commit to a year, but my value brain/calculator prohibits me from paying $7.99/mo. when I could pay $6.58/mo.

Is it worth paying $6.58 to fill in the gaps of songs that I'm missing? Pretzel.

Some people happy pay the SAG companies $9.99 a month, so this would be a great deal for them. I'm not one of them, but at some price point, I'd have to say, "Well why not?" Thus far, I've decided that it isn't worth it me.

But there's more salt to add to the pretzel!

If you have an Amazon Echo, you have more options. I'm a huge fan of these devices and created my own site, Alexa/Echo devoted to reviewing the devices. With either an Echo or an Echo Dot you can get Amazon Music Unlimited for $3.99 a month.

That $3.99 price is enough of a deal to push my fleshy calculator into buying mode. I've got my credit card ready and I'm clicking...

...wait a second. The $3.99 price is only on one Echo device. If I get it for my Echo downstairs where I am 60% of the time, I don't get it for my Echo Dot upstairs, the other 40%. It's not streaming from my computer or mobile apps. If it covered all my Echo devices, an account that covers my own home, I'd get it. I think $50 a year would be reasonable.

Instead, the price point for the Echo only complicates matters. It makes me feel like I "deserve" the $3.99 price because I will most often listen to it on my Echo. This makes it even more difficult for me to pay $6.58.

It feels kind of silly to even get into a discussion on something about so little money. If I didn't have a personal finance blog, I most certainly wouldn't. I probably spent more time writing this article than it would have taken me to earn a year's worth of music, right? I write about it, because it's interesting introspection (at least for me), you be the judge.

Before I end this, I should mention there's also a family price for Amazon Music Unlimited. My wife is more of a fan of Google Play and my sons, at age 2 and 4, aren't large music consumers (except for that Curious George soundtrack). The pricing isn't very competitive until you get savings for 3 or more people. That's an easy option for me to take off the table right away. As the boys get older though, a family plan might make a lot of sense, especially because there's annual pricing that makes it around $12.50 a month.

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Posted on November 2, 2016.

Giveaway: Brentwood Sleep Wellness Bundle (Value: $230)

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Today's article is a little different. I haven't done a giveaway in years. It's not that I don't enjoy giving stuff away, I just feel like 99% of people get zero value from the article and the lucky winner gets 100% of the value. (Cue Statler and Waldorf with a joke about how this is an improvement from my typical article, where 100% of people get zero value).

Yesterday's about Dobot was inspired by a marketing email I received, and today's no different. At the risk of sending the wrong message to marketers I'm going to run with it. If giveaways aren't your thing, please check back tomorrow for a real personal finance article. If you love to win free stuff, then you might want to stick around.

Show Me the Stuff!

Brentwood Home is giving away 4 pillows. That's a snore, right? (Yes, pun intended.) They aren't ordinary pillows. They are super-healthy, organic-cover, pesticide-free pillows. (Who knew that pesticides in pillows was a thing?)

More specifically, you get 2 Latex/Kapok Pillows and 2 Molded Latex Pillows. (I presume that if you have a latex allergy this isn't for you.)

The kapok pillows "are filled with all-natural latex ribbons that have a responsive feel that provides uplifting support, combined with silky-smooth kapok. They’ll be the perfect fit for people who switch between multiple sleeping positions, as they easily mold to your neck and head."

The molded pillows are "are bouncy, resilient, and molded to perfectly contour your head and neck."

And presumably they'll make you this happy:

Brentwood Pillows

These Brentwood pillows appear suitable for all types of pillow fights.

If you are looking for more details here is the official page on the specific wellness bundle. It includes a product picture that may be more practical, but less fun, than the one I chose.

I've been doing a lot of joking here, but allow me to a little series for a minute. I recently watched Morgan Spurlock's Inside Man on Toxins and couches were highlighted as one of the more "dangerous" items. I put "dangerous" in quotes, because the conclusion seemed to be that the danger, if any, is unknown.

Many mattress and bedding companies use chemical fire retardants, phthalates, and heavy metals when manufacturing and processing their
products and Brentwood Home products avoid them. Phthalates was one of the biggest concerns brought up in the Morgan Spurlock show. If you are spending 1/3rd of your life in your bedding it might be best to avoid these chemicals.

How Do I Win?

You have to be lucky. Also, you have to leave a comment on this post by 11:59PM Eastern Time on Saturday, 10/22/2016. The agency asked if I could run it until the 31st, and I see no reason why not... so October 31st it is. Since new commenters have their comments moderated your comment might not show up on the website right away. I am going to pick a commenter at random using a random number generator to win. I reserve the right to give interesting comments that I find more interesting extra entries. The idea with that is to (hopefully) create a comment section a little better than people saying, "Me!" while still making it easy enough for lazy people like myself to enter.

Finally, you must include your real email address, because otherwise I can't contact you to tell you how to claim the prize. As always, I never give or sell email addresses.

I will pass the winner's information to the marketing agency who are in charge of sending out the prizes.

Sponsor Disclosure

For hosting this giveaway, Brentwood and/or their marketing agency is giving me this holistic wellness bundle. It includes a yoga pillow, a scented candle, and one of those latex/kapok pillows. They value the bundle at $139.

Regular readers know that the absolute worst way to get my attention is offering holistic/yoga stuff. However, I also like free stuff and I've been looking into getting into meditation. Maybe this is just the kick-start I need.

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Last updated on October 21, 2016.

Is This a Shady Pricing Trick By Cox?

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A couple of weeks ago, I received the following letter from Cox Communications, my cable service provider:

Cox Returned Payment $25 Fee

(Click the image for a larger version.)

I believe it is best to automate your money so that you can avoid late fees, cancellation of service, and well, "work." This letter from Cox tells me that they tried to charge my account, as they had done successfully for years, but it failed.


Fidelity switched credit card providers and moved from American Express to Visa. I called them out on this on Twitter:

Fidelity, to their credit, responded with:

I respectfully showed that I didn't have questions, but was simply offering them feedback on how to the fix the situation. Credit cards should be about convenience, not making customers do more work, right?

Fidelity seemed to appreciate this feedback and apologized for the inconvenience:

Fidelity, meet Cox. Cox, meet Fidelity. I had hoped the two of you knew each other, but I guess you need blogger to bridge the communication gap. I think you two should have worked this out before consumers like me got $25 fees for doing nothing.

In fairness, I should have probably gone through all my Fidelity charges over the last couple of months and switch them all over. However, the worst thing that can happen with a declined credit card is a notice about potential cancellation of service and and request to try a new payment method, right? It seems that Cox doesn't agree.

I called up Cox Communications... which was actually no small feat. I searched Google and it came up with regional number in Atlanta and local solution stores. Maybe the solution stores could have helped, but I figured they don't make billing decisions for Cox. I settled on the default number that Google gave me, which brought me to Cox's phone tree. After navigating it to try to solve my billing problem, they asked me to hang-up can call a new number which they provided. Fortunately, I had a pen and paper handy, but why didn't Cox simply transfer my call to the appropriate number?

(Yes, using Google's default information is on me, but I was on my cell phone, which makes it difficult to sign into my Cox account as I don't have my username and password ready. However, maybe Cox could contact Google and have them fix the information? I can't be the only person having this problem.)

Once I got through to Cox's national department, I explained the issue of Fidelity's credit card change to the first person. She wasn't authorized to help me, so she kicked it up to the manager.

My explanation to the manager, Trudy, went something like this:

"If I walked into McDonalds and ordered a burger for a buck or two and swiped a card that was declined, would they say my burger is now $26 or $27? Of course they wouldn't. I had received other declined notices for this same card, such as Netflix's 'Houston, we have a problem' famous email. Not a single company added a credit card declined fee to bill, and certainly not something like $25."

Fortunately, Trudy understood what I was talking about. After explaining that the modern world has these issues when we let computers do their things, she was happy to waive the fee.

I didn't want to press my good luck. However, as a software engineer who has created a billing system in the past, I knew that a decline code does not incur a significant cost to the biller. In fact, if my memory serves, there is no cost. I don't think it is a "modern world thing", but a "Cox Communications thing."

Hopefully, someone at Cox reads this and can provide a better answer to this fee. I wonder how many consumers simply just pay the fee and move on with their lives. (Cox, if you are reading this, I am sorry that don't have the time to navigate your customer support system to attempt to reach the department head who I presume came up with this policy. However, you can leave a comment below with a way to get back to you directly and I'll be happy to contact you that way. You can also email me here. And while I'm sending this out to your Twitter in promoting it via social media, this conversation is probably more than 140 characters long.)

So I didn't get scammed by this fee, but only because I used 30 minutes of my time to get it waived. I presume that Cox Communications has at least a million customers, and I feel like some significant percentage have had their credit card declined at some point. I don't think these fees are trivial. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a class action lawsuit in the future over this.

That OTHER thing in the letter

You may have noticed that the letter says my bill will be $238.11 after the $25 credit card decline fee. Now that I have had that fee waived, my bill is $213.11.


That's a lot more money than I expected... a lot more. Shame on me for not looking at my cable bill each month. It's not a great defense, but I generally expect my cable TV/Internet bill to be the same every month. My other utility bills don't vary greatly, except for when I use more resources (which is to be expected).

So I looked at my bill... and I was floored with more surprises.

Let's flash back to last year when I wrote about Cox's pricing being "banana pants". Back then I wrote:

When I signed on with Cox two years ago after a move, it was explained that I'd actually save money by taking their telephone service. The price of the bundle deal with the telephone was cheaper than to buy their two most popular products, television and internet, together.

The telephone component has sat in the box in my basement for two years. I have Ooma's "free" service (just pay about $3 in taxes) which I love.

In reviewing my bill, I noticed something new. Getting the phone triggers $19 in taxes.


I countered by explaining that it makes no sense for them make me take a product (the telephone service) that I don't want and pay extra money in taxes - money that doesn't go to Cox - just to get better pricing on the two services that I do want.

So in looking at my bill, the telephone service (that I never, ever wanted) is costing me $25 a month. My bundle deal expired, so getting the phone no longer saves me money. It feels like a Trojan Horse designed to sneak money out of my wallet. Now, I understand why they made me take phone service to get the temporary cheaper price.

It's shocking to me to read my article from last year where I say my bill was $126... and then see it at $213 this year. That's an increase of more than a thousand dollars a year!

So yesterday, I called up Cox to see what I can do about this. (And again I did the aforementioned dance to actually find their real number.) After explaining to the first person that I'm paying for phone service that I never wanted, I got passed to the second person. I explained it all again. I got put on hold... and then they came back with a new price of $145 with some new bundle deal. It took around 30 minutes, which isn't bad to save $70 a month. She was able to backdate it a month and give me a $98 credit, which takes care of the $25 I was spending on the phone service without realizing it.

*Break* - While writing this article, I actually got an automated call from Cox Communications telling me that I should sign into my account or call an agent back at some other number. The message wasn't clear about what I should do. I wonder if they've failed to re-run the new credit card that I entered the other day and believe my account to overdue. It's strange, because they could have given me that information a few hours ago, when I called them to get my bill lowered. Also, it is strange to have a robot call you only to tell you to call another number. It's almost like they are trying to be as inefficient as possible.

The only catch with the new pricing is that it again is a bundle rate that will expire in a year. She told me that I should mark my calendar for next year, which is sound advice. I did that right away.

I've been on the fence about cancelling cable service for some time. I rarely watch any cable channels except for the Red Sox, which I can get through for a low yearly rate. Even with the new bundle price, it's a lot of money to DVR network shows. There are other services like TabloTV that I can, and probably should look into.

I'd explore going with another company, but I mentioned in that article last year, there's no other broadband option in my market. I can't call up Comcast or Verizon FIOS and switch.

So, I ask the readers... are these billing practices fair or misleading/deceptive? I'm leaning towards the later, which is also why I included the FTC's Twitter handle on this. I'd love to get their opinion on the matter, because I think these things are costing consumers millions and millions of dollars.

Note: The use of the word "scam" in this article is a question and not a statement of fact. This article is my opinion. You may have a different opinion. In fact, I don't believe my reader-base can agree what is a scam anyway. As always, do your own research and come to your own conclusions.

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Last updated on September 8, 2016.

Looking for a TV? Get this deal, now! (Today Only!)

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I very rarely write an article about good deals, but today I'm making an exception. (Also, this will give me a little more time to work on the EpiPen article that had been trying to get finished last week.)

Amazon's Deal of the Day is on this LG 55-Inch Curved Smart OLED TV. I'm going to make a case that many people looking for a television should jump on this.

For those who aren't tech junkies, OLED is new television technology that has critics raving that it's the best picture they have ever seen. What makes it so special? It has the ability to turn off pixels completely, so blacks are... well black. It doesn't sound like much, but if you see it in person it can make a big difference. It seems to cause the other colors to "pop."

Back in 2013, an equivalent version of this was $15,000! Today it is $1100. I'm going to let that sink in for a bit.

I've been watching the prices on these and it has never gotten this low. It was around $1300 a few months ago, which was a fantastic price then. It's probably not going to get much cheaper. This seems to be them clearing out the older stock. It might be the last time you can any kind of OLED for ANYWHERE near $1000... as they've moved to even higher end televisions in recent years.

I've been wanting an OLED TV for about 3 years now. A few months ago, I wrote about how I'm starting an OLED TV fund. Today that fund has around $200. Hmmm...

There are some caveats to consider. First, it's "only" 55 inches. Second, it's 1080p, not 4K. Those are probably deal-breakers for some people. However, because the television picture itself is "smaller", you might not be able to tell it's not 4K... especially if you are sitting far enough away. Also, this television is curved. I've been reading that the curve is so subtle that you don't notice it. It's worth reading the reviews if that's a concern of yours.

The OLED television I had my eyes on was 65-inches and 4K. That television is $3000. This one is $1100. Is it worth the sacrifice to save $1900? Let me know in the comments.

Naturally, by "Deal of the Day", the deal is for today only. This is perfect timing for showing off to your friends who come by to watch football games on Sunday, right? Tell them to bring the pizza and beer and you might even save money with this deal. (Okay, maybe that last one is a stretch.)

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Last updated on August 30, 2016.

The End of An Era and The Beginning of a New One

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This Saturday we lost electricity... and along with it my old Dell Zino. I first wrote about it when I looking to do my digital media overhaul in August 2011. It's a fun article to reflect upon. I had two $99 HP Touchpads coming to the house the next day. That's how long the Dell Zino was with us.

The Dell Zino was an Home Theater PC (HTPC) that we used to elminate our cable box rental fees along with this SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime and a very cheap cableCARD from your cable company.

The combination of an HTPC, Microsoft Windows Media Center, and the HDHomeRun Prime, gave us almost everything that we'd get from renting a DVR from the cable company. We didn't get OnDemand, but we also had a full computer for running, Netflix, Hulu, a Plex Server, and the incredible PlayOn TV.

The Dell Zino was $550 and the HDHomerun Prime was a couple of hundred on top of that. It wasn't exactly a cheap solution to avoid paying cable fees, but it felt good. Now that we are sending Zino the Wonder Television to the eternal entertainment center in the sky, I can finally calculate how much it might have saved us.

Yesterday I went to the Cox store to get a replacement box. The idea was to get a short-term solution while I wait for the successor. I could get a box for $1.99/mo. that essentially allowed me to watch TV. For $8.50, I could get a digital guide and OnDemand. For another $15 (on top of the $8.50), I could get DVR functionality. That's $23.50/mo. for what I had with the Zino (again, minus OnDemand). That's $282 or $1410 over the 5 years we had the Zino.

That set-up cut our DVR costs in half! If you count that the HDHomeRun Prime is still fine it wouldn't be too much of stretch to say it saved us nearly $1000.

I'm not sure if getting 5 years out of the Zino was good or bad. I rarely have a computer last that long, so that's good. On the other hand, it didn't have to do too much. It usually ran one application. I would expect it to last a long time.

The Replacement May Be a Problem

I knew that the Zino was on its last legs. I had been looking for a replacement, but I knew it wasn't going to be easy. Microsoft ended Windows Media Center in Windows 10. It simply isn't available in any form. It was the only software that works well for all the premium channels. With Windows 8 you had the option to get Windows Media Center, but you had to pay extra for it.

So ideally, I'd be looking for a computer with Windows 7. That's not easy to find as most new computers are sold with Windows 10. I noticed a deal on a rare Windows 7 computer Amazon Prime Day, but I didn't pull the trigger. I simply didn't want to spend another $600 that day.

What a difference a weeks makes.

It seems like my luck comes in two forms: extremely good and the bad. This is a case of extremely good luck. I happened to go on Slickdeals where I saw the deal originally. The original deal expired, but it happened to be back!

For those who aren't tech nerds, the processor in my old Zino scored 1782 on a Passmark benchmark test. The new processor scores a little over 10,000 on the same benchmark test. Roughly, the brains are 5.5 times faster... but there are a lot of other speed enhancements as well (faster memory, faster graphics, etc.). I wouldn't be surprised if it was 10 times faster in practice.

The price was ~$620 with taxes, so not too much more than the original Zino. It's a bigger computer, but not too big.

Here are the full specs for technology nerds:

  • Intel Core i7-6700 Quad Core 3.6GHz CPU
  • 16GB DDR3L Memory
  • 2TB HDD
  • AMD Radeon R9 360 2GB GDDR5
  • 2x USB 3.0
  • 4x USB 2.0
  • 1x HDMI
  • 1x VGA
  • DVD-RW
  • 802.11bgn WiFi + Bluetooth 4.0
  • Windows 7 Professional 64 Bit (Includes Windows 10 Pro License)

There's room for improvement like an SSD, more USB 3.0 ports, a Blu-Ray drive, and 802.11ac wifi. I may end up putting an SSD in it, but I'll give the traditional HDD a shot first. I had zero 3.0 ports, so having 2 is nice. I have an external portable Blu-Ray drive, so that's not a big deal. I typically use the Ethernet connection for the media center since it needs to be near the cable connection anyway. Thus the WiFi isn't a big deal.

I'm excited to have a processor that fast with that much memory. I have been using laptops that are designed with chips to save power for years. Even the Zino used chips designed for a laptop. I imagine it will be quite an increase in performance to go back to the power of a full desktop.

I'm hopeful that it will be relatively easy to get Windows Media Center set back up. I'll let you now how it goes.

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Posted on July 19, 2016.

Amazon Prime Day is Here!

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You knew I just had to write about Amazon Prime Day. This is probably one of the best days to save money. Unfortunately, it's also one the most dangerous days to spend money. When I'm looking at some of these deals, I have to remind myself that saving money means not spending it at all.

If you aren't an Amazon Prime member you can use this link for a FREE trial. Just grab all the deals and cancel.

That said, I did my fair share of buying this morning. Most of it was Subscribe and Save which I've written about before. Before I get to that though, here's the best Prime deal:

Get $10 when you buy $50 in Gift Cards. I'm always buying stuff from Amazon, so I just sent myself a gift card. Amazon should have just saved the time and gave me a Hamilton.

Subscribe and Save Deals

Charmin Ultra Strong Toilet Paper, Mega Roll, 24 Count - Between the 25% off Prime Day deal, the $2 coupon, and 15% off for Subscribe and Save, it was around $15. I think I recently paid around $22 for a similar amount of Cottonelle. I think we'll be done with toilet paper for awhile.

80 Hefty Ultra Strong Tall Kitchen Drawstring Trash Bags - These came to around $7.50 after all the discounts. Fortunately, we needed kitchen trash bags anyway.

124 diapers for $20 and change I don't usually buy Pampers and opt for the cheapest Wal-Mart brand, but this is a very good price.

74 dishwasher tablets for under $6 - It seems that these Finish tablets go some sale every year or so... and I always stock up. One time, it was buy one, get one free of 200 tablets, which lasted us years.

Things I Already Own and Love

This is time to buy an InstantPot as it is only $70. As my wife wrote, Instant Pot is a thing she loves. You'll usually pay more than $100, so $70 is a screaming good deal.

Amazon Echo for $130. I love this so much I started a blog about the Echo.

Amazon's Usual Suspects

I'm not going to link to them, but all the Amazon devices seem to be on sale. This is the time to buy a Kindle, Fire, or FireTV. I am toying with the idea of getting the kids tablet for $70 (or $80 with more memory). I have a Fire tablet already, but I like the idea of curated content for the kids.

Tempting, but I'm Not Buying

I've wanted a Segway for probably a dozen years. This deal looks to be the closest I'll ever come to one. I'm just not willing to spend $700 today, even if it is highly discounted.

Are you doing any buying today? Let me know what you are getting in the comments.

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Posted on July 12, 2016.

Best Use of Less Than $100? (and Bonus Deals!)

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I was reading the awesome email newsletter this week and Jim ended it with a great question:

What do you consider your most valuable under-$100 purchase of all time? The thing that has had the most impact in your life?

I cheated by naming two "most valuables." For some reason, whenever Jim asks me for one thing, I come up with two. It only happens with his questions though. Here they are:

1. Dinner and drinks on the first date with my future wife. (Is it appropriate to give a shout out to my wife as we celebrated 9 years of marriage yesterday?)
2. The domain name and hosting.

It's a tremendous drop off to #3. I couldn't even think of anything. Maybe rounding up my kids' favorite toys and how they all helped them sleep, avoid meltdowns, learn the alphabet and all that stuff.

What's your answer? Let me know in the comments... and onto the deals!

Deal Time!

For the next few days (at least until after Amazon Prime Day on July 12th) this blog is going to sound like it is sponsored by Amazon. And in a way it is since I'll make a small commission if you buy any of the stuff I feature. That said, I'm probably in the top 10% of most frugal people and I'm buying a ton of this stuff.

I'm going to assume that all these deals require Amazon Prime. If you don't have it, you can can use this link for a FREE trial. That will give you access to all these and the many other deals this is the best time to on Amazon Prime Day.

Amazon put up a bunch of HD movies for rental for 99 cents. Personally, I'm going to snag We're The Millers. There are a lot of other classics like The Matrix and Shawshank Redemption... probably 3 or 4 dozen choices overall. I think the deal is limited to one movie.

The other thing that people are freaking out over is this Anker 20,000mAh Portable Charger that lists for $80, but is on sale for $27. I have a 14,000mAh one, but it doesn't very fast like this one does. I'm thinking about whether it's worth the money to upgrade. I may justify it by saying that it gives us more tablet/cell time if we have a blackout.

If you are an Amazon Echo owner, there are additional deals today. If you buy something through your Echo, you'll save $10 on a purchase of $20 or more. However, they've also deeply discounted a few other products.

The catch is that you have to act TODAY.

I'm tempting to buy an Amazon Tap at nearly half price. You can read more about the Echo deals on my Alexa/Echo blog here. If you are interested in drones and/or cooking, it's worth a look.

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Posted on July 8, 2016.

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