Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holding the Line on Phone Costs

So far I’ve talked a lot about gardening. As I promised in the first post, however, the Living Low Way is a whole way of life. In this post I’ll share with you how Mike and I manage phone costs in order to get what we want without paying for what we don’t.

Until well into our adulthood, landlines were the only kind of phones you could obtain, and AT&T was the only phone company that existed. We grew up with rotary-dial phones, at a time when a phone company technician had to install them. We grew up with long distance service charges depending on whether you called during the day, evening, or overnight. My first year in college, I didn’t have a phone in my college dorm room, nor did most of the other women on the floor. We all made do with a phone booth at the end of the hall, with rules of etiquette governing when it was permissible for another person to ask you to end your call. The next year, plug-in phones arrived on campus and it became easy enough to have a phone in your dorm room that I did then and for the rest of my college career. As a college student with limited money, I made it stretch by making as many phone calls as possible during the cheapest overnight and weekend rates. Touch-tone phones that held phone numbers in memory, the court ordered break-up of AT&T into regional companies, and phone answering machines were the only other major innovations in phone service until I was close to 30 years old. I bought a new phone with memory and a new phone answering machine (the last store-bought telecommunication devices I’ve purchased); the latter was useful, the former, not so much because I’d forget to re-program numbers as family and friends changed them. Plus it quit working at some point.

By the time cordless telephones, cell phones, and a bewildering choice of telecommunications companies and service options came on the scene, Mike and I had already begun our simplicity practice. For us, the question of what type of phone and phone service to have, and who to have it with, came down to what was the minimum cost option to maintain basic phone service: the ability to call local and long distance numbers when we needed to. The Living Low Way is generally not compatible with having the most technologically advanced gadgetry and the latest service options. When cordless phones became popular, we decided that because our house is small and the sound quality of the cordless phones was poorer than corded phones, it made more sense to keep the corded phones and purchase longer phone cords for them at a much lower price. The two houses we’ve lived in were old enough that they had only a couple of phone outlets, so Mike wired up more outlets (he has a two year electrician degree, so this was a simple matter for him) and we bought a couple more corded phones through surplus stores and garage sales. Sometime after choice in long distance service came to St. Louis, we signed up to get long distance service from a company with very cheap rates and took the most basic, cheapest service that Southwestern Bell / AT&T offered. This service was so basic that we couldn’t call long distance in the state of Missouri using SWB / AT&T; we had to get out the calling card, otherwise only used when we went out of town, to make these calls. Mike always grumbled whenever he had to make such calls because we had to punch in an extra 16 or so digits to make them, but they were so few and far between, and our phone service was so cheap, that we put up with the minor inconvenience for these few calls and reaped the benefits of cheap service. We didn’t have caller ID, or call waiting, or voice mail, or cell phones. But we didn’t want any of these enough to pay for them. We’d gotten a digital answering machine from my parents for Christmas one year, so we didn’t need to pay for voice mail, and still don’t. As for cell phones, neither of us need or want to receive phone calls when we are away from home, and the sound quality of cell phones still isn’t up to landline phones, so cell phones hold no attraction for us. Occasionally we’ve needed to call people when we are on the road. So far we’ve always been able to find pay phones and use our calling cards to bill the charge back to the home phone. That leaves nothing for a cell phone to do that we can’t already do as well, and cheaper, another way.

When we moved to this house, it included the rotary-dial phone shown in the photo at the beginning of this post, in the telephone grotto that is typical of early and mid 20th century houses in the U.S. (our house was built in 1927). We have no idea how old the phone is; 50 years or more is likely. It still works and is still in use. How many of today’s consumer products, including your eye-device, are still likely to be working 50 years from now?

Perhaps a year or so ago, I attempted to make a phone call in-state but long distance, using the calling card. But to my surprise, it wouldn’t complete. This was not an isolated incident, either; it soon became apparent that our long distance company had dropped calling card service, probably to cut costs and because the use of it had greatly declined due to almost-universal cell phone usage. For us, relying on it as we did to make in-state long distance calls, this was unacceptable. In the meantime, however, all phone companies had added services into their basic packages that we didn’t really want and, in the case of caller ID, didn’t have a phone that could make use of the service. We had to grit our teeth and take the lowest level of local and all long distance service that was offered, which came with caller ID and call waiting as well as calling cards (though I had to ask for those since the sales rep wasn’t aware the company still had them). It added $10-15 a month to the combined total of our local phone charge and the average of our long distance use over the service we’d had before. But that still only amounts to around $50-55 a month, depending on how long we talk long distance that month. From what I understand, this is lower than most people pay just to talk on their cell phones, never mind text or Internet access or the cost of replacing the phone every few years due to fashion, obsolescence, or when it gets damaged by some unfortunate event. This is a major reason for us to stay with the current set-up. It does what we need, at the smallest cost and without requiring us to get on the treadmill of technological or fashion obsolescence that seems to plaque cell phone users.

As cell phone usage has become near-ubiquitous, I’ve noticed what to me, with only a landline phone, is an annoying tendency for people not to identify themselves when they call. Standard phone etiquette for many years was to identify yourself immediately after the person you called answered the phone, since you wouldn’t otherwise know who was calling unless you recognized their voice. I realize that cell phones include caller ID so identifying yourself isn’t necessary, but hey, not everyone has a cell phone or caller ID. I still think it’s polite for people to identify themselves when they call, and I continue to do so whenever I call someone, even my mother who after 55 years surely recognizes my voice. Once caller ID service was added to our phone service, however, I realized that if we could find a caller ID module at a thrift store or garage sale, we too could know who was calling and at least make use of a service we were paying for. Obsolete devices like these are easy to find cheap in such venues. Sure enough, last week we found a new in the box caller ID module at a garage sale. We paid $1.25 for it. It works perfectly. This is the Living Low Way in action.


  1. Hi, I just found your blog by way of Sharon Astyk. You have a very nice blog. I like your thoughtful discussion of things.
    I'm in KCK, so it's nice to see another gardener that's not that far away from me. :)
    I agree with you about people not identifying themselves on the phone. It's just rude, and if that person on the other line tends to be a rude person, in general, they seem to take it as an opportunity to be even more rude than usual. :(
    We use cell phones, because we need it for business reasons, but only recently got a land line. Ours land line is actually through the computer, since it was dramatically cheaper than the cable company. And, we do most of our long distance phone calls over iChat (with family in Europe).

    1. Hi Eleanor! It just took me this long to check for comments; I'll have to do better at that as well as posting.

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