March 16, 2010 at 9:00 AM ET
It took Mary Schreiber about an hour, and just a little moxie, to save $300. You can do it too.
After reading about the Red Tape Fight Pledge last month, Schreiber took a hard look at the $129-per-month cable and Internet bill that had been nagging at her, and decided it was time to do something about it.
"The Comcast bill was crazy expensive, and I have really just basic TV and Internet," said Schreiber, 58, a technical writer who lives near Denver.
Saving money has become a top priority for her since she was laid off 11 months ago.
Her string of bad luck actually began 10 years ago, when she thought she'd found her niche as a technical writer for a high-flying telecom company named MCI WorldCom. But by the time MCI WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers took the Fifth before Congress about accounting irregularities, Schreiber was unemployed.
Finding a job at age 50 can be a challenge, but Schreiber landed on her feet, this time with a multinational software firm named Mincom, based in Australia. As a single woman, the $3,000 in take-home pay, along with decent benefits, provided her with a good living.
Then, the floor fell out from under her again. Last May, Mincom laid her off. Now 57, she knew her prospects were dimmer than last time. The $1,700 in monthly unemployment checks she began to receive would be considered generous by many state standards, but she still needed to learn to live on about half the income she previously had. And she needed to find health insurance. So she started doing a series of small things to lower her monthly bills.
Still, finding a job "is a full-time job," she said, filling out applications, keeping up with government paperwork, applying for various insurance subsidies, etc. So while she did some things to cut back on costs, others were neglected.
When she read about the Red Tape Pledge last month, she realized she had let her TV and Internet costs soak up too much of her budget for too long. So she used a technique we've talked about a lot in the Red Tape Chronicles: She called competitors and got bids for her business.
First stop -- Qwest, which had been mailing her promotional offers for months. A Qwest operator told her she could get Internet access for only $35 per month. Then, she called the Dish satellite TV network, which offered a comparable television package for about $30 a month. She knew there would be extra taxes and fees, and that these were promotional offers that would expire. Still, she now had hard evidence that she was overpaying, and she had a backup plan when she began her negotiations with Comcast.
Her intention all along was simply to talk Comcast into giving her a better deal. Switching services can be a hassle -- users often need to change e-mail addresses, for example, and sometimes have to wait for installers and so on. But Schreiber was staring at $50 or more in savings each month. So she placed the best kind of phone call any consumer can -- the no-lose phone call.
"I told Comcast I would rather stay with them, but I had to do something. The bill was just too high," she said. Then, she rattled off the offers she had in hand. It worked like a charm. The operator offered her TV and Internet service for $77 per month for six months, and she accepted on the spot.
"I could have saved a little more, but really I'd rather stay where I am," she said.
Comcast spokeswoman Jenni Moyer said the firm's prices are "competitive," but added that it will work with customers on an individual basis "to make sure our customers are getting what they want."
"The key thing is we do offer a range of choices for customers so they can find thepackage and level of service that works for them," she said.
Schreiber says her job prospects still aren't good, even though she said she's willing to move for a good job. In fact, she suspects she won't ever work again as a technical writer, because many firms have learned they can outsource technical writing tasks to low-wage overseas employees.
"Like any classic unemployed person, you have to force yourself to get up every day and go out, even if it's just to walk around the mall, as long as you don't spend any money, you have to get up and go somewhere," she said.
But she did put that Internet access to good use. She recently learned about a program that will help pay for her to go back to school, and help pay for her health insurance. In July 2009, Congress expanded the eligibility for Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that helps U.S. workers whose jobs are shipped overseas. Schreiber will start school next week with the intention of earning system administrator certification for Microsoft products.
"You just really need to spend time exploring what's available out there, but you have to put in the time," she said.
Sounds like the same challenge consumers face who want to save money and beat back hidden fees and unfair charges. There are ways to save money, they just take some time.
But unemployed or not, can you afford to pass up a chance to make $300 with one hour's work?
You too can make the Red Tape Fight pledge by joining this Facebook group, where you can discuss the progress you are making or the obstacles you are encountering with other members.