Monday, November 16, 2009

How Much Does It Cost (The Money, Part 1)

My Year Without Internet is not free. I post this early cost analysis with some trepidation, because personal finance is personal, and these details reveal more about me than a hundred essays about my spiritual yearnings. But in the interest of "follow[ing] the money," here's an expanded view of the inside of Esther's cupboards. Don't get bored.

Nick and I unwittingly began this adventure by dropping our cellphones. This is the simplest math in the whole post. Within a single field of technology, if you want more, you pay for more. Our three phone lines, with internet, cost between $160 and $170 a month. One phone line, with internet, costs us $62.69 a month.

The resulting savings, of $100 per month, would not have been available to us if I hadn't stopped working. As a freelance artist, lost calls are lost money. In order to compete with other freelance artists, you need to be at least as easily reachable as they are: therefore, carrying a cell phone was my job. The same has been true for my husband, who has had a salaried job but only recently stopping taking freelance gigs as well. This is an equation pair that appears frequently to the parents of small children: Not Working = 0; Working = x - Py, where "x" is the additional income, "y" is the additional expense, and "P" is the variable factor of Poor Decision Making, because you are crazed by your busy, busy life and don't have time to think about it.

At least for the moment, I am Not Working. And that's the end of the easy part.

I had very much hoped that I could tell you that dropping our internet service, opposed by a few incidental costs of life without internet, would result in a net balance. Wouldn't that be pretty?

Going without internet in our house saves us $15 per month. I could get the monthly cost down further by changing service providers, but would then have to pay fees associated with the change. I could cut out or restrict long distance service -- Nick and I have not been, historically, in the habit of calling people anyway -- but then I truly do risk isolation, and that isn't the point.

$15 it is. That buys 34 stamps. A whole lot of you would have to write to me to cause me to need more than 34 stamps in a month.

It seems tidy, and somehow scientific, to draw the relationship above, in which I equate the information transfer cost of Internet with the information transfer cost of direct mail. $15 each way. Done deal. But it's completely fictional. The internet brings a million more things into my home than direct mail ever did. Cutting out the internet creates the impulse to replace all those things. That cost is potentially infinite.

The bad news, I'm discovering, is that there is a cost to rejecting the dominant technology. Or you could say, I am punished for rejecting the dominant technology. The good news is that my husband and I have total individual control over that cost. And we have to think about it, which is healthful, like drinking castor oil is healthful.

Here are some of the things we've had to think about:


I know I said that thing, about the dark wood and no path, but in the light of day I have no intention of completely depriving myself of news articles. A subscription to the New York Times, 7 days, is almost $15 per week, although they entice you by offering you half price for the first three months. At the other end of the spectrum, there are local free papers. There's a commuter paper that Nick reads on the way home from work. I bet Jacob could supply me with yummy day-old papers from the Harvard campus -- and by yummy I do mean doughnut stained. Or, in the spirit of humility, I could ask Marcella and Melissa and Terri and Kirsten -- the Facebook friends whose article links I read every day -- to occasionally hit "print" instead of "link." Small print, double sided to save on postage cost? I could send SASE's.

With the assumption that I will find other ways to supplement my diet of topical nonfiction, Nick and I are going Boston Globe, Sundays only, for $3.50 a week, half price for the first 12 weeks. This gives us a fat pile of news articles, the Sunday Opinion section, the coupons, and the classifieds, for $13.42 per month over a year.

Personal Finance:

Checks. I had to buy checks. I have used online banking for years, so this is a change. I got the kind with stubs, so basically I write the check twice: once to inform the entity receiving my money, and once to inform myself. This is all related to a concerted effort on my part to be more mindful of my spending, which impulse came originally out of necessity -- from two incomes to one income is a harsh drop -- but is now becoming a preciously guarded choice. We are realizing that we can live on less. Less money. Less stuff. Less trash. Less anxiety.

I spent $34.31 on 150 checks with stubs. It's reasonably a year's worth of checks, since I only have to use them to send money to places I can't go in person. And there are fewer of those transactions than you might think. Fudging a little because I can't currently find my crystal ball, the cost of personal finance by mail can be estimated at $2.94 in checks plus $2.64 in stamps, or $5.58 per month.


If I were a single woman, this category would be a very round and attractive little zero. My entertainment is covered by reading, writing, baking, long walks on the beach...etc, etc. (And bird watching.) My husband, however, likes a little small screen entertainment, and going without that is a lifestyle change he doesn't want to make. We discussed the possibility of reinstating our Netflix, which we cancelled because I always felt bad about so rarely wanting to watch anything, and Nick was satisfied with Hulu. Reverting to Netflix, one movie at a time, would be only $8.99, and Nick could update his cue using the internet at work.

But so far we don't seem to be choosing to go that way. Instead, we've decided to use the libraries. Boston is a reader's paradise, and all the libraries are huge. I go to the library at least once a week because I love my son and he loves books. (Do you know that he actually sleeps with his books? Like the upstairs neighbor's kid sleeps with stuffed animals?) Nick has access to the Harvard libraries as well, so if we feel like it, we can get really obscure movies. We can even get obscure, educational movies, which Esther might actually watch.

In the end we did get our attractive little zero: replacement entertainment cost, $0.00 per month.


With stamps at $0.44 per letter, and rescued stationery at $0.10 per letter (as long as the 10 for a dollar bin at Boomerangs can keep up with my habit), fudging again because of that constantly misplaced crystal ball, I might expect to write thirty letters a month, approximately one a day. That's $16.20 per month. My plan is not free.


This little scheme will cost us, at this very conservative estimate, $20.20 per month. Depending on whether you are of the mountain school or the molehill school, this could be negative, or it could be negligible.

Or it could be that I need an entire additional post to address it. See Part 2.


Kiki said...

What about faxes?
It's thru the phone line...

Esther said...

Yes! I think faxing pages is enough of a pain in the ass that it can't break the ban on instant portable communication. But I don't have a fax machine. Good idea.

Richard said...

One of the best decisions we ever made was to reduce media collections. We keep most of our books at our local library, where we don't have to dust them or move them or store them. Of course, we don't have them. They aren't really ours anymore or are they. I think that we have even more books now, because we have to go to the library if we want books and that's always fun. The same thing goes for movies, we don't need them here accept when we watch them and it's not instantly gratifying, but we can get good movies at the library if we want. How are you going to get new music? We always use the internet for that...

Esther said...

I hadn't thought about music. We're in a music bubble around here, where the outside world doesn't get really get in. I did have a hype machine period, where I stayed completely up to date with indie rock, but now I have kids and all those indie songs sound strange and angsty and self-absorbed. I'd love to have a record player and rescue music, too. Or an 8-track player! That technology is truly abandoned, and so all the 8 tracks in the world are truly unwanted. I should rescue 8 tracks!

Kiki said...

you can get a cheap fax machine at an office supply store -- or a more expensive one that includes a scanner and printer...