It takes diligence to keep telecommunications spending in check because prices and offerings change frequently. Among those changes is the triple-play bundle, which includes television, telephone and Internet services.
This winter might finally be the time to bundle up.
Previously, many experts pooh-poohed these bundles as being more expensive than shopping for each service alone. And that still is true if you're a light user of these services.
But growing competition between cable TV and phone companies, which sometimes team with satellite TV companies, has led to sweeter deals. It has made bundles worth considering. In fact, for heavy users who want the most robust services, bundles can be a big money saver.
"The price of bundles is starting to become a lot more competitive," said John Breyault, spokesman for consumer advocacy group Telecommunications Action and Research Center.
A typical $99 triple-play bundle includes a premium level of television service, broadband Internet service and a feature-laden landline telephone package with free domestic long-distance calls. U.S. households typically spend $150 to $200 a month on those services, according to research firm CFI Group.
Half of households surveyed by CFI already had a bundle of some sort, and about 20 percent plan to obtain one soon.
Telecommunications spending is important, not only because offerings change quickly, but because it's central to spending FITness, where FIT stands for food, insurance and telecommunications.
Here are telecom-bundle tips and considerations:
If you're a light user of these services, you might not save money with a bundle.
Light users don't make many long-distance calls, or they use their wireless phone for them. They might not need Caller ID, call waiting and phone company voice mail. Light users don't subscribe to premium movie channels. And light users of the Internet, who mostly check e-mail and do occasional Web surfing, can get by with slower-version DSL service, which is cheaper. If this sounds like your household, you probably can find better telecom deals a la carte or in double-play bundles.
In general, if you don't already spend $99 on these services, not including fees and taxes, and are happy with the level of service you have, don't bother with a bundle, Breyault said.
So many services and features come in a bundle, it's difficult to address them all. If you're moving your phone service - from phone company to cable company, for example - you can keep the same phone number. And your cable phone service should come with a battery backup that lasts for several hours so you can make calls when the power goes out.
Quality of service.
A Consumer Reports reader survey showed the best services come from Verizon's FiOS fiber-optic service, which is limited in availability but growing. Combinations of phone companies and satellite companies scored relatively well, while traditional cable companies scored worst. That doesn't mean a bundle from your cable company is a bad idea. Services were rated on value, reliability, performance and support.
The survey found that bundle subscribers were reasonably satisfied with all three of the most commonly bundled telecom services. The magazine rates individual services in its January issue.
This is often promoted as a big advantage of bundles, but it's actually a minor one. If you pay bills automatically, which you should do to reduce expense and hassle, having one bill or three doesn't matter much. For lower-income households, a large bill for all three services at once might be more burdensome than spreading out three bills over the month.
Watch promotional periods.
Some of the best deals require a commitment of a year or two. Know what the penalty is for canceling early. Other deals include discounted or free service and equipment for a specified period.
Know the costs.
You might have to pay such startup costs as installation and activation fees. Remember that extra TV boxes might cost you more. Of course, phone and TV service come with the usual monthly fees and taxes.
When signing up, ask for three dollar figures: the first month's bill, which might include startup costs; the second month's bill, which should be a normal bill; and the bill when all the promotional periods end.
If you're pinching pennies and making sacrifices, bundles probably are not for you. They offer many services you should do without if you're digging out of debt or saving toward a goal.
Gregory Karp writes for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.