By Holly Richmond

With the holiday season quickly approaching, and families across the country facing uncertain and sometimes difficult economic times, many consumers are looking for ways to cut their household budgets. Cell phones, cable television, and the Internet have become mainstays in the home, but often can create an expense for families.

There are some things consumers can do, however, to switch to less expensive, but reliable services that can ease the pocketbook and serve your families’ technology needs.

Kevin Brand, senior vice president with EarthLink, suggests these money-saving tips to reduce monthly technology bills:

1. Assess Your Needs
Look at the ways you use technology in your home. Take a week and monitor how often you are on the phone, watching television, or surfing the net. Once you see how much time you are using these services, compare it to your plan. Many people have access to high-speed Internet at work, making it unnecessary to pay for high-speed bells and whistles at home. The key is to avoid paying for excess.

2. Downgrade
Once you assess your needs, get rid of services that you aren’t fully using. Are you downloading video and playing games or just checking email and sports scores on the Internet? If it’s the latter, it doesn’t make sense to pay for a high-end, super-fast Internet connection . A less expensive but safe and reliable service such as dial-up service—which some providers offer with a special accelerator option—may be just what you need.

The same applies to your cable bill. Do you need the premium channels or DVR? Better yet, if you can watch most of your favorite shows online, cancel your DVR. Be honest about what you really need, and don’t pay for services you aren’t using to their fullest potential.

3. Take Advantage of Freebies
Look for companies that offer free services. Some Internet providers offer free virus protection, which saves you from buying costly software yourself. Others offer free spam protection and other security enhancements, a good bet if you’re looking to maximize savings and still surf safely. Also, leverage your web access by surfing special cost-savings sites. Look for any special promotions your provider might offer on their home page. A lot of Internet providers have partnerships with other online merchants to offer special savings to their subscribers. If yours doesn’t, consider looking for one that does.

4. Avoid Bundles
Advertisers may create a “need” that might not really exist for you. If you’re a cost-conscience consumer, look closely at what you’re paying for popular, but often pricey, bundle packages that include phone, cable, and Internet. It may be easier to pay all-on-one bill, but it doesn’t allow you the flexibility to choose the best individual services that fit your lifestyle. You may not need all the “bells and whistles” of a high-cost bundle. In fact, if you opt for options like Freestanding DSL for your Internet access, you might be able to ditch your home phone altogether.

5. Study Your Bill

Read the small print. Know what you are paying for and make sure you’re only paying for services that you actually use. Also, be familiar with your contracts and look for changes to the terms of service. Know when your contract ends, so you don’t unwillingly default into another one. And be aware, not all Internet providers offer free, 24/7 customer support. If your provider doesn’t, you could be eating up dollars you don’t need to spend.

6. Pay Smart
Finally, make sure you are taking advantage of special deals and incentives. Some service providers offer discounts up to 40 percent for annually pre-paying. Others offer special pricing for a year’s commitment. And always ask for what you want from your provider. A customer-service focused Internet provider may be willing to give you a month’s credit if there’s been a serious issue involving your service or account.

Bottom line: Remember to step back and assess the tech services you have, and decide if you are really using them to their maximum. If not, you might be able to save a substantial amount just by switching to less costly services. Technology is important, but during these challenging economic times, it’s helpful to make small adjustments, so you can save money and cut down on monthly expenses.

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