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Irishtimes

Why technology can really fit the bills

Investing effort in technology can help you save money, and with smartphones in particular there’s no reason to waste cash, writes CIARA O'BRIEN

DITCH THE GYM

A typical gym membership costs about €40 to €50 per month, which over a year can add up. But technology has made gym membership all but redundant. These days you have GPS watches to track your runs, or if you’re not willing to spend even that, your smartphone will step in. Get going with a couch-to-5k app.

There are plenty of apps out there to keep track of your running achievements – MapMyRun and Adidas’s MiCoach are free, while Nike+ GPS costs only a couple of euro.

If you want something a bit more fun, try Zombie Run, which encourages you to run faster and farther by putting you in the middle of a pretend zombie apocalypse. Along your run, you pick up various supplies needed back at the survivors’ camp. Thanks to some audio trickery, you can even hear them breathing down your neck as you run. It’s the best motivator we’ve ever heard of. If running isn’t your thing, you could try Nike Training Club, which gives you 85 custom-built workouts covering everything from toning up to losing body fat. And it’s all for free, too.

REDUCE YOUR ENERGY BILLS

An energy monitor itself may not save you money, but how it changes your behaviour probably will. Hook one of these up to your meter and you’ll see just how much power you’re using each day, and quickly figure out how to cut back on wasted consumption.

You’ll be able to pinpoint the power-hungry appliances in your household, so it’ll probably scare you into choosing more energy-efficient appliances. If nothing else, it will encourage you to be more conscious of switching off things when they aren’t in use, saving you a few euro here and there.

KILL STANDBY

Look around your home. See all those little red standby lights blinking at you? Every single one of them is costing you money. It varies from appliance to appliance, but in general, standby can use up to 30 per cent of the power an electronic product needs when it is switched on.

The cheapest way to solve this problem is, of course, to unplug it. But if that’s too awkward, you could always pick up some plugs that cut the power to the appliance. Some work by automatically sensing when the appliance has been turned off; others work via a remote control.

For a less high-tech solution, you can buy plugboards with individual switches, so you can turn off the items you don’t need and still have power for the ones you are using.

ONLINE VOUCHERS AND COUPONS

Online offers can sometimes be a bit of a false economy, encouraging you to buy things you wouldn’t usually use. And if – as frequently happens – you don’t use the vouchers within the specified time, that’s money down the drain.

But if you keep an eye out for everyday offers that will genuinely save you money – shoe repair, dry cleaning – you could save a tidy sum. The problem is that there are now multiple websites offering different deals. To keep your email inbox clutter-free, sign up for a daily email such as MyDealPage, which will send you most of the offers on the market in a single email every day.

Check online for coupons too, with some firms offering printable vouchers through sites such as Pigsback.com, or use a smartphone app such as Vouchercloud to find deals nearby. With the latter you can download the vouchers directly to your smartphone and simply show them at the till when buying products.

DIGITAL ENTERTAINMENT

If you are so inclined, you can probably find hours of entertainment on YouTube. Or with a bit of technical knowhow and a virtual private network (VPN), you can access US TV shows online whenever you want to watch.

You may already have access to on-demand entertainment at your fingertips, without having to shell out for DVD rentals or spend a night peering at your PC. For example, UPC is offering digital customers on-demand and catch-up TV services through its set-top box, with different content available depending on their subscription. For customers on higher subscription tiers, UPC has thrown in some box sets from UK and US TV stations as part of the deal. So no late fees to worry about, and you don’t even need broadband, as the service is delivered through the set-top box.

Music fans don’t have to spend a cent either. Audio streaming services such as Grooveshark and We7 are an inexpensive way to get your music fix. They vary in quality and choice though, with some limiting you to a set number of track requests a month, switching you over to customised radio stations after that, and other services are a bit hit and miss.

If you’re already an Eircom broadband customer, you get access to its streaming Music Hub service free of charge. That’s millions of songs and albums at your fingertips, and you don’t have to pay a cent more unless you want to start downloading tracks to use on your music player.

VOICE OVER INTERNET PROTOCOL (VOIP) AND FREE MESSAGING

You aren’t chained to your mobile phone or landline to keep in contact with your friends any more. There are plenty of inexpensive ways to call or message people, regardless of where they live.

The major Irish networks all offer free web texts – the only difference is how many messages you can send free of charge. The average is 250 per month. There are apps you can download for your smartphone to allow you to send webtexts directly from your phone – Jelly SMS, EirText – using a small amount of your data allowance. Not all networks allow you to send texts to overseas numbers though*. 

Other options are instant messaging apps like Kik Messenger or WhatsApp, which are available across different smartphone platforms. Best thing about it is, if you are on wifi, it doesn’t cost you a cent more.

It’s a similar situation with calls. Services such as Viber and Skype will allow you make calls free of charge to other users of the respective services. And calls to non-Skype users are cheaper using the service too. You can load up your account with credit, and then call mobiles or landlines in far-flung regions for a few cent a minute.

BUDGETING

Keep track of expenses with free apps on your smartphone, or prepare your household budget on your PC. If you know what you’re spending, chances are you’ll be less prone to splashing out regularly on small items and then wondering why you have so much month left at the end of the money.

You could opt for a simple spreadsheet – try Google Docs online if you don’t have Microsoft Word, or OpenOffice for your PC. The National Consumer Agency offers a free online budget planning tool too.

For your smartphone, you can keep track of all your outgoings with the Lemon app.

REPLACE THOSE GADGETS

At one time, a road trip would have necessitated a music device, a GPS unit and a camera to capture all the memories. These days your smartphone can do all this, cutting down on the cost and amount of kit you have to carry.

Smartphones come with 8 megapixel cameras and the ability to store thousands of songs. Of course they aren’t suitable for everything – some struggle with fast-moving action or distant subjects – but they are more than capable of recording some of your best moments. And they have the added convenience of always being around too.

The GPS and mapping functions in phones have improved significantly. The newer generation of smartphones even allows you to access maps offline.

Nokia’s Drive app downloads maps directly to your phone. Google’s Android Map app will save the maps you use most to your phone while you’re on wifi, so you can access them even if you lose your data connection when you’re out and about.

COMPARISON SITES

We’re always told to shop around, but let’s face it, it’s time consuming, it’s often complicated and you usually end up back at the first place you started anyway. The internet, of course, has opened up a whole new world for bargain hunters.

Get on to Bonkers.ie to compare prices for gas and electricity, or check bank accounts and other financial products and make sure you’re getting the best deal. ComReg’s callcosts.ie will help you figure out how to trim some fat from home phone, mobile and broadband bills. If you want to get a bit more high-tech in your everyday shopping, some apps allow you to scan barcodes of items to price them online. Although many of them are US or UK based, you can at least find out where to buy them online.

DIGITAL CAMERAS

Speaking of capturing precious memories, the advent of digital cameras has also meant a bit less cash leaving your wallet. The cameras are more affordable than ever, photographic film is gone, and you can choose which photos you want to print without having to pay the photolab to cover out-of-focus prints with “helpful” advice stickers. You can print photos at home if you have a decent photo printer – another area where you can save cash.

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