NEW YORK -- As the year began, I decided I would get serious about digital cleanup -- to save money and improve my online life.
For a while, I had been putting off tasks such as backing up computer files and canceling the premium cable channels I never watch. Usually, I'd remember to do something while riding the bus, then soon forget. It took some discipline over a few months to get my digital life in order. As a result, I'm due to save more than $2,000 a year, money I can spend on a nice vacation.
You can do many of these things, too.
• Review your subscriptions and recurring payments.
Are you still paying for an AOL account even though you can get most of its services for free? If so, you're one of about 2.6 million people who pay AOL an average of $19 a month. But, unless you need dial-up access, you likely can cancel the charges. You won't lose access to your email and other services, which have been free since 2006.
If you have a Netflix, Hulu or other video accounts, think of how you use them. Perhaps you can drop the DVD portion of Netflix if you're mostly watching TV shows and movies over the Internet. Or if you still want the occasional DVD, you might not need a three-disc plan if the discs are continually collecting dust on a bookshelf. If you are paying for a Hulu Plus subscription, are you actually using it for viewing shows on mobile devices and other features you can't get with the free version of Hulu?
As for your cable or satellite TV service, are you paying for premium channels you don't watch? I had been.
As I started researching what I'd save by dropping Encore and Cinemax, I realized I wasn't watching most of the other channels either. I ended up suspending my entire cable TV service for a few months to see whether I'd miss it. So far, I haven't missed much and am looking at savings of more than $1,300 a year. I figure I could watch much of what I need on Netflix or Hulu and buy the occasional show from Amazon or Apple's iTunes.
I also reduced my Internet charges by buying my own cable modem on eBay for about $20. Rental charges would have run $3.95 a month, or more than that one-time purchase after five months. After that, it's nearly $50 in annual savings.
Still have a landline phone? Perhaps you can get rid of it if you're satisfied with having just a cellphone. I was paying more than $55 a month for landline service I hadn't used in years. Keep in mind that landline phones are typically more reliable during power outages and other emergencies. My cellphone had some difficulties in the wake of Superstorm Sandy last fall, but I didn't even have a phone to connect to my landline service, so continuing to pay those charges was plain silly. Annual savings: more than $650.
Before you finish, check your credit card bills for any recurring charges. Perhaps there's a gym membership you never use. In my case, there was a credit-monitoring service that I signed up for years ago. I can get a free credit report each year anyway, so I decided to drop the $11-a-month service, saving $132 a year.
My total savings from all this: more than $2,000 a year, even after budgeting about $150 a year to buy TV shows online.
One final tip: If you take advantage of a free trial, such as with Hulu Plus, leave a reminder in your online calendar to check back a few days before the trial is up. That way, you can remember to cancel it if you don't want recurring charges on your credit card.
• Go paperless.
Check the bills you get by mail each month and see which ones you can get electronically. In most cases, you can get PDF versions that resemble what you would have received on paper. It reduces clutter in my apartment, and it saves trees.
Now consider the reverse: What do you still send out by mail? Checks for rent, credit card payments and phone bills? Banks typically offer online bill-payment services for free. You save on postage and unnecessary paper, as your bank fulfills your payment requests electronically. In the rare cases where my bank can't do that, it prints out a check and mails it to the recipient.
I haven't written a single check in more than four years. In fact, I never ordered any when I opened my bank account in 2009. If you need to attach a check to an order form or physically hand it to someone, you can simply have the check sent to you, as long as you plan ahead. That's how I got a check to submit with a passport renewal. I had it made out to "Department of State" and wrote down my address rather than the government's. It got delivered. Not sketchy at all.
If you now pay six bills a month by check, you'd save more than $33 a year in postage, plus at least $7 in the cost of checks, at $20 for a box of 200. On top of that, my cable provider knocks off $1 a month, or $12 for the year, for receiving bills electronically.
While you're on a paper-free mission, you can stop some of your junk mail. Here's a government website that explains your options: http://1.usa.gov/QXIAli.
• Back up your files.
Like flossing, it's something we all know we should do, but often put off until it's too late. With more and more memories and important documents stored digitally, don't wait any longer.
If you have a Mac, turn on its Time Machine function for automatic backups. For Windows computers, you often get backup-management software for free when you buy an external storage drive. That's something you'd want anyway. It doesn't make sense to back up to the same computer, as both the original and the backup would disappear if your drive breaks down.
But what if there's a fire or flooding, as many victims of Superstorm Sandy learned the hard way? Your external storage drive would likely perish as well.
You can sign up for an online storage service, such as Dropbox, in which copies of files get transferred over the Internet and stored at a remote location. However, many Internet providers offer relatively low speeds for uploads, or sending files, so I limit that to the files that change most frequently. You might consider buying a second external storage drive, making regular backups on that and storing it at a friend's place or at work.
In fact, the drive from my 2006 iMac died just a month ago. Although that Mac was too old to have Time Machine, I had just moved the last bits of my day-to-day documents to a Dropbox account, meaning I had copies online. That saved me from at least $300 in charges for the repair shop to attempt data recovery, a process that came with no guarantee.
I'll add the savings to my vacation fund.