Affordable Technology for Families on a Tight Budget

Technology can work on almost any budget.
Technology can work on almost any budget.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

If you cringe every time your kids submit a wish list because those small slips of paper are filled with big ticket electronic toys and gadgets, you're probably suffering from tech shock. It's that numb feeling you get when you realize that one day you may have to make a choice between putting food on the table and paying for your mobile service bills, whether that's Internet access, gaming subscription, a satellite account or cable service.

It isn't just the purchase price of the hardware, either. After that pesky plastic packaging comes off (are they kidding with that stuff?), there's almost always a monthly service subscription involved, or software to buy, or expensive how-to books to purchase to get full value from your investment, or security issues that start out cheap but get pricier and pricier over time. Not only that, the cutting-edge technology you're buying today will be obsolete before your kids wear out their school shoes. Then you'll have to go through the same process all over again -- or bear the brunt of endless arguments about how the latest and greatest gadget is absolutely essential for (insert clever manipulative gambit here).

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Sure, new technology is neat and useful. What parent doesn't want his child to have emergency access to a mobile phone or the latest educational tools to get a good start in life? Wanting your spouse to have some of the nicer things in life isn't too much to ask either, is it?

Let's consider: A home theater system could mean fewer outings to expensive movies -- and hideously costly side trips to the concession counter. It may even be possible to get free DVDs at the library to offset the cost. See what we're doing here? We're constructing a strategy. Having a strategy is a good beginning.

Deciding what gadgets you want, need, or really, really need is a process. Once you narrow down your long list of desires to a shorter list of family-friendly possibilities, it's time to set a budget and start hunting for the best prices on the items you want.

On the next page, we'll take a look at the ways and means of buying gadgets. When you can't have it all, these tips will help you make smarter choices when buying electronics and other tech gear.

Budget, Then Bells and Whistles

Most shopping gurus agree that one of the best ways to decide on what technology to buy is to knock out a budget first. This includes the price of the item itself as well as the costs associated with using it. If you know you want a gaming system, a wireless home network and a digital satellite system but can only afford one of the three, you can start looking at a few creative options.

The technologies you're interested in may overlap and allow you to, say, use your wireless home network to access television programming and games. That way, you can pass on the digital satellite system and gaming console for the time being. You won't get everything you want, but you might be able to manage more functionality than you expected for the price you're willing to pay.

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Roku, for instance, is a streaming entertainment device that sells for around $50. It includes links to lots of free programming as well as easy access to paid services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. There is no monthly charge for the Roku box, and it's easy to connect to your television and wired or wireless network. It won't give you access to all the cable stations you'll find on cable or satellite, but it's cheap, easy to set up and gives you endless options for movies and TV show.

Cable and satellite providers typically offer bundled technology packages that can save you having to invest in multiple separate services. One may bundle Internet access, cable, gaming and phone service for a one-stop-shopping solution. This can be a good deal, particularly if there's strong competition between satellite services and the cable provider in your part of the country. Before you start clearing a spot on the coffee table for the new remote, be aware that these types of transactions require signing a contract. A one- to two-year term isn't unusual.

Tips for Finding Affordable Technology for the Family

Beyond trying to find technologies that overlap and scoring bundled deals for added discounts, here are some best practice tips that will help you get better value for your technology dollar:

  • Avoid the extras -- That home theater system or computer may be packaged with extras you don't really need. The "free" printer included in your computer bargain may look like a good deal, but the printer manufacturer is probably making its money on the price of the replacement ink cartridges, not the printer itself. That's because the ink costs a fortune. Extra memory cards, microfiber polishing cloths and ritzy cables look good in the ads, but you'll save money by buying basic packages and adding the extras yourself as you need them.
  • Explore last generation products -- Technology is always changing, and the latest and greatest gadget is typically sold at a premium price right after it's first introduced. If you plan your purchase to coincide with a new product release -- and buy last generation technology -- you'll buy a quality product at a bargain basement price. The manufacturer will still support the older model, and chances are that it will be technologically current enough to provide you with years (or at least many months) of useful service. Decide.com is a consumer electronics buying site that makes suggestions about when to buy items like flat screens and laptops. The ratings are model specific, and summaries include predictions about price hikes and drops as well as reports on when new model releases are expected. It's a good site to check once you have a wish list in hand.
  • Pass on the extended warranty -- Consumer Reports recommends passing on the extended warranties offered by electronics retailers. After evaluating the repair histories collected on tech products, they concluded that repair rates are typically relatively low, and the repairs that are necessary usually cost less than or about the same as the price of the extended warranty. Oh, and if you make your purchase using selected platinum or gold credit cards, or with an American Express card, you'll double the manufacturer's warranty free of charge anyway. That's hard to beat.
  • Buy refurbished -- Manufacturer refurbished electronics are often sold at as much as a 30 percent discount, and many include a 30-to-90 day warranty. A refurbished item has typically been purchased and returned to the factory for some reason. The repairs necessary to make the item fit to offer for sale may be cosmetic or could involve replacing DOA components. When considering this type of purchase, stick with brand name merchandise, and choose resellers you know.

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Sources

  • City of San Diego. "Computers at Home." (2/14/12). http://www.sandiego.gov/public-library/pctech/child/athome/buying.shtml
  • Tech Family Budget. "Tech Ideas." (2/14/12). http://techfamilybudget.com/?cat=11
  • Cnet. "Budget Tech." (2/15/12). http://news.cnet.com/posts/?keyword=Budget+tech
  • Consumer Reports. "Buying electronics - 10 Money-saving Secrets, Plus Ratings of 36 Retailers." 12/08. (2/14/12). http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/electronics-computers/resource-center/buying-electronics/overview/buying-electronics-ov.htm
  • Darlin, Damon. "A New Secret Weapon for Electronics Shoppers." The New York Times. 12/6/11. (2/14/12). http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/07/technology/personaltech/web-site-offers-help-getting-deals-on-electronics.html
  • Roku. "Stop Dreaming. Start Streaming." (2/14/12). http://www.roku.com/