small change toward a rich life

Spending money to save money

We’ve done a pretty good job of cutting back on unnecessary expenses during this period of reduced income. ‘Magazine subscriptions’ seems like an obvious category to eliminate, right? Yet I kept mine. Here’s why: they save me way more money than they cost.

Consumer Reports

My first-ever magazine subscription, when I was 19 years old, was to Consumer Reports. Other ones have come and gone, but I’ve been a loyal nonstop CR subscriber for twenty years now, and I read every issue cover-to-cover. (The complete lack of advertising makes this a remarkably pleasant experience). I also pay extra for full access to their web site, because the search function is darn handy, and keeps me from having to store and sort through years of back issues.

A lot of what they report on is not of immediate use to me, of course — for example, we buy one car every decade or so. But every time we are ready to make a major purchase, I check CR. About 80% of the time they have a ratings list including feature and price data, plus a detailed explanation of how to assess quality of models not listed. In the past four years I’ve used CR to choose an oven, two televisions, a washer and dryer, a computer printer, a digital camera, and a gas grill — all of which have performed beautifully. That’s not even counting the small stuff, like comparisons of laundry detergent effectiveness, or — in the most recent issue — condoms! Plus they have frequent articles alerting readers to issues like credit card traps and health insurance pitfalls.

Cost: $42 per year ($23 print, $19 web).
Savings: several hundred dollars per year.

(If you want to be extra-frugal, get the web-only CR for $26 per year. I happen to enjoy the print magazine enough to warrant the extra $16, but the important information is all available online.)

Consumers’ Checkbook

A little over a year ago I added Consumers’ Checkbook to my arsenal. They’re sort of like a regional, service-focused version of Consumer Reports, offering both ratings and in-depth reports on various services. They’re only available in seven metro areas, but fortunately for us, one is Puget Sound.

So far this year I’ve used their ratings to select a veterinarian, a dermatologist, and a car repair shop. Checkbook doesn’t have a full report on doctors, so the dermatologist didn’t come with a price comparison or savings. But their feature on ‘doctors rated highly by other doctors’ did help me get someone good. I don’t know anyone locally who visits a dermatologist, so without Checkbook it would have been a crap shoot.

The vet and auto repair ratings, however, have arguably saved us hundreds of dollars this year alone.


I know plenty of people with pets, so finding a good vet has never been a problem. What’s harder is finding one that’s both good and cheap, relatively speaking. Here Checkbook’s price comparison between veterinarians was stunningly useful. It would have taken me many hours to do that research on my own. And look at the range!

There are big vet-to-vet price differences. For example, for spaying a 25-pound, seven-month-old dog, charges we found at local vets ranged from $90 to $532. Many of the lowest priced vets rated very high on our customer survey. It is possible to save money and also get top-quality care for your pet.

The vet I selected with Checkbook’s info turned out to be not just great but also very reasonable in cost. When our cat developed alarming symptoms earlier this year, it was worth a lot to know that I wasn’t going to be hemorrhaging money in tests and treatments.

Auto Repair:

Over the last couple of weeks, our trusty little 1999 Honda Civic has been exhibiting some alarming behaviors, such as a sudden loss of electrical function while going 60 mph on the interstate.

Car repairs scare me, because I know very little about automobiles, so it’s very easy to take me for a ride, so to speak. Fortunately, we have a car mechanic in the family — too far away to fix our problem, but at least he could make a long-distance guess at the cause and give me a rough idea of a reasonable charge for repairs.

His assessment: either the ignition switch (~$125 retail part) or the distributor ($450-$500 retail part). Either one would take, he guessed, about one to one-and-a-half hours of labor. (His shop charges $80/hour for labor, for comparison.)

Again, Checkbook reports wild variation in local costs:

There are dramatic price differences. For example, to replace the water pump and timing belt on a 1999 Ford Contour, we found prices ranging from $393 to $950. Hourly labor rates range from $60 to $140. There are many top-quality, low-priced shops. Indeed, we found no relationship between the prices shops charge and the quality of their work.

(Are you seeing a pattern here?)

Checkbook listed ten repair shops within five miles that earned their top recommendation for both price and quality. (Hourly labor charges in our immediate area ranged from $73 to $110.) Jak picked one on a direct bus route that had a $75 rate and customer comments extolling their ‘honesty and service’.

As Jak was the one to take the car in, I didn’t interact with them directly, but the results were impressive. The diagnostic mechanic couldn’t quickly determine whether it was the ignition switch or a distributor problem, but rather than suggest we replace both — which would mean more money for him, and the tack many shops would take — he persevered.

Ultimately he was able to confirm the fault was in the ignition switch, which he replaced. He charged us for one hour labor and — based on the information I got from Bill — something that must have been very close to his own cost on the part. Total charge: $120. It could easily have been double that at another shop for the very same repair; a lazy or dishonest mechanic might have tried the distributor and charged us $600 or more.

Cost: $14 per year (print and web).
Savings: several hundred dollars per year.

(Note that Checkbook subscriptions are for 2-year periods, and cost varies slightly among locations.)

(Photo by Manchester City Library.)


One response

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  1. GreyDuck says

    Quite interesting. I always thought of CR-based shopping as more of a “pinch a few pennies” activity. Then again, I don’t have expenses that run into hundreds of dollars, either. (For good or ill.)

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