1. Go cheap on your desk.
When it comes down to it a desk is simply a work surface. If you are on a budget, concentrate on getting something stable as a desk and put the savings to work elsewhere. A used door can make a great work surface once you remove the door handle. Place it on some sawhorses and you have an easily adjustable solid surface. Place it on two file cabinets and you now have desk drawers.
This type of desk is what Amazon uses for all their employees. They attach 4x4s to a desk and it is ready to go. In the early days Jeff Bezos made the desks him self–now a carpenter makes them.
When it comes down to it, as long as your desk is solid it probably won’t make a significant contribution to or detraction from your productivity. If funds are tight, keep the money available to invest in things that will really matter.
2. Free printers.
A lot of people upgrade their computer every few years and end up with a new printer each time because it comes with the package. It is pretty easy to find someone with an older inkjet printer that is sitting unused. If you only print a handful of pages each week, this can be a great way to get a printer. (If you print many pages, you should probably invest in something a little more cost effective to operate.)
3. Cheap computer.
Unless you are doing video editing or some other task that requires a very fast computer, modern PCs are overkill. You can go cheap on your computer in order to save money for other items–like the monitor.
The key is to get something reliable at a low cost. Refurbished machines can be a great deal. I’ve had good success buying the exact components I want from TigerDirect and just building a system myself.
Be aware that some very low end computers make extra money by pre installing all kinds of trial applications. If you get a computer that has this, you may want to consider starting over with a fresh install of your operating system to clean things up.
4. Best monitor you can afford.
A monitor isn’t something to skimp on. For most people a 2 or 3 year old computer won’t significantly slow them down, but trying to use a discarded 15 inch CRT monitor will really make work a chore. I would recommend looking into a 24 inch monitor. The extra space is generally well worth the extra expense–especially if you’ve been able to save money on the other items on this list.
If you go with a laptop be sure to consider the screen you are getting. That glossy display that looks great in the store may turn out to be very difficult to see over the glare from sunlight.
5. Virtual phone.
Services like Skype and Vonage can give you an easy way to create a telephone number without getting an extra physical line. If you have a cell phone plan with free incoming minutes that can work out very well. Use Skype for outgoing calls and use your cell phone as the number you give out to people.
There are also some virtual PBX services that will give you features like a virtual attendant, voice mail, 800 number, etc.
6. Avoid particle board bookcases.
Unless you are willing to modify them, those particle board bookshelves you can get from Office Depot are worthless if you have real books. You are better off with cinder blocks and 1×8 planks. If you already have some of those wretched bookshelves (can you sense I must have had a bad experience with these?), you can glue or screw a 1×2 underneath each shelf to give it some added strength. If you do this carefully it should be out of the way where it isn’t noticed.
You can create nice bookshelves with 1×6 boards and cinderblocks or milkcrates. Many lumber stores will cute the boards to an appropriate length for little or no cost.
7. Use the library.
The local library can be a great cost savings tool. The ease of ordering a book on Amazon can make it hard to take the time to go down to the library. At the very least you should bookmark your local library’s search page so you can look to see if a book is available before ordering it.
8. Power protection.
The amount you pay for good power protection can save you a lot of money down the road–especially if you live in an area with unstable power. For most people a good UPS with 4 battery backup outlets and 4 normal outlets will suffice. Many battery backup units have a guarantee–if your equipment is damaged, they will replace it. Take a look at the fine print to make sure you don’t accidentally do something to void that warrantee.
10. Used furniture.
You can save a lot of money buying used furniture. Ideally if you can find a business with offices that is closing down or moving. For things like file cabinets, you may end up paying just as much as what you’d pay for a cheap file cabinet from Wal-mart, but if you are careful you can get something that is much better quality and will last much longer. If you buy used file cabinets make sure they have the rails for hanging files. You can add the rails later, but this usually is a bit more difficult to use.
Used desks and bookshelves are great–especially if they are from an older business. You can often get much higher quality than what is available from normal stores today.
11. Direct the light.
Instead of buying new lamps, you can often help your lighting simply by getting stronger bulbs. Also if you position your desk to take advantage of a window, it can give you light for free. You may want to put sheer curtains or some other type of light fabric to diffuse the light if the window gets direct sunlight. If your room has dark walls, placing white poster board on your wall opposite the window can help better distribute the light.
12. Recycle paper.
If you print out a lot of stuff just to read, save those sheets of paper and run them back through to print on the back.
13. Efficient printing.
If you can reduce the amount you have to print, you can save a lot on printer ink. A large monitor will help with this. You can also keep expenses down by printing things in Draft mode under your printer settings so it doesn’t use as much ink or toner.
If you get a color printer, take care to choose something that will be efficient for the way you work. For example, if you print a lot in a particular color, you don’t want a printer where all of the colors come in one cartridge. Once a single color is used up, you have to get a new cartridge, so you end up throwing away a lot of ink (if you take the time to calculate it out, the ink for inkjet printers is more expensive than gold).
A good inexpensive black and white laser printer is hard to beat if you print more than 50 pages per week. A local print shop is a great alternative to a color printer if you only need to use it occasionally.
14. Buying wires.
Best Buy and stores like that tend to make a lot of money on things like ethernet cables. They know that most people look at the price of the big ticket items, but rarely think about how much they are paying for the accessories. Getting your cables from Amazon or some other online retailer can save you a lot of money. It is common for wires that cost $30 from the large electronic store to be available for $5 elsewhere.
15. Think ergonomics.
This doesn’t mean you need spend a bunch of money on extra equipment, but at the same time don’t let the fact that you are saving money keep you from spending a few moments to make sure you aren’t going to hurt your wrists or strain your neck. Many ergonomic issues can be solved simply with a block of wood to raise the height of something, or by raising your chair a few inches.
16. Shop around for internet connections.
In most parts of the country you have more than one option. Some things to consider:
- You may be able to get internet through your cell phone. In particular Sprint offers some unlimited EVDO plans that can be cheaper (if you are already paying for the phone service) than going with a cable modem or something like that. With a bluetooth Rev A phone and a decent signal you should be able to get speeds comparable to an average DSL connection.
- Wireless companies are starting to pop up and sometimes they can be less expensive.
- If you don’t have a wired phone line, check to see if your phone company offers DSL without needing to have phone service. This is starting to become more common and is often much less expensive than a cable modem.
- Ask for a good deal. Companies often have specials that they can give you if you ask. Especially if you tell them you are comparing different internet access companies looking for the best deal.
- Neighbors can be a good source of internet access. Usually they can’t resell the service to you, but you might be able to work something out that meets the terms of service and will make you both happy. Another idea is to offer to share connections if service goes down. If you are close enough, both have wireless routers, and use different service providers, you could exchange wireless passwords with the idea that if your connection ever goes down, you can use theirs and if theirs goes down they can use yours.
- Check the upload speed. If you are going to do things like video conferencing and voice communication your upload speed will be very important. Some service providers provide great download speeds, but very slow uploads. You may be better off with a slower download connection if it has faster uploads.
- Try multiple services. As long as there isn’t a long term commitment, you may want to try a few services at the same time for a month. Then cancel the one that is more expensive. In some cases, they will offer you a better deal to stay a customer. By having two connections and canceling one, it puts you in the best position for bargaining–because you can walk away from any deal unless it really saves you money.
17. Save on electricity
Setting your monitor to turn off when not in use and your computer to go into power save mode can add up over time. When you travel, consider unplugging your entire office. It will protect the equipment from storms and reduce the amount of electricity that is being used to power all the devices in standby mode.
18. Minimize cell phone usage.
It is easy to give our your cell phone as your number, but what you want to avoid is sitting at your desk and talking on your cell phone just because that is the number people happened to call. If you get a call, just ask if you can call them right back and use a less expensive line.
Here are some things that will make it easier to use other less expensive options:
- Make sure your cell phone address book synchronizes with your computer. If you have to use your cell phone to look up a number you are likely to use it.
- Make sure you can dial from your computer’s address book. There are scripts to set this up for Vonage and Skype and other services. Skype will actually look at your address book and show you everyone. To dial is just a matter of double clicking on their name.
- “Can I call you back in 30 seconds?” If someone calls your cell phone offer to call them right back. give an amount of time (and make sure you meet your commitment). If you get 3 calls a week that would take 30 minutes each, this will save you about 360 minutes on your cell phone bill each month. If those 360 minutes keep you from going over your plan, this can save you hundreds of dollars each month. It also frees up your minutes for the times where you aren’t at your desk and need to use your cell phone.
- Skype now has the ability to list your cell phone number on caller id of the person you are calling. This is great because people recognize your number and if they call you back, they will get you even if you aren’t at your computer. Using the “call you back in 30 seconds” method above can trim hours and hours off your cell phone bill.
19. Avoid getting fax machine
If you have a reasonable set up, there should be no advantage of having a fax machine. Your scanner, printer and an only fax service should do everything you need. This type of setup will also help you save on paper because you probably won’t need to print out every incoming fax. If setup correctly you can even sign faxes and send them back without ever needing to leave the digital domain.
Take care in setting this up. If you don’t get the right equipment or a good workflow in place, you can end up wasting a lot of time–and you might be better off going ahead and getting a fax machine.
20. Use free software.
There is a lot of software that would be helpful in your home office. However for every $400 piece of software, you can usually find 3 or 4 alternatives that do 75% of what the commercial package does for under $20 or even for free. If your needs fall within that 75% there is no sense spending the money on the commercial package.
Also there are many online services for free that you can use. For example, Google will host your email at your own domain and give you access to their online office applications at no charge.
Here is a very short list of things to look into:
- Gimp – Photo editing
- Google Apps – Hosted productivity applications and email.
- PDF995 – Simple PDF creation.
- Open Office – Full blown office application suite.
- AVG – Anti virus with free and paid versions.
- DIA – Drawing program like visio.
I am all for paying for quality software when you need it. But it is pretty painful to pay $300 for software where you only need to use 10% of the functionality–especially if that functionality is covered by free or low cost alternatives.
The only problem with trying to reuse someone’s old inkjet printer is that if it hasn’t been used for a while, the print heads may be clogged with old ink and it may be beyond the printer’s capacity to clean them itself. You wil thus be out the cost of a couple of ink cartridges (not cheap) plus whatever your time is worth. That could easily be equal to or greater than the price of a new basic inkjet printer.
Inkjets need to be used on a regular basis to keep them happy. Even the HP models that have print head and ink cartridge all in the same unit. Don’t accept a secondhand printer you haven’t seen working first.
Shawn Levasseur says
Way to save on blogging: Only deliver 19 tips on a 20 tips list, and hope the readers don’t notice the absence of tip #9.
Mark Shead says
@infomom – I didn’t realize people still used the inkjet printers that don’t replace the heads with the cartridges. :) With the HP printers, most of them replace everything that can become clogged when you change out the cartridge. The ideal printer is one that is currently working and has just been pulled out because it isn’t needed any more.
@Shawn – You found me out! Actually I have no idea what happened there. I’m not wondering what the 9th tip was. :) I think I leave it to see how many other people notice. Thanks for pointing it out.
re #8 Make sure you surge protect your phone line and/or cable modem. No sense having UPS and surge protection for your power and let a lighting strike come in on the cable and phone lines to fry your PC. Bye bye data.
My wife and I have been using only cell phones for about a year without any real problems. We both call our families out of state and even locally without approaching our 700 minute/month limit – except for this last month – Ouch!!
Anyway, since we don’t have a land line, I think we are pretty stuck with using the local cable company for high speed internet – any they just raised the priced about 12%. I can’t find anything on-line about a local wireless internet provider for a desk top computer. You mentioned that this is emerging in some locales. Can you provide some more information on this option?
Mark Shead says
@Jon – Check into Sprint’s EVDO service. They seem to have the best deal and best coverage for a fully mobile solution. For higher speed, look for a wireless isp, or wisp. Doing a google search for your town name, state, and WISP may give you some options. Also try calling a local computer store as they are likely to hire the types of people who will keep up on these things.
Also Sprint is rolling out WIMAX. I don’t know how well it works, but check out: http://www.xohm.com. It is higher speed than EVDO, but will start with much more limited availability.
Also check with your local phone company about “dry dsl” or “naked dsl”. We have DSL at our house without phone service through AT&T. It is $28 per month, so it is about half the price of a cable modem.
Another option is to look at sharing with your neighbor. Check your TOS, but you might be able to talk a neighbor into sharing in exchange for upgrading his network equipment or something similar.
ad # 17: don’t unplug an inkjet printer. It needs the power to regularly rinse the jets.
If you unplug, the head may dry out, and even if it doesn’t, after the power returns the printer will do a thorough rinse — the ink of which may cost you more than the saved electricity.
For longer downtimes, one could use old and cleaned cartridges filled with distilled water instead of the ink — haven’t tried it, though.
I agree completely with your #5 comment. Virtual phone systems and advanced 800 numbers are real moneysavers. Many of the ones like gotvmail and others also give out options like play it on mobile for voice mail, and vanity answering, which builds up a small business’ professional image. Best of all, as you mentioned, it’s hella cheap.
Bill Canaday says
When digging into a used printer, daub the print head area generously with cotton swabs dipped in 90% rubbing alcohol. Best to use are the wooden stem swabs with long stems to keep yourself ink free.
There’s a better than even chance that this will get you rolling again.
OTOH, many printers have a doomsday chip that counts how often the cartridges have been changed and that kill the printer when the count is reached … no matter how well it is actually working at the moment.
Still, if you got the printer for the cost of a fresh set of cartridges and a couple cotton swabs, it’s hard to argue the loss.
Bill Canaday says
Make certain that the ‘desk’ is large enough to sustain both a computer AND a normal writing area.
Good seating is worth looking into, as well.
And good lighting. I got rid of the single 75w x 2 ceiling fixture in my 10’x13′ SOHO and installed two 4- tube T8 fixtures and it has made a TON of difference in how easy it is to do actual work and keep things clean.
Kim Haas says
Great list – some of these are even familiar to me – I like looking around for surplus office furniture – if there’s one in your area, you can usually get great office furniture at a fraction of the cost.
Stuart Warner says
Interesting tips. You mentioned a scanner in passing in the fax tip. I find a scanner is great for scanning notes and as many documents as possible which can save filing space and is easier to retrieve at a later date. A scanner also saves the need to purchase a photocopier for just occasional copies.
Bill Peschel says
Added bonus for using library is if it is part of an Interlibrary Loan service (ILL). This free service will see if your book is available at other libraries across the country. The service is also good for DVDs and audiobooks. The one I use in Hershey has gone the extra mile to get me rare and little-known books.
Great article. I would also add leave the printer out of the equation. With today’s technology we can almost serve our customers one percent on line. If you need to print important documents use a print shop. It is cheaper in the long run and saves not only paper, but energy and time.