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Setting Up the Utilities: Electricity, Cable, Internet, and Phone

By David Pekema
Quick Tips
  1. Plan ahead – Make sure you activate all your utilities at least one week before you move into your new place. If you live in an apartment, water and garbage may be covered by your landlord, but electricity and gas almost always must be activated by the tenant.
  2. Pay bills on-line. – Why write out checks, lick stamps, and visit the post office when you can just sit at our computer and electronically pay all your bills? Better yet, sign up for automatic bill pay, and let your bank or credit card company take care of the hassle.
  3. Entertainment – The main choices for Internet are DSL or cable (both are remarkably similar), whereas your options for television are cable or satellite. The latter offers more channels but is sensitive to weather conditions. Oftentimes bundle deals let you save money in the long run, but make sure you actually use these three services for as much as you pay for them.
  4. The landline question – Landline phones are about as extinct as dinosaurs, mammoths, and Pauly Shore. I suppose that if you want a home fax machine, get terrible cell reception, or wear adult diapers you may want to look into it, but otherwise don’t bother. Instead, check out VoIP, which provides phone service over your Internet connection.
  5. Short-term service – Think about how long you’re staying in your place. Most television and internet service providers will give you big discounts if you agree to 12-months of service. Be careful though, if you cancel the service before the contract is up, you’ll incur steep penalties.

If you never had to pay for them yourself, you have probably never stopped to consider life without utilities. Let me break it down: Without utilities, there are no Hot Pockets, no hot showers, and no Who Wants to Be a Millionaire marathons on the Game Show Network. Sound pretty miserable? It is pretty miserable. The second you move into your first apartment, you’re going to need your utilities. Water, electricity, and gas are a must, but cable and Internet are often considered “essentials” amongst the recent grad community, as well.

With any luck, your landlord will cover some of your utilities, but certain ones are guaranteed to be your responsibility. Visiting MoveUtilities.com is a great way to get started; just enter an address to view all the area’s utility providers. Also, consider signing up for automatic bill pay whenever possible to avoid late fees and penalties. There is generally a little bit of lag time between when your bill arrives and when the money is automatically withdrawn from your account, so you can still check for accuracy without worrying about missing a payment.

Read on for ways to save money and simplify the entire process.

Water & Garbage

If you live in an apartment, the property owner likely covers water and garbage. Those of you unlucky enough to live in a nice roomy house will need to open up the Yellow Pages and find the local provider. The procedures are pretty much the same in all cities. Here is one city’s instructions. Unfortunately, for those of you that want to burn your trash or toss it in a restaurant’s dumpster, most cities require you to receive a garbage service.

Typical monthly costs – Water and Sewer: $60 ($80 during the summer). Garbage: $15-20.

Electricity & Gas

Electricity, along with water and garbage, should be set up to start on the day you move in. This means calling the provider about a week before you put out your doormat. There is likely an electric/gas monopoly in your area, so there’s not much point in trying to shop around for a better deal. However, once you’ve contacted your local provider, there are creative ways to shrink your electric bill.

For a small fee, you can sometimes choose the way your electricity is produced. My electricity provider charges $5 a month extra, but I sleep much better knowing clean sources like wind and the sun power my electric foot massager.

Typical monthly costs – Electricity: $25 per person. Gas: $10 (both can vary widely in colder climates if paying for heating).


Ah yes, landline phone service—so 1995. I’m proud to say that I have never paid for a landline phone service and likely never will. I personally don’t see the point to paying $20 a month for a landline, but there are some potential benefits: a better signal, the ability to reduce the cell phone bill, and a lifeline during emergencies. When shopping around for phone service, you’ll want to check with your Internet and television provider for potential deals.

An attractive alternative to the boring old landline is Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Not only is VoIP affordable (with plans starting at around $10 per month), but it’s also fun to say. A VoIP phone service allows you to make phone calls over any Internet connection. Once you’ve signed up for an account (Vonage, SunRocket, and Voip.com are three reputable providers) and have your headset, you can place local and long distance calls from any Internet connection—at home, at the office, and while on vacation.

Erroneous charges are more common with phone plans (especially long-distance) than any other type of utility. If you notice something on any one of your bills that seems out of whack, you should report it to customer service immediately. Do so over the phone, before paying the bill. Internet-based customer service is convenient, but it’s much easier to get a satisfactory answer from a two-minute phone conversation. If the error is legitimate, it should be cleared up quickly.

Those of you that have been cryogenically frozen for the last ten years can find tips on picking a cell phone plan here.

Typical monthly cost: Landline: $20-30. VoIP: $10-20.


After a year of living in an apartment with four TVs, two TiVos, and 15,000 channels, I’ve come to the conclusion that a life without Skinemax just isn’t worth living.

Cable and satellite are your two options here. In general, satellite will provide more channels per-dollar, but initial set-up fees can be high and service can be affected by wind and rain, so look for promotions offering free installation or discounts on equipment. Just beware of hidden fees. Extras like additional receivers and DVR service can easily add $20 to your monthly bill. Also, don't be afraid to play hardball. Cable companies will do anything to keep an unsatisfied customer. Let them know about another company’s deal and they will likely try to beat it. Unfortunately, if you try this tactic with the electric company, they will just shut off your lights.

Typical monthly cost: Basic: $25. Deluxe: $50 and up.


The two most mainstream options for high-speed access are cable and DSL. In a great review, cnet.com declared cable slightly better than DSL, due to lower prices and higher availability. The two services are remarkably similar in terms of speed, ease of installation, and security. Here are some of the best DSL and cable service providers. Once your connection is set up, you can plug in a wireless router, and surf the net from anywhere in our home.

Some television companies also provide Internet and phone service that when “bundled” together can save you money. In the Los Angeles area, Time Warner Cable offers a package including digital cable television, cable internet, and phone service for $99 a month. Similar "triple play" plans are available in most markets.

Typical cost: Contract: $30 per month. Month-to-month: $40-50.

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