How Our Bills Now Compare to Y2K: And How to Save on Them

A hand picks up a landline telephone in this photo illustration.
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Butterfly hair clips and low-rise jeans: Like it or not, Y2K is back in fashion. So we’re going to take you back in time to 1999 to look not at the clothing choices, but at Y2K bills.

We’ll point out what households were and weren’t paying back in the day. In some cases, it was cheaper to live during Y2K. In other areas, however, the convenience of our services today actually save us money…even if we’re paying an extra monthly bill.

Let’s take a look.

We didn’t have cell phone bills. Instead, we had landlines.

That’s right. In the year 2000, most people still didn’t have a cell phone. Those who did usually bought it to use for emergencies, but ended up using them all the time anyway.

The number of people with mobile phones would rise quickly over the next few years. But at the time, almost everyone had a landline. While some of them were still corded to the wall, we also had fancy cordless landlines that could charge in the port before you carried it around the house.

Which was cheaper, cell phones or landlines?

It’s a little complicated. On landlines, you might pay somewhere between $40 and $50 for your basic phone service. But that wasn’t the end of the bill. There were also long-distance fees if you were calling another area code. A single hour on an international call could easily cost anywhere from $60 to $100.

In 1999, a lot more people used prepaid cell phone plans if they had a mobile phone at all. Costs could be somewhere around $1 per minute. Plus, if you wanted to pay for texts, they were usually somewhere between $0.05 and $0.35 each.

While you could find regular monthly plans for as little as $15 per month, the provider’s network really did matter back then. It’s one of the big reasons it usually made sense to pay for companies like Verizon even if they cost significantly more. The line wasn’t going to be of any use unless you could actually get service.

These cell phone plans could sometimes cost more than the landline – they weren’t all $15. Especially if you talked over the allotted number of monthly minutes or talked at the wrong time of day. (It cost less to talk on nights and weekends, especially over the next few years.) It wasn’t entirely uncommon to suddenly get a bill that was $200+ after a particularly chatty month.

Today, almost no one has a landline, but everyone has a cell phone. In 2024, you can easily find a plan for a single person with unlimited calling and texting (likely to at least some other countries, too,) for $60. Though if you search hard enough, you can find plenty of cell phone plans for under $30 per month.

Thirty to 60 dollars in today’s money is the equivalent of about $16 – $32 in 1999. And with unlimited calling and texting, that actually makes the service a better value today than the Y2K bills.

How can I save money on my cell phone bills today?

One of the biggest things you can do is comparison shop budget carriers. You can also take advantage of family plans – even if you’re just pitching in with friends rather than people you’re actually related to. If you leverage them right, prepaid cell phones can sometimes be a good deal, too – even in 2024.

We didn’t have streaming services. Instead, we had cable.

Some people have cable today, but pretty much everyone did back in 1999, and we didn’t have streaming services. So unless you were sticking to broadcast television captured through an antenna, you were paying for either cable or satellite TV.

THE MORE YOU KNOW: In 1999, Netflix was just 2 years old. At the time, it was a movie rental service that ran through the mail. So like going to Blockbuster, except if Blockbuster delivered to your door.

Which was cheaper, cable or streaming services?

When it comes to Y2K bills, there was generally a basic cable package for about $13. But if you wanted more channels, you paid progressively more expensive rates. It could easily get into the hundreds of dollars. Let’s look at a range of $13 – $125 in 1999.

That would translate to about $24 – $234 in today’s dollars. Now, it’s not hard to wrack up $24 or more in streaming service subscriptions fees every month. But you’re going to have a much more expansive menu of viewing options than you would have had on basic cable in 1999.

If you’re paying more than $234 for streaming services in 2024? That’s no good. Let’s look at some ways you can save so you can maximize on the value over Y2K prices.

How can I save on my cable and streaming services today?

Believe it or not, there’s a ton of different free streaming apps. You might not even need to pay for any streaming services. But if you need a particular platform, you can try swapping out your subscriptions based on your must-see shows on a monthly basis. Or, you can look for ways to get paid to watch your favorite shows, like becoming a tagger for Netflix.

Now, some people do still have cable in 2024. If that’s you, remember you can negotiate your cable bill. There are other things you can do to lower your cable bill, too, like researching federal subsidy programs and buying your own modem and router rather than renting them.

We often didn’t have health insurance premiums outside of work. Instead, we didn’t have any health insurance.

Prior to the ACA, which wouldn’t be implemented until nearly a decade and a half after Y2K, if you didn’t have health insurance through your employer, you often just went without. This was especially true if you had a pre-existing condition, which the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services estimates includes anywhere from 19% to 50% of non-elderly Americans. You could sometimes get a short-term plan, but the premiums to buy into the pool were so expensive that it often just wasn’t feasible.

In a lot of states, you couldn’t get on Medicaid as an adult either – even if you had a lower income. Many states had waiver programs for low-income adults, but the waitlists to gain access were so long that most people could never truly get coverage. To be fair, Medicaid expansion still hasn’t reached all 50 states in 2024. But in most places, the ACA has improved access to both public and private health insurance.

Which was cheaper, health insurance during Y2K or health insurance post-ACA?

In the year 2000, a single person could expect to pay somewhere around $2,471 for their employer-sponsored health insurance plan throughout the year. In 2023, that number jumped all the way up to $8,435 for employer-sponsored plans.

While costs in this sector have gone up, it’s worth noting that the uninsured rate was slashed in half. In 1999, 15.5% of the population was uninsured for the entire year. In 2023, that number was just 7.7%. And not all of the newly-insured people are getting their plans through work. In a lot of instances, they’re getting it for free or with very low premiums through Medicaid expansion.

How can I save on my health insurance today?

First, check to see if you qualify for Medicaid or a subsidized plan through the ACA marketplace. If you must be on your employer’s plan, options are few and far between. But there are a few strategies you can try to implement to lower your health insurance costs, like competitively shopping benefits packages before you accept a job offer or turning to charity care when you do need to seek medical care.

We didn’t have Spotify subscriptions. Instead, we bought whole albums on CDs.

We didn’t have music streaming in 1999, per se. Napster did launch in mid-1999, with LimeWire coming on the scene not a year later. With these platforms, you could use your dial-up internet to download pirated music (and maybe a few viruses) onto your computer via MP3 files. Then – if you had the right type of computer – you could burn those MP3 files to a CD, which you would then listen to using your walkman.

But if you didn’t want pirated music, you’d just buy the entire album on CD at Media Play.

Which was cheaper, CDs or Spotify subscriptions?

For users, Spotify subscriptions are undoubtedly cheaper for the volume of music you get for the price. Artists tend to be compensated even less fairly than they were for album sales, though.

How can I save on my music streaming subscription today?

There’s actually not a huge need to pay for music streaming subscriptions in 2024. Platforms like Spotify, Deezer, TuneIn and I Heart Radio all offer free access to the music on their platforms. Usually if you want to dodge ads or not be required to listen in shuffle mode, you’ll have to cough up a little cash. Another option – if you’re paying for an Amazon Prime subscription anyways – is Amazon Music.

We didn’t have food delivery apps. Instead, delivery drivers were employees.

At the turn of the millennium, if you wanted food delivered to your door you had to call a restaurant that had an in-house delivery service. (Usually you were calling from a landline.) The delivery drivers were employees. There is an asterisk – they could be paid like wait staff since they worked for tips, so their hourly wage wasn’t high. And they did usually have to provide their own vehicle and maintenance of it.

But drivers did get to keep 100% of their tips. And depending on where you worked, it could pay more than the kitchen staff was making.

Which was cheaper, delivery direct from the store or food delivery apps?

It was undeniably cheaper to get delivery direct from the restaurant. You didn’t have to pay a subscription fee to access the service, and delivery fees didn’t start getting common until a few years later. Even then they were nominal – usually between $0.50 and $2.00.

Today, you have to pay a subscription fee to a food delivery app to get the best delivery fees – which are questionably high – and then pay a driver tip on top of it. Plus, the app isn’t following the same employment laws as restaurants, as they’re using the drivers as contractors rather than employees. Even in 2024, it’s usually cheaper to just call the restaurant and order delivery as long as they provide the service in-house and you actually live within the delivery area.

How can I save on food delivery app orders in 2024?

If you want to save money on your next food delivery order, the first approach should be seeing if the restaurant delivers to you themselves. If that’s a hard no, you can compare prices across delivery services and determine if paying one of those pesky monthly subscription fees ends up being worth it based on your preexisting ordering habits.

Pittsburgh-based writer Brynne Conroy is the founder of Femme Frugality and the author of “The Feminist Financial Handbook.” She is a regular contributor to The Penny Hoarder.