Don't worry. You're not having a flashback to the last time you tipped a cab driver. We're just trying to call your penny-pinching attention to the cheapest home office money can buy.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the February 2000 issue of Subscribe »

I know it's tempting to get the coolest technostuff: You know your equipment won't be obsolete for at least a month; you're sure your business won't have failed because of a few missing megabytes; and, perhaps most important, you get bragging rights: "I have a 750 MHz Athlon processor with a Voodoo 3000 graphics card." It's the computer equivalent of saying, "My dad can beat up your dad."

Yeah, cool equipment is tempting, but it's usually stupid. Overspending is a major reason new businesses go out of business. Unless you design Time magazine covers or crunch galaxies of data, your business will just as likely succeed with my tightwad's approach to outfitting your home office. Here's my cut-to-the-chase list of what the average homebased entrepreneur needs:

Desktop Computers

Compute This!

Yes, companies are offering "free" PCs, but the strings attached are too odious. For example, offers a "free" computer, but you have to agree to buy your Internet services from that unproven company at a steep $24.95 a month for at least 36 months, plus $48 to ship your computer. With free Internet access and e-mail now available from (see "E-Mail And Web sites"), PeoplePC's shrimpy hard-drive computer ain't no bargain. And don't try to sell me on Gateway's iMac-inspired PC for $799. It's not expandable and has a cripplingly small hard drive.

Here's the bargain: the Dell Dimension L with the plenty-fast-enough 433 MHz Intel processor. Its $899 price may--to a cheapskate--seem a bit painful compared to mass retailers' offerings, but Dell's quality, well-integrated components, freedom from strings attached and superior tech support justify the extra bucks, even for a miser like you. To ease the pain, in most states, there's no sales tax. Yet another balm: Dell usually throws in a free peripheral: a basic scanner, printer or WebCam, for example.

The only upgrades a cheapskate need add to the basic Dell:

· Increase the hard drive from the puny standard 4.3 gigs to a capacious 13.6 gigs for $68. Or if you're planning to store lots of graphics or music files, go all the way to 20 gigs for just $131.

· If you'll spend more than a couple of hours a day in front of your monitor, it's probably worth the $87 to upgrade to a high-quality 17-inch Trinitron monitor.

· Need an office software suite? Add the Professional Edition of Microsoft Office 2000, the gold standard. It's about $199 (street). Want an even lower price for more features? Sun Microsystems' Microsoft Office-compatible StarOffice 5.1, is downloadable at . . . for free!


Print Condition

If you print less than 150 pages per month, consider the HP 810 Deskjet: With fine print quality in black and white or color, it's fast, quiet, reliable, easy to set up and only $128, including shipping, from Its only downside is its preposterously small ink cartridge (it only holds three-quarters of an ounce!), which means you'll probably have to replace it every month or two at $25 a pop. HP is using the old strategy: Give away the razor, soak 'em on the blades.

If you print more than 150 pages per month, it's worth the extra $42 to get essentially the same printer, but with an ink cartridge that has twice the capacity. The HP model 830c costs $170, including shipping, from And if you print more than 400 black-and-white pages a month but don't give a fig about color, fork over $255 to for the NEC Superscript 870 laser printer. It's faster and, in the long run, more economical than an inkjet printer.

Notebook Computers

Taking Notebooks

First of all, ask yourself whether you really need one. Will you actually use it for customer demos? Are you really going to work enough on the plane to justify spending the price of a Hawaiian vacation?

Okay, okay. Let's say you do need a notebook computer. Consider the Toshiba 2100CDT: 400 MHZ-fast, with an active-matrix screen, 64MB RAM, and solid construction, all for $1,480 including shipping, from Willing to live with a small screen, a basic Microsoft CE software suite and a slightly squooshed keyboard in exchange for a 2.5-pound carrying weight, a six-hour-plus battery and an amazing price? Get the HP Jornada 820 for $618, including shipping, from

E-Mail And Web Sites


A number of companies now offer unlimited Internet access and e-mail for the skinflint's favorite price: free! But only two offer it without an annoying procession of flashing ads cluttering your screen: (an alliance between Yahoo! and K-Mart) and

Let's Get Down To E-Business

Again, we're talking free. At, you can create and maintain a customized Web site, conduct secure e-commerce, send personalized e-mail newsletters to your customers, receive detailed reports and market your business on the Web at no cost to you. The catch is a tiny one: You need to use their designated provider of merchant accounts for your credit-card servicing. Its fees are moderate, so this requirement is really no biggie.

Phone, Fax And Copy Machines

Nothing Phoney About This

This seems too good to be true. The 900 MHz Uniden EXL cordless phone automatically selects the lowest long-distance rate from a database of major carriers whenever you dial. The phone, with an integrated answering machine, is just $70 ($40 without the digital answering machine) at The company claims you'll save hundreds of dollars annually on your phone bill. Bonus: the phone is headset-ready. If your phone is welded to your ear much of the day, a headset will make your day a lot comfier. Headsets in a range of styles are available at RadioShack for about $20.

Many homebased entrepreneurs prefer a two-line phone/answering machine. Try V-Tech's model 2960, for $139 including headset and shipping, at

Get Your Fax

Yes, computers come with built-in fax cards. And, as a cheapskate, I hate to pay for convenience, but a stand-alone fax machine is a big convenience. Plus, you can use it as a low-volume copy machine. The Panasonic KX-FP101 uses plain paper, offers a host of features and is built rock-solid, all for $99 at the Electronics E-mall:

Do You Copy?

Unlike many personal copiers, Canon's are trouble-free. A great deal: a refurbished model PC745, which copies 10 pages per minute, enlarges and reduces. Get it for $389 at Comtech:


A Chair Made In . . .

This is key to ensuring a comfortable workday and avoiding repetitive stress injuries. The easy, cheap way to find a chair that fits your bod is to head over to Office Max or Office Depot. They have dozens of ergonomic chairs priced at $40 to $200.

Don't rush your decision. Try five chairs that look attractive to you. Then spend five minutes in your top two choices--chairs often start to feel different after the first couple of minutes.

A candid admission: I splurged on my desk chair because I spend 12 hours a day in it, and found a chair that's considerably more comfortable to me than any other. I bought a Herman Miller Aeron chair. List price is $900, but I got it for $690 from OP Contract Furniture (

Tightwad Tips

A General Tightwad Tip

I generally get the best price (and save sales tax) by using price search engines. For computer stuff, I start with For everything else, I start with or

Not counting a notebook computer, my cheapskate's approach will equip your office with excellent equipment for about two grand.

Final Exam
What should you do with all the money you'll save?

  • A) Use it to market your business
  • B) Decorate your office so it looks like the Harvard Club
  • C) Take off for Tahiti with your sweetie

You're smart enough to start your own business, so you figure it out.

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