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Budget geek: Secrets of my cheap-tastic tech life

From a $0 standing desk to a $30-per-month smartphone plan, Crave's Amanda Kooser is exploring the less expensive side of technology.

Standing desk
Amanda Kooser at her standing desk with a CNET test cat. Amanda Kooser/CNET

Hey, I just saved a few bucks on a case for my phone. I also saved a lot of cash on computer speakers and a standing desk. And my calling plan.

I feel like I'm writing an advertisement for a used car dealership. Save big now! But that's just the way I run my technology budget -- like a person hunting for a great pair of jeans at the thrift store -- except I'm haunting the virtual aisles of Amazon.

It would be easy to drop a good portion of my monthly budget on tech items, but I don't. Here's how I do it without locking myself up in a gadget-induced debtor's prison.

World's cheapest standing desk
My sit-down writing job was turning into a literal pain in the ass. To ease my aching tailbone, I took a stand and decided to ditch the old office chair for a tall desk. I started off by researching standing desks and found some options that looked amazing...for $300 to $400. But wait, I already loved my desk, a hand-me-down from my father. I looked into conversion accessories that would raise my gear up and found some options ranging between $40 and $150, but they weren't big enough to handle my dual monitors. No go.

I moved into serious troubleshooting mode. I already had a 3M keyboard drawer for use with my antique desk. It just needed to be higher. Here's where my moonlighting career as an independent Americana musician really saved the day. I fished two large boxes of sealed CDs out of the closet, set them on their sides and raised my monitors and keyboard up to the perfect height. Triumph. I'm typing this on my $0 standing desk.

Is it the best-looking standing desk out there? Absolutely not, but I can live with the aesthetics in exchange for the savings. Plus, I was able to fold up an old throw blanket and create a cat nest underneath the keyboard drawer so my disgruntled CNET test cats can still hang out nearby, despite the lack of a warm lap.

Let's hit the hardware. My new Windows 7 desktop machine cost $500. There are cheaper options out there, for sure, but I wanted a respectable 3.4GHz Core i3 processor and a 1TB hard drive to last me for a few years to come. I bought local, using an independent computer maker I can call on if I have any technical issues down the line. Now that's a good deal. Plus, the old desktop is now doing duty as a foot rail under my standing desk.

iMicro Speakers
These iMicro speakers are inexpensive workhorses. Amanda Kooser/CNET

Amazon is my wing man
I rocked the same set of crummy beige computer speakers for years, and they had a bad habit of picking up air traffic control communications.

It was way past time for an upgrade, so I went big and laid down a whole $10.99 on a set of iMicro Pure USB speakers. What led me to these plucky little peripherals were the stellar Amazon reviews for the inexpensive set. What I got was good sound quality in a compact package, with plenty of oomph to handle my simple computer audio demands.

Amazon reviews are the secret weapon of my budget geekery. I look for glowing praise, but also check for the complaints. The speakers passed my test, but that's not always the case. My search for a stool to use at my standing desk led me to a cool-looking colorful tractor-style seat. With four out of five Amazon stars, it seemed like a good prospect. But when I read deeper, I found way too many quality issues to feel comfortable with the $45 buy. Cheap is good, but cheap with decent quality is much, much better.

Discounts calling
I've written before about my $30 per month no-contract smartphone plan using Page Plus Cellular, a Verizon network reseller. The good: For $30 I get 1,200 minutes, 500MB of data, and 3,000 text messages. The so-so: The selection of compatible smartphones is limited and it helps if you're comfortable being self-sufficient with managing your plan and your phone. You don't have a network of Verizon stores to help you out in a pinch. Personally, I'm fine with these trade-offs.

Why I geek on a budget
I don't penny-pinch every aspect of my technology life. I bought my iPad and MacBook Air at full price because they had the features I wanted at a cost I could live with. Saving money on some aspects of my hardware purchases gives me room to spend the money on other tech. I enjoy the small triumphs of tracking down killer deals, like a Lagotto Romagnolo sniffing out truffles, but it's really about the bigger picture. It's about laying out the cash on major purchases and not letting the little things add up.

Tell me in the comments about how you set your tech budget. Is it a free-for-all, or are you chasing wild bargains through the dark forest of the Internet? And look for a related post Thursday on how I turned to tech to plan my budget wedding.