How you could save nearly $3,000 (and countless hours) by cutting cable
About five years ago, I’d had enough with Comcast. They had wronged me in some way, yet again, and it was the last straw. Around the same time, DirecTV sent us some enticing offer in the mail, so I signed up with them, and enjoyed roughly the same bunch of channels for much less money (and a far worse internet connection) for the next 12 months.
Then, as you might have guessed (and I surely should have), our rate nearly tripled, from about $30 a month to $80 a month. It was hidden somewhere in the two-year contract we’d signed, though to be honest I never found the actual price mentioned anywhere — just that we’d have to pay the “current rate” after 12 months were up, a price that was impossible to track down.
We were forced to pay about $300 (!) just to break our contract, but after running the numbers — 11 more months at $80 each = $880 — it was still worth it. Suffice it to say, I hate DirecTV even more than I hate Comcast (for whom I still hold considerable loathing).
But the point of the story is this: Since that day, we’ve been blissfully pay-TV free, and I don’t regret it for a minute. Here’s how we cut the cord, and how much money we’ve saved to date.
Our Cord Cutting Setup
A digital, high-definition antenna is the core building block of any good cord cutting setup. This will allow you to watch live TV over the air in crisp HD, completely free. We got ours off Amazon for about $25, and it works great for us – though we’re only about eight miles from most broadcasters.
We receive dozens of channels, including the major networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and PBS, but also smaller channels showing old movies, reruns, game shows, Spanish-language TV… you name it. An HD antenna means you can watch a lot of the big live events you might fear missing out on: The Oscars, the Super Bowl, local NFL games… all of these are typically broadcast on network TV.
In addition to that, we stream a lot of programming using Netflix, Amazon, and various apps. We use a Google Chromecast – a small device that plugs into the back of your TV – to simplify this process, and of course we need to pay for internet service.
We’re able to watch a ton of great kid’s shows — like Wild Kratts, Nature Cat, Curious George, Peg + Cat, WordGirl, and many others — on demand, for free (and without ads for expensive plastic junk) using the PBS Kids app. When my daughter craves an episode of Dora the Explorer or Paw Patrol, we can stream an episode on NickJr.com or pop in one of several $5 DVDs we’ve picked up over the years. Netflix also hosts a pretty big, rotating library of kid’s programming, from animated TV series to older Disney movies.
One lesser known reason cord cutting saves people money is that, beyond a minor one-time investment, you don’t need any other equipment to stream video in HD. Meanwhile, American cable consumers pay an average of $231 a year, every year, just to rent set-top boxes and HD receivers from their cable company. We’re paying them for the ability to watch the stuff we’ve already paid for.
What Does It Cost?
Obviously, this whole setup requires some basic hardware and, critically, good internet service. The latter is the biggest expense, but it’s one we’d have to pay anyway since I work from home and, well, we live in the 21st century and all that.
Here’s a breakdown of the initial and ongoing costs we’ve incurred by cutting the cord:
Digital TV Antenna
Cost: $25-$50 (one-time)
The type of antenna you need will vary based on how far you live from a major city (or wherever your network stations are broadcast from). The farther away you live, the stronger (and more expensive) the antenna you’ll need.
This tiny, cheap device simply pops into an HDMI port behind your TV and allows you to stream stuff from your smartphone or computer over Wi-Fi. This is just one of many affordable ($100 or less) and user-friendly options for TV streaming — others include Amazon’s Fire Stick, a Roku box, or Apple TV; if we ever upgrade, it will probably be to a Roku box.
You could really get by with just a $5 HDMI cable that connects a laptop to your TV, but for the modest one-time investment, I think having one of these devices is well worth it.
Yes, that’s ludicrous – the national average is closer to $47 a month. We live in the Boston area, where just about everything is pricey, but the other wrinkle is that our city has a long-term deal with Comcast, which essentially grants the company a temporary monopoly over cable and broadband internet service; we have no other options for truly high-speed connection. (We tried DSL for a while during the DirecTV experiment, and it just didn’t cut it for us.)
If you really want to get outraged, consider that, unlike your cable TV fees — about half of which get passed on to broadcasters like ESPN, TBS, and so on — 90% of your internet fees are pure profit for the cable company. They’ve already done the hard work of laying cables to your house, and they’re not splitting any of the money with those cable channels. As more people cut the cord, we can probably expect cable companies to recoup those losses with higher rates on broadband internet service.
It’s also worth noting that some internet providers are setting data limits even on home internet use; Comcast, for example, now caps most users at 1 terabyte of bandwidth per month. That’s an enormous amount of data — a threshold that Comcast says 99% of users will never reach. But the potential exists for further restrictions or price increases.
We’ve had a Netflix subscription since it was just a red envelope in the mail. The price has gone up since then, and the offerings aren’t always what they were in the company’s early days, but given the mix of movies, TV series, and kid’s content (all with no commercials, unlike Hulu Plus which charges roughly the same fee), I still consider it a great value.
Like internet, this is another service we would probably pay for anyway, just for the free two-day shipping. Amazon’s free (for Prime members) video library isn’t exactly Netflix-caliber, but it’s quite good, including hysterically raunchy comedies like Catastrophe and Broad City.
How Much We’ve Saved Over Four Years
Americans paid an average of $103 a month for cable TV in 2016, according to Fortune. That’s more than advertised starter rates, but it’s the reality for most people who aren’t first-time customers. And it’s not even including internet service! But when the cable company tacks on fees for each DVR and HD receiver, not to mention extra channels, it’s easy to see how it adds up.
Even assuming we didn’t pay the national average, and instead simply kept our modest DirecTV lineup at $80 a month (or a similar Comcast package, without any fancy channels such as HBO), we’ve saved an enormous amount of money over the past four years by cutting the cord:
- Cable TV: 48 months at $80/month = $3,840
- Netflix and Amazon Prime: 48 months at $18/month = $864
Add in the upfront cost of a Chromecast and HD antenna, and we’ve saved $2,916 to date – and another $62 each month. Meanwhile, someone paying the national average of $103 a month for cable would have saved over $4,000 by now.
Here’s another very important thing we’ve saved: time. TV stations know how to keep you watching, especially at night when you ought to be heading to bed. They save the exciting conclusion of a show for the last two minutes, after a commercial break, and then roll right into the next episode so you don’t shut off the tube. I can’t tell you how many completely unnecessary episodes of House Hunters I watched because, like a handful of Doritos, what’s one more before bedtime? As Trent has explained, these are unproductive hours better served by getting a good night’s rest.
Now, when we turn on the TV, there are a few options, but it’s not a never-ending dial we can get lost in. And if we want to watch something specific, it takes a tiny bit of effort – and that tiny bit is enough to dissuade me if the inclination isn’t particularly strong. I’ll just read my book instead, which is right on the coffee table.