Alright, here it is! I’ve received several requests for this post, collected responses to help create it, been part of many conversations about it, and done a lot of research to bring it all together. Thank you to everyone who responded to my request for information, provided additional details, and answered my questions to make this post as helpful as possible.

Here’s everything you need to know about watching TV, paying for cable, and using video streaming services.

Intro

The first thing you need to know is that there are a LOT of options, many with both pros and cons. The options that will be best for you depend on what matters most to you. Ideally, everyone will find the solution that best suites their preferences and the trade-offs they are willing to make. With that in mind, let me share a couple of my biggest take-aways in preparing for this post:

  • If you want to pay $0 for TV you can. This isn’t for everyone, but it is an option.
  • If you want the most options, ease, flexibility, etc. you can get it, but you will have to pay for it.
  • If you want something in between, you can get that too. That said, dropping cable and using some of the alternatives I describe below may not necessarily reduce your costs significantly (though it can, again depending on what you’re looking for). Some of the biggest benefits from cutting cable are not having to deal with a cable company, not needing physical equipment, and avoiding sudden price jumps after a promotion ends – the details of which are likely hidden in some contract.

Who This Post Is For

  • This post is written specifically to help those who want to cut cable, reduce their bill, watch sports without cable (though not every single game), and/or have more flexibility and less hassle. These are the questions I’ve received most often and which inspired this post.
  • If you value and can afford the MLB Package or the NFL Sunday Ticket, get it! Just know, this post won’t offer tips for how to lower those expenses because, from everything I can tell, there isn’t much flexibility. That said, those costs can likely be divided into monthly payments, which makes the expense more manageable from a cash flow stand point.

Some Preliminary Notes About Internet

  • For pretty much everyone (at least, everyone reading this blog), having internet at home is important, sometimes essential, and often non-negotiable. In this post, I’m operating under the assumption that you’ll pay for internet at home, with or without cable.
  • The cheapest I’ve seen internet costing is $33/month. (This was my rate from a condo I lived in a couple years ago where there was really only one option and the landlord already had the equipment in the unit. Additionally, the internet was not very fast and the condo was very small.)
  • For most people, it seems to cost between $50 and $80 per month (though for many who bundle internet and cable, it can be difficult to determine which costs correspond to which service).
  • Taking a very unscientific poll, 50 Mbps (megabits per second) to 75 Mbps is sufficient for most people at home even with streaming, gaming, etc.
    • Relying more on streaming services for television (should you go that route) MAY require increased internet speed – and cost – so that is something to keep in mind. Still, I think 50 – 75 Mbps is probably enough. With some digging, you should be able to find your current speed on your bill.
  • On the upper end, for super fast speed, internet can cost $100 and higher each month, but I don’t think this is necessary.
  • If you try to shop around online, you will likely see deals for less than you are currently paying. That said, most of these deals are to entice NEW customers. I talked to Verizon (my current internet provider) and asked about lowering our fees based on what I saw online. They said those rates are for new customers, and since our account has been opened for four years we did not qualify. How’s that for rewarding loyal customers?! They were open to negotiating fees come renewal time, so that is definitely something to keep in mind. Put pressure on them!
  • It seems the cable companies will try to convince you that bundling a home phone, internet, and cable is the cheapest option. They certainly try to make it enticing, but paying for all three is not less expensive than paying for internet alone. Pay for what you need/want without falling into their “promotional” traps.

How To Decide

Step 1: Ask Yourself What You’re Looking For

Before we dive into the various solutions and possibilities (again, there are lots!), I encourage you to think about what you’re looking for. And, I would do this without any preconceived notions about what’s available. In some cases you may want something specific such as the ability to watching every NFL game or every Bravo show. Or, you may not care about any specific content, but you do want to have access to a wide variety. Maybe you care most about costs or avoiding commercials. Maybe you want to be able to record shows so you can watch them later, on your own time. Figure out what’s most important to you and jot it down.

For me, this might be the following:

  • Minimal cost
  • Minimal commercials
  • Access to a wide variety of content (though there’s nothing in particular I must have)
  • Access to basic TV channels (NBC, FOX, ABC, CBS)
  • Ability to watch some sports (usually through basic cable, plus Virginia Tech sports sometimes and the tennis grand slams)

Step 2: Take An Inventory Of What You Already Have & What It Costs

Next, I would make a list of what you already have access to AND the associated costs. Here, I think it’s important to list EVERYTHING. I would note whether you pay for it, share a service with someone else, are on a free trial (or have used a free trial in the past), how you’re able to view the content, etc.

For me, this would look something like the following, in addition to internet:

  • Basic TV channels through an antenna (FREE)
  • Access to Netflix (shared by roommates – available via the click of a button on our remote)
  • Access to ESPN (thanks to a former co-worker)
  • Monthly subscriptions I use on and off (initially via free trials – I rotate through these and turn them on again and pay when there is something I really want to watch)

As you can see, I don’t pay for much, but there’s no right or wrong answer here. We’re just taking an inventory.

Step 3: Evaluate Your Options

  • Free Basic TV
    • If you’re looking for very basic cable (NBC, FOX, ABC, CBS, PBS), the best alternative to cable seems to be FREE TV via an antenna.
      • At my house, we use a simple cable cord and plug it into our cable jack and then the cable/antenna plug-in on our TV. This gets us the basic channels for free.
      • If you’re struggling with reception, it may be worth trying a better antenna, available for about $25 on Amazon. You can see which channels should be available to you here.
      • Pro tip: In the last two and a half years since we’ve used a simple cord to get free TV, we haven’t had access to CBS. When learning how I would install the antenna I mentioned above – as I was thinking about buying one – I read that you have to scan through the available channels after you set it up. I did this WITHOUT buying the antenna and now we get CBS. Even if you have cable, put your TV in antenna mode, scan the channels (should be under settings), and see what you get!
  • Video Streaming Services
    • I think there are two clear winners in this space: Netflix and Hulu
      • Netflix seems to have the best selection for prior tv shows and movies.
      • Hulu seems to have the best selection for more current shows, with many full episodes available the day after they air.
      • Both cost between $8 and $12, depending on the plan you choose, come with free trials, and allow you to cancel any time.
    • Many people may already have access to additional streaming content via their Amazon Prime membership.
    • Others may want to pay for a more specific subscription so they can watch a certain show (think HBO for watching Game Of Thrones – HBO Now costs $15/month).
    • Finally, many other channels offer some form of streaming, such as CBS All Access. Check out the channels you love to see what’s available. This is why starting with Step 1 is so important.
  • Cable Contracts
    • Most people I talked to who pay for a “basic” cable package are paying between $100 and $150 each month. Typically, this includes internet and it may not be obvious which costs cover which service.
      • I did receive this response from someone who does separate the two, so these prices exclude internet: We do the Choice Xtra package with whole home DVR and 3 receivers which costs us $120.94/month. We do not pay for any movie channels or extra sports channels. The top package is $150.99/month + receivers, taxes, and fees.
    • Many people I’ve talked to notice big jumps in their monthly bill after each year or so, as promotions expire (similar to internet). It may jump from $95 to $130 to $165 after each year.
    • If you want to keep your cable, I recommend calling your provider to put some pressure on them and request a lower rate. But I’d keep reading this post first.
    • Activation fees, equipment fees, and taxes need to be factored in as well with cable.
  • TV Alternatives
    • If you’re looking for more channels than the very basic free option, I recommend trying Sling TV. This is the best option I’ve found to watch live TV without cable. Sling TV is a la carte TV, where you pick the package you want and pay the fixed monthly rate, with options to add specific channels for additional costs.
      • Sling TV offers two packages (with the option for extras), starting at $20/month for the Orange Package and $25/month for the Blue Package.
      • You can see which channels are available with which packages here.
      • While I haven’t tried Sling myself, I know people who use it and are very happy with it. And you can try it free for a week!
      • One of the biggest downsides to cable seems to be that the companies are annoying to work with, lock you into contracts, and raise rates in a non-transparent way.
      • In contrast, Sling advertises “No long-term contracts, no hidden fees, no cable BS” and “Change or cancel your service(s), add or remove Extras easily online.”
      • Sling does not require any Sling-specific equipment. Here you can review the devices that support Sling.
      • Note that Sling supports streaming on one device at a time.
      • The downside I heard from one person is that you don’t have the same “guide” feature you may be used to with cable, and that is something they really like to have. I suspect for most this won’t be a big deal.
  • A Note About Sports
    • You may decide to use basic cable to watch sports and then head to a sports bar or a friend’s house to watch what you don’t get. I think it’s worth considering the costs of going to a sports bar if you plan to do that often vs. having cable at home.
    • Additionally, if you rely on a friend’s cable package to watch specific games, bring the drinks and a delicious snack!

Step 4: Implement

A Sample Plan – The Most Bang For Your Buck…With The Fewest Headaches

If I were starting from scratch – no cancellation fees to worry about, no access to anything via a shared work or family subscription, etc. – and I wasn’t sharing any of the costs, here’s my proposed plan with my top picks for having the most options, getting the most bang for your buck, and increasing overall flexibility while minimizing headaches. The plan that works for YOU depends on what you’re looking for, so pick and choose from this list. Additionally, these picks are for monthly subscriptions you can cancel at any time, meaning you can try them and see what you like and what makes the most sense for you with little hassle and less concern about cost.

  • Decently high-speed internet costing about $60/month
  • A monthly Netflix subscription costing $10/month
  • A monthly Hulu subscription costing $12/month (it’s worth it to me to not have commercials – or at least limited commercials, in this case)
  • A monthly Sling TV subscription using the Orange Package costing $20/month
  • Free basic cable via a simple cable cord or antenna.
  • This results in a monthly total of $102/month. That’s not cheap, but it gives you access to a LOT of content, including basic channels (cable cord/antenna), live TV and sports (Sling TV), past shows and movies (Netflix and Hulu), and commercial-free shows the day after they’ve aired (Hulu).
  • One of the biggest benefits I see is that everything is month-to-month (except internet, which seems unavoidable) and doesn’t require additional equipment. If you find you’re not watching any of these services you can simply cancel them…and easily restart or switch to another service to watch that one show you’re really into.
  • While I said at the beginning that this is not necessarily about cutting costs, you can see there is flexibility to pay for what makes sense to you, resulting in a wide range of potential costs.
  • Additionally, if you’re currently paying $150 for cable and internet, saving $48/month results in annual savings of $576, which I think is significant!

 Still To Come

This is a space where things are evolving and better options and technology are coming. Here are a few options to keep an eye on down the road. These are new, may still be in beta, and the reviews I’ve read aren’t great…yet. Give them time. Traditional cable might become a thing of the past.

 Devices

Of course, if you opt for some of these streaming services, you’ll want to make sure you have the appropriate technology to make your watching experience enjoyable. Most of you probably have this covered, but here are a few options:

Moral of the Story

  • Use a streaming service or two you really like and will watch
  • Try using the antenna mode on your TV. If basic cable is enough, you might not need cable at all. If you still want more channels, try Sling TV.
  • For sports, consider what you watch and how often. Sling TV, watching at a sports bar occasionally, and relying on basic cable channels for the main events might be enough.
  • Make sure you have the right technology to make it easy to stream things.

Further Reading

In my research for this post, I found the Grounded Reason blog, which has even more information and may be a good resource for people who want to dive in further.


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