Updated on 01.14.15

The Ultimate Guide to Cutting the Cable Cord

Trent Hamm

Cable television is expensive, not just in terms of money but also in terms of time. The service costs money, as does the electricity that powers your cable box and television, plus there’s the time spent watching television. It’s an expense that can drain both your finances and your opportunities.

For us, cable television is one of the bigger bones of financial contention in our marriage. I’m an advocate for completely cutting the cord, while Sarah is in favor of keeping the service. Of course, Sarah uses it more than I do as she often watches it while taking care of professional busywork in the evenings.

If I were single, I’d drop cable in a heartbeat. Here, in detail, are the reasons why, along with details on how exactly to cut that cable if you’re convinced by those reasons.

The Direct Savings

This is the most obvious reason. Our monthly cable bill adds up to about $70 a month (on average). Over the course of a year, that’s $840. Money Magazine estimates that the average bill will be $123 a month next year, which adds up to about $1,470 a year. Cutting out the cable bill puts that money back into your pocket.

In addition, if you assume that you’re no longer using your television or your cable box for the average amount of time that Americans do (five hours a day), you’re saving somewhere between $5 and $20 a month in energy costs as well (depending on your cable box and television type).

There are a ton of uses for that money. We could bolster retirement savings. We could spend it on other hobbies or interests. We could add it to our savings for our next home in the country. We could simply go out to eat a couple times each month or do something else similarly fun.

But that’s not all…

The Indirect Benefits

There are several indirect benefits to cutting the cable, most of which boil down to two broad categories.

First, you’re going to have more free time. The average American watches five hours of television per day. Cutting the cable will almost assuredly reduce that time. Even if it only frees up an hour or two a day for you, that additional time is going to have a real positive impact in your life if you use the time smartly. We talked about opportunity cost earlier this week – television viewing has a serious opportunity cost involved, and by cutting it, you’re now available for other opportunities.

Second, your exposure to advertisements and product placement and “advertorials” are drastically reduced. If you’re not watching much television, you’re watching many fewer advertisements. You’re watching fewer programs that have all kinds of “desirable” items all over the place. You’re also watching fewer “news” programs that are barely-disguised ads lauding new products. In short, your exposure to messages encouraging you to buy is going to drop through the floor.

Those two categories of indirect benefits add up to a significant positive impact on one’s life.


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Eight Entertainment Alternatives to Cable

The first question people ask when the idea of eliminating their cable bill comes up is “what can replace it?” There are actually a lot of options out there for watching and listening to various kinds of programming. Here are eight options.

Alternative #1: Over-the-Air Television

In most areas, you can get as many as twenty different over-the-air television channels for free, provided you have an antenna like this one. We can pick up all of the stations in the Des Moines area with no problem and this adds up to somewhere around 20 channels (about 15 on most days, with a few others occasionally). They come in crystal clear, far better than the fuzzy signal that would come in when I was a kid with our old roof antenna. Plus, once you buy the digital antenna, it’s all free.

Alternative #2: Netflix

For nine bucks a month, you can get more streaming video than you could ever possibly watch. For example, our instant queue is maxed out at 250 items of things we’d like to eventually watch. Some of those items are full television series with many seasons of episodes, adding up to many, many hours of viewing from just that one item. There’s far more showing on Netflix at any given moment than is available from your cable provider and it’s far cheaper, too. If you want to watch it on your television, you can get something like a Roku box which directly replaces your cable box and makes Netflix available right on your television.

Alternative #3: Podcasts

My biggest “replacement” for television, quite honestly, is podcasts. Podcasts are basically internet radio programs that you can download by the episode and listen to on your computer or other listening device. I usually listen to them on my laptop while doing something else or through a wireless speaker in our kitchen. iTunes is a great tool for finding and downloading and listening to podcasts; some of my favorite podcasts include Serial, Radiolab, Love+Radio, Welcome to Night Vale, Planet Money, The Pen Addict, and The Dice Tower. All of these are free.

Alternative #4: Hulu

Hulu is another streaming video option that focuses more on current shows, which includes the five most current episodes of a number of programs for free. You have to watch these from their website, but if you upgrade to their Hulu Plus service (for $9.95 a month), you gain access to previous seasons of many different series along with the ability to watch them on your device of choice (like the previously-mentioned Roku box).

Alternative #5: Network Websites

Similarly, if you visit the websites of most television networks, you can watch the most recent episode or two of many recent shows right on their website. Again, you’ll have to watch these at your computer, but there are ways to stream them to your television (using devices like a Google Chromecast). I have streamed videos from our desktop computer to our Chromecast and it’s worked really wel.

Alternative #6: Youtube

Aside from podcasts, Youtube is perhaps my favorite option for entertainment. There are many highly entertaining channels on there that vary in quality from “guy sitting at his computer ranting” to Hollywood-level quality productions. Just like cable, Youtube is organized into “channels” where you can watch huge collections of videos from different producers – some of my favorite channels include Crash Course, Google Talks, TED Talks, Intelligence Squared, and The Dice Tower. As with the other streaming options here, you can watch on your television using a Roku box.

Alternative #7: NPR

A very simple solution for lasting information and entertainment comes from the humble radio. There are countless stations available over the air in your area. I highly recommend giving your local NPR station(s) a shot, as NPR (and its affiliates) provide a wide variety of informative and entertaining material. In a given day, I’ll learn something new, find out what’s going on locally and nationally and internationally, hear some good music, and usually get a laugh or two out of it as well.

Alternative #8: Amazon Instant Video

If you already use Amazon Prime, Amazon Instant Video is a great streaming option comparable to Netflix that’s free to you. The service offers seemingly infinite numbers of television series and movies – if you can’t find something to watch, you’re not trying. As with the other streaming services, you can get this on your TV with a simple Roku box.

Other Alternatives

For me, much of the value of cutting the cable is to free up time to do things besides sitting around and listening to or watching programming. Here are some options to stir your creative juices and reclaim some of that “opportunity cost” lost to television.

Launch a new hobby There are countless hobbies out there for you to try. It can be something as simple as going for walks in your neighborhood, or it could be something much more challenging, like learning to play the guitar. The possibilities here are literally endless.

Start a side business Maybe you could use this found time to launch a side business of some kind. Use that time to write a book or record some YouTube videos or teach an online class or start a blog or start a computer repair business.

Build a skill You could devote your time to taking some classes and working toward a degree or a certification. You could also try simply building a skill that’s useful in your current career or a transferable skill that could be used in another career path.

But What If…

Whenever the idea of eliminating one’s cable bill comes up, there are always questions. Here are some of the most common ones.

What If I Want to Watch Live Sports?

This is the single biggest problem when it comes to cutting the cord. If you do this, you do drastically reduce your ability to watch live sports. You do get to watch a healthy number of events via over-the-air broadcast channels, but it’s not nearly complete.

Having said that, many sports leagues do offer robust online streaming options. For example, mlb.tv offers Major League Baseball games in HD for the entire season (for a fee, of course). If you like pro wrestling, there’s the WWE Network and for mixed martial arts fans, there’s UFC TV. The NFL offers an audio package that includes all games. There’s also the NBA League Pass and NHL GameCenter Live.

If I were passionate about one single sport, I would look strongly at a service like this. If you do the math on the costs, it’s cheaper than having a cable service. The only time cable wins out is if you’re obsessed with a lot of sports.

(Hey, what am I kidding… I am passionate about one single sport, baseball. I usually end up getting the MLB audio package each season because I listen to a lot of games.)

What If I Have This One Program That I Must Watch?

First, see if that program is available via other means. What network is it on? Find that network’s website and see if they make videos available online. Is it available on Hulu?

If none of those options bear fruit, you can look at “next day” options for buying episodes through things like the iTunes store. It’s far cheaper to pay, say, $2 or $3 per episode to keep up with your favorite show than paying $40 or more a month for a cable subscription.

Naturally, this doesn’t work if you insist on following a lot of shows. It may actually be that keeping cable is less expensive for you.

What If I Have a Slow Internet Connection?

Most of the streaming video really requires an internet connection that’s at least 5 Mbps. It does work at a lower speed, but you usually end up having to wait a long time for buffering. You can use this speed test to test your own connection.

If you’re not willing to pay for a home internet connection with that speed, you do eliminate many of the options for replacing television. You can still get over-the-air radio and television signals, of course, plus you can still listen to podcasts (as they can download overnight).

What If I Am Just Not Tech-Savvy?

If you’re able to visit this website, buy an item from Amazon, and plug in a wire or two behind your television, you can handle all of the “tech” needed to get any and all of these services up and running.

A Roku box is about as simple to use as can be. You simply plug it in to the back of your television and it works much like a cable box, featuring a “Netflix” channel, a “Youtube” channel, and many more. Choose the “channel” you want and within there you can select any of the programs within that option. So, if you’re in the “Youtube” channel, you can watch Youtube videos to your heart’s content. I found it easiest to just log into an account on Youtube, subscribe to a bunch of interesting channels on my computer, and then browse and watch those channels on my television.

An over-the-air antenna is even easier. Just plug it in to the back of your television and hang the other end on the wall somewhere. That’s really all you have to do – your television will figure out the rest.

What If Television Is My Main Hobby?

If watching television is your primary hobby, then don’t cut the cord. Enjoy your hobby. If it brings you personal pleasure, then it’s something you should keep.

However, it’s important to recognize what exactly television is – it’s a hobby. It’s a non-essential entertainment expense. If you’re careful about budgeting, this falls clearly under the category of “want,” not “need.” If you use proportional budgeting – meaning you split your money between broad categories like needs, wants, and savings, this falls very strongly into the “want” category, not the “need” category.

Don’t ignore it as an expense. You are spending (on average) $100 a month on your own entertainment, so you should never fall into the trap of believing that you never buy anything fun for yourself. Your monthly cable bill is an example of buying something fun for yourself.

Canceling Your Cable Service

Let’s say you’ve decided that now’s the time to cut out the cable. What exactly do you do next?

The first step I recommend taking if you’re thinking about going down this road is to test it out first. Spend a week or two without using your cable box at all and see if you find the experience worthwhile. Try out some of the alternative methods for entertainment. Seek out new hobbies with the time you previously used watching television. See if you miss it at all. Chances are that if you’re sincere about digging into other interests, you probably won’t miss it too much.

If you find that it’s a good shift for you, check your service agreement. You may find that you’re locked into a contract, as many cable and satellite providers operate on a two year contract basis. If you’re in a contract, figure out what the early termination fee is and whether or not paying that fee would be worth it to escape the contract early. Remember, if your fee is only two or three months of service and you have a year or more left on your contract, it’s far cheaper to pay the fee. If you don’t have a contract, you’re home free.

The next step is to give them a call. Do this if you’re intending to end the service, whether there’s an early termination fee involved or not. Be aware that they’re going to want to retain you as a customer and will likely throw some introductory offers at you to get you to sign a contract.

When they do that, just say no, even if the offers they throw at you really seem like a bargain. If it still involves a significant monthly bill, it’s not a bargain, especially if you’ve shown yourself that you’re quite happy without the service. Just keep saying “no.”

Eventually, they’ll give you instructions for how to terminate the service. They may send a service technician to your home or require you to return the equipment. Follow their instructions to the letter. If you don’t do so, you’re begging for them to add additional fees to your final bill. Make sure that any packages you send are very well packaged, as it’s far less expensive to pack an item well for shipping than to pay for broken equipment.

Then move on with life. You’ll find pretty quickly that the free time you suddenly have without television in your life gives you lots of new opportunities. Enjoy those opportunities. Try new hobbies and new experiences. Dig into new forms of entertainment and leisure. Do something productive, like learning a new skill or taking some classes. Remember always that cutting the cable isn’t just about saving money, but about saving time, too.


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Final Thoughts

Trust me, life goes on without a television service. I rarely watch television at all these days. I fill my evenings with other things – taking classes, working on projects, spending time with my kids and with my wife, going to social events, and so on.

Your cable bill is certainly a bill you can do without if you’re willing to make that choice. The decision, as always, is up to you. Are you willing to make a choice that will save you both time and money?

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