Updated on 03.01.17

We Haven’t Paid for TV in Years: Our Real-Life Experience Cutting Cable

Jon Gorey

How we've saved 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.

Google Chromecast

  • Cost: $35 (one-time)

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.

Comcast Internet Service

  • Cost: $65/month

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.

Netflix

  • Cost: $10/month

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.

Amazon Prime

  • Cost: $99/year ($8/month)

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.

  • Total upfront costs: $60
  • Ongoing monthly cost: $18/month + broadband internet

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.

Some Drawbacks to Cord Cutting

The single biggest drawback of cord cutting for me, which should be fixed soon enough and may not be a problem for most people, is that I’m unable to watch Boston Red Sox games. I would gladly pay $10 a month or more to stream the games, but the team-owned station, NESN, apparently doesn’t want my money.

Meanwhile, for $99 a year, MLB TV allows baseball fans to stream every single baseball game in the country — except for their home team’s games! That would be perfect if I lived 500 miles from home, but currently it’s just a painful, almost farcical insult to most fans. (My solution? I listen to games on the radio like it’s 1947 — I’ll be honest, it’s pretty darned relaxing — and I use some of our cord cutting savings to attend more games in person at the ballpark.)

We also don’t have a DVR — the ability to record live TV and pause, rewind, or fast-forward through commercials. It’s not impossible though: You can buy your own DVR for a one-time, upfront fee of a couple hundred bucks if it’s a big deal for you. Given that cable companies typically charge $10 or more each month to lease them, you’ll break even after two years.

And another trick is that, because this is still a nascent idea in a bogged-down industry, getting all the shows you want can require a piecemeal approach. We use the Chromecast because it’s so cheap, but some competitors with their own combination of video content and streaming hardware — notably Amazon and Apple – don’t support Google’s Chromecast.

So, here are some examples of what I mean:

  • To watch a live show on network television, we use just the TV and its antenna. It’s simple, like 1985, but in crystal-clear HD.
  • To stream videos from Hulu, YouTube, PBS Kids, or Netflix, we launch the app on our phone and just click the Chromecast icon, which connects to our TV over Wi-Fi. You can adjust volume in most of the apps, and the Chromecast even turns on the TV by itself and automatically switches to the correct input, often negating the need for a remote.
  • To watch something on Amazon, we use our laptop – loading the video in a Google Chrome web browser, and then clicking the Chromecast icon at the top right. Again, it automatically turns on the TV and streams over Wi-Fi. This is a bit more cumbersome, but still easy enough.
  • And to watch something on iTunes – where we have a bunch of kids’ movies, unfortunately – we need to connect our iMac to the TV with an HDMI cable; the computer sits on a desk behind the TV, so we actually just leave the two connected at all times. This is the most burdensome process, but one benefit is that it doesn’t require internet or Wi-Fi to work.

Other Streaming TV Options for Cord Cutting

If giving up cable news, HGTV, or ESPN sounds downright crazy to you, don’t fret: You can still cut your bill way down with a “skinny bundle” live streaming service such as Sling TV, DirecTV Now, or Google’s upcoming YouTube TV service.

Sling TV is the cheapest among these, with a package of 20 popular cable channels starting at $20 a month; you can add on extra themed bundles for $5 a month each. I actually used a free trial of Sling during the baseball playoffs last year, and it worked OK… but it froze a few times during the games, whether due to our own poor Wi-Fi signal or the heavy volume of other people in the area watching the Red Sox at the same time. I presume the connection would have been better had I hardwired the computer to the modem instead of depending on Wi-Fi, but I’ve never had trouble streaming live coverage of, say, the Olympics or the NCAA tournament over Wi-Fi.

YouTube TV is the latest addition to this group – the service was announced just this week and is expected to launch in the next few months. It’s pricier at $35 a month, but will include regional sports networks such as Fox Sports in some areas, which will allow those users to watch live baseball or basketball games, for instance. Another huge bonus is that YouTube TV comes with a cloud-based DVR, so you can record and store favorite shows for up to six months for free. If you’re already comfortable with YouTube and the Google/Android ecosystem, this would likely be a good choice for you.

Even if you throw in an extra $5 bundle, add a premium channel like HBO Go, and pay for a Netflix subscription on top of it all, you’ll still be hard pressed to pay more than $60 a month with these services — saving the average cable subscriber $40 or more every single month.

Should You Cut the Cord?

Obviously, cutting cable isn’t for everyone. I have friends who think we’re completely nuts, and most Americans still view their basic cable package as a need, not a want or a discretionary expense.

But I’m 100% happy with our decision, and don’t miss cable TV one bit. When I’m at a friend’s or family member’s house and the TV is blaring commercials, I’m almost appalled because I so rarely see them on our TV diet of Netflix and PBS Kids. Plus, I’ve read more books and started more side hustles in the past four years than ever before.

Watching TV sans cable takes a little more effort, and requires a strong internet connection. But given how much money it saves, that’s a deal more than 800,000 Americans who ditched cable in the second quarter of 2016 were apparently willing to take.

Have you tried cutting the cord? What services or hardware do you use to see the shows you want?

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