Updated on 12.21.09

Is Netflix Worth It?

Trent Hamm

Jenna writes in:

My husband and I have been talking about signing up for Netflix, but we’re just not sure if it’s worth the extra monthly bill. Do you have any thoughts or pointers?

Sarah and I have been on-again off-again Netflix users for most of the past decade. Our experience taught us a few things about Netflix – and about some broader money and personal issues related to watching DVDs.

First of all, Netflix really does what it says that it does. You get DVDs in the mail along with a return prepaid envelope. You can keep the DVDs as long as you want and watch them at your convenience. When you’re done, drop them in the envelope and stick it in the mail. It takes between one and two days for you to get a DVD in the mail. Plus, you can watch many of the items Netflix has available directly on your computer via internet streaming.

In all my years as a Netflix customer, the only issues I ever had were a few scratched DVDs, which were handled easily on the Netflix website. As a service, it does exactly what it claims to with very nice customer service.

The question really is do you actually need this service?

One reason that many people subscribe to Netflix is that they believe they’ll use the service a lot. They think of all of the movies and other media they’d like to watch, imagine receiving it in the mail (meaning no hassle at the video store), and they sign up.

But that’s not the reality of the situation.

Before we ever tried Netflix, we would watch about three movies at home per month. When we first signed up, we blew through a big pile of DVDs in the first month or two – a honeymoon period.

After that, we watched about three movies at home per month. And, to put it quite frankly, that wasn’t enough to warrant paying a monthly subscription fee to Netflix, not when we have quite a few friends who are happy to swap DVDs with us all the time and Redbox is easily available to us if we want to watch a new release.

Having Netflix doesn’t change your movie viewing habits beyond the honeymoon period unless there are other adjustments in your life. If you enjoy watching films or watching television series on DVD – and you do this quite often already – then Netflix will probably be a service that you get your money’s worth from.

However, if you don’t watch many movies now and you’re only considering subscribing because you imagine you’ll watch a whole lot more because it’s more convenient, you probably won’t, at least not after the honeymoon period (where you watch a flood of them at first).

That’s not to say no one who subscribes to Netflix doesn’t begin to watch more movies – I know of at least one person who unquestionably does. However, Netflix wasn’t the root cause of that change. That change in how he spent his time was a personal choice to spend more time watching films than to engage in other activities, such as World of Warcraft. This could have been done without Netflix at all – Netflix merely made his new hobby substantially less expensive.

If you watch less than a movie a week at home, Netflix probably won’t be worth it to you. If you watch a movie or more a week at home, Netflix probably will be worth it to you. What matters is your already-existing film watching habits – Netflix alone won’t change them.

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  1. We’ve been using Netflix for several years now. We opted for the one-at-a-time plan with unlimited instant downloads. It sure beats paying $1 for library copies which usually aren’t in when you want them. Also, by only getting one at a time, we limit the number of movies we watch. That way we aren’t wasting a lot of time watching movies. There are a lot of great titles on their instant download list, and they are adding more all the time.

    We have more of an issue of having to wade through all the garbage to get to something we really like. Other than that, we love it!

  2. Sarah says:

    You barely mentioned the instant view option on Netflix. While it doesn’t have the most recent movie releases, a multitude of TV series and movies released in the past few years are available through Netflix instant streaming video. While my husband and I only watch a few newer movies a month through the mail service, we use instant view almost every day. We’re going to be switching down to the one movie out at a time, which I think is only $8 or $9 a month, but still gives us access to the streaming videos. I’ve used Netflix since 2006 but quit two times as the honeymoon period wore off. But now with instant-view, we’ll be staying with the service.

  3. Kat says:

    We use Netflix in lieu of cable/satellite. There are some fun series we can only see on DVD (Monk for example)- and then there are the movies. Since my husband cannot easily sit through most movies in a theater, that is our primary source for those. My husband – who is fond of old monster movies and other kitschy flicks – says they have an excellent library of those items. The service works well for us with the 2 at a time option.

  4. Bonnie says:

    I love Netflix! We watch the DVDs as well as streaming through our Xbox or the internet (computer is hooked up to our television). We don’t need cable because we watch all our shows on the internet (ABC.com) or Netflix (Heroes!), plus I get to see a lot of documentaries originally shown on HBO/Showtime that I wouldn’t have otherwise watched. According to feedfliks.com, my cost per movie is only $0.66. I currently have the 3-at-a-time plan, but I’m going to switch down to the 2-at-a-time plan to reduce my cost-per-movie even more.

  5. Roxanne says:

    Same here: the View Instantly option is worth the minimal one-at-a-time membership rate, at least for us. We don’t require brand-new releases most of the time. We also use this option instead of TV.

  6. friend says:

    We started with the one-out-at-a-time plan with unlimited streaming, for $9 a month. That was fine over the summer when we had free time (and, as Trent says, we were in the honeymoon phase). With school starting up again, we realized we weren’t getting our money’s worth, as unwatched movies would sit for a week or two.

    Now we’ve downgraded to the $5/month plan; we get two movies a month plus two hours of streaming. That’s not much, but we’re pretty busy doing other things.

    We might switch back to the $9 plan for summer; in the meantime, $5/month is a good deal for us.

  7. Bob says:

    We cancelled our cable two years ago. We watch all our “tv” via Flix. All ya gotta do is get over the need to watch what currently on TV and be happy watching everything a year behind. AND there’s no commercials.

  8. triLcat says:

    That’s the question – Are you getting rid of cable? Cable is a fortune. Netflix is way cheaper.

    We’ve decided that cable isn’t an option.

  9. SP says:

    I second Bob’s comment. I like Netflix because we don’t bother with cable.

    I’d also like to suggest Feed Flix, a site that tracks your netflix stats and will tell you if you are getting your money’s worth

  10. Diana says:

    We love Netflix. We have the 2 movie a month unlimited plan for the winter and then in the summer we go down to the one movie a month unlimited because we are outside a lot. One great benefit to Netflix is they allow you to be flexible like this. For us is is well worth the money per month, because it is our main source of entertainment. When a new movie we want to see comes to the theaters, we immediatley add it to our list and then when it comes out on DVD we move it to the top of the list. We have been customers for over 3 years and have been impressed with this service.

  11. Jude says:

    Netflix is *extremely* useful for me. I live in rural Colorado, and without it, I wouldn’t see a lot of the movies I long to see. It saves me money because I no longer purchase as many movies. I probably only see 4 movies a year in the theater since it requires either 160 miles round-trip drive or 180 miles, depending on which theater I head towards. I get 3 movies at a time, although during the summer 4 works better. I watch at least 6 movies a week. My daughter watches exercise DVDs instantly; if she finds one she really likes, she can purchase it. I have basic cable, but I watch all the series I read about such as Dexter and Big Love as they come out on DVD. I love, love, love Netflix.

  12. rita says:

    We really like Netflix. We are set up for 2 a week we watch them both. Only have basic cable so tv watching is limited.

  13. stella says:

    We started out with the three at a time option from Netflix and that lasted for about two years (we had a lot of catching up to do and more time to watch).

    We switched over to one at a time, which works out well in that we see probably 5 to 6 DVDs we really want to see in a month. But as others have said it’s the instant watch that really makes Netflix a good investment. All in all, our per-viewing cost often comes out to $.50 or less.

    we live in NYC. To get to the library, it’s $4.50 roundtrip. Rarely, if ever, is any DVD we want to see available (very hit or miss). And all DVDs are due one week later. So in one week, even if we could get one or two DVDs we wanted, it’d still be $9 to pick up and return. Not a good value.

    There is no Redbox here and we do not have neighbors to share costs with.

    So in terms of total entertainment value for the buck, it’s definitely netflix, which, by the way, has a great turnaround rate (mail back monday, get new DVD wednesday, etc)

    My relatives in Florida don’t use netflix but they do blockbuster and share about 10 DVDs and video games (for the kids) a month. Somehow, they see it as being a better value. I don’t see it, especially if you factor in the time and driving factors.

    The most important thing is to be honest about what you would view and how often. We are huge foreign film and indie fans. We rarely are looking for the current blockbusters, so we always have something on our list that we want.

    We pay enough to ensure we do watch but not so much that we go crazy if we only see five things a month. It’s very good value for the money.

    And now that we have HDMI on our laptop, we just hook it up to the TV and see “big screen” style for the instant viewing and streamed titles. Love it.

    FYI: If you have no cable and/or no premium channels, and are patient, netflix can be incredibly cost-saving with the various TV shows. But the real pain is that series are broken up into individual discs and sometimes, it can take weeks/months to see a whole season. you have to be very patient.

  14. friend says:

    I should have mentioned, we don’t use cable either, but we can get about 20 channels without. We don’t watch all that much TV. Before Netflix, though, we used to rent DVDs from the local place and really racked up the late fees. Netflix does save us from ourselves that way.

  15. Anna says:

    Netflix is also a great option for older or less popular movies that aren’t avaliable at even the local Blockbuster. As far as tv online, if the network website doesn’t have it chanses are Hulu.com or CastTv.com does.

  16. Caroline says:

    I hadn’t thought about previous movie watching habits affecting how one would use Netflix, but it seems to make sense.

    Personally I don’t watch any ‘live’ tv anymore. And Netflix is a substantially better deal than cable to me, even if I didn’t watch it as much as I do. You just get so much bang for your buck. The variety, the convenience, and the instant streaming are awesome!

  17. Carrie says:

    We don’t have any over the air reception, and no cable or satellite, so Netflix is pretty much all the TV watching we do. Since the birth of our daughter a few years ago, we rarely get to the movie theater, and we’ve found that we buy fewer movies since we can just borrow them. I wouldn’t say that we save money using netflix, but it has been worthwhile.

    The watch instantly feature is really what keeps us signed up for netflix. We watch something at least once a day (usually a kids show from PBS).

    I have found that we don’t watch discs as quickly as I had thought – once I kept one for about 6 weeks before we ever saw it! We do like having 2 at a time, though. We arrange our queue such that we have a kids movie and an older movie.

    If we’re in a money crunch, that’s the first thing that will go, but we’ll enjoy it while we have the luxury of affording it.

  18. Griffin says:

    On the other hand, if you really want to watch more movies or series, but can’t afford to, Netflix is a good option. I don’t watch much TV, but like watching some things that would require cable plus a premium movie channel.

    My roommate splurges for cable, but we don’t watch enough to bother paying for movie channels.

    I also watch stuff that no one else here wants to, like Second Sight or Californication or In Treatment. Scheduling is also good. The downside is that you have a several month delay in what you watch. At a video store, I can spend $12-$16+ to rent a season of something, spend $20+ to buy that season or spend about $10 or less to use netflix for it.

    So in the right situation, it’s totally worth it. But I will echo what others have said: You think you will need a bigger plan than you will AND you won’t be turning these discs over very fast (usually). I have a 2-disc plan and could probably get away with a 1-disc plan, but my girlfriend and I split it, so we each get something all the time. =D

  19. Griffin says:

    PS: by “can’t afford to” I mean that we can’t afford to go to the movies a lot or rent a lot traditionally.

  20. The key here is determining whether you really need it or not.

    If you’re thinking to yourself that if you had Netflix, then you WOULD watch more movies, then this is flawed thinking in my opinion.

    You should only base it on what your current movie watching habits are.

  21. Chad says:

    I’m another view instantly customer with 1 disc. I get a lot people asking me if its worth it. I tell them I pay $9/mo for the service. They look at me like I’ve got a wad of cash to burn. I then ask if they have cable and what they pay. More often than not they have cable and pay $60/mo.

    I tell them that I ditched cable over 2 years ago and watch over the air television and Netflix is my cable. Then I hear stories on how cable is a need and not a want. Funny how the tables turn.

  22. dougR says:

    May I cast a vote in favor of the public library as a source of movies? Depending on how good your local library system is, of course.

    I’m lucky to live in an urban area where the local library system is superb–they don’t have everything Netflix does, but they have plenty, and it’s available/requestable online, and it’s all (cough) FREE, sparing me one more check to write each month. When I hear of a movie (or a TV series on DVD) that sounds interesting, more often than not I can get it thru the library. If my library system were pretty sketchy, though, I’d be on Netflix in a heartbeat.

    Seriously, though, check your public library!

  23. Mary says:

    I have very slow DSL, how does that work with streaming video? We live in the country an 1.5 is the best we can get and are lucky to get it in the first place. I hate our dish because due to the weather it is always searching for signal and today in a light rain we are getting between a 25-30% signal (you can check by hitting menu then 611). I’m interested in going over the air but afraid we would need a very tall tower because we are in a small valley.

  24. Blair says:

    While I don’t watch too many DVDs (maybe one per month), I do use the instant streaming all of the time, so Netflix is certainly worth it to me.

  25. Karen says:

    Because of the streaming, we just returned to Netflix this week. We are dropping satellite and will save a lot. With the $80 Roku box, we have signed up for one DVD at a time with Netflix for $9/month and all the free streaming programs we could possibly want, and we also signed up for free Mediafly and can now watch our favorite news programs, and with free Pandora, we can listen to music of our choice. We use Netflix for family entertainment as well as education. While the library is great, Netflix is our best resource for educational documentaries. The streaming feature makes Netflix an excellent financial choice.

  26. Michelle says:

    We got the Roku box that streams Watch Instantly to our TV. We turned off our cable almost 2 years ago and haven’t looked back. New episodes of Heroes get uploaded the day after they air, and the new season of Lost was available to watch instantly the day it came out on DVD. One thing that I’ve noticed is that I watch a lot less bad TV. Since I’m not bombarded by ads for new shows, I can wait and see what the buzz is before committing to watching. Netflix is worth it us because it meets our entertainment needs and is a lot less expensive than cable. I would not recommend getting cable and Netflix.

  27. KC says:

    You didn’t mention the instant view option, which is pretty handy, especially in between receiving DVDs. Also its quite easy to change the terms of your membership. We started out at 3, eventually worked our way up to 5 and then back down to 3 – we’ll probably move to 2 at some point since we seem to be busier. And it is very easy to move between levels of use.

    I’ll second the public library, too, if its free. But I’ve never lived in an area where it was free – usually b/t $1-$2 per video/dvd and you’d rack up some late fees quickly.

  28. Courtney says:

    We just replaced our premium movie channels from the cable company ($13/month) with Netflix (1 disk at a time + bluray access = $11.99/month). We’re not really saving any money, but we’ve got infinitely more choices and can take the subscription with us on vacation or to visit family (on our PS3).

  29. liv says:

    The instant view is what makes it worthit. We also have the 1-disc-unlimited (plus blu-ray) subscription and we watch at least 3 movies a month so it’s going to pay for itself.

  30. Rob says:

    Netflix has made a huge change in our movie watching habits, since going out to them used to be one of our regular “date night” activities.
    There has been doubled rewards with Netflix. When a new movie gets us vaguely curious, we add it to our saved queue and forget about it. No spending big bucks on seeing something right away we’re only halfway interested in, no lines, etc. We find things we’re honestly going to enjoy on Saturday night instead of going through the motions.

    The other bonus is, with that as an option, the few times we actually do go out to the movies, it’s something we’re really engaged with and interested in. The last movie we saw in theater was “The Hurt Locker” four months ago, and I still recommend it to everyone I can.

  31. Pat says:

    The instant play is a big hit with our family too. We have basic cable but with so few channels to watch (they are always switching the good ones out of our limited watch selection) that instant view was a no-brainer. I bought the Roku when it first came out and we’ve been huge fans ever since. We are also big fans of British TV shows and Netflix lets us indulge. Lots of them are also available on instant play too.

  32. Larry says:

    We as a family get the one movie at a time option…we all take turns picking out movies or shows…the rule is if you don’t watch someones selection you loose your next turn…one of the things weenjoy is the range of seletions we have, our local vid store are great…but do not have all that we are interested in. We have been very aware not to let time go by between movies…and try to watch them the night we get them.

  33. Kathy says:

    Netflix was something we were looking into getting last summer when we decided to dump satellite. We decided against it not because of the service or the cost, but we cannot get TV reception in our apartment building and we don’t have access to point a digital antenna in the direction we need to in order to get a signal. I can do with out TV, but not my local TV channels (for news, weather, the Create channel).

    Anyone who is considering going to something like Netflix might want to keep this in mind. If we could find a way to get a signal or if we moved to another place where we could get a signal, I would drop cable in a heartbeat and go this route.

  34. Michelle says:

    We also use a service called PlayOn. If you have a sufficiently fast computer and already have a PS3, Xbox 360, certain DirecTV HD DVRs, other DNLA server, it makes a lot of TV shows available as well. Check out playon.com. They offer a free trial. Since we already have a PS3 as our DVD player, PlayOn was a low-cost, one-time-fee way to get TV shows off the internet to our TV. Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon VOD are supported by the developers, and all the major networks and many other cable channels (HGTV, food network, cartoon network, syfy, etc.) are available through community-created plugins. Sometimes Hulu doesn’t have all the episodes that the network’s website does, so direct access to the network is better.

    Warning: it’s not exactly plug n play. There is no snazzy interface that makes adding channels easy. Being comfortable with downloading, unzipping, and moving files from folder to folder will help a lot. Clear directions are available but expect you to know how to find a folder on your computer. Once it’s set up though, the interface through the PS3 is just fine; bare bones but efficient and self-explanatory. Also, the faster your PC the better because your PC handles the encoding before it streams to your PS3/Xbox 360/DNLA server.

    There’s a decent-sized community that writes plugins and scripts for PlayOn so new “channels” are always in the works. The downside is, the plugins aren’t guaranteed to work since you are, in fact, their beta tester lol. Overall though, I’m very happy with PlayOn and haven’t had any significant issues. It aggregates shows from a very wide variety of sources and puts it on my TV. And no, I don’t work for PlayOn. :p

    @ Mary #23

    With slow DSL, streaming is really hit and miss, mostly miss. We have Netflix 1 at a time + streaming as well and we’ve only started watching streaming this month because we finally got fiber optic in our neighborhood (we’re semi-rural). We have ~4 download speed now. At the very least we stream at 480p, possibly higher but I haven’t checked. It looks like the quality of a normal DVD, not a bluray. There are minor hangups and hiccups but most shows seem to run fairly smoothly.

    Previously we had 1.5 like you. Quality depended greatly on original stream encoding. Some shows were at least watchable, along the lines of a well-used VHS tape. Slightly grainy but still watchable. Many many shows, however, were so blurry I couldn’t even make out the faces of individual characters. I couldn’t tell who I was looking at. If you’re nearsighted, it was like watching without glasses/contacts. In addition, shows would stop for a minute or two to buffer the next section several times during viewing. A call to Netflix netted the answer “Sorry, call your ISP. You need greater bandwidth.” (Not a slam on Netflix. The guy was very nice; there was just nothing he could do to help.)

    So no, I don’t recommend Netflix streaming for you.

  35. Michelle says:

    Sorry, I gave the wrong web address: playon.tv.

    See? I really don’t work for them.

  36. Sara says:

    The instant use is what netflix is perfect for…older shows and movies. If you have to see something when everyone else does, then netflix is not for you. Save for your cable instead. We have used Netflix for a bunch of pink panther, an older bruce willis movie. and some old dirty jobs, all in the last three days. Yay for no commercials!

  37. stella says:

    RE: Using the library

    Depending on where you live, and how you get to the library, it can get very expensive to get supposedly “free” DVDs from the library.

    here in the city, we’re a bus or subway ride away from any library branch. So that’s $4.50 to pickup and $4.50 to return. Since you can only take them out for a week at a time, that’s a minimum of $9 if you take out even just one (It’s $1 a day if you are late!). So it makes no sense unless you can get a LOT of DVDs in one visit AND find the time to watch them in a week, which flys by.

    I’m surprised that folks who drive don’t also consider the cost of driving somewhere. Everybody can’t possibly live in walking distance of a library? Not to mention such well-stocked ones.

    FYI: You can place holds on some DVDs but not all. But again, you’d still have to go in to pick them up by a certain date whether you were planning to do so or not in a given time period.

    $9 a month for netflix with pretty much all you can eat, versus $9 a week for the “free” library? No problem for our family in determining which is the better value. And Netflix has so much in stock and literally only a day or two away.

  38. Vicki in ABQ says:

    I love netflix…have been miserable when I had to put my subscription on hold for financial reasons. Can’t afford cable and use it to watch movies and TV shows. Currently on the 1 at a time option and watch 2-3 DVD’s a week on that…will increase to the 2 at a time option as soon as I can afford to. My household is not one where we watch the same films over and over again and this is the only form of entertainment I can afford! Plus, no commercials for the shows I get from Netflix. Without Netflix, I’d be stuck watching infomercials way too often! Don’t have internet at home, but when I can afford it again, will definitely make use of the streaming video as well…for me and my household, Netflix is a definite bargain. I can see why it may not be for others…but it definitely has improved my quality of life!

  39. Bonnie says:

    @#22DougR – not all libraries let you borrow DVDs for free. Our library system charges $1 for 1 week, plus $1/day late fee. Plus the DVDs often have a long waitlist, so I mainly use it if I want to watch a whole season of a TV series at once, since it’s still $1 for the whole set for a week.

    Regarding new vs old movies, I’m usually able to get the latest movies within 2-3 weeks of its release. And, I’ve figured out that, since DVDs are released on Tuesdays, if you return your Netfilx DVDs on Saturday, you have a better chance of receiving the new release on Tuesday, before the waitlist builds up too much.

  40. SwingCheese says:

    My husband and I love Netflix! Going to the movies is very expensive, and since he is a student (and especially now that we have a baby), going out that often wasn’t an option. We both like to watch movies, though. With Netflix we can see a lot of movies for a comparatively low price. I was also able to find some documentaries on Netflix that I couldn’t find at the local stores or the library.

    But the real bonus to Netflix is, in my opinion, the ability to watch tv series. We don’t want cable, but through Netflix we’ve been able to watch Weeds, Dexter, The Colbert Report, Comedy Central Presents, and a variety of other programs. I got My So-Called Life, and it was a fun way to reminisce without having to buy the series. I’ve always been very pleased with Netflix and I am a big fan :)

  41. todo es bien says:

    The game changer in all this is Roku. If you dont have Roku, you are missing out. We downgraded to the minimum plan, and we are very happy. In fact, we would probably be happy with just Roku for the minimum price, as the mailings are largely irrelevant now. Plus, they are adding a jillion new roku channels and features.

  42. uri says:

    I have to echo the sentiment above. I have TVersity hooked up to my xbox 360 — and I’ve replaced Cable television with Hulu (free) and Netflix streaming and DVD ($9/mo.) Love it.

  43. AK says:

    We got rid of cable about a year ago and went with Netflix. Much cheaper and we are still using the Netflix for about 2 movies each week.

  44. Karen Isaacson says:

    We have been Netflix users since they first started, and since we don’t have a television or cable, our experience is that 2-3 movies a week is well worth the price of subscription. If you consider that the average movie theater ticket is between $5.00 and $7.00 in our area [from my last sojourn into a theater – we don’t often go out when we have movies come to us] a movie night out would cost at least $10, not including gas and any snacks/drinks. One movie a week out would run us at least $40, whereas we pay about $25 to Netflix and get about 8-12 movies a month for the cost of about $3 a movie for two people. For us, the economics are one of the two major motivating factors; the other is that we don’t have to listen to other people talking, cell phones ringing, etc., and can stop the movie mid-scene if we want to grab a bag of popcorn or a soda.

  45. Mol says:

    Netflix is unquestionably worth it if you can replace a cable bill with a netflix bill. =D

  46. Trent,
    I didn’t read the rest of the comments so this may be already mentioned.

    Have you considered time-value when determining if Netflix is worth it? If I’m not mistaken, you can get unlimited movies and downloads for $8.99 a month. So, let’s say that you do only watch 3 movies a month. Each is costing you $3.00 from Netflix. Not the best, but still cheaper than Blockbuster.

    You said that you use Redbox. How far is the Redbox from your house? Do you drive there? I can imagine that the time and possibly gas, wear and tear etc. expended for the two round-trips to pickup and return a movie at Redbox is more than the $2.00 difference.

    I can see a trade with friends as a valid money-saver though, as long as you are not making special trips just to trade movies.

  47. Jessica says:

    LOVE netflix as well. We don’t have cable and use the watch now feature almost daily. At $9/mo it’s the best deal out there.

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