Last month, my family decided to eliminate our cable service. We had already disconnected it from our television for a trial run and learned that we could easily live without it. Given that, we just chopped that bill out of our life.
Let’s get caught up on the full story of our use of cable television over the last several years. We’ve always been a one-television household with just a single TV that resides in our family room. I rarely watch it aside from the occasional live event, on family movie night, or when Sarah and I are cuddled under a blanket binge-watching something.
We’ve been a cable subscriber for many years, and I suppose that I should put “cable” in quotes because we’ve bounced around to satellite providers as well. Mostly, we’ve hopped around in an effort to take advantage of competitive pricing when possible.
Over the last few years, however, I’ve noticed that I barely watch any television at all. I just generally prefer to read books or to play a board game in the evening rather than watching television. So, for me, the cost of a cable bill is kind of excessive. I could justify spending $10 or $15 a month on Netflix, but paying $80 or $100 a month for a bunch of channels I don’t watch just isn’t worth it.
Cord Cutting Strategy #1: Start with the dollars and cents. Seeing how much you can save per month by ditching cable entirely or replacing it with an inexpensive streaming service or two can really bring things into focus.
So, as a next step, I decided to just ask those in my family to keep tabs on what it is that they actually watch on our television, just so we can figure out what’s worth it for us to keep and what isn’t.
As I kept vague tabs on everyone’s television habits over the spring and summer, a few patterns emerged. The biggest one was that YouTube and Netflix were watched on the television far more than the actual cable service. The second was that most of what was actually watched on the cable service were series that could easily be found on other streaming services for far less money. By subscribing to Netflix and Sling TV, with occasional subscriptions to other services for a month to binge watch a particular series or two, we cover virtually everything that we had watched on television throughout the spring and summer.
Cord Cutting Strategy #2: Keep track of what you’re actually watching (not what you think you’ll watch or what you thought you watched) over a given month and see if there’s a cheaper way to watch most of it elsewhere. See what’s actually available on Netflix, Sling TV, and Hulu.
The ‘Cutting’ Day
It didn’t take much math to realize that eliminating our cable service (DirecTV at the moment) and instead going with just Netflix and Sling in tandem would save us about $100 a month, and the programming we would actually miss would be minimal. So, we decided to cut the cord.
Step one, we simply unplugged our DirecTV box for a week and instead plugged in a Roku to give it a try. Roku provides the ability to watch a bunch of different streaming services on your television with minimal fuss; alternatives include an Amazon Fire Stick, Apple TV, and so on.
Cord Cutting Strategy #3: Give cord cutting a trial run first by unplugging your cable box for a few weeks and using an inexpensive streaming device like a Roku Express or an Amazon Fire Stick (those are two really easy to use options that are also pretty cheap).
Cord Cutting Strategy #4: Sign up for a trial run of streaming services that you think you’ll use to replace your cable service. Take a look at Netflix, Sling TV, Hulu, HBO Now, and so on. Be sure to only try services that are actually replacing what you watch. Sign up for trials for those services and set them up on your streaming device.
After about two weeks of not using the cable box at all, we realized that we weren’t getting any value out of it, so we called to disconnect the service.
For us, the best strategy seemed to be to tell the customer service folks we talked to that we simply did not watch the service at all, thus it didn’t matter how cheap they made it. This was a true statement, after all – we hadn’t watched it at all for weeks prior to the call. While they gave us some pushback and tried to make some lowball offers, I simply responded with, “That’s great, but we just don’t watch the service at all,” and it’s really hard for them to say anything about it.
Cord Cutting Strategy #5: When you call to cancel the service, they will try to retain you with some very low offers. Ignore those offers and stick to your plan. Stating clearly that you do not watch the service any more is a great way to cut through their offers. Expect to spend some time on the phone, and expect some significant “we want you back” offers afterwards; just ignore them all.
DirecTV told us to keep all of the equipment, which did mean we were responsible for removing the dish from our roof (which actually turned out to be pretty easy) and dispose of the box ourselves.
My estimate is that I spent about an hour on the phone, most of which was on hold while I was being transferred from department to department as people tried to talk me into staying with the service. The actual device switchover and setup took perhaps an hour as well.
What Did We Save?
For us, this switchover meant dumping DirecTV and instead signing up for Sling TV as a direct replacement. This retained almost all of the programming we actually watched and saves us about $75 per month.
The remaining programming that isn’t directly covered by Sling either already exists on Netflix, is available over the air (we’ll get to that in a minute), or is on HBO. We intend to wait a few months and then subscribe to HBO Now for a few months.
So, for now, our savings is $75 per month. We may eventually subscribe to HBO Now for a while, cutting our monthly savings down to $60 per month. We’re losing almost none of the programming we watched over the past several months.
As part of this switch over, we installed an over-the-air antenna. This allows us to pick up a large number of local channels. We live close enough to the Des Moines metro area that we can pick up strong signals from a lot of stations in Des Moines. (It’s worth noting that this is aided by the fact that there’s a repeater tower within five miles of our house, which means the signals are strong.) This includes the major broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS – and a large number of additional channels of varying quality, including an all-children’s channel and a channel that seems to be nothing but a loop of the weather forecast.
Setting this up was easy, too. We bought an inexpensive antenna at a local store that was on sale and simply attached a coax cable to the back of that antenna (the cable came with the antenna) to the cable port on the back of our television, then simply went into the menu on our television and scanned for channels. It found around 30 of them, and they come in crystal clear in about 480p – not high resolution, but good enough, especially on a smaller television. Once the antenna is set up and running, the programming is completely free.
Cord Cutting Strategy #6: If you live within 30 miles of a major city and have some unobstructed views of the sky in the direction of that city, you’re probably going to be able to get a lot of channels with an inexpensive digital antenna, costing $20 to $30, and no ongoing costs. It’s easy to set up, too.
So, what about other situations?
It’s Not Always Perfect
After hearing about our experience, my parents decided to give the same setup a try. They purchased an over the air antenna and a Roku with the intent of dropping Dish Network and sticking with Netflix and Sling TV instead.
Over this past weekend, Sarah and I spent several hours trying to get them set up… and it didn’t work quite as well.
For starters, the nearest major network broadcast signal to their home is 41 miles away. There are a couple of signals that are closer but the channels they really wanted to get over the air are 41, 43, and 47 miles away as the crow flies.
If you’re wondering about how we were able to figure this out, we used AntennaWeb, which lets you type in your zip code and estimate what stations you’ll be able to receive there.
Cord Cutting Strategy #7: If you’re considering an over-the-air setup, take a look at AntennaWeb before you get started. I highly recommend only relying on stations that AntennaWeb identifies as “yellow.”
Making the problem even more difficult was the fact that my parents live in a spot that’s surrounded by woods. They’re only able to receive a Dish Network signal through one small window through the trees.
We gave it the old college try, though. We tried several locations for a digital antenna throughout their house and were only able to receive a few weak signals. We also tried placing the antenna outside aligned almost identically with their existing satellite dish and it was only marginally better.
Eventually, we contacted a relative in the area who’s an electrician and often works on electrical-adjacent odd jobs like this. He examined the situation and concluded that our best chance for getting a good signal was to get above the trees with a small tower, which moved the project out of their budget for the time being.
All other aspects of the project worked fine. Their Roku worked like a charm and they were able to watch a variety of streaming options with ease. However, the lack of broadcast channels was a deal breaker for them and they won’t be moving forward with the switchover at this time.
Life Without Cable
So, what’s life like without cable?
We still watch television sometimes. I don’t think anyone’s television watching habits have changed drastically. Our kids still prefer watching their preferred YouTube channels over anything else during their allotted screen time. I still watch on family movie night and binge-watch series with Sarah. Sarah’s viewing habits have probably changed the most, but this switch has actually nudged her into digging deeper into Netflix and she now seems to have more stuff in her queue than she can possibly watch.
(It’s worth noting that Sarah’s not really a television addict, but that she likes to have the TV on in the background while she’s doing busywork, of which she has quite a bit from her job. You can often find her in the late evenings with about 70% attention on some low-intensity work task and about 30% attention on something on the television. Personally, I prefer to listen to white noise when working, but to each their own.)
I get weather alerts on my phone faster than local channels have ever been able to report them, so I don’t find myself missing local weather if it were to happen to go out during a thunderstorm or something.
Honestly, I’m hard pressed to come up with a negative change that’s resulted from the elimination of the cable box.
It might be harder for me to watch postseason baseball (which is an October tradition for me), but it looks like I can watch most of the games via streaming and listen to any that I miss, and the World Series itself will be broadcast over the air on Fox. (I’m rooting for a Cubs-Astros World Series, but I think it’ll be Cubs-Red Sox.)
I usually look at internet sources for breaking news.
I can’t name a television series that I care about that I no longer have easy access to. There are a couple where I might not be able to watch the current season, but I’ll be able to catch up in a few months.
As noted above, my children mostly watch YouTube anyway, so this had little impact on them. There were a few series that they watched occasionally, but we still have access to literally every one of those series.
It really comes back to Sarah, and – here’s the kicker – she was the one who, in the end, pushed for the switch because of the crazy cost of cable. I didn’t mind keeping it around if she (and/or the kids) got a lot of value from it. When she brought up the subject in the spring, on her own, I suggested that we spend some time evaluating what everyone watched rather than cutting the cord immediately.
In the evenings, the kids still watch a little bit of YouTube, I’m still doing household chores or reading a book, and, later, Sarah’s still binge-watching a series while doing busywork. Nothing’s really changed except for possibly the exact series that Sarah’s watching at the moment.
The benefit? We’re saving (at least) $75 a month thanks to the change. That’s $900 a year if you want to put it in annual terms, an amount that can make a real difference in our lives.
Would We Ever Go Back?
So far, I can’t think of a reason that would move us to go back to traditional cable or satellite. I suppose that if the cost of such a service lowered to a point that it was directly competitive with what we get out of Netflix and Sling, we’d consider it again. Until that happens, I see no reason to move back.
Going forward, I expect us to stick with the services we have, while occasionally adding another service for a month or two in order to binge-watch their unique offerings. I don’t expect us ever to return to a traditional cable package, at least not in the foreseeable future without some major changes to the structure of how cable television service works.
Goodbye, cable. It was nice knowing you.
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