Updated on 12.13.10

Out With The Old, In With The New: Reduce Your Cable Bill

Trent Hamm

Throughout the month of December, The Simple Dollar is posting a daily series focusing on specific activities you can do right now to set the stage for a great 2011. Out with the old, in with the new.

13. Reduce your cable/satellite bill.

So many people find themselves at the end of a long day, worn out on the couch, mindlessly channel surfing for an hour or two before bedtime. They don’t really have the physical or mental energy after a long, compressed day to do much else, so they finish off their hours with a sitcom or a drama program on television.

There are several distinct things there that are notable.

One, most households get something on the order of twenty over-the-air channels for free. Get yourself a digital converter box and see what channels you can pick up over the air. In my area, we can get eighteen digital channels over the air for free. People in other areas can get more – sometimes many more.

These channels aren’t duplicates of each other, either. In our area, for example, we receive three different PBS channels very clearly and three others most of the time over the air. These sets have a bit of overlapping programming but, for the most part, the programs they provide are distinct. We also get multiple weather channels in addition to digital programming for all the major networks. This is all for free, mind you – no cable bill required.

Two, there’s an overwhelming abundance of programming available to surf through on Netflix streaming (and other services) for $9 a month. A bottom-tier Netflix account gives you unlimited streaming to your home for just $9 a month, which basically means you can sit in front of your television or computer, surf through tens of thousands of programs, and watch them all on demand.

You can get this service directly to your television if you have a current-generation video game console or a newer television. Barring that, you can get a Roku box for $60 (or so) that will give you access to all of this streaming programming – about equal to one month’s cable bill for many people.

The amount of programming available on Netflix’s streaming service is tremendous – and best of all, it’s all without commercial interruption.

Three, you can also watch a free DVD from the library or turn off the television and read a purely entertaining book, again, for free from the library. If you’re just looking for something to entertain you, check out a pile of entertainment from your local library. Rent some movies on DVD, take them home, and watch them. Check out some novels that interest you or perhaps a nonfiction book or two that seem intriguing.

If you’re just spending a couple hours a night seeking out whatever entertainment is available to you, why buy it? Check it out from the library instead.

Four, are you actually watching your channels? What channels do you actually tune into on a regular basis? If you’re paying for channels that you almost never watch, eliminate those extra channels from your bill. It’s silly to spend $15 a month on a cable channel that you watch for a couple hours every few months – you might as well just buy the movie on DVD at that point.

Spend a bit of time asking yourself what you actually watch. You might find that you can really cut your cable bill much easier than you might think.

Finally, the sense of being overly tired and the hour or two spent watching television might just be tied together. If you’re consistently finding yourself completely devoid of energy in the evenings, reducing you to a state where all you want to do is crash on the couch for a few hours and watch television before staggering off to bed, there may be other problems in your life. Are you depressed? Anemic? Do you have a vitamin deficiency? Are you being hit hard by seasonal affective disorder?

Whatever it is, it’s something that’s probably worth a doctor’s visit, just to make sure that you’re not suffering from something that’s easily treatable.

There’s also the question of whether or not you’re getting adequate sleep at night. If you’re finding yourself constantly exhausted in the evenings, it may be worth your while to just crash an hour earlier each night.

All of these solutions lead to one thing – a steep reduction or elimination of your cable bill. Whenever you reduce a regular bill, that means you now have the funds available to tackle other financial concerns in your life – getting rid of your debts, for one.

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  1. Wesley says:

    I would say that evaluating whether or not you are actually watching the channels you are paying for should be the first thing a person should do when contemplating any TV subscription change. I know many people who upped the cable/satellite package at one point in time or another for whatever reason then never step back down, even though they never watch the channels they are paying for.

    For me personally, the only thing I watch on TV is NHL hockey. So it was actually cheaper for me to drop cable and get the NHL’s streaming service where I can watch 98% of games live, and the other 2% on 48 hour delay. $20 a month for the season for the streaming, where as the minimum cable around here was about $45 at the time.

    That plus Netflix means for about $32 (I have one DVD at a time + blu-ray on Netflix) I get all my video related entertainment needs.

  2. Wesley says:

    Oh, and one add-on. I know many people rely heavily on Television for their local news. At least around where I live (Springfield, MO) about 90% of what is shown on the local news is available on their website.

  3. Dawn K. says:

    We’ve considered dropping our cable, but we’re pretty big sports watching fans (college football and basketball in our area, and some pro football). Does anyone know of any cost effective services instead of cable for this programming? We’re in the Kansas City metro area.

  4. Wesley says:

    Dawn: Check out ESPN3, they carry quite a few college football and basketball games live. But I am sure coverage varies alot based on where the game is on TV. espn3.com, or XBox Live if you have a Gold Subscription

  5. Jackie says:

    I watch zero TV, but it’s bundled with my internet and so my bill would about the same with or without to handful of basic channels I get.

  6. Andrea says:

    Kinda hard to manage this one when you already have no cable bill, no Netflix bill, no recurring video entertainment bill of any kind. But I agree with the premise, more people should consider trying this out and assessing what they do and don’t use on their current plans. We found we didn’t care about anything other than football games for my husband, and we can generally get those over the air. We watch one show from regular television programming, and we catch it on Hulu the day after it airs. No big deal for us. Baseball would be nice, and there are some well-priced internet streaming packages for it, but we’d only be able to watch one of our two teams – the Cubs are blacked out entirely where we are, and the Tigers would be blacked out whenever they played the White Sox, whether at home or away – no small consideration when you realize they’re in the same division and that’s quite a lot of games. Unfortunately none of the providers around here offer a lucrative deal on just phone+internet without cable.

  7. ABQBrent says:

    Every now and again I end up watching television and I get downright frustrated at commercials. When you don’t have commercials in your life anymore the minute they pop in you don’t tune them out like some people, you find horrible acting, horrible messages, and a complete lack of critical thought. I can’t bare to sit through commercials anymore, I actually turn the TV off, or leave because of it.

  8. Petunia says:

    There is a small bedroom in the front of my house (probably was an optional den/bedroom) which we used as a TV room. Though we have more than one TV, that was the only room with dish service. About 4 months ago, I decided to get new carpet in the room, so everything was moved out. Then last month, when I decided to watch a particular TV program, I discovered that the TV had not been reconnected since the new carpet went in. None of us had noticed for 3 whole months!!

    I cancelled the service. I will find a better use for that $41 per month.

  9. Tiffany says:

    I’d love to cut back on cable as my boyfriend and I only watch one channel (Bravo) once or twice a week, but they don’t offer captioning on their shows online which we need, as my boyfriend is hard of hearing. Netflix streaming also doesn’t offer captions on 99% of things, which is incredibly obnoxious to us as we’d love to get it. There really aren’t a lot of options for someone who wants to continue watching TV but needs captioning, as the accessibility just isn’t up to par on other formats.

  10. Wesley says:

    Tiffany: That is a very good point, and it completely baffles me that services as large as Netflix (and other services like it) do not offer something as basic as Closed Captioning.

  11. JC says:

    Does anyone who suggests getting rid of cable actually use over-the-air digital?

    I do, and my experience with it STINKS. Unlike analog, the sound cuts in and out and the picture freezes up regularly. I live in a condo and it would be difficult for me to put up an exterior antenna. Sometimes the signal quality is so spotty I just turn off the t.v. and pick up a book instead.

    I travel a ton for work so for me it’s not worth having cable at home considering how infrequently I watch television. But it’s pretty disappointing to know that the digital switch is sending more customers to cable giants.

  12. Molly says:

    Re: streaming netflix: I have a ‘newer’ TV but it still doesn’t have wifi, so I couldn’t stream directly to it from my laptop; instead, I got a $2 (literally) HDMI cable on Amazon and now I can just plug in my laptop to stream TV shows and movies. HDMI cables can run over $100 in big box stores, but there’s really no quality difference that I can tell, and it shipped in about 2 days – definitely worth it.

    I tend to watch my TV with wireless headphones, so the only other thing I had to do was get a headphone jack splitter for the audio plug guys. (can you tell how sophisticated my techie vocab is?) $3 from amazon.

  13. Des says:

    @JC – I’m guessing your troubles are location-dependent. We use over-the-air digital and have not had any problems.

  14. Pnut says:

    After much preparation and scrutinizing, we’re cutting our cable off soon, like in the next week. (We have Netflix and a Roku to make up for it.) With two young boys, all we could potentially watch most of the day was kids’ programming, and wanting to limit that paired with the amount of deliberate (key word is deliberate) TV-watching my husband and I do, $80 per month isn’t worth it anymore. One other thing we have is a DVD-recorder, so we got some fancy DVD-RAM discs that apparently you can record multiple times over. There are a few network shows we regularly DVR, and this was our best replacement. Cross your fingers for me, I’m a child of TV if ever there was one.

  15. valleycat1 says:

    We have (basic) cable service & aren’t ashamed to admit it. We are located on the fringe right in the middle of 2 urban areas that have TV stations, so can’t pick up much of anything over the air. But since we very rarely go see movies in the theatre, & don’t pay to rent movies or TV shows over other media, we consider it money well spent. And I also admit to vegging out in front of the TV on occasion and don’t consider it a character flaw or indicative of a need to revamp my life.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    I cut my cable completely about a year ago and my only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner. Between Netflix and Hulu there’s more programming out there then I could ever hope to watch. And since the Netflix was given to me as a gift, my TV watching costs me $0. As it is, I don’t watch TV much- maybe 5-8 hours a week and even that I’m trying to cut back on.

  17. chris says:

    I have tried, I have shopped around and I have found nothing that is cost-effective for our viewing habits. We only watch a handful of channels (Sci-Fy, Fuel, Fox, TCM/AMC and Bravo) regularly and these are in the packages we have to have. There aren’t any free or cheap alternatives for these and you aren’t allowed to pick and choose to customize your packages (at least not yet….we can always hope!).

  18. SP says:

    @JC – I have some issues with OTA digital tv. I’m also limited to an indoor antenna in a complex. I can get a good picture on most channels, but we have to move the antenna around based on what channel we are watching.

    We recently got a DVR that streams netflix (and pandora, and other), but before that, we used an S-video cable to watch it from the laptop.

    One thing about netflix is that there aren’t CURRENT tv shows. For that you need Hulu or the network stations. This (as far as I can tell) isn’t available streaming so we have to hook up the laptop. Still cheaper.

    We also paid for a “subscription” amazon direct) to mad men because we couldn’t wait for the DVDs, and would be willing to do that for Dexter as well, if they offered it!

  19. frugalrandy says:

    I dropped cable TV over a year ago when I realized I hadn’t turned it on in months, and I haven’t missed it AT ALL. Hulu has plenty of entertaining programming, and the commercials are a lot more palatable than with standard television (a 30-second spot versus 3 to 5 minutes of commercials). I’ve saved well over $500 on the cable bill, plus the wasted electricity, plus not having to replace my monster tube-type television from the 1990’s with an expensive flat panel. If you’re on the fence about it, do yourself a favor: drop cable television. Your neighbors won’t laugh at you, and the extra $2 per day adds up.

  20. Nate Poodel says:

    I don’t watch alot of tv but had cable for quite a long time. I live outside of North American in a non-English speaking country. I didn’t mind the basic cable fee because I got the American Forces Network, National Geographic, and CNN. When AFN changed their signal, it was no longer available. Then, National Geographic went from subtitles to dubbed. That left me with CNN and other sporadic English programming. At that point I got so frustrated and cancelled the service. Now we use a local language website to download, for a small fee, all my favorite programming from the States. Usually I get it 24 hours late. There are also movies, documentaries, sports, and various other types of programming. Best of all-COMMERICAL FREE!

  21. deb says:

    We’ve considered dropping cable but we’re in the group that would end up paying more for internet as we have a bundle price. So we have the basic cable (includes things like TCM, AMC, History, Food, etc) and enjoy it.

  22. Mark B. says:

    Trent – how about live sporting events? I have contemplated giving up the dish several times, but I love watching my local sports teams and big national college football games. In order to do so I have to have Fox Sports Detroit and ESPN, and the only way to get them is on the digital tier for cable, or the second tier for dish. Each of these is a minimum of $50/month. I don’t see any way around this, and watching sports is a big part of my life and helps me connect with my Dad, coworkers, etc. I feel it is worth the investment, but it still stings to pay $50 to watch 2 or 3 channels.

  23. Bill in NC says:

    I solved the ‘cuts-in-and-out’ for OTA signal by buying a quality outdoor antenna (ClearStream 2 Antenna) – a 2-bay UHF antenna, not very big.

    But I mounted it inside, hanging off the side of my entertainment center, pointed out the window.

    That’s a lot easier than trying to mount it on your roof!

    Before I couldn’t get stations over 30 miles away, now I get every local affiliate, plus a couple of Charlotte, NC stations (transmitters 60 miles away!), even though I am down in a hole.

    I do split the signal to 2 TVs, via 40 feet of coax, so I added a high-gain amplifier (CPA-19), but those of you with only one TV probably won’t need one.

  24. Maria says:

    FIVE years cable/dish free and loving all the money we have saved. OTA has come a long way since the switch and we might upgrade our antenna in the spring but we receive 9 channels including a pile of PBS channels. Add Netflix one-at-a-time with streaming and I just don’t care that I don’t know what reality show everyone is talking about, I’ll buy my next car with cash you suckers.

  25. Tyler says:

    Has anyone had success incorporating a DVR with their OTA service? That’s the key point with me – the ability to digitally record the programming I want to watch. Also, for those going OTA, do you have conflicts when two shows are on at the same time? My wife and I currently use ATT Uverse with DVR service, which solves the problem of conflicting shows (she wants Grey’s Anatomy, I want Fringe).

  26. Bill in NC says:

    TivoHD or the new Tivo Premiere tunes OTA and also works with cable (analog and digital via Cablecard)

    And there are 2 tuners, so you can record or watch 2 shows broadcast at the same time.

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