Looking Back on a Year Without Cable

A little over a year ago, our family made the decision to cancel our cable service. I wrote about it shortly after that decision and I thought it might be worth revisiting a year later, just to see how things have changed.

About 16 months ago, we canceled our cable package.

At the time, we were spending around $110 a month on our cable package. This included a rather large selection of channels in an “expanded” channel package, plus HBO.

Over the course of the last year or so that we had our cable package, we realized a few key things.

One, we weren’t actually watching the programming on our cable package very much. We watched a bit of live news and recorded a few regular programs, but our cable box really wasn’t on very much. I would estimate that we were watching perhaps 20 hours of cable programming a month, and at least some of that was just incidental, forgettable stuff.

Two, most of our actual television watching time had migrated to streaming services. We were watching a lot of shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime rather than the cable offerings. Why? They offered a lot of shows on-demand and without commercial interruption, which made them a lot more appealing to watch if we were all ready to watch a show at 8:20 p.m. and wanted to be done before 9 p.m. when the kids were ready to go to bed. Plus, the streaming services offered a lot of programming that was of interest to us. We were watching streaming services far more than our cable.

Three, we began to really notice the cost of it. $110 a month for our cable package added up to $1,320 a year. That was more than we would spend on most of our family summer vacations, just for a box that sat in our home and would show us programs for a few hours a week when there were other options for watching television programs already available.

Finally, we noticed that our overall television viewing time had declined a fair amount from a few years prior due to changing interests. We were involved with other things as a family, particularly martial arts, soccer and tabletop games.

All of this added up to our decision to go without cable, so we canceled the service.

Initially, we replaced cable with a few streaming services.

At first, we were hesitant about losing our favorite channels, which were news channels and HBO, so we subscribed to streaming services that replicated them. We signed up for Sling at $40 a month and HBO NOW for $15 a month and those two packages basically replicated everything we were watching before for half the price.

(Of course, underlying all of this is the fact that we have a good enough home internet package to easily watch streaming video. I work from home, so reasonably good internet is a professional need for me and thus having such a connection was a given. It may not necessarily be a given for you.)

We also continued our Netflix subscription for $13 a month (enabling us to watch on multiple screens with the same account) and we’ve been Amazon Prime users for a long time, with comes with Amazon Instant Video. Those costs remained the same.

When we canceled our cable package, we used the savings for the first month to buy an over-the-air antenna so that we could continue to get local channels (that’s not the exact model we use, but very similar; our model seems to be discontinued).

In effect, our television viewing costs declined by $55 per month. We went from a cable package to a combination of a $40 Sling account and a $15 HBO NOW account, with everything else remaining the same, and we had a one time $40 expense for a digital over the air antenna.

What did we learn over the following year, then?

We spent a lot of time carefully paying attention to what we actually watch.

We were very curious to see which of the services we would actually use for television viewing. I actually kept pretty careful notes on what I observed myself and others in the house doing in the months right after our transition, and I asked the other family members to not restrict what they watch, but think about it a little and decide which stuff was most important to them and which stuff didn’t matter. Paying attention to what you actually watch is a very important step.

Here are some things I noticed about our television viewing once cable television went away.

We tend to binge-watch. Once someone finds a series that they’re really interested in, it tends to become a viewing focus for that person. Our family usually doesn’t spend hours upon hours binge-watching a show in a single day, but we will consistently watch one or two episodes of a show every night or two over a long period of time.

We actually watch a lot of Youtube channels. We have a small Roku device that enables us to watch streaming services on our television and it turns out that the free Youtube app is actually used a lot. I know that there are several Youtube channels that I will regularly watch (often when doing busywork), such as Binging with Babish and Kurzgesagt, and my children have channels that they like, too. This is often our “background” viewing, meaning we’ll turn it on when engaged in some other task like folding laundry or preparing a meal.

We tend to stick to one specific streaming service for long periods. Entire months would go by in which the only streaming apps loaded on our television were Netflix and Youtube, then it would switch to Amazon Prime and Youtube, and so on.

Why does this happen? As I noted above, we tend to binge-watch shows if they click with us, and if we do that, the recommendation engine for each streaming service does a great job of recommending new shows to us that will likely appeal to us if we liked the first one, and these engines are really good at this. So, we’ll binge watch one show on Netflix, then when we’re done, Netflix will recommend another show that people who liked the first show will like, and that will often cause us to start watching that next show pretty exclusively. This will go on for a while until we stop seeing interesting recommendations, so then we’ll jump to a different service which almost always has some fresh recommendations that are in our family’s wheelhouse.

Our tastes aren’t all the same, but there tends to be enough overlap that we can find quite a few shows that most or all of us will enjoy.

So, what effectively happens is that we mine all of the content we all like from one streaming service, and then when it’s tapped out, we jump to another one for a while.

We basically never watch over-the-air programming with our antenna unless there’s some kind of breaking news event. That’s pretty much the only time we turn it on. It turns out that we just don’t like the commercials and the presence of them will actively drive us away from programming when there are so many options.

So, what does this look like in terms of our streaming choices now and moving forward?

We canceled Sling.

As a refresher, Sling was basically our replacement for basic cable. It offers most of the channels available in a basic cable package for about $40 a month as a streaming service. We simply weren’t watching it much at all compared to the other services, for two big reasons.

First of all, the number of shows that our family really wanted to watch that were unique to Sling was pretty limited. There just weren’t many shows on Sling that we were compelled to watch. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t worthwhile programming on there; it just means we weren’t compelled to watch it. There was rarely anything on there that anyone in our family requested watching.

Also, we’ve become less and less interested in programming with commercial interruptions. The shows on Sling were straight from basic cable with the ads still spliced throughout the program, and that’s just become more and more of a turnoff for us. Sure, we could fast forward through them, but even having to do that was a turnoff.

We did watch Sling occasionally, but it just wasn’t enough for us to justify continuing to pay $40 per month. This might have been different if there were basic cable shows that we really enjoyed watching, but there just weren’t enough of those — that weren’t available on other streaming services without commercials — to justify the cost.

We started “service hopping.”

As I noted earlier, we noticed that, because of the recommendation engines on each streaming service, we would find ourselves watching a lot of programming on one service for a couple of months, and then when we felt we had tapped out that service, we moved to a different one for a couple of months.

Eventually, this led us to simply start hopping from streaming service to streaming service. We kept Amazon Instant Video because we use the other features of Prime a lot, so this was free, and Youtube because it’s free, but we pair that with one other service that rotates every two months or so.

Thus far, we’ve rotated through Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO NOW, and CBS All Access, and we’re going back through them again to watch shows that were added to each service in the past year.

This means that the total cost of our streaming services is somewhere between $5 and $15 per month, depending on the service and assuming you’re not counting Amazon Instant Video.

We actually watch less television than we ever have.

It’s not because of a lack of cable, either, nor is it because there isn’t any good programming, nor is it some kind of conscious choice. We just fill our free time and our family time with a lot of other things.

We read quite a lot, with all of us sometimes just sitting together in the same room reading books. We are in a variety of extracurricular and community activities, including some in which we have leadership positions. We play a lot of tabletop games — board games, card games, and storytelling games. We make meals at home, often cooking together as a family.

Our life, as it is right now, doesn’t leave us with a ton of time for watching television. Most of the time, even with television as an option, we simply choose to do other things.

Our monthly costs for television programming have gone from $123 per month to $10 per month on average.

In the end, that’s the price difference that we’ve seen due to this change. Again, I’m excluding Amazon Instant Video from both sides of this equation.

Before our switch, we subscribed to a cable service for $110 per month, along with Netflix for $13 per month.

Currently, we subscribe to one of several streaming services on a rotating basis, with monthly costs of $5 to $15 per month. This service changes every once in a while. This average out to $10 per month.

That’s a savings of $113 per month or $1,356 per year.

To put that in perspective, that’s half of a car payment on a decent used car. That’s a very nice contribution to a Roth IRA or to a child’s 529 college savings fund. That’s an excellent extra payment on credit card debt or student loan debts or other debts.

What do we miss?

As I was writing this article, I asked our family members what they missed from our old cable setup and added in my own feelings.

There were a few specific programs mentioned as being missed. Some members of our family named one or two specific programs that they missed watching. When asked if missing that program felt like they didn’t actually have enough different things to watch, the answer was exclusively “no.”

My wife mentioned the difficulty of easily finding streaming sources for some current events. She mentioned that she was able to find streams for things like political debates, but she had to hunt for them rather than having an easy place to immediately find them.

I missed some live sports programming. I don’t watch much sports, but I did miss some playoff baseball in October, something I enjoy watching. Baseball and a bit of soccer and, on extremely rare occasions, a football game are the only sports I watch on television, and it is harder to find them now. I can still find most of them on our antenna provided that they’re airing on a broadcast network, and that’s basically the only time we use our over-the-air antenna.

Every single person felt like we had more programming options now than we did back then. I think this is due to the fact that we’ve dug deeper into streaming services than we used to and discovered the enormous amount of content available on them.

None of our family members would go back to our previous setup even if the prices were the same. At first, I just asked them whether they felt what they had lost was “worth the cost,” and everyone said no. Then, I asked them which way they’d choose if cost weren’t involved and every single person I asked — including myself — would choose our current setup, where we have an antenna, a rotating streaming service and Amazon Instant Video.

In short, the only situation I could see ourselves returning to cable is if it were literally free. With any cost involved at all, we’re not going back. It doesn’t offer us enough value to bring it back.

After a year of no cable, what are my suggestions for people thinking about cutting the cord and eliminating cable?

My first suggestion is to give it a trial run. Just stop watching your cable service for 30 days and explore your other options. Dive deep into a streaming service or two. Get an over-the-air antenna set up. Let those things be your sole sources of television viewing for thirty days and see how it goes.

After the 30 days, ask yourself what you authentically miss. What stuff did you really miss during that period, especially near the end of it? Early on, you may just miss watching cable out of habit rather than out of genuine desire to see specific programs. What other options do you have for at least some of those programs? Are they on other streaming services?

If you can whittle down the list of things you’ll miss down to a handful of programs, ask yourself honestly whether the cost of cable is worth it just for those programs when there are so many other things out there to watch. This was a really important realization for us. When we were making the transition, we lamented some shows that we would miss, but we found that many of them could be watched on other services. The actual number of shows we cared about that we completely lost by switching away from cable was tiny.

If there are a lot of cable shows you will miss, take a look at Sling. It’s a lower-cost cable programming provider that streams over the internet. See whether or not the shows you’ll miss are available on there instead. It’s kind of a “middle ground” if you’re thinking of cutting the cord.

Explore other interests and hobbies. One great step to take during all of this is to simply explore other interests and hobbies that take you away from the television. The more time you spend exploring other things, the less time you spend in front of the television. See what’s on Meetup. See what’s going on in your community via your community’s website. I can name hundreds of possible hobbies and interests to dig into; the key is to find some that really click with you. For me, I like playing tabletop games (board games, card games, storytelling games), doing taekwondo, going on hikes, reading and making foods (cooking, making fermented foods and the like). That basically devours most of the free time I have these days.

We’re not looking back.

After more than a year, I can say unequivocally that we will never have cable television in our home again. The value we would get out of it compared to the price is such a bad proposition that we’d be better off spending our money on almost any other form of entertainment, as we’d get more value for our dollar. Even if we had cable, our viewing habits and lifestyles have changed enough that we would scarcely watch it.

Considering that this switch actually saves us more than $1,300 a year, I’d call that a pretty big win. It’s something I encourage you to explore, too.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.