How I Cut My Family’s Cable and Streaming Bill by $170
It was another fat cable bill that finally spurred me to act. For my New Year’s resolution, I would cut the cord and watch streaming services instead.
And I’ve done it — or at least a modified version of it (more of a “fraying” of the cord, let’s say). Here’s what I did, and why. But note: Things are moving at lightning pace in the world of television and streaming services, so details may change at any time.
Over the last two years, hunkered down during the pandemic, my family had gradually added a host of new internet subscription services. “Ted Lasso,” for our soccer-loving teenagers (Apple TV+). “Picard,” for my “Star Trek”-fan husband (Paramount+.) And for me? The debut of the film version of “Hamilton” (Disney+). We also had Netflix, which we’ve used since it began renting DVDs by mail and appreciate now for series like “The Queen’s Gambit.”
We weren’t alone: As of last summer, viewers who streamed had increased their subscriptions to an average of 4.5, up from 3.9 in December 2020, according to research from J.D. Power, and the average monthly costs increased to $55 from $47.
“It comes up in cash-flow conversations,” said Kenny Senour, a fee-only financial planner at Millennial Wealth Management near Denver.
The catch is that each “plus” added to our streaming costs, atop our already hefty cable bill. Most came with free trials — but those eventually expire. Yet I couldn’t muster the will to do the necessary research to cut the cord. So many options! So much jargon to parse! What were a few extra dollars a month, when we weren’t doing much else anyway?
Then I received our December cable bill, which had grown to $382. A quick review of my credit card statements confirmed what I suspected: When I added the cost of our separate streaming subscriptions to the cable bill, we were easily paying more than $400 a month for on-screen entertainment. Ouch!
True, the amount reflected a cable bundle that included the base cost of reliable internet service, crucial for working at home. But it also included a telephone line we no longer used. (I had kept it as a backup, when my children were small. Why did I still have it?) And there were a bunch of channels we never watched.
My plan was to drop cable television and the dormant phone line and switch to a “cable replacement” streaming service, like YouTubeTV or Hulu + Live TV, that also includes access to broadcast television stations, as cable does, for news and live sports.
I contacted my cable company via its chat option — often quicker than waiting to speak on the phone — to say I wanted to keep internet service but drop everything else. I was paying $75 a month before taxes and fees for the internet, but the rate was part of a package. Stand-alone internet would cost more than $100 a month. Still, that was a big savings, so I decided to do it.
Note: Don’t attempt this when you are short of time. It took me several hours, when I added it all up, to figure out what to do.
While I was sorting things out, I tested YouTube TV, recommended by friends. (I watched it via a Roku device, which lets you watch internet services on your television.) I liked that it offered access to local PBS stations, unlike some other cable-replacement options. But I found its menu a bit challenging to navigate. I knew I would eventually become familiar with the format, but I also knew others in my family would be less patient.
Watching television shouldn’t be this hard.
“It’s become quite complicated,” said Jim Willcox, senior electronics editor with Consumer Reports.
I was about out of steam. So instead of testing other cable-replacement options, I returned for another go-round with the cable company. Maybe I had been too hasty.
After I had submitted my initial cancellation notice, the cable company sent me an email offering more “flexibility” if I gave it another try. After another chat session, the company offered internet service and a leaner television option (no premium channels) for about $185 a month, including taxes and fees.
The deal is good for two years and can be changed at any time. And we can always choose later to pull the plug entirely. That was a lot better than what I had been paying.
Next came deciding what streaming services to keep.
Mr. Willcox suggests making a list of the shows you and your family want to watch and then matching them with the appropriate streaming service. Set a limit on what you want to spend. “It’s a lot more work than it used to be,” he said.
To keep the total cost under a target of $250 a month (a savings of at least $150 from my current bill), I had $65 left.
I prefer advertising-free viewing, so I’m planning on paying a bit more than I would for ad-supported streaming options. Even so, my savings should cover the cost of monthly subscriptions to Netflix (currently $13.99 for a standard plan), Paramount+ ($9.99 for premium) and Amazon Prime video ($8.99; if you pay for a full Prime membership, video is included). I learned that we can keep Disney+ bundled with two more services free — Hulu (shows include “Only Murders in the Building,” with Steve Martin) and ESPN+ — as part of a promotion from Verizon, our mobile phone company. The Hulu option in the deal has ads, but I’ll take them — for now. Finally, we can add HBO Max ($11.99) and watch acclaimed shows like “Station Eleven.”
(Our Apple TV+ subscription is free for six more months; we’ll re-evaluate it when the promotion expires.)
Grand total for streaming and cable: $230.
With the overall savings (about $170 a month), maybe we can even buy other things (hopefully, more books).
Still, that’s a lot of television — and it’s probably unnecessary to pay for all of those subscriptions year round, Mr. Willcox said. You could instead pay for a month here and there because most streaming services currently allow customers to join and cancel at will. (Just remember to cancel.)
For instance, if you don’t care about watching a new show right away, he said, you can simply wait. When an entire season of a show that you want to watch becomes available, you can join the appropriate streaming service, watch it for a month, then cancel — and sign up again later if something else catches your fancy. (Some people even binge watch their selections during free trials.) It takes some planning but can save you money.
Another option, if you don’t mind watching some ads: free streaming services, like IMBd TV, now part of Amazon, and the basic tier of NBCUniversal’s Peacock.
You could also go old school and buy an antenna, available at most big box stores. That will give you access to local broadcast stations so you can cut out cable and rely solely on streaming services.
Here are some questions and answers about managing cable and streaming bills:
What’s the best way to track what I’m paying for streaming?
Try to subscribe to all of your streaming services on a single credit card. That makes it easier to find the monthly (or annual) charges without having to hunt through several statements.
Can I always save money by switching from cable to streaming?
In the early days of streaming, it was easy to cut the cord and see huge savings. That’s getting harder as streaming services increase subscription fees to help pay for all that stellar content, Mr. Willcox said. You’ll need to look closely at a specific service’s offerings to see if you can get what you want at a lower price.
Free trials are still common but are getting shorter. Apple TV+, for instance, once offered a yearlong free trial with the purchase of an Apple device, but has shortened it to three months.
One way to think about a reasonable cost of services is to consider streaming as part of your entertainment spending, which should take up no more than 5 to 10 percent of your overall budget, said Mr. Senour, the financial planner. (If you net $5,000 a month after taxes, the median household income, your entertainment spending, including streaming, should be no more than $500.)
I know there’s a lot of good stuff streaming out there, but how do I find it?
The explosion of new services and intricate licensing deals has made it difficult to know where to find your preferred show. Mr. Willcox suggests trying Reelgood.com, which lets you search for any show to find where it’s available. Or you could try subscribing to a newsletter like The New York Times’s “Watching” to help you wade through the entertainment options.