Cutting the Cord: Your Guide to a Cable-Free Life
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The number of people dropping their cable TV providers is at an all-time high. And it’s no wonder. When you combine the high cost of cable with the explosion of high-quality streaming options like Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV, and Amazon Prime Video, it’s getting easier and easier to start cutting the cord, save some cash, and still have plenty of great shows and movies to watch.
But like anything worth doing, cutting the cord requires effort (and maybe even a compromise or two). Our family did it about 6 months ago—and so far, no regrets. This guide describes the steps we took and the decisions we made. Use it to smooth your path to a new (and hopefully cheaper) way of watching TV.
Why we finally cut the cord
When my wife was laid off six months ago, we were in a stable financial situation. My income was relatively secure, we had a robust emergency fund, and my wife received a healthy severance from her former employer. Nonetheless, it was good motivation for us to review our discretionary spending.
It was no surprise that one of the biggest drains on our monthly budget was our cable and Internet bill. All told, we were paying around $175 each month to support our TV habit: $160 to Verizon for Internet, cable, DVR and HBO, plus an additional $10.99 for Netflix. We also have Amazon Prime Video, but I’m leaving that out of the overall total because we’d subscribe to Amazon Prime just for the free two-day shipping.
And then there’s hardware: we have two Samsung smart TVs in our house, each with an older generation Roku (one of which was a Christmas gift from the in-laws).
While our friends were ditching their cable subscriptions in favor of streaming services, there we were, paying for both like we were made of money. We knew what we had to do.
It all starts with a little prep work
You might have heard the old saying, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” I have no idea who first said it, but it really applies here. Don’t go off half-cocked and start signing up for streaming services—make sure you’ve done some prep work so that when you finally cut the cord, you’re saving as much money as possible and are still satisfied with the channels and content you can watch.
Spend a week or two paying close attention to the shows and channels your family watches. And while you’re at it, take note of which shows you really wouldn’t want to miss, and which ones you’re just watching to kill time. This will give you a better idea of which channels are “must haves” when it comes time to select a streaming service. And that will be important, because although there are a lot of great streaming packages nowadays, cutting the cord will mean fewer channels, so you’ll want to focus on the ones you really care about.
We had a family meeting when we first started thinking about cutting the cord, and our list of must-have channels looked like this: the networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, The CW), a 24-hour news channel, AMC, HBO, and Disney Jr. and/or Nick Jr. Nice-to-have channels were HGTV, DIY Network, CNBC, TBS, and TNT. Keep reading to see if we were able to get everything we wanted…
Breaking up with your cable provider is kind of like breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend…you have to give them their stuff back before it’s truly over. So if you’ve been renting a cable modem and/or router as part of your service, you’ll want to buy your own. Even if you end up staying with the same provider for Internet service, this is the right call.
I know spending money is the last thing you want to do (the whole point of cutting the cord is to save money, after all). But when you consider what you’re spending on rental fees each month, this should pay for itself pretty quickly.
We were paying $4.99 a month to rent a router-modem from Verizon, which added up to $180 over the 3 years we had FIOS. That’s nearly twice what we paid for the WIFI router we have now.
This is either the fun part or the painful part, depending on how much you like to negotiate. If you’ve ever tried to finagle a better deal with a telecom company, you know they don’t bend easily. So if you want a great deal on an Internet-only plan, you need to go in with a strategy.
Option 1: Stick with your current Internet provider
If you’re like most people, you get your Internet and cable (and maybe a phone line) from the same provider. If you’re generally happy with their service, it might be easiest to just drop cable from your plan, and keep them for Internet—but you’ll need to do some wheeling and dealing if you want a good deal. Those low, low rates they advertise online probably aren’t available for established customers. Plus, you can bet their Internet-only price will be more than you’ve been paying for the service as part of a bundle. That will cut into the savings you’re hoping to achieve by cutting the cord.
Cable providers are highly motivated to keep you as a customer, but they also know that it’s a pain in the neck to switch to a new provider. So let them know you’re willing to leave—give them a cancellation date, tell them you’ve been happy with their service, but can no longer afford it, and ask where they’d like you to turn in your equipment. They will most likely transfer you to a “retention specialist.” This is good, because it’s that person’s job to keep you as a customer, and they can usually offer you a better deal for the Internet-only package you’re looking for. So this is the person you need to be talking to.
Option 2: Find a new Internet provider
If you’d rather make a clean break of things, there’s nothing saying you have to stay with your current Internet provider. If you live in an area where you have multiple options, by all means shop around. Search your area code on highspeedinternet.com to find out which providers are in your area, and compare packages for the best rate.
And don’t feel like you have to stick with the big guys (Verizon, Comcast and Cox)…you may be able to find service that meets your needs from a smaller, regional provider. Whoever you go with, just make sure your plan offers sufficient internet speed to meet your needs.
We ended up sticking with Verizon for our Internet service. Following the technique above, I was able to get the retention specialist to give us the introductory rate they’re currently offering new Internet-only customers: $39.99 plus taxes and fees for 100/100 Mbps Internet (which is way faster than what we had previously and more than we need). But there’s a catch—it’s an introductory offer, so after a year we’ll have to renegotiate if we want to keep the savings.
Cut the cord in 3 (or 4) steps
Step 1: Get an antenna for local channels
Depending on your age, you might associate TV antennas with snowy reception and unsightly wire “rabbit ears” sitting on top of an old tube TV. Well, just like TVs, antennas have come a long way—and you’ll need some if you want free access to the high definition channels available over-the-air. ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, PBS, and The CW are the big networks available virtually everywhere, but depending on where you live, you could have access to dozens more.
There are a number of options when it comes to antennas, including:
- Indoor “set-top” (amplified or non-amplified)
If you’re the DIY type, you can even build your own TV antenna. We didn’t go this route, but hey, maybe you’re more ambitious!
So there are options…but how do you figure out which type of antenna you need? We started by entering our address into TV Fool’s TV signal locator tool. It provides a report showing each station’s signal strength at your address, and based on that it makes recommendations for which type of antenna you’ll need to access them. When we set up our antenna, we found that we actually got more stations than TV Fool had predicted—but it was a helpful starting point.
I know that this step seems like a pain in the neck—especially if you end up needing to place an antenna on your roof—but there’s a bonus to using an antenna that I haven’t mentioned yet. Thanks to less digital compression, your picture quality will actually be better for over-the-air channels than it was via cable.
Living in a mid-sized city, we were able to achieve clear reception on all of the networks we cared about using just an indoor antenna. We chose the Mohu's curved indoor antenna because our neighbors recommended using an amplified antenna to get adequate reception in our neighborhood. While it wasn’t the cheapest option out there, there are a ton of highly-rated TV antennas for cord cutters, so you should be able to find one that works with your budget.
Step 2: Choose a streaming service(s)
If all you want is over-the-air access to the major networks…you can stop reading now. There’s nothing saying you have to have a streaming service at all. But for the rest of us, there is a wealth of streaming services that provide access to shows and movies from other cable channels (including premium channels like HBO and Showtime), as well as original content.
But here’s the catch: each of these services only offers certain channels and shows. So take out that list of “must-have” and “nice-to-have” shows and channels you created at the beginning of the cord-cutting process and do your own research to see which streaming service(s) are going to give you what you need. Because there’s no such thing as a “best” choice when it comes to streaming services; it’s all about what’s going to work for you.
On demand streaming
Some content providers, like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video, offer “on-demand” streaming, meaning you can choose from an extensive selection of movies, past seasons of favorite TV shows, and original content to watch, all on your schedule. If you’re a binge watcher who loves to plow through a whole season of a show in a single weekend, any of the major streaming services will give you plenty to keep you busy.
We’ve had both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video for quite some time now, and unsurprisingly, we’re relying on them more heavily since we cut the cord. For us, Netflix is the most essential based on original content like Stranger Things, G.L.O.W., and Orange is the New Black. Amazon Prime Video has great content, too, but I don’t think we could justify keeping it if our Prime subscription didn’t already pay for itself thanks to Amazon’s free two-day shipping benefit.
So what if you’re the type who has to see new episodes of your favorite shows as soon as they air? If you set up an antenna, you can watch all the networks live—but not cable channels like CNN, ESPN, AMC or HBO. That’s where you’ll need streaming services for live TV, like Sling TV, DirecTV Now, and Hulu with Live TV.
In the end, we went with Sling TV, because it gave us virtually all of the channels we cared about through their $25/month Sling Blue package. The only network from our nice-to-have list that we’re doing without now is DIY Network. We could have added it by purchasing Sling’s add-on Lifestyle bundle, but we didn’t think it was worth cutting into our savings. We haven’t missed it too much so far, since we do have HGTV as part of Sling Blue.
One thing that helped us keep costs down is the fact that we’re not sports fans. If you are, you’ll want to check out fuboTV, which is generally considered to be the most comprehensive live streaming source for sports nuts (but sorry, no ESPN!)
Give them a trial run
Overwhelmed by options? So were we, at first. But then we signed up for free trials (usually 7 or 14 days long) for the services we were most interested in, and that helped clear the field. The only drawback was that we kind of fell in love with some of the original programming on Hulu, which made us a bit sad about not subscribing with the trial was over.
Take advantage of freebies
So far, we’ve focused on popular paid subscription services—but there are a growing number of solid options for free streaming content. You’ll have to put up with some ads—but they’re generally less obtrusive than those you’d have to sit through watching live TV.
Here are some of the best we tried. None of them has a content library as robust as those of their subscription-based competitors, but with a bit of browsing, you can find something worth watching on any of them. Depending on your viewing habits, you might even be able to do without paid streaming services entirely.
In addition, most of the major networks, including ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, The CW, and even PBS, allow you to stream all—or at least some—of their current programming, without needing to be a cable subscriber.
Find your niche
In this guide, we’re focusing on the streaming services that have the broadest appeal. But there are literally hundreds of genre-specific services out there for folks with specific tastes. Crazy about anime? Try Crunchyroll. Love a good romance? Hallmark Movies Now might be for you. Typically, these niche streaming services are pretty cheap, and most offer free trials so you can check them out before you sign up.
Step 3: Select a streaming media player
Once you’ve selected your streaming service, you’ll need a way to access the content on your TV. That’s where your streaming media player comes in. We’ve put this step after choosing your streaming services for a very important reason: not all streaming players provide support for all streaming services, so you’ll want to take that into account.
As I mentioned, we already had two older generation Rokus in our house before we cut the cord, and we don’t intend to upgrade any time soon. There are some cool features in the new models, but I haven’t seen anything that makes me want to shell out any money for the latest and greatest.
Having said that, if we needed to replace our streaming media players tomorrow, I think we’d go with a Roku Ultra on our primary TV and a Roku Streaming Stick in our daughter’s playroom. When you compare the features we care about most, Roku still seems like the best option, especially considering that we’re already comfortable with their interface.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular streaming media players currently on the market.
*This means access is built into the remote or menu.
This chart compares and contrasts products based on the features my family finds most important. But just like with streaming services, your household’s viewing habits and preferences will determine which product is right for you. Focus on the features you care about, because there’s no point in paying more for bells and whistles you won’t end up using.
Note: If you have a Smart TV (and you probably know if you do, because you would have paid more for it), it can be used as a media streaming device. We tried using our Samsung Smart TV for streaming before purchasing our second Roku…for about a week. It was slow to load content, and the interface left a lot to be desired. I believe this experience is pretty typical, but by all means, if you have a Smart TV, give it a try before buying a separate piece of equipment. The same also applies to some gaming consoles, including PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Xbox 360.
Step 4: Get a DVR to record live TV (Optional)
If you already have Cloud DVD service through a streaming service like Sling TV or Hulu (or if you don’t watch much live TV), you probably don’t need to worry about this step. But if you’re relying solely on your antenna for live TV, it’s worth considering a set-top DVR for OTA channels.
We don’t watch much live TV in our house. So when we cut the cord we decided to see if we could do without DVR. I’ll be honest—while it’s not the worst thing in the world, there have been a few times when we’ve missed it.
If we do break down and get a set-top DVR, it will be the Tablo Dual Lite, which boasts easy set-up, streaming to multiple devices, and an intuitive interface. And at $140, it’s less pricey than some of the other OTA DVRs on the market.
Other popular options include:
Each has its pros and cons (and price points vary wildly), so it’s worth doing a bit of research before deciding which is right for you.
The Final Tally
Was it worth it? For us, yes. All told, we shaved around $82 off our monthly bills.
That's nearly $1000 a year! Wouldn't it be nice to have extra $1000 to save or invest?
- Monthly Savings: $82
- Annual Savings: $984!!
Note: Our hardware costs came in at around $175. While we did need to buy a new router (to replace the Verizon rental) and an antenna, we didn’t have to shell out any extra money on streaming media players, because we already had two older generation Rokus.
Of course, your savings will depend on a number of factors such as:
- How much you were paying in the first place?
- How competitive is the Internet service is in your area? The more competition the better price you can negotiate.
- How many people and TVs are in your household? What shows do they what?
So are you ready to start cutting the cord or have you already done it? Leave a comment below and tell us about your experience!