Conscious spending in action

Kris and I pulled the plug on our television last week. We canceled cable, gave our DVD player to her sister, and moved the television to the workshop until we can find a buyer. We're now officially TV-free.

Sort of.

We haven't given up TV shows and DVDs entirely — we're just consuming this entertainment via other methods. Namely, we use:

  • iTunes subscriptions for Glee, The Office, 30 Rock, The Biggest Loser, and The Amazing Race. Plus, we occasionally rent movies via the iTunes Store.
  • A Netflix subscription. We get three discs at a time (and I'm lobbying to drop to one disc at a time), which also allows us to access the site's streaming content.
  • Hulu for classic TV programs like Adam-12 and The Mary Tyler Moore Show

The Netflix subscription costs Kris $20 a month, and our iTunes subscriptions cost about $215 per year. So, we're still paying $455/year for home entertainment, but that's less than half what we were paying five years ago.

No, I'm not able to watch sports on TV. But most of the time, I don't miss it. For big games, I can always go to a sports bar or a friend's house. I'm not sure what I'll do for the Olympics and the World Cup, both of which I enjoy. I'll worry about it when the time comes.

This latest move is the culmination of a years-long transition. We've been gradually weaning ourselves from TV. A couple of weeks ago, I realized that neither of us had actually turned on the television since before we left for Italy in September. That's right: For five months, I paid for a cable package we didn't use. That seemed like a clear indication that it was time to finally cut the cord.

Cable TV canceled!

Conscious Spending

It may seem strange to some of you that Kris and I are willing to spend thousands of dollars on trips to Europe and Africa, but we're unwilling to pay $15 a month for basic cable. Actually, that's the point.

The heart of frugality is choosing to spend on the things that are important to you while cutting back ruthlessly on the things that aren't. Ramit Sethi calls this conscious spending, which is a fantastic way to describe it. Conscious spending implies that you're actively choosing to spend on some things and not on others.

Contrast this with how most people spend. (And, in truth, how even financially-savvy folks spend a lot of their money.) We tend to spend on reflex. We buy things because we're expected to, because everyone else does. We spend to have what others have. We sign up for gym memberships that we never use, subscribe to magazines we never read, and pay for golf clubs that get buried in the garage. We make impulse purchases at the grocery store — or even on large items, like computers and cars. Most of the time, people spend without thinking.

But with conscious spending, you evaluate every purchase. You vote with your dollars.

I'm saying, for instance, that I'm willing to spend several thousand dollars for three weeks in Africa because this is an experience I value. In exchange, I accept that I'm giving up television, and that I've delayed replacing my car. (I'm in no hurry to upgrade my Mini, which is a good thing. I opted to drain my car-replacement fund so that I could afford this vacation.)

Conscious Spending in Action

To put conscious spending in action, I've learned to ask myself questions before I buy:

  • Will I use this? I'm often tempted by neat gadgets and pretty toys. But as fun and nostalgic as a pocketwatch might seem, is it something I'll actually use? (Answer: No. Unfortunately, this is an instance where I didn't exercise conscious spending. Now I have a pocketwatch I barely wear.)
  • Can I get this cheaper — or free — elsewhere? Can I borrow it from a friend? Can I find it used at a thrift store? If it's something I have to buy new, will someplace else have it for a lower price?
  • Can I wait to buy this? Why do I need to buy it today? I've found that I can do a lot to control impulse spending by using the 30-day rule: If I want something, I write it down; if I still want it 30 days later, I consider buying it. By waiting, I give myself a chance to cool off.
  • Why am I buying this? Does it fill a need? Or is it just something I want?
  • Is there something else I'd rather spend the money on? This last question has been a powerful motivator for me in recent years. First, I wanted to use my money to get out of debt. Then, I saved for my Mini Cooper. Now, I usually want to save my money for travel. By reminding myself of my priorities, I'm able to avoid a lot of stupid spending.

Again, not all of my spending has been conscious over the past couple of years. I still make plenty of impulse buys. (The pocketwatch I mentioned above is a good example.) But whenever possible, I aim to analyze all of my purchases.

Conscious spending isn't restrictive; it's liberating. It can help you recognize when your spending is aligned with your values, and when it's just being made out of habit.

Now I'm looking for ways to reduce my cell-phone bill. I'm paying $80 a month for my iPhone plan. When my contract expires in a couple of months, I want to move to something cheaper. Doing this could free $20 or $40 or $60 a month. That's money that I can use for more important priorities — like exploring South America in 2012!

Addendum

This weekend, we hired a friend's 12-year-old to help with yardwork. As we cut blackberry canes and pruned arborvitae hedges, Ian explained that he's saving his money. He wants to buy a remote-control car, but his dad persuaded him to hold on to his cash until he's sixteen, at which time he can buy a motorcycle.

Ian really wants the R/C car, but he wants the motorcycle more, so he's being patient. He's willing to wait four years to save for his goal. That, my friends, is conscious spending in action.

Later in the day, I talked to another boy who wants an iPod — but he's not willing to save for it. He'd rather spend his money today on video games and bubblegum. When I tried to talk to him about it, he didn't see any connection between the fifty cents he spent on a pizza-parlor video game and the iPod he wants so badly.

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Derek
Derek
9 years ago

My wife and I gave up cable over a year ago, and there are plenty of ways around it if you really want to watch a show. You’ve mentioned all the ones that we utilized, and you’re right, sports are a little tougher to watch. I’m sure you probably have a friend with a 55″ TV in their living room though. Or, the local sports bar is always an option.

I think since you love to travel more than you love TV, you’ve made a great choice. You won’t regret it!

Paul
Paul
9 years ago

I’m often surprised at how many people overlook broadcast television as an alternative to cable.

I cut my cable over a year ago and like you rely mostly on Netflix, Hulu and iTunes to get my favorite shows and movies (for a grand-total of about $160-$200/yr).

For everything else, a $50 digital antenna can get me about 20 over-the-air channels (some in HD) for free. I can watch CBS, NBC, FOX, ABC and my local PBS station with little trouble. That takes care of major news and sports events which can sometimes only be seen on live network television.

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago

My husband and I still have our cable, more for him then me. But we scaled back and save $50 a month! We love to travel and always think in terms of if I don’t buy this its extra $ for our upcoming trip. Another big way we have saved is by living in a 700 sq foot home and not upgrading to a larger home – our $400/month mortgage is 1/4 of what most our friend pay for their 3000 sq foot homes. Friends and family think we make big $ since in 2010 we went to Rome Italy,… Read more »

SF_UK
SF_UK
9 years ago

I’m surprised you didn’t consider keeping your TV for free channels (over the air). Maybe you can’t get them where you are though – I’m not very clued up as the how this works in the states. I’m always surprised here at how much people spend on TV. I’ve never had pay-TV, and never missed it. But then, I guess we’re spoiled with good-quality free-to-air TV in the UK. I must admit, I don’t even watch that much – three or four weekly series at the most. I never have time to watch DVDs, but I’ve no idea what I’m… Read more »

squirrel saver
squirrel saver
9 years ago

Another aspect of conscious spending to consider is to not be an extreme tight-wad to the point of suffering (which is a trap I often fall in). To deny oneself pleasure to an extreme degree may lead to embitterment, compulsive money hoarding, and other negative consequences. There are currently a few things I would like to buy that I am sure would give me pleasure, but I keep putting off buying them because I don’t want to see my bank balance dip. I really want to join a gym to keep healthy, and I know for certain I’ll consistently stick… Read more »

Crystal@BFS
9 years ago

I hadn’t heard it termed “conscious spending” before, but that is how my husband and I live (or try to really, really hard, lol). Everything we spend on is prioritized so we don’t waste money on things we don’t use. I like that there is a name for it. We do spend on cable with DVR, but we use that service every day. We don’t spend anything on magazines because neither one of us would read them. We also don’t spend much, if anything, on books anymore since the library has a terrific online hold system. Congrats on killing an… Read more »

Chase
Chase
9 years ago

Is there a reason you and Kris are paying for iTunes subscriptions that you can get for free from Hulu? I know they only offer it in 480p, but the savings are worth the decrease in quality (to me at least). J.D.’s note: Flexibility/hassle. With iTunes, we can download the episodes and watch them when and where we want. For example, we’ll catch up on Biggest Loser on our flight to South Africa next week. But with Hulu, you have to do streaming, which means you have to have an active internet connection. This works fine for some things, but… Read more »

Soyala
Soyala
9 years ago

I really like your no cable idea a lot. This is what we’ve been doing at my house for a few years. It doesn’t bother me since I live on the computer. I am thinking you can save even more money by cutting down the itunes subscriptions because these shows are on Hulu which you can watch for free.

Brian
Brian
9 years ago

Congrats! Are you keeping your TV to watch via these alternative methods you describe? If so, you can get an antenna to get the major networks + PBS over the air, in HD no less! It’s a handy way to at least get the major sporting/live events, and you’d be surprised at the quality – assuming no one is standing in exactly the wrong spot. J.D.’s note: Originally, we were going to ditch/sell the TV, but as I mentioned in a response above, it now looks like we’ll hang onto the TV, but not to watch shows on — it’s… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Good for you! Conscious spending is awesome.

Re: motorcycle… those things are dangerous, especially for a teenager. (A teenage friend of the family died in a motorcycle accident.)

My sister has been enjoying her South American travel this year.

Your wife may have an employer discount through your cellphone company that you can get by just asking. Turns out we did…23%. Go state government.

Money Beagle
Money Beagle
9 years ago

Some people don’t seem to get the fact that little purchases, as small and insignificant as they may seem, can add up into big things. My wife gets made fun of by her sister sometimes when she uses coupons or waits for sales, saying that the few dollars isn’t worth the hassle, but if you add up throughout the year everything that she saves by doing so, it’s literally hundreds of dollars. Who in their right mid would turn down hundreds of dollars?

Claire
Claire
9 years ago

My husband and I gave up cable TV about 18 months ago. Neither one of us really watches sports much, but the Olympics are a different story!! In wracking our brains how we could pull in the Olympics without going back to cable, we realized that the Olympics are broadcast by NBC on a digital signal. We made a one time investment in a set of rabbit ears that could receive that digital signal and we were in business. The only thing we miss out on is Discovery Channel. Miss my Deadliest Catch, but we’ll wait for it to come… Read more »

Annelise
Annelise
9 years ago

While I’m all for saving money on things you don’t really want or need, there seems to be an assumption on these kinds of websites that TV is somehow bad, and (to give another example among many) that you really should aim to become vegan. Sorry, but a nice juicy steak and a reality TV marathon are my idea of heaven, and I don’t consider them a waste of money – in fact I save money by never buying organic (it’s a con) and stopping my donations to various charities who I discovered were little more than political pressure groups.… Read more »

NoTrustFund
NoTrustFund
9 years ago

We haven’t had a a T.V. in over 2 years now, and before that we turned it on maybe 2-3x a year. The only time I really miss it is when things like the Olympics, Superbowl, or the State of the Union are on.

Having no T.V. has been great. We too still watch shows through iTunes and Netflix but we do not watch a lot of T.V. and we only watch when there is something we really want to watch.
Makes me feel like we have more free time- which we really need!

Congrats on taking the plunge.

OTA HD
OTA HD
9 years ago

I must point out that today, all TV stations in the US are digitally broadcast over-the-air, many in full HD resolution, with crystal clear delivery. So if you don’t need 900 channels and you just want to keep your TV around in case you want to watch something like unfolding world events or something like a State of the Union address, this is a great frugal alternative. It’s like cable TV Nicorette. My wife and I cut the cable over a year ago and we have Netflix and rent the occasional DVD. But by adding the onetime cost of an… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

@8 Annelise You can still have your reality TV marathon via Netflix. It will also be commercial-free. You don’t have to have Netflix, but it is a good substitute for TV. I think we actually watch more shows rather than fewer with Netflix compared to cable because we don’t have to be at a certain place at a certain time for the shows we want to watch. What we want is there on demand without shelling out for a DVR. No preaching, just a better, cheaper, substitute for many of us who aren’t into sports and don’t have time to… Read more »

Lisa @ Simplifying the simple life.com
Lisa @ Simplifying the simple life.com
9 years ago

Great article. We, too live very frugally, but where we do spend money is on travel. Such a good reminder that conscious spending is an active choice, and one that is highly personal!

squirrel saver
squirrel saver
9 years ago

Don’t forget you can borrow DVDs for free at most public libraries.

Kevin
Kevin
9 years ago

I think it’s tougher to give up cable in Canada. For one thing, Hulu doesn’t work up here (it’s blocked). The over-the-air signals don’t penetrate very deeply into our country, and Netflix’s selection is pretty spartan up here. I’m willing to pay my $80/month for hundreds of channels, dozens of which are in high-def, plus the streaming music channels, on-demand shows, pay-per-view, the reliable signal, and avoiding the hassle of trying to find a show I want on iTunes or whatever, then somehow getting it to play on my TV instead of my computer. Here’s the way I prefer to… Read more »

Rich
Rich
9 years ago

You can try justin.tv for sports.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

Just a reminder: This isn’t an anti-TV rant, and I don’t mean for this to be another television debate. The TV is just an example of how I’m using conscious spending to prioritize some things and get rid of other things that I never use…

whiteoak
whiteoak
9 years ago

One of the ways to save money is by not buying things you only need to use once in a while. I totally agree. What I have problems with (and you aren’t the only one to use this idea)is the “borrow from a friend/neighbor”. I would hope that you own things that you are willing to loan out if you expect to borrow other things. I know that personally I would get very peeved with people always borrowing what I spent my money on to buy and maintain if they weren’t willing to reciprocate. None of the websites that have… Read more »

Jan
Jan
9 years ago

Our “dinner out” money is pretty sparse. We save what we used to spend on dinners out for travel out:>) We also have a limited clothing fund- a few pieces each season. That way when we need specific clothing for travel (looking at that travel vest) we have the money. Your example of tv is a good one. We definitely gotten to the point that we judge each purchase for the end goal. I would much rather spend money on a second home near my children then put in a new lawn every year here (I live in the country… Read more »

Krista
Krista
9 years ago

Keeping the TV might also be a good idea so you can watch movies through Netflix via your Wii. Sometimes I just prefer watching stuff on the bigger screen. Since the TV is currently in your workout space, you can watch Netflix while you work out.

Jen
Jen
9 years ago

Haven’t had a TV since I moved out of my parents’ house 7 years ago, and I barely miss it! I get all my favorites – Glee, Modern Family, Bones, Castle, 30 Rock – on Hulu. The inconvenience of waiting a day or a week until it is released is tolerable given how much money I’ve saved ($40/month*12 months*7 years). The only thing that bugs me is when I want to watch certain shows that haven’t caught up to the times, and aren’t available online (American Idol, Olympics, Superbowl). I wouldn’t mind sitting through the same amount of commercials as… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago

I think I take conscious spending too far — I often feel I have to justify everything!

@whiteoak — I agree! When I buy books, I think about their lending potential. I’m more likely to buy it than go to the library if I know i’ll read it more than once and if my mom and best friend will read it too!

Tudor Rose
Tudor Rose
9 years ago

You know that almost all broadcast network shows can be watched for free through Hulu or on the network’s direct website? You don’t need to pay for an iTunes subscription.

I gave up my TV about a year and a half ago and have managed to keep up with Glee, The Office and the Amazing Race (along with other broadcast shows) for free online.

elena
elena
9 years ago

Sports, pretty much the only reason we have cable in our house. I think this is what is keeping the cable companies in business these days.
I do need the occasional reminder that small, unnecessary and impulsive spends add up. Thanks.

Andy
Andy
9 years ago

We got rid of cable last month after realizing that we only watched the shows on two stations. So we just put the shows on our Netflix queue and watch them as they come in along with other movies. We save $110/month by not having cable. This way we get to go out to eat at least once more per month which we would rather do anyway since I am such a terrible cook 🙂 When we tell people we got rid of cable because we didn’t use it that much they think we are looney tunes – but hey… Read more »

indio
indio
9 years ago

We ditched the cable service 5 years ago because dealing with the cable company was so frustrating. Basic service through cable company was $18 per month but that was more than I was willing to pay them. Bought a far ranging HD TV antenna and get all the local news and PBS that way. When we need a low cost entertainment fix we buy or rent movies from Amazon, they seem to have a wider selection of new releases than Netflix. We watch Hulu occasionally but not that often. My friends often comment about how much I can get done… Read more »

Mom of five
Mom of five
9 years ago

We love TV in our house. And I know I’m exposing ourselves as shallow losers, but we’d way rather have cable/DVR every day than an occasional exotic trip. That said, one of my neigbhors has just gone the Hulu/Netflix route. I’m watching them closely to see if this method will work for us. Than we can have our exotic trips and TV too!

sarah
sarah
9 years ago

I’m surprised those itunes subscriptions cost so much. Especially since you can watch most of those shows on hulu for free. I don’t mean to be critical at all, I don’t care what you spend your money on, but you shouldn’t make it sound like you’re getting rid of tv to be frugal. You pay way more in a year for your itunes/netflix than I ever paid for cable when I had it. It sounds like you just don’t really need it anymore since you watch your tv elsewhere. We don’t have cable either, and we can watch sports online… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago

@ Kevin — I have basic digital cable, and I figure there’s no point dropping it for Netflix (even if the service was better!) because of overage charges that my ISP would charge. Between the Netflx fee and upgrading my internet package, I’d be paying the same either way! (The debate about the CRTC ruling is quite something, isn’t it?)

For me, basic cable is a justified expense because I do use it. (I can’t justify anything more than that, however!) That isn’t the case for everyone, so it’s really a personal decision.

Edward - Entry Level Dilemma
Edward - Entry Level Dilemma
9 years ago

All the shows you subscribe to in iTunes are available on Hulu and also over the air for free. (Glee is on FOX, Office, 30 Rock, and Biggest Loser on NBC, and Amazing Race on CBS). In comment #7, you replied that you are doing it for the flexibility/hassle. Only you can answer this question for yourself, but is this flexibility worth to you the $215/year you spend on it? For reference, that number is almost 1 1/4 times larger than the cable bill you just cut. A possible third option: cut the iTunes subscriptions and just buy the episodes… Read more »

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
9 years ago

We watch very little TV anymore (but I do love Office and 30 Rock). However, I don’t think I could give up my cable because my son and I love to watch baseball in the summer, it is a nice tradition we kind of have.

Let us know how it goes!

K.C.
K.C.
9 years ago

I’m glad to hear you talk about the liberating effects of conscious spending. You are correct in noting that it isn’t about denial, it’s about getting value for the money spent. Having a long term goal helps me determine what is really important to me. A detailed budget is how I make conscious decisions about spending. I spend the money on paper first (budget); this forces me to make decisions and prioritize. A detailed budget also helps me identify areas where money can be saved through economizing, in much the same way you have identified your cell phone expense as… Read more »

cdf
cdf
9 years ago

About 6 years ago we would cancel cable TV for the spring / summer. Didn’t miss it 4 Years ago I bought a media center PC ($380) connected to a HDTV antenna (all the local stations), It runs Hulu Desktop, and Netflix (have 1 disc & streaming plan) is integrated into the Media Center. It goes to sleep when not being used and comes on with a remote or if the DVR is sheduled to record something. The PC is tucked away in a closet out of sight We don’t miss cable at all – especially the $100 monthly bill.… Read more »

Pat S
Pat S
9 years ago

I brought up the idea of canceling our subscription to cable TV recently, and was summarily shot down. To me, the TV isn’t highly important, but my wife has stated it’s very important to her to have the television available for news, weather reports, and some of her favorite shows (that aren’t available on Hulu and other sites). I guess sometimes you have to bite the bullet in order to keep your family happy…

Chris P.
Chris P.
9 years ago

Just watch out for the usage based fees that are going to the cable companies are trying to push. It just went through in Canada, and you will easily fill up your allowable amount every month while streaming with Netflix or Hulu.

peter
peter
9 years ago

I like it how some people and the poster talk about giving up something in order to have more money for a trip to Europe. Reminds me of my parents who saved up for their big trip to America when they turrned 50 – I had been a dream of theirs for years.

Heather
Heather
9 years ago

We have been cable free for a long time. We use our screen as the computer monitor now. Olympics and most college football are accessible online. My children and I watched a bit of the Olympics that way. We don’t miss it and like you said choose to spend our money other ways consciously.

TomServo
TomServo
9 years ago

I’m with the others as to why you’re spending $215/year on shows that you can watch OTA. If you have a single PC that has a tuner card you can use a media center program to turn your computer into a DVR for OTA channels.

I spent half of that $215 on a one time purchase of an antenna (that picks up all the networks in HD despite being mounted in my attic) and a basic TV tuner for my PC. I get all of the shows you’re paying for for free and can watch them whenever I want.

Brenton
Brenton
9 years ago

JD – Use ESPN3.com for sports. Its a legitimate way to watch almost all ESPN broadcast sports for free.

Between that and a digital antenna, I’m able to watch most of the things I used to watch on cable tv.

Chad
Chad
9 years ago

has Any body looked into Google TV?
Does any body have any Ideas for an alternative to Cable internet? (and don’t even recomend no internet or dial up)
PS I am very happy with free digital broadcast

Kim
Kim
9 years ago

I had to read the addendum a couple of times…I kept thinking that you cutting your “blackberry canes” meant that you were turning off your cell service!! 🙂

Eric
Eric
9 years ago

We talked about doing this, but couldn’t seem to make it happen. Why? Because if we dropped everything but internet, it’s nearly as much as paying for a cable bundle. We were able to go with the cheaper of two providers[0]and the cheapest package we could find. Even that is still more than we want to pay, but the other option is literally not having any internet connectivity (again, we’re talking like $10/month difference without TV). No internet means no Hulu, no iTunes, no Netflix streaming, etc. So yeah, if anyone has cheap options for broadband internet, I’m all ears.… Read more »

R S
R S
9 years ago

Like Paul & Edward mentioned, and since it sounds like you’re keeping the TV, rabbit ear antennas work fine! Esp, if you want to watch the Olympics, it’s definitely broadcast over-the-air. If your TV doesn’t have the digital tuner, you can probably pick a converter box pretty cheaply on eBay, craigslist, even Freecycle. Granted, you don’t have the flexibility of watching the shows when you want. But wouldn’t be terribly costly to have the antenna option available as a supplement. Ads drive me crazy, but I use them to get little tasks done – empty the dishwasher, put away some… Read more »

naughtysecretary
naughtysecretary
9 years ago

My TV is for the sole purpose of watching DVDs. I love how productive I am without cable. I`m able to cook at home every night, do all my own housework, sell my artwork on the side, AND hold down a part-time job on weekends. I think that once I pay off my wretched student loan, I`ll treat myself to some cable and maybe a housekeeper. But until then, fewer distractions help me stay motivated…

Dean Ouellette
Dean Ouellette
9 years ago

JD buddy, you are about to meet your new best friend if you are a sports fan. I did this same thing 8 months ago and love it. The one thing I really missed was my sports, than a buddy introduced me to atdhe.net EVERY televised sporting event, every one. It is like having the MLB and NBA and NFL and NHL packages! OK it is not high def, and sometimes you need to watch commercials in some foreign language, but for free, who cares right. They play back on a few different formats, and some of the formats require… Read more »

Michael
Michael
9 years ago

If you know (or don’t mind!) Spanish, Univision streamed all the World Cup games online this last time around. By the time the next cup comes around I expect there will probably be an English language stream too.

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