How we watch TV without cable (and how much it costs)

How we watch TV without cable (and how much it costs)

One of the main reasons Kim and I decided to move from our condo to this quiet country cottage was to save money. We were spending far too much living in the city.

Simply moving made a huge difference to our budget. But now that the dust has settled, it's time for us to look at other aspects of our spending to see where we can save. As part of that, I've been reviewing our recurring expenses to see what I can cut. Yesterday, I canceled our subscription to The New York Times (savings: $5/week or $260/year). Today, I'm reviewing how much we spend on TV and movies.

Cutting the Cord

Apple TVIt seems hard to believe, but it was ten years ago that I first “cut the cord”. Since then, I've used the Apple TV device to access most of my video entertainment.

In March 2007, my then-wife and I canceled our expensive TV package and moved to just basic cable. Our monthly bill dropped from $65.82 to $11.30. We supplemented our viewing with Hulu (free at the time), Netflix, and by purchasing shows from the iTunes store.

I've been cable-free for a decade now. I haven't missed cable even once. Some folks are amazed when they hear I don't have cable. “How do you manage?” they ask. Yet I am amazed that more people haven't made the leap to a cable-free lifestyle. It's easy.

One of the biggest objections I hear is, “What about live sports?” People pay big bucks just so they can have ESPN. Honestly, there are plenty of ways to watch live sports without cable. Sling, for instance, offers a package with ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN3. Plus, Kim and I have found that if we really want to watch a game, we'll just head to a local sports bar where we can join the crowd over a burger and a beer.

In 2007, I calculated that Kris and I were spending $27.90 each month to watch television. If we added in our Netflix subscription, that total rose to $44.89. Not bad.

Reviewing our current expenses, however, I see that Kim and I currently spend $83 per month in subscription fees — plus whatever we spend to buy individual movies and TV shows on iTunes. Holy cats! How did that happen? We've experienced a bit of lifestyle inflation in the TV department.

Let's review the different services we use — and how much we pay for them. Maybe there's a way we can save some money.

iTunes (A La Carte Pricing)

By far, our biggest source of video entertainment is iTunes. I'm heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon. Since 12 October 2005, when video content became available on the iTunes store, I have purchased 611 movies (about one per week) and 107 TV shows. (It's tough to determine exactly how many seasons or episodes that represents, though.)

With iTunes, you don't pay a subscription fee. Instead, you purchase movies and TV shows “a la carte”. If you want something, you buy it and it's your forever (at least in theory). Personally, I prefer this model, but I know I'm in the minority.

To avoid overspending, I have two rules for iTunes purchases.

  • First of all, I try not to buy anything unless I think I'll rewatch it. That means I mostly use iTunes to buy movies or classic television shows that I've already watched many times. (I bought all three seasons of the original Star Trek, for instance. I watch those episodes over and over and over again. What can I say? I'm a nerd!)
  • Second, I rarely pay full price (which is between $15 and $20 for a movie, and up to $35 for a TV season). I'll pay full price for something like the most recent season of Game of Thrones or maybe the latest Star Wars movie. Only if I love something am I going to pay top dollar. (Another exception: If I've waited years and never seen a price drop. Disney movies never go on sale, so I paid twenty bucks so that my nephew could watch Frozen whenever he's here.)

In order to keep my iTunes costs down, I watch the weekly sales. Every Tuesday, Apple lists certain movies at a discount. This week, for instance, they have select “Spy Stories” on sale at “under $10”.

iTunes: Spy Stories

There are 32 of spy movies listed this week. Some weeks the sale only lists ten movies. It varies. If a film is under ten bucks and I want to watch it, I'll consider purchasing it — but only if the price is less than twice the rental price.

For example, this week the 2011 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is on sale for $9.99. If the rental price were $4.99 or higher, I might buy it. But the rental price is $3.99, so I won't consider it.

The best deals on iTunes come on weekends. Each Friday, Apple places one film on sale for $4.99, which is roughly the price of a rental. These films are often related to something timely. Right now, for example, they're likely to place Christmas films on sale. Around Valentine's Day, they'll put a romance on sale for $4.99.

Here are two final tips, one of which is a bit morbid.

  • Whenever a big-name actor or director dies, Apple has a sale on their body of work. Strange (and maybe a bit sad) but true. If Steven Spielberg were to die next week, for instance, Apple would have a huge sale on all of his films. When Stanley Kubrick died, they offered some crazy bundle of all his movies for cheap. I bought it.
  • Lastly, I make use of the iTunes wish list. Whenever I find a movie I really really want that's too expensive (over ten bucks, basically), I add it to the list. Every few weeks, I check the list for price drops.

Kim and I mainly use iTunes for movies. We do buy TV shows — we're watching The Orville on iTunes right now — but that's not as common. Why not? Because most of the time there's no reason to keep TV shows in our permanent library. Are we ever going to rewatch The Voice? No. For this reason, we tend to use other apps for our television viewing.

iTunes: The Orville

Hot tip: If you liked Star Trek: The Next Generation, you may like The Orville. It deliberately mimics the ST:TNG vibe in tons of ways, both obvious and subtle. But it's hilarious. (Here's a short trailer for the show.) Even though it's not an official Star Trek show in any way, I'd classify it as my third-favorite Star Trek series. (I haven't seen the new official Star Trek series because I refuse to pay for the CBS streaming service. No way!)

Netflix ($11 Per Month)

Our second-largest source of video content is Netflix. Kim and I have a “two screens at a time” plan for $10.99 per month. (The price just went up by a buck last week.)

For a long time, I didn't watch much Netflix. Honestly, I think their movie selection sucks. They have a decent TV lineup, but it lags behind Hulu (see below) and doesn't include things like Game of Thrones or Big Bang Theory. I thought I was going to cancel Netflix until they started producing original content.

Netflix

And that's where Netflix has really begun to shine. The original shows on Netflix are, quite frankly, outstanding. Left to her own devices, Kim would watch almost exclusively Netflix. (She's a huge fan of Chelsea Handler.) Right now, Netflix has so many great original series that I can't even keep up with them.

I don't get $10.99 worth of entertainment from Netflix each month but Kim does.

Hulu ($12 Per Month with No Ads)

I've been using Hulu for almost ten years now.

The main virtue of Hulu is catching current programs. Kim and I watch The Voice on Hulu, for instance, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. She uses it to watch This Is Us. Whenever Kim hears about a current show that sounds interesting, she checks Hulu first.

Hulu also has a decent selection of older shows, which is something that appeals to me. For some reason, I get great comfort from watching programs like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Adam 12. Over the course of 2017, Kim and I worked our way through all 180 episodes of Seinfeld.

Hulu

The primary problem with Hulu is that its selection is even worse than Netflix. The movies are woefully outdated. (They used to own the streaming rights for The Criterion Collection, but not anymore.) Its library of classic TV shows is good but spotty.

Luckily, Hulu has begun creating its own original programming too, including the award-winning The Handmaid's Tale, which I have not yet seen.

Amazon Prime Video (Part of Amazon Prime)

If you subscribe to Amazon Prime, then Amazon Prime Video is included in the service.

Like Netflix and Hulu, it offers a variety of television shows and movies — plus original content, some of which has received excellent reviews. (Last year's Manchester by the Sea was nominated for Best Picture!) Amazon Prime Video also offers paid add-on subscriptions to services like HBO and Showtime.

Amazon Prime Video

Honestly, Kim and I haven't used Amazon Prime Video much. I watched season three of Survivor on Prime a couple of years ago because it was the only service that offered it, but that's the only thing I can remember watching. Why don't we use it? Because there's no Apple TV app. Until today.

Seriously: The Amazon Prime Video app for Apple TV came out today, and I'm downloading it as I write this very sentence.

There. Amazon Prime Video has been installed on my Apple TV. This opens a whole new world of video programming for me and Kim to discover. I've been wanting to watch several of these shows, including The Last Tycoon, Mozart in the Jungle, and — especially — The Man in the High Castle.

Time will tell if Amazon Prime Video supplants any of our other services.

Sling ($45 Per Month)

For folks who crave real television channels but still want to cut the cord, Sling is a terrific option. With packages starting at $20 per month, you're able to customize the service to access the channels you're most interested in. And you can access those channels on almost any device. (I have Sling set up on all of our computers, all of our portable devices, and on the Apple TV.)

Sling offers two primary bundles: the orange bundle ($20/month) and the blue bundle ($25/month). While there's some overlap between these two bundles, each offers some unique channels. The orange bundle, for instance, carries ESPN and the blue bundle does not. But the blue bundle has Fox Sports channels while the orange bundle does not. If you subscribe to both bundles, you get a $5 discount so that your monthly total is $40.

Sling TV

On top of this, you can totally customize your subscription by adding various “packages”, such as the Spanish TV package or the news package or the comedy package.

Since summer, we've subscribe to the combined orange and blue bundles plus the Hollywood package (which includes Turner Classic Movies). That's a total of $45 per month.

How much Sling do we actually watch? Very little. We certainly do not need the orange bundle, which I subscribed to because I thought I'd watch ESPN. (Turns out that in much the same way that MTV rarely shows music videos, ESPN rarely shows actual sporting events. It's all chat shows and endless repeats of SportsCenter.)

Kim and I both agree that we can axe Sling completely without missing anything.

HBO Now ($15 Per Month)

HBO Now is the online version of HBO. We've only been subscribed for about a year. We've paid maybe $180 into it — but we have not received $180 worth of value. In fact, we hardly ever watch it. So why do we have it? One reason: Game of Thrones.

HBO Now

Until the most recent season, Game of Thrones was delayed by an entire year before being released to iTunes. Impatient man that I am — and wanting to play by the rules (no BitTorrent) — I thought we should sign up for HBO Now when it became available on Apple TV.

“We can watch the other shows too,” I told Kim. She likes Girls and True Blood and Entourage. I also thought we'd take advantage of HBO's movie library. But you know what? We didn't do those things. We've maybe watched two things on HBO Now in twelve months. That's a colossal waste of money. (Think of all the beer I could have bought with $180!)

Besides, if I'm seeing things right, it looks as if some HBO shows are included with Amazon Prime Video. Rock on!

The Bottom Line

Let's put all of this together. As a summary, here's what we're paying for individual services:

  • iTunes: no subscription fee — pay per show
  • Netflix: $11 per month
  • Hulu: $12 per month
  • Amazon Prime Video: cost is built into our Amazon Prime subscription
  • Sling: $45 per month
  • HBO Now: $15 per month

We're paying a total of $83 per month (or roughly $1000 per year) in subscription fees. Plus our Amazon Prime membership. Plus whatever it costs for individual purchases from iTunes.

That's too much.

Fortunately, we can easily trim $60 per month by getting rid of Sling and HBO Now, two services we barely use. That'd save us $720 every year. I'm comfortable keeping Netflix and Hulu. We use both pretty often, so that $23 per month is acceptable.

So, there you have it. It's perfectly possible to watch all the TV you want without cable. But if your goal is to save money by doing so, you have to be careful. If you're not, you can end up paying as much (or more!) than you were before you cut the cord.

There's nothing wrong with paying for TV — if you use what you're paying for. But if you're not getting value for your money (as in our case with Sling and HBO Now), then it's in your best interest to cancel services and put that cash to work someplace else.

Footnote
Based on this post, you might think I watch a lot of TV. I don't. I watch maybe an episode while I eat dinner with Kim on the week nights, then maybe one movie each Saturday and Sunday. Kim watches tons more than I do.

But don't get the idea that I think I'm more virtuous for watching less television. I still waste my time, but I'm much more likely to waste it playing videogames. (As some of you already know, my game of choice is Hearthstone. But I'm also a fan of the Nintendo Switch, especially retro games like Mario Brothers.)

More about...Frugality

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