When was the last time you looked at your cable or satellite TV bill? When I looked at my bill a few years back, I was disgusted to be paying $70 each month to sit on the couch and zone out.
I cut the cord in January 2011, nearly five years ago, and have since saved well over $4,000 that would have gone down the tube! Even better, I watch TV less than I did before and enjoy the time I spend watching my favorite shows much more.
If you want to join in saving $100+ per month on TV, follow along with this guide featuring the best tips and tricks from Living on the Cheap writers to save big getting rid of your cable bill, and still enjoying shows you know and love without breaking the bank.
Digital TV Antenna
Before cable, everyone had to use rabbit ear antennas to get their TV shows over the airwaves. In 2009, the FCC led the charge to pull the lever and turn off old analog signals, now replaced with over-the-air digital TV.
Virtually all modern TVs can transcode digital TV. All you need is a digital antenna and a cord to plug it into the back of your TV. An indoor antenna will pick up your local UHF and VHF stations if you are in range.
The big drawback is that while old analog antennas could deliver a low-quality signal, digital TV requires a near perfect signal to work. Thanks to the internet, however, you don’t need to rely on your antenna for much more than local TV news and shows from big broadcasters like NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and CW.
An antenna ranges in cost from around $10 to $100-plus. In most cases there are few, if any, benefits to a more expensive antenna. However, higher-end antennas do provide a signal boost that can help bring additional channels to your TV.
Streaming Video Player
You can easily watch the streamed video on your computer, but if you want to watch it on that big flat-streen TV, you’ll need to connect your computer to your TV or buy one of a growing number of streaming players. Some TVs have streaming capabilities built-in, so check your manual (or Google your TV make and model) before you go out and buy a streaming player.
The pioneer in this technology is Roku, which offers several boxes and streaming sticks to choose from. Additional options including Apple TV and Chromecast. I use a Chromecast myself, which is compatible with YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify, Google Play, and local media players Avia, and Plex. A Chromecast can also stream anything from a tab in the Chrome browser or any screen on an Android phone, opening up virtually the entire world of streaming video with a $35 HD streaming stick.
If you have a teenager in the house you might already have a gaming system. Most of them (Xbox One, PS4 and Wii U) support streaming video without the need for any 3rd party hardware. Some BluRay players also have streaming capabilities built in.
Here is a listing of some of the best streaming player options today:
Roku: The original streaming box, Roku now comes in several shapes and sizes and is even built in to some smart TVs. The the Roku box and Roku streaming stick play a long list of “channels” including Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, and others. For users looks to keep a traditional TV viewing experience with a remote, the Roku box is the best option. The streaming sticks currently costs around $30 while the 4k enabled Roku Ultra runs around $120. Both are available at Amazon and other retailers. On a personal note, I used to use Roku players on both TVs, but have since replaced them with Chromecasts.
Chromecast: Android and Chrome Browser users will love the easy streaming options provided by Chromecast. This $35 HD streaming stick hides behind your TV and has native integrations with Netflix, YouTube, HBO Go, Hulu, and many other services. A 4k version is available for $69. In addition to natively supported services, Chromecast can be voice controlled with a Google Home. You can stream literally anything that works on the web with the Chrome browser “cast” button. Also cast your screen from modern Android phones right to your TV. I personally use a Chromecast on both of my TVs.
Apple TV: Like Roku, Apple TV is a streaming box that plugs into your TV. It has a great integration with iTunes, and supports many additional services including live TV stations through DirecTV Now. Apple TV also works with tons of services including Netflix and SlingTV. Expand on your entertainment with this device’s gaming capabilities, including the ability to work with an external gaming controller. Apple TV comes in two versions that cost $149 and $199 respectively.
Fire TV: Amazon’s Fire TV is the retailer’s foray into TV connected devices. Fire TV is an external box that supports 4k video and integrates with Alexa. In addition to Amazon’s streaming video service, it supports Netflix, Hulu, SlingTV, HBO Go, and many more. In my experience, Amazon devices are great for those entrenched in the Amazon ecosystem, but the user interfaces are not as friendly as competing devices. Fire TV costs $90 at Amazon.
Slingbox – Originally the only way to enjoy SlingTV, Slingbox offers an integrated television and streaming solution in one package. Serious techies may enjoy the vast abilities of this box, but those with less technology comfort may are likely going to be happier with a simpler option like Roku or Chromecast. Slingbox allows you to stream your local cable TV to your phone or browser while away from home or stream SlingTV and other services. The most popular Slingbox is the M2 for $99. The more powerful Slingbox 500 runs $299.
Major Streaming Services
The company that brought online television to the mainstream, Netflix offers a massive library of more than 13,000 titles. You can instantly stream anything from Netflix right to your TV using a web connected TV or a device like a Roku, Chromecast, Fire TV, or Apple TV.
In addition to the thousands of movies and TV shows from major networks, Netflix produces many of its own exclusive movies and shows that are not available anywhere else, and all shows are commercial free.
For shows that are not available to stream, you can still typically find these available on DVD using Netflix by mail. Netflix streaming costs $8.99 per month for new customers, and a one DVD at a time plan costs an additional $7.99 per month.
Top shows include: Mad Men, The Walking Dead, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Nurse Jackie, Bloodline, The West Wing, Friday Night Lights, Heroes, Halt and Catch Fire, Damages, Narcos, Master of None, How I Met Your Mother, Archer, Arrested Development, Louie, 30 Rock, Portlandia, Parks and Recreation, Orange is the New Black, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, New Girl, Californication, The League, Star Trek, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Sons of Anarchy, Daredevil, Lost, Dexter, and many more.
Verdict: A cable-free-life necessity.
Hulu is a collaboration between several major broadcast TV networks, and offers a long list of movies and TV shows. Hulu is geared towards people who want the latest shows as soon as they come available, where Netflix requires you to wait until the show is released, typically an entire season at a time.
Many shows are released on Hulu the day after they go live on TV. It is important to note with Hulu that all shows are not released on the same schedule, and you cannot get all old seasons of shows as you typically can with Netflix. You can with some shows, but not with all. To get all older seasons, the cost of Hulu Plus is $7.99 per month.
With Hulu, you still get stuck watching commercials unless you pay an extra fee for the “no commercials” plan, so the viewing experience from Hulu is most similar to what you are used to with cable TV.
Check out this great review for more in-depth answers to questions about what each subscription plan offers.
Top shows include: Empire, The Real World, Seinfeld, Inside Amy Schumer, The Shield, The Twilight Zone, Daria, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cheers, The Mindy Project, Survivor, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Battlestar Gallactica, Top Chef, Masters of Sex, The Daily Show, Weeds, The Good Wife, Ally McBeal, The Affair, How to Get Away with Murder, and more.
Verdict: Can live without, unless you want the latest episodes as they air.
Dedicated Amazon customers have the option to purchase Amazon Prime, which includes free two day shipping on most orders, access to a free Kindle book lending library, Prime Music, and, most importantly for this purpose, Prime TV.
Prime TV works great with the Fire TV and other Amazon devices and the Roku, but is trickier to use with platforms like Chromecast, as Amazon prefers you buy its own competing product.
Nonetheless, it offers a wide range of shows for free, plus you can pay to watch almost any movie or show you can think of for a rental or purchase fee.
They do offer some exclusive shows, like the prior mentioned competitors. The Amazon original library is not as big as Netflix, but does include some great titles including Catastrophe, Bosch, Transparent, and critically acclaimed Man in the High Castle. Amazon also does a great job bringing popular children’s shows to streaming.
Amazon Prime currently charges $99 per year, with no monthly subscription option.
Top shows include: Boardwalk Empire, Family Tree, Treme, Board to Death, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Arthur, Sesame Street, Twin Peaks, The Man in the High Castle, Six Feet Under, Hannibal, Hand of God, The Wire, The Americans, Transparent, Vikings, Justified, The Good Wife, Downton Abbey, Enlightened, Red Oaks, Veep, Entourage, 24, Duck Dynasty, and more. Also, you can add on other subscriptions, like Showtime, for a little less than it would cost to subscribe direction to Showtime. Learn about the “add-on” options.
Verdict: Great if you find value in the rest of Prime’s offerings. Not needed if you already have Netflix and Hulu.
Google Play and iTunes
If you want to supplement your subscriptions with new episodes of TV shows and a combination of new and classic movies you can’t get from your subscription service, Google Play and iTunes both offer an extensive library of movies and TV shows available to rent or purchase.
Much of the library to buy or rent overlaps from these sources the comparable option from Amazon. If you find yourself dedicated to the Google, Apple, or Amazon ecosystem, these are excellent supplements to fill in what you can’t get at Netflix or Hulu.
Old movies and shows can be a bargain here, or can cost similar to buying the DVD from a retail store like Target or Walmart.
Verdict: There is no subscription, so if you really want to watch the new Star Wars, you can pay a one-time fee to watch it here.
While you can get much of HBO’s older content library included with Amazon Prime streaming, but the newest stuff is only available with an HBO subscription, like Game of Thrones.
The cost is more than competing streaming services and comes with a smaller library, but some HBO shows are so good that you can’t live without them. If you feel that way, it is completely worthwhile, and still a lot cheaper than cable.
Top shows include: Game of Thrones, True Detective, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Silicon Valley, Veep, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Girls, The Leftovers, Vice, HBO World Championship Boxing, Oz, Boardwalk Empire, Sex and the City, Eastbound & Down, Flight of the Conchords, Deadwood, Bored to Death, Six Feet Under, and The Sopranos.
Verdict: A go-to for serious fans of HBO shows or boxing. If you can wait until they are available on Netflix or Amazon Prime, you can pass on this and save the money.
HBO rival Showtime offers a similar package for dedicated fans of shows like Dexter, House of Lies, and others for $10.99 per month. Showtime is owned by CBS, which offers its own streaming service, CBS All Access, for $6 per month.
Top shows include: Homeland, Dexter, Weeds, Nurse Jackie, Shameless, The Tudors, The Borgias, Californication, The United States of Tara, and Masters of Sex.
Verdict: Like HBO, it makes sense if you are an addict to a few Showtime shows. However, many eventually become available on other streaming services. If you are patient, it is a pass.
Services to Watch Traditional TV
Streaming TV service Sling offers an impressive list of channels without cable on your TV, SlingBox, Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, Xbox One, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, laptop, phone, or other internet connected device through Sling Television. The $40 per month Orange + Blue plan includes ESNP and NFL Network, along with many other channels such as Fox, Fox Sports, NBC, NBC SN, and ESPN2.
If the shows available streaming services like Netflix and Hulu aren’t enough for you, consider PlayOn. It’s another streaming video service with more than 60 channels, including Disney, ESPN, Comedy Central, HGTV and many other popular channels. It works with Roku and most of the other streaming video players. PlayOn has frequent “lifetime license” sales where you can get a lifetime license for $39.99, and you can record anything for playback later — even streaming content. (Reviewed by Jody Mace)
Watching Sports without Cable
Sports fans are the last holdouts to cut the cord, because they fear missing out on being able to watch every single game of the season from the comfort of their own living room.
Like their holdout fans, major sports leagues are happy bringing in a zillion dollars from lucrative TV contracts, and have not rushed to bring live games to the web. However, there are some newer options for sports fanatics to keep up with their team without cable.
For more detailed information, check out our dedicated article on watching pro sports without cable.
Many games are available at no charge at NFL.com. I watched the last few Super Bowls on my laptop at the NFL streaming homepage. The NFL Game Pass gives you access to pre-season games live, and replays of all other games.
For the live streams of every game, you can order the NFL Sunday Ticket from DirecTV without a satellite subscription. Depending on where you live, you may have another option with NFLSundayTicket.TV.
The NBA League Pass goes for $120 per season, and gives you full access to stream all NBA games.
Major League Baseball offers streaming at MLB.TV. For $109.99 per year or $24.99 per month, you can watch every out-of-market game for the seasons. MLB.TV single team seasons cost $84.99, but there are some blackout markets, so every game for every team may not be available.
NHL All-Access lets you stream up to four games at once with DVR abilities, and access to both home and away broadcasts to get either perspective of what’s happening on the ice. Like with MLB.TV, there are some blackouts so your mileage may vary.
NCAA College Sports
Check out this detailed article on options to watch college sports without cable TV.
If you prefer your sports entertainment to include tables, ladders, and chairs, WWE Network brings your favorite sports entertainment broadcasts to your living room for $9.99 per month.
WWE Network includes live access to Monday Night Raw, SmackDown!, all pay-per-views, and a library of reruns and WWE specials.