Cut the Cable Cord
I canceled my cable subscription a year and a half ago, and I honestly haven't missed it that much -- especially considering that by cutting the cord I've slashed the $60-a-month bill and saved more than $1,000 so far.
Don't get me wrong. I enjoy vegging in front of the TV as much as the next person, and I have favorite shows I regularly watch. But as I weighed the cost against what I was getting out of a cable subscription, I started to see it as a luxury instead of a necessity.
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I'm not alone in my thinking, especially among young adults. In fact, only one in four people age 18 to 29 says cable or satellite TV is a necessity, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. (Americans age 50 and older, incidentally, are much more attached .)
Members of the YouTube generation are open to getting entertainment in nontraditional ways. And thanks to the Internet and other resources, it's easier than ever to get what you want without a hefty price tag. Since ditching cable, I've discovered plenty of places to get free or super-cheap TV shows and movies -- many of the same ones I had watched before -- but for a fraction of the cost. Here are some of my favorites:
Tune in to savings
Go digital. TV's conversion from analog to digital has been a boon in my house. I used to get only two fuzzy channels using my set's rabbit ears. But with a new digital converter box ($50 retail, but I used a coupon for $40 off from the government), all the basic network TV channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CW) come in crisp and clear -- just in time for me to heckle the contestants on the latest season of American Idol.
Hulu.com. Online video has come a long way from the days of jerky motion and pixilated pictures (buffering ... buffering ...). Nowadays, a broadband Internet connection is a portal to free (and 100% legal) online programming of decent quality. And at Hulu.com, you can watch full episodes of more than 300 shows from NBC Universal and Fox stations.
For instance, one of the things I missed most about dropping cable was getting my satirical fix from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Hulu to the rescue! The episodes online are a day old -- but I usually recorded the shows and watched them the next day anyway. You can even watch past shows, new and old, from Arrested Development to The Simpsons to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And if I miss a new episode of Chuck or 30 Rock, I catch up at my convenience online.
Hulu also has a decent collection of full-length movies, though most are a few years old. But with titles including The Karate Kid, A League of Their Own and Muppets From Space, there's something for everyone.
Network Web sites. If your favorite show isn't on Hulu, you can check individual network Web sites, such as ABC.com and CBS.com, which increasingly are posting full episodes online. You'll find current programming, such as Grey's Anatomy and CSI, as well as classic episodes of Beverly Hills 90210, Twilight Zone and Hawaii Five-O.
Even cable channels offer freebies, including breaking news videos at CNN.com, live sports at ESPN360.com and Hannah Montana episodes at Disney.com.
Netflix. Netflix offers thousands of movies, plus a huge selection of TV series on DVD -- including those from premium channels, such as HBO -- making the service an economical alternative to cable.
The cheapest plan allows you to rent two DVDs a month for $5 a month. But the real value lies in its unlimited plans, starting at just $8.99 per month: You get unlimited DVD rentals, plus instant gratification via on-demand streaming to your computer or TV through a Web-enabled device, such as an Xbox 360 or a TiVo HD. My friend's 4-year-old daughter even knows how to order her favorite Caillou episodes on-demand by herself.
iTunes. If you don't want to wait for a whole season's worth of your favorite TV show to turn up on Netflix, you can download current episodes at iTunes for as little as $1.99 a pop. If you're particularly addicted to a show, you can buy a season pass. That quickly gets pricey, though, so check at Hulu and network Web sites first to see if your show is available for free. For example, a pass for the current season of The Amazing Race costs $21 on iTunes, but you can watch the episodes at CBS.com at no cost.
But the immediacy of iTunes can come in handy. For instance, the second season of AMC's Mad Men isn't due out on DVD until July, with a sticker price of $50. But you can download the entire season on iTunes now for $23.
You can also rent movies from iTunes, which lets you watch the flick as many times as you want within 24 hours. New releases cost $4 and older titles are $3. It's convenient to watch a movie at the click of a button, and it isn't a bad deal in a pinch. But you have cheaper options for movie rentals.
Redbox DVD. These DVD kiosks, conveniently located in places such as Wal-Mart, McDonald's and neighborhood grocery stores, are stocked with new-release movies. Rentals cost $1 per day, but my family has rented everything from The Dark Knight to Tinker Bell for free using coupon codes we found online through www.insideredbox.com.
The public library. This is a staple for free and dirt-cheap entertainment at my house. Many libraries will let you check out recent movies and TV episodes on DVD for free; others may charge a minimal fee. My local library, for instance, charges $2 for entertainment movies, but all educational DVDs, from yoga instruction to Blue's Clues, are free. Ask your library about its policy.
And while you're there, pick up a book for some good old-fashioned entertainment!
Cutting the cord isn't for everyone. For instance, if you want to watch the latest hot cable show so you can discuss up-to-the-minute details at the water cooler, you may be out of luck. If you're a sports junkie, cable may still be the easiest way to catch all your favorite teams. And if you like to watch TV with other people, gathering your friends around your laptop isn't as satisfying as hanging out in front of your 42-inch plasma.
I also miss PBS. I can't get reception for it, even with my digital converter box. It took some adjusting for my daughter to do without Sesame Street. I try to satisfy her Cookie Monster craving with free DVDs from the library, or with clips at SesameStreet.com.
And I'll admit I miss curling up to watch HGTV or the Food Network on a lazy Saturday afternoon. But on the bright side, I've been more productive without those channels. Now I spend my Saturdays actually working on home improvement projects or trying new recipes in the kitchen instead of watching other people do it.
But for the most part, my experiment with a cable-less life has been a success. I can watch almost anything I want at any time, without having to pay for cable or even a TiVo subscription. I've had to make a few small sacrifices, but the savings has been worth it.
Do you have a favorite source for cheap or free entertainment? Share with us below.