By Jim Kimble / January 4, 2021
How to Cut the Cable Cord and Save Money in 2021
Cord cutting started out as a way to shed a hefty cable bill without sacrificing your favorite shows or live sports.
But now, streaming and using a TV antenna is the new gold standard for watching TV.
For years, cable companies such as Comcast had the exclusive rights to networks like CNN, ESPN and AMC.
Those days are long gone.
Whether you want to watch ESPN without cable, or just catch up on local news, cutting the cord from cable TV or satellite providers is the way to go in 2021.
There are four important things that I’ll teach you with this guide.
- You can pretty much watch anything you want without bending to the will of cable companies. Even if you want to watch live sporting events like NBA games or college football, it’s no big deal.
- TV antennas will become more useful to more people in 2021 and beyond thanks to NextGenTV (ATSC 3.0).
- You can save a heap of money by dropping your cable or satellite TV provider (even if you have a landline phone).
- You can be a wise consumer and control your spending. The idea of “subscription fatigue” is nonsense.
Sure, I know what you’ve heard.
You’ve already read a number of stories in respectable publications that you can’t really save money by ditching cable.
The argument, the experts say, is that there are so many choices now when it comes to streaming. That will surely drive up the cost of your monthly bill to be as expensive as cable or (gasp) even more!
Plus, companies like Comcast and Spectrum will just make you pay more for Internet service once you cancel your cable subscription.
What if I told you that you could talk your way into paying about $40 or $50 per month for Internet service? (I pay even less…)
I cut the cord years ago. And I’ve been using the same battle-tested strategies to pay as little as possible for TV and Internet service. I save hundreds of dollars (if not, thousands) every year compared to a cable TV customer.
For years, cable companies thrived off of serving us an all-you-can-eat diet. With a small dose of moderation, you can have a better selection of programs and more to watch than you have time for.
You don’t need a secret password to save money. All you need to do is keep reading and absorb some of my game. This guide may be longer than others you’ve seen online, but I’m trying to be comprehensive here.
You might not need to read every section, so I’ve included chapter markers to help you navigate and refer back to parts of this guide.
Table of Contents
- How to Cut the Cable Cord and Save Money in 2021
- Step 1: Test out your options
- Step 2: Do I really need live TV?
- Step 3: Let’s (really) talk about TV antennas
- Step 4: Pick your subscriptions and leverage free stuff
- Step 5: Lower your Internet bill before you cut the cord
- Step 6: Stop renting a cable modem and WiFi router
- Step 7: How to Choose a Streaming Device
- Step 8: Congratulations! Brag to family and friends about all that cash you’re saving
Step 1: Test out your options
Getting on the phone right away to let your customer service rep know that you currently have a crappy deal isn’t going to move the needle.
At least not in a definitive, long-term way.
You need to make some decisions. Chances are if you are reading this, you are paying way too much for cable, satellite and Internet. There’s an excellent chance that you are actually watching a fraction of what you pay for.
You need to get out a pad and pen. It’s homework time. Literally, go get it right now. Think about the live TV channels you actually watch. Not the ones you “like” or you think you watch. Just write down the channels you actually watch.
Pick up your remote and scroll through the channel guide to help you along. I recommend that you do this with your spouse, partner or household — if applicable. If there’s a group making the list, you will have to enforce the rule that only channels you actually watch (not ones you just like) make the list.
Once you have finished your list, count up your channels and ask yourself this very important question. Do I/we need live TV? If the answer is yes, that’s fine. Most of us still do, including me.
This is where cutting the cord starts to get complicated for people. I’m going to keep it simple for you.
My approach is to save you money. I’m assuming that you probably want local broadcast channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and PBS), and some cable channels such as History, ESPN and HGTV.
The good news is that there are a number of ways to do this for less money than what you’re paying now.
The bad news is you are going to have to decide what ends up on the cutting room floor.
But if you do your homework then this process should be less painless (and more gratifying) in the end.
You may find out that you don’t really need live TV at all, or maybe just a little bit of it. There’s another option too that might blow your mind.
You might only need live TV for part of the year. Having live TV or a specific streaming service for only part of the year is becoming regular practice among the more savvy cord cutters.
Signing up for and cancelling a subscription by visiting the website of a streaming service is a fairly easy process. It’s pretty different from how cable companies have operated for years.
Step 2: Do I really need live TV?
If you definitely want live TV, then focus on the streaming services that provide them.
To keep it simple, here is a list of just the bigger players with multiple live TV channels worth considering. These are listed in alphabetical order.
|Price starts at||Channels|
|AT&T TV Now||$55 per month||45+|
|fuboTV||$64.99 per month||100+|
|Hulu + Live TV||$64.99 per month||65+|
|Philo||$20 per month||60+|
|Sling TV||$35 per month||32 – 45+|
|YouTube TV||$64.99 per month||85+|
You will need Internet service and a streaming device to sample any of these live TV services. There is no runaway winner here. Each service has its perks and drawbacks. Choosing which one works best for you will depend on that handwritten list that I asked you to make.
So for example, if you definitely need ESPN then your cheapest option is Sling TV at $35 per month. But you might like a larger channel package (which costs more). So you can try Hulu + Live TV, fuboTV or YouTube TV instead.
Maybe you care nothing about sports. But you’re a huge fan of The Curse of Oak Island and must see every new episode the minute it premiers.
If that’s you, Philo has 60 live TV channels for $20 per month. There’s unlimited Cloud DVR and a huge on-demand library, so the value proposition is pretty big if you’re pro-entertainment, less sports.
Let’s say you only watch local channels such as PBS or NBC (unlikely, but humor me). A TV antenna is the way to go.
The common complaint I hear from readers the most is that ‘I don’t live in antenna range.’ If you do live in White Mountains of New Hampshire, fine. You don’t. But most people, including those in rural areas, do live within range of at least a few towers.
Even if that means getting three channels (e.g. ABC, FOX and NBC), that’s three big ones that you’re not paying for anymore. Ever.
Step 3: Let’s (really) talk about TV antennas
The challenge with making the most out of a TV antenna is picking out the right one to start with.
After spending the last five years testing out indoor and outdoor TV antennas between Boston, Massachusetts and a woodsy spot along the Maine coast, there are a few ground rules I’ve set for making a purchase.
Avoid the $10 antenna & unrealistic claims
If you type in “best indoor tv antenna” or “best outdoor tv antenna” into an online retailer, there’s an excellent chance you’re going to wind up with a list of TV antennas from manufacturers that over-promise what they can actually do.
The most egregious example involves antenna range, or rather, how well a TV antenna can receive a signal from a distant broadcast tower.
An outdoor TV antenna that’s on a roof, or better yet, on a roof and elevated even higher on a pole, may be able to get a consistent UHF signal 50 to 55 miles away. I’ve done it, but at that distance it’s tough to get a consistent signal that works well through rain or shine.
Being able to receive an over-the-air signal from a broadcast tower is a simple lesson in physics. Over-the-air signals travel by line of sight. The Earth is curved. So receiving a consistently decent signal beyond say 60 miles (assuming optimal conditions) would be really amazing.
Beyond that? Nah, not going to happen. That hasn’t stopped companies from claiming otherwise. A decent antenna range for an indoor TV antenna that doesn’t have the benefit of elevation or being outdoors is about 35 miles or so. But you’ll find plenty of models that boast a “100 mile range” or even “200 mile range”. Some of these antennas will be dirt cheap — $10 or $20. You can find outdoor TV antennas that cost more with the same bogus claim about its range.
An over-simplified way to explain TV antennas is this: You’re working with something that’s closer to a butterfly net than a tractor beam on the Death Star in Star Wars.
In my opinion, impossible claims about the range of TV antennas isn’t just bad marketing. It’s borderline fraud. People often make spending decisions based on what they read. Misleading customers about a product they know little about — doing it to scale, for profit — is wrong.
Federal regulators haven’t taken any sort of action against these practices. Consumers are disenfranchised as a result.
So how do you find trustworthy brands? Sticking with well-established companies (based in the U.S., even if they manufacture overseas) has never burned me.
AntennasDirect, its sibling company Mohu, Winegard, Channel Master and many others not named here are among the reputable antenna makers in the United States.
Most of them have been in the business for decades. Companies that advertise a phone number with customer support is also a good sign that a company can back up what’s written on its packaging.
Marketing terms = confusion
Even the best antenna makers use language that can be confusing for consumers.
There is no such thing as a “HD antenna”, “HDTV antenna” or “4K Ready” antenna per se. A TV antenna is simply just that. There is no specific design that determines picture resolution.
But there are excellent designs that can improve or maximize picture reception.
Most over-the-air signals from major broadcasters (NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and PBS) are in High Definition, or rather 720p or 1080i picture resolution. (But not 1080p.) You will find some sub-channels that are broadcast in 480p as well.
Any TV antenna, including a homemade one, can pick up these signals.
Why TV antennas matter more in 2021 and beyond
A new broadcast standard called ATSC 3.0 or NextGenTV is already rolling out all over the U.S. For consumers, it will mean the ability to receive free over-the-air signals in 4K picture resolution, HDR and Dolby Atmos.
The good: You won’t need a new TV antenna for ATSC 3.0, and free over-the-air channels will be easier to get for more people across the U.S. At some point, you may even be able to watch all this free TV in your car or on your smartphone.
The no-so good: You’re going to need a new TV tuner to get these new Ultra High Definition channels.
On the flip side, any station that switches to ATSC 3.0 will have to maintain the current digital signal for another five years. So you still have a decent chunk of time where you won’t need a new TV tuner box to get free live channels.
I have another guide on how to choose the best TV antenna and OTA DVR. It can give you more guidance and a few recommendations based on my years of testing.
The bottom line with TV antennas is to consider the one-time cost of hardware to a monthly bill from a cable TV or satellite provider. Don’t shortchange yourself when it comes to setting up your own equipment that will last (and save you money) for years to come.
Step 4: Pick your subscriptions and leverage free stuff
There are massive libraries of free movies and TV shows you can watch. All you need is an Internet connection, a Smart TV or a streaming device connected to a TV.
If you really wanted to keep your TV-watching diet lean, you have plenty to feast on without paying anything. And by the way, I’m talking about all legal streaming services that are supported by advertising.
Jailbreaking a Fire Stick or doing something funky to your streaming device to get free movies illegally is a bad idea and unnecessary.
You can get your live local news from an NBC or FOX station (NewsOn app). You can watch Hollywood blockbusters (Pluto TV). There are great live concerts (XUMO). Even public libraries are getting in on the act. You should check yours to see if they provide a free subscription to hoopla or kanopy to its patrons.
On Roku, The Roku Channel has free movies, TV shows and live streaming TV channels. Amazon has its own free streaming service, IMDb TV, for Fire Stick and Fire TV owners.
Sticking with my theme of saving you money, I encourage you to try out free streaming services. Do it before shelling out your hard earned cash for subscription-based apps. Why?
Because this might be the first time in your life that you are reshaping your TV watching diet. You are dumping the all-you-can-eat buffet that cable and satellite providers have been shoving in your face for years.
I’m not saying give up all the dark chocolate and potato chips. I’m saying the menu is larger, more diverse, more niche than anything you have had access to before.
Don’t miss out on the free, good stuff that you don’t even know about yet.
Subscription streaming services
Streaming services have paved the way for moving U.S. consumers away from live TV.
Netflix has practically become the new plumbing to our Internet-connected televisions. Amazon Prime has tremendous reach as well because a membership offers far more than just shows and movies to watch.
And Disney+ (yes, I subscribe, too) broke records in how quickly it amassed millions of subscribers. It was literally an overnight success.
You don’t have to go with the crowd — and you probably shouldn’t — to reach your own streaming nirvana.
Let me give you a personal example.
You may have never heard of The Criterion Channel. The streaming service gathers the best films around the globe and has a library that goes back decades. I especially like the spy movies, and thrillers released between the 1960s and 1970s. I also like curated collections of movies including the Double Feature that’s released every weekend.
You may have little-to-no interest in this. But I gladly pay $90 per year for a subscription because I stopped renting individual movies years ago. And as I have gotten older, I have become more interested in movies that are behind me than the ones that are in front of me.
Cutting the cord isn’t just about covering the ground you once had with cable. It gives you the opportunity to delve into your interests and style more.
ESPN+ is another good example of this. The sports-focused streaming service might one day replace your ESPN channel on cable. And sure, there are live sports already on the service, including soccer, Major League Baseball games, college basketball and NHL games.
But for now, it’s finding success with original programming like the football-themed documentary series, Peyton’s Places. There are UFC fights, boxing and the 30 for 30 library.
When you do come up with your lineup of streaming services that you want to subscribe to, make sure you are leveraging your power as a consumer. I pay annually for The Criterion Channel because it gives me a discount (which adds to my satisfaction with their service).
The Disney+ bundle rolls together Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ for $12.99 per month. That’s a 25 percent discount compared to subscribing to each service individually.
Likewise, CBS All Access (soon to be renamed Paramount +) offers a package with Showtime that costs $14.99 per month.
Now that streaming is big business, just about every publication — major newspapers, magazines and online pubs — have weekly or monthly lists telling you what to watch.
These lists can be useful and give you a feel for what’s out there. If you dig deep on your own, there’s a chance that you will find something great that no one else is talking about.
Step 5: Lower your Internet bill before you cut the cord
So how do I manage to keep paying only between $30 to $50 a year for standalone Internet? (I’m currently paying $29.99 per month.)
I do have the advantage of living in a city where there is more than one Internet service provider.
But I have also lived in places where there was only one provider in town. During one of my last periods of negotiating, I was dealing with a large cable provider that pretty much had zero competition in my section of the city. The agent insisted the lowest price for a standalone Internet connection was $69.99 per month. I got the price down to $39.99 per month, a rate that I maintained for two years before moving on.
My battle-tested method has worked for years in places with and without competition.
I never tell an Internet service provider that I’m streaming, especially when they start with those probing about my needs. I say that I use a TV antenna (true) and simply need an Internet connection for email.
Like the all-you-can-eat cable bundles we’ve been gorging on for years, many cable companies are serving up Internet speeds that are larger than necessary.
The customer service agent may insist that there are no other plans. But if you keep saying “no thanks, that’s not what I’m looking for” eventually you will strike a better deal.
You should expect that the agent will start pitching all kinds of so-called deals for a package of TV and internet and phone.
Just keep saying no thanks.
That’s not what you want. Be firm, but polite. Keep saying you want a simple internet connection — about 50 megabits per second of download speed will do. Even 25Mbps of download speed is fine for most live TV streaming services if you’re not gaming online.
Once you are offered a better price for standalone Internet, don’t say yes right away. Keep asking whether there are any other options. The price might come down more.
How do I know that this scenario plays out the same way on a fairly consistent basis?
Because I watch a lot of C-SPAN. And I also read the findings of the 2016 Congressional investigation by former Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo), a top ranking chairman on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
Her committee delved into pricing and customer service practices for the major cable providers across the U.S.
That investigation pulled the curtain back a little on how customer service agents are trained. Let’s watch this short video so you can see what I’m talking about. Note the silence from cable executives while they’re being questioned.
Yep, it turns out those same customer service reps who tell you that there are no lower priced “deals” to be had actually keep secret rate charts explicitly used to retain customers. Customer service reps are also trained to instill fear, and doubt in you when you start talking about cancelling or taking your business elsewhere.
I know it goes against common sense, but cable companies don’t reward people for being a longtime, faithful customer.
Instead, they raise your rates until you can’t take it anymore. Why? Because luring you in with a low rate then raising it after several months makes them a lot more money. That’s the business model. Plain and simple.
How to negotiate
Having said all that, there is one more thing to keep in mind as we look into the future of cord cutting and streaming your favorite TV shows.
Cable companies are fully aware that the future of their business relies on growing the number of standalone Internet subscribers. Millions of customers are dumping cable TV and satellite providers every year.
As a customer, you need to view cable companies like a pricey restaurant. They don’t really want you to order off the menu especially when it comes to negotiating your new monthly rate for an Internet connection.
But you can do it if you are willing to walk out the door and eat elsewhere.
There’s a really important difference here that a lot of people miss when I cover this topic. You can’t threaten the waiter with leaving the restaurant. You have to get up out of your seat and start walking.
That means if you’ve spent 25 or 30 minutes on the phone with a customer service agent, and they’re not budging on price for standalone Internet, then you need to go through and cancel.
Set your cancellation date for the end of the month. That gives them 20 or 30 days to have a retention specialist to contact you with some better offers.
In my experience, you will hear back from someone in a matter of hours, or a day or two at most.
If you don’t hear back from anyone in a few days, you can always call back and say you found another ISP with a decent rate, but you really like your existing service. So you want to see what kind of rates are available. The negotiation process will start over.
The exercise here is to give yourself some leverage as a consumer. Plain and simple.
And remember, don’t accept the first lower offer right away. In the end, you might find the first offer is the best one to suit your needs. I’ve experienced that firsthand.
But you definitely want to see what’s behind “Door #2” on that rate chart. Hold you ground by expressing uncertainty about that first offer and see what pops up.
It’s important to understand that you don’t need that fast of an Internet connection to enjoy Netflix, or even a live TV service such as Sling TV.
Take a look at this chart.
|MINIMUM INTERNET SPEED REQUIREMENTS|
|NETFLIX||5.0 Megabits per second – Recommended for HD quality|
|AT&T TV NOW||2.5 – 7.5 Mbps – Recommended for HD quality|
|VUDU||HDX (1080p) requires 4500 kbps|
|AMAZON VIDEO||High Definition (HD) videos: 3.5 Mbits/sec|
|SLING TV||Constant speed of 5.0 Megabits per second or more|
Streaming in High Definition requires a fairly minimal Internet connection. Even if you had a snazzy 4K TV and wanted to watch some live sports in 4K on fuboTV, the recommended download speed is 25 Mbps.
That’s still pretty minimal compared to some of the Internet speeds that are offered by cable TV providers.
This may sound like common sense, but it’s worth mentioning. The last person you want to consult about how much Internet speed you need is the person selling it to you.
Step 6: Stop renting a cable modem and WiFi router
Owning your own cable modem and WiFi router is better than renting one. In my experience, using my own equipment saves me money. It also gives me better performance because the WiFi router that I bought is well-suited for the layout of my home.
As a consumer, you should know that there have been issues with using rented equipment.
In 2018, the parent company of Spectrum agreed to a $174.2 million settlement with the New York Attorney General over Internet speeds.
That lawsuit alleged that Spectrum’s Wi-Fi speeds were approximately 80 percent slower than advertised. The state’s findings about Spectrum’s speed at the time came as a result of 16 months of testing. One culprit for the slower speeds, according to the lawsuit, was the modems-router units that customers rented. As part of the settlement, Charter Communications, Spectrum’s parent company, admitted to no wrongdoing.
The monthly rental fee on your cable or Internet bill is substantial.
The math on this is simple. Your equipment pays for itself. Choosing your own equipment lets you evaluate what will work best for your home. Does your house need a Wi-Fi router or mesh network?
Most Internet-related hardware on the market has a pretty simple plug-and-play setup. There are countless instructional YouTube videos that can help, you can read about my own Wi-Fi setup that I’m using right now.
TIP for Fios customers: If you want to avoid paying a monthly fee for renting a router, I have bought a couple of refurbished Fios routers on eBay while helping friends and family transition to streaming. I even got one for my parents, and so far, everyone is very happy.
Step 7: How to Choose a Streaming Device
The big three streaming devices — Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Google Chromecast — are the best entry points for first-time cord cutters. They’re inexpensive and easy to use.
When my retired, non-tech savvy parents finally decided to ditch cable, I bought them a Roku Ultra and a reconditioned Verizon Fios router. Buying them the router from eBay allowed them to stop paying the monthly rental fee to Verizon. I also helped them keep their landline phone number that they’ve had since the Nixon administration by porting it to Google Voice.
I went with the Roku Ultra for two reasons. The option to use an Ethernet cord instead of WiFi would greatly reduce the possibility of their TV picture buffering. Roku’s menu remains intuitive and basic. I was surprised how quickly they took to it. A short time later, my aunt and uncle asked for the same setup. I had to dump their Internet provider that they had for more than a decade because they wouldn’t budge on price, but that’s another story.
I don’t have a runaway recommendation for a streaming device. I own just about every brand that’s currently on the market. There is a 4K Roku TV in my living room, and a Fire TV Stick downstairs on an old Samsung 1080p TV in my daughter’s playroom. These setups change over time as I continue testing and reviewing equipment.
Google Chromecast: Game changer?
The new Google Chromecast with Google TV is the most exciting release for streaming hardware in the last few years.
Being able to turn on your TV and quickly find something to watch without endlessly scrolling through app after app is a big deal. It actually makes your personal data that Google collects about your tastes useful to … you. (Imagine that.)
The three most important features for any hardware developer in the streaming game right now are ease of use, integration and aggregation.
The Chromecast has nailed all three pretty well, but it’s not perfect.
If the new Chromecast begins supporting a greater number of streaming platforms in its recommendation engine, Roku and Amazon could have a real problem.
There’s no question what device I will be using more if Chromecast understands that I want to see movie suggestions from The Criterion Collection alongside the Fast and Furious franchise (read: guilty pleasure).
You know me, Google. Make it happen.
What about Apple TV, you say? Apple TV is fine, but it’s pricey at $180. So I consider it as more of a luxury product than a solution-based one. If you’re fully invested in the Apple ecosystem — iPhones, MacBook, and iPads — then going with an Apple TV makes sense.
Otherwise, you have a number of good, inexpensive choices to expand your universe of cord cutting options.
Check to see whether your current TV has Smart TV software before you buy a streaming device.
Android TV, LG’s webOS and Samsung Tizen Smart TVs are just a few of the bigger names that support major streaming apps such as Netflix and Disney+.
Roku and Amazon have struck deals with TV makers to have their own streaming software included in TV sets. TCL makes the 6 Series, a remarkably good 4K television with Roku software built-in.
Years ago, the conventional wisdom was that Smart TV software was not well supported with needed updates. That’s largely a thing of the past.
TV manufacturers are well aware that streaming is the future. Built-in streaming software is becoming a priority for TV manufacturers and big business overall. That’s a good thing for consumers.
Step 8: Congratulations! Brag to family and friends about all that cash you’re saving
If you’ve made it to this stage, congratulations. I’ve given you a lot to digest… maybe even a handbook of sorts based on my years of living without cable TV (largely because I was broke after college).
Now you can be that annoying relative at Thanksgiving, talking about how you’re saving wads of cash. The cable man isn’t sticking it to you anymore.
Hopefully, you can help out those same family members after they get sick of listening to you.
Good luck, and be sure to comment on what you did to cut the cord in 2021. And start bragging about how much money you saved in the comment section below.