Cutting the cord and other tales of budget weeding

Khaaaaaaaan!

About two and a half years ago, I got fed up with all of the monthly subscription bills leaching away our budget. The fed up feeling had been growing longer than this, but I was spurred in to action out of frustration over a series of misadventures with Time Warner cable, DISH, and DirectTV that they each executed with separate and distinct, but incredibly similar, pincer moves of incompetent boobery between installers and customer service agents. Those of you who know me best know that I sometimes take a principled stand, even if it is inconvenient for me. This was one of those times, and it actually turned out OK.

I pulled out the online banking statements to look at what I was paying each month.

  • Cable: $175 (high speed internet included)
  • Home phone: $35
  • Cell phone (2 lines): $150
  • Alarm service: $ 40
  • Netflix: $20

The home phone, at first blush, seemed easy to cut. Since the advent of mostly reliable cellular service, I never used it. I did have a bit of discussion with my Mom who worried that I was regressing to some former irresponsible version of myself by not having a land line. Cell phones are transient; transients move around from pillar to post possibly in some sort of decadent, reprobate lifestyle that would make Hemingway blush. This sort of thing worries mothers. I was threatening to re-awaken some worry genes in my Mom that had gone dormant since my first few years out of college, and land based phones lines seem to be a panacea against this worry.

But this wasn’t the hardest obstacle to getting rid of the phone line. Alarm companies, in conspiracy with mothers everywhere, think that broadband cable is too flaky for monitoring. After some research I found that the 7845i-GSM (http://bit.ly/ruMkpa) would allow me to have my alarm go through the internet and also have a cellular backup (that I didn’t have at the time). The monitoring company, Alarm Club (http://bit.ly/rrlruV), is UL listed which is the thing that matters to your home owner’s insurance for the discount. The monitoring fee for this was $20/mo +$5 for the ability to control my system from the web and iPhone. Now if I had to have someone watch the house, I could set a temporary garage door code and have them call me to disarm/arm the alarm remotely instead of having to give out keys and codes.

The device was $240, but it allowed me to drop a $35/mo phone line and reduce the monitoring fee from $40 to $25. Total monthly savings is $50. Return on investment (ROI) in 6 months, then it’s money in the bank, and I get to tell my Mom that we’re actually safer than we were before.

The cell phone bill is harder. I hate to admit it, but we have first world types of problems that require having the newest iPhone to solve. The only wiggle room here is that I don’t text as much as we were paying for so we reduced the unlimited texting, and we signed up for the 15% discount for working at Miami University. Many large companies get some sort of 10-15% discount at cell phone companies, so you should definitely check that out. Usually you just have to email a copy of your photo ID showing affiliation for the discount to be put in place.

Now, the fun part: telling cable/satellite that, while their call is extremely important to me, I am experiencing unusually high volumes at the moment so they can take their shoddy service and…well, I think you can finish the sentence for me. Enjoy yourself…you know you’ve dreamed of doing the same thing.

Great. I have a feeling of self-righteous satisfaction but no channels. Yes, I love to read and agree that the TV is an opiate. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke or do drugs. I don’t have caffeine that much and that’s usually in the form of tea, not even some cool mega energy beverage. As I’ve gotten older I don’t eat cheese as much as I used to or want to. I avoid sodium because I feel its impacts. Red meat is only once a week, if that, and we try to eat vegetarian at least once or twice a week. Darn it, I need a few vices at least just to make me an interesting conversationalist at dinner parties. (Note the wonderful twist I just used: I admitted I’m doing something bad, but I’m really doing it for YOU). We’ve all sat next to Mr or Ms Boring Perfect at one time or another wondering how long we were going to have to keep pretending to be interested in their collection of ziplock bags of varying thicknesses. Therefore, I need some channels to make sure I don’t bore you. You may thank me the next time you see me.

It turns out that you can get glorious, uncompressed, high definition TV channels for free over the air, similar to our parents and grandparents used to do. However, I didn’t want, and Casey wouldn’t allow, a radar antenna array on the roof.

wasn't going to happen

You can get small antenna that will work indoors for UHF HD channels, but I wanted to increase my FM radio reception (no, I’m not paying for satellite radio…read the name of the post!), which meant I needed a UHF/VHF antenna. I researched again, and there was no reason I couldn’t put the antenna in the attic versus on the roof. Better aesthetics than an indoor model, safer from lightening than the rooftop model, a little signal loss, but not enough to worry about, and much less loss than an indoor model.

Upon the recommendation of a friend (thanks, GM!), I shopped at http://www.dennysantennaservice.com for my antenna. I picked the EZ-HD antenna for $59 (http://bit.ly/qiiQKr) to mount in the attic. I used a rigid 90 and screw in mounting adapter from the electrical section  of home depot, plus some coax and ground wire and ground wire clamps. If you do this project yourself or hire it out, please, please, please make sure you ground the antenna. There is a ground screw on the antenna itself, get enough stranded wire to reach to a copper cold water pipe and use a pipe ground clamp (http://bit.ly/nwMKhi) to attach it. I ran the coax to the splitter that feeds the tv outlets throughout the house to finish this part.

Use anntennaweb.org to figure out which way you need to point your antenna for the best reception from the local tv market that serves you. We were lucky and had three markets from which we could draw. I took my compass up in the attic to roughly align the antenna to the right direction.

Modern TVs (anything in the last five years or so) have the ability to tune a digital signal directly, but you will need a tuner if you have an analog TV or projector system like we do in our basement, and you’re probably going to want DVR even if you don’t need the tuner. Best bets here are Tivo for simplicity or a TV tuner card in your media server (you’ve got one of those, right?).

We went with the TIVO route, and I spent just over $1k on two TIVOs with life time subscription. I know, you’re thinking, “A THOUSAND dollars, but you said you wanted to SAVE money!” Trust me.

Image representing TiVo as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

The total cost for this was about $1300 for materials and about a half a Saturday doing the work. Now, I just pay for high speed internet from the cable company and that is about $50/mo. So, I’ve got $125/mo in savings. The ROI for this is about a year. We also reduced our Netflix plan (and reduced it again recently to streaming only).

While you’re spending money, just go ahead and buy a Logitech Harmony One remote (http://amzn.to/mSB1O9). (note:I write this in my context as a guy married to great girl, but, ladies, if you’re the tech savvy one, the advice still applies for your SO too.) My wife is an intelligent woman, and I count on her for guidance and counsel in almost every area of my life. But remotes are Kryptonite for her. My bachelor pad five remote array wasn’t good for our relationship. She wanted to put on a show or movie for us to watch. She would falter; I would inevitably snicker at this (STEEEERIKE ONE). She would toss them all at me in frustration, and I would magically fix whatever problem in about 3 seconds (STEEEERIKE TWO). Frankly, I need more than one strike left just to finish out the evening, much less a lifetime of evenings. Get the remote. Much less expensive than a marriage counselor.

At the end of the first year, we had a reliable system that was paid for and we were saving about $175/mo. That’s $2100/year take home pay. If you’re in a 25% tax bracket that’s $2800 of your annual income, if you’re in a $28% bracket that’s $2900. We had better things to do with that money than pay for excess product that came with terrible service.

We went from 200+ channels of which we watched only about 10, to about 15 channels of which we watch only about 5. We still spend too much time in front of the TV, and the only things we missed at first were Discovery Channel and Food Network shows. There are methods to get these that I’ll cover in a different, more technical post. My one caveat is for sports fans. If you’re a sports fanatic, then you will need to be ready to spend some time with your friends who still pay for cable/satellite or just keep paying.

Outside of some initial withdrawal pains, it’s really been a non event in our lives, and we’ve been very happy with the results. With 7 month old twins most of that money has been redirected for formula and diapers.

Let me know if you have thoughts, questions, or better advice. I’m sure there are many ways to do this.

Note: I did all the labor myself, which significantly reduced the cost for this. There are cheaper ways to implement (ie, indoor, tabletop antenna), but figure in the cost of labor if you don’t want to do this yourself.

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3 thoughts on “Cutting the cord and other tales of budget weeding

  1. Robert – we’ve been happily cable-free for years (just using hi-def bunny ears when we want to watch something that doesn’t appear on the web)…congratulations! I was, however, not quite as manly in approach to the mounting/installation – we just move the antenna into a good position when we want to use it, then stick it back behind the TV when we aren’t using it.

    Manly geek award goes to you!

    Hope all is well!

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