Monthly TV bill can be lower with a few wise moves

Prudence: Figure out what you'll be watching and how you can get it into your home most inexpensively.


Your Money

May 23, 2004|By Gregory Karp

Cutting household spending is mostly about examining the optional and wasteful expenses in your life.

That's why subscription television - cable and satellite - is a good target for savings. TV is certainly optional. And of the scores of channels fed into your home, how many do you actually watch? Research says the typical household regularly tunes in to 17 channels, while many TV packages deliver more than 100.

Americans today easily spend $45 a month on cable TV service, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Those who opt for more channels, premium packages and pay-per-view movies and events can run bills topping $80 a month.

Of course, most of us are addicted to certain programs. And TV is cheap compared with other entertainment, such as attending live concerts or professional sporting events. So eliminating television service altogether is neither practical nor desirable for most people. But you can cut TV costs.

Cable vs. satellite

The first rule of cost-cutting is to shop around. Compare programming packages and pricing between your local cable company and the two main satellite companies, DirecTV and Dish Network.

Choose the one that bundles the programming you like best for the lowest price. Use the prices of cable TV's digital-quality packages for comparison to satellite, which also is digital. In general, satellite will offer more channels and options, while cable offers community broadcasts. Surveys repeatedly show satellite customers are more satisfied with their TV service than are cable customers, so it's worth investigating for cable subscribers.

Go to the library to find a detailed comparison of cable and satellite services in the March issue of Consumer Reports.

Basic bundle

Tiers are the groups of channels you get for a certain price. Consider dropping down to a basic bundle that includes fewer channels, whether on cable or satellite. On cable, the basic tier can cost as little as about $15 monthly. Be sure to ask for the lowest tier available, because some cable operators use the word "basic" in their packages that run $35 to $40.

Michelle Jones, editor of, says buying a basic package of programming - which only 10 percent of subscribers do - can be a big help to the family budget. Even better is using an antenna to get free programming, if that's possible in your area.

"For those who can get by with only free television programming, giving up those extra cable and satellite charges will save them a bundle each year," Jones said. "It may not seem like much to pay $50 a month for cable, but that adds up to $600 each year and $6,000 over 10 years."

One little-known tip for cable subscribers is that in most cases you can downgrade to a basic tier of programming and still order premium channels, such as HBO and Showtime. Federal law says so.

Also, consider whether you really need the higher-quality TV signals of digital cable and high-definition television. A digital tier is likely to cost you an extra $15 a month. Unless you're a videophile with an elaborate home-theater system, cheaper analog signals might suit you just fine.

Film picks

Movies on premium channels and pay-per-view movies are big items in the TV service business. Here again, examine what you really watch.

If you watch only one or two movies a month, it might be cheaper to rent them from a video store than subscribe to a premium channel. Or if you don't mind older movies, get flicks at your local library for free.

If you're a heavy movie watcher, check out movie rental services, such as Netflix Inc. ( or the Wal-Mart DVD rentals ( For $15 to $20 a month you can have several movies out at the same time and never pay late-return fees. You return movies by mail in prepaid envelopes.

It's a matter of tailoring the way you buy movies to the way you watch them.

Alternative sources

For sporting events, consider listening to free radio broadcasts or cheap online broadcasts of games. For example, you can listen to every Major League Baseball game for the entire season on its Web site for $14.95 (

And finally, a family that normally watches TV nightly together could instead use that time to play a board game, cards or charades.

"As it is, most families struggle to find quality time together given their work obligations, long school days and various other activities," writes Eric Tyson in his book, Personal Finance for Dummies. "Err on the side of keeping your life simple."

Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., a Tribune Publishing newspaper. E-mail him at

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