TV viewers have news for the big telecoms: they’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.
According to a 2020 press release from Leichtman Research Group, the nation’s major pay-TV providers lost nearly 5 million subscribers in 2019. And it’s not hard to see why. The average household cost of cable and satellite TV services in 2019 was nearly $110 per month, according to Leichtman. That makes cutting the cord just about the quickest and easiest way to save money on a tight budget.
However, while pay-TV services are on the decline, they’re far from dead. At the end of 2019, 86.2 million Americans still subscribed to pay-TV services. That means about 75% of TV-viewing households are paying over $1,300 a year for their shows.
If you’re one of the folks still paying through the nose for TV service, the thought of cutting the cord has probably at least crossed your mind, but you may have wondered what else you’d do to relax and unwind at the end of the day.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to entertain yourself at home for a lot less than $110 per month. If you’re ready to stop wasting money on a pricey TV subscription, here are some alternatives worth trying.
One of the main reasons so many people are canceling their cable is that there are more ways than ever to watch TV without it. Not only are the new streaming services and devices cheaper than cable or satellite TV, but they’re also more convenient. With a streaming service, you don’t have to be home at a particular time to catch your favorite show. Instead, you can view it anytime, anywhere, on any device that can connect to the Internet.
If you’re planning to cut the cord and switch to a streaming service, you have lots of options to choose from. The most popular streaming services include:
Hulu offers you access to a vast selection of TV series past, present, and original. It’s probably the best service for keeping up with your favorite shows from the big networks since new episodes are usually available the day after they air. Hulu includes some movies as well, though not nearly as many as its rival Netflix.
The service works on a wide array of smart TVs, smartphones, tablets, and dedicated streaming devices. A basic Hulu subscription costs $6 a month with the first month free, but it costs an extra $4 a month to watch without ads.
As its name suggests, Netflix specializes in movies, but it’s also known for its original series, such as “Stranger Things” and “Orange Is the New Black.” The service offers current-run TV shows, but new episodes can take months to show up on the site, and old seasons eventually expire and disappear.
You can stream Netflix videos through a wide variety of devices, including PCs, tablets, and gaming consoles, or download them to watch offline. Netflix plans start at $9 a month, and your first month is free.
3. Amazon Prime Video
Amazon Prime Video gives you access to a large collection of movies and TV series, including original series, which you can either stream or download to watch later. It’s included for free with a $119 Amazon Prime yearly subscription, or you can get it as a stand-alone service for $9 a month. You can stream Amazon Prime Video through most streaming TV devices, as well as smart TVs, Blu-Ray players, iOS and Android mobile devices, and game consoles.
4. HBO NOW
If you’re hooked on HBO shows, HBO NOW is the way to watch them without paying for a pricey cable package. For $15 a month, you’ll get access to all of HBO’s series — both new ones like “Westworld” and older ones like “The Wire” — as well as a wide array of popular films.
The downside is that the only TV shows you can watch with this service are HBO series. If you want a wider choice of content, you can get HBO as an add-on to other streaming services, including Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. HBO NOW works on most streaming devices, as well as mobile devices and some game systems. You can also watch over the Web on any Internet-connected device.
Introduced in 2019, Disney+ offers access to all movies and TV shows made by Disney and its subsidiaries, including Pixar, Marvel, 21st Century Fox, and National Geographic. This site also features the entire Star Wars series and all spinoffs, including the new series “The Mandalorian.”
Disney+ content is available for both online and offline viewing. You can watch on a wide variety of streaming devices, mobile devices, gaming systems, and Web browsers. The service costs either $7 per month or $70 per year after a one-week trial period.
6. Sling TV
Sling TV is different from other streaming services. Instead of giving you a catalog of shows to watch when you like, it gives you live access to a variety of network and cable channels — like a traditional pay-TV service, only cheaper.
You can choose one of two basic packages, each with different channels, for $30 a month, or combine the two for $40 a month. There’s also a new “Sling Free” service that gives you access to a limited number of live channels and a modest catalog of on-demand content at no charge. You can watch Sling TV on all major streaming devices, as well as smartphones, tablets, computers, and gaming consoles.
The basic version of YouTube is free and supported by ads. It offers a wide variety of video content, from short clips to full episodes of Internet-based series. For $12 a month, you can upgrade to YouTube Premium, formerly known as YouTube Red. It lets you watch without ads, download videos for later viewing, and access YouTube original series like “Mind Field.”
For $50 a month, you can stream live TV from over 70 networks through YouTube TV. The service gives you six accounts per household and unlimited cloud DVR storage. It’s available nationwide, but the selection of channels varies by area.
7. Pluto TV
Pluto TV is a completely free app that works on most streaming devices, as well as computers and Apple and Android phones. It offers more than 250 channels in such categories as news, sports, and comedy, as well as thousands of movies. You won’t find the top hit shows here, and there’s no way to watch without ads, but you can’t beat the price.
Along with a service to stream video, you’ll need a device to stream it with. If you have a modern smart TV, you won’t need anything else; you can hook it up to the Internet directly. Most smart TVs support the leading streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. However, not all models support less-popular apps, so before signing up for a service, check to make sure your TV can handle it.
You can stream video on a regular, non-smart TV by hooking it up directly to a computer that’s connected to the Internet. However, this setup can be a bit cumbersome. Most computers are bulky, and to operate them, you’ll need a keyboard and mouse in addition to the TV remote control.
The simplest way to stream video on your TV is with a dedicated streaming device designed for that purpose. The most popular models are:
1. Amazon Fire TV
The Amazon Fire TV player runs on Fire OS, a version of Android designed to work with Amazon’s media offerings, such as Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Music. It can also use other services — such as Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube — but it won’t work with Vudu or Google Play Movies & TV.
Amazon Fire TV comes in several versions, including the $40 Fire TV Stick, the $50 Fire TV Stick 4K, and the $120 Fire TV Cube, which doubles as a smart speaker. All of these players can work with a standard remote control or accept voice commands through Alexa, Amazon’s smart assistant.
2. Apple TV 4K
At $179 to $199, the latest version of Apple’s media player, the Apple TV 4K, is a lot pricier than most streaming devices. Its biggest advantage is that it’s easy to use with other Apple devices and services. It can play songs and playlists from iTunes, stream audio from any iOS device, and accept voice commands through Apple’s digital assistant, Siri. You can also use it to control other Siri-enabled smart home devices.
However, the Apple TV 4K doesn’t work with some popular streaming services, such as Spotify, and you can’t use it to access videos through Google Play or, for the moment, Amazon.
3. Google Chromecast
The $35 Google Chromecast is cheaper, smaller, and simpler to use than just about any other streaming device. It has no remote control, no onscreen interface, and no built-in apps; all it does is provide a link between your TV and a computer or mobile device. Simply load up a media stream on your device and hit the Chromecast button, and the video appears on your TV screen.
Google Chromecast works with just about every streaming video and audio app out there. It also works with the Google Home smart assistant, so you can use voice commands to find videos and search the Internet.
The Roku was one of the first streaming media players, and it’s still one of the most popular. It offers access to thousands of streaming services and apps — which it calls “Channels” — in its Roku Channel Store, including all the big names, such as Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Netflix, Sling TV, and Vudu.
There are four Roku models to choose from, ranging from the $30 Roku Express to the $100 Roku Ultra. Some Roku models accept voice commands, but only to search content and apps; they can’t carry out other commands like the smart assistants found on other streaming players.
If your Internet service isn’t fast enough for streaming video, or if you can’t find a streaming service that offers all the shows and movies you want to watch, you can always view them the “old-fashioned” way: on DVD. There are more ways than you might think to find good stuff on DVD for cheap or even free.
The days of the corner video store are long gone. Blockbuster Video, the mega rental chain, drove most of the mom-and-pop stores out of business, only to be effectively driven out of business itself by streaming services. In March 2019, CNN reported, Blockbuster announced the closing of its last store in Australia, leaving only one store open in Bend, Oregon.
However, there are still a few places left to rent or borrow DVDs, including:
1. DVD Netflix
Although Netflix mostly focuses on its streaming content these days, it still offers its old-school DVD-based service under the name of DVD Netflix. You create a list of shows and movies you want to see, and the service ships you DVDs from your list by two-day mail. You can take as long as you like to watch them, then return them in the enclosed prepaid envelope.
With a DVD Netflix subscription, you can borrow as many disks as you want each month. You can take out one movie at a time for $8 a month or two at a time for $12, and your first month is free. Both standard DVDs and Blu-ray Discs are available.
Redbox operates more than 41,000 automatic DVD rental kiosks throughout the United States. New movies show up in these kiosks as soon as they’re released on DVD.
Rentals cost $1.80 a day for standard DVDs and $2 a day for Blu-rays. In some cities, movies in 4K Ultra HD are available for $2.50 a day. You can also buy pre-owned copies of movies and games for as little as $4. The search feature on the Redbox site helps you find Redbox kiosks near you and browse their selections.
3. Your Local Library
Many public libraries have collections of movies and TV series on DVD that anyone with a library card can check out at no cost. Our small-town library has a surprisingly wide selection, including both classic and recent films, foreign films, and full runs of many popular TV shows, some of which came out fairly recently. There’s also a good assortment of shows and movies for kids.
As more and more households jump on the streaming bandwagon, many people are ditching their DVD players and selling their old DVD collections, often at dirt-cheap prices. If you’re willing to swim against the mainstream by buying old DVDs instead of selling them, you can pick up some real bargains. Here are a few places to look for secondhand DVDs:
1. Garage Sales
You can often buy DVDs when shopping at garage sales for less than it would cost to rent them from Redbox. Most people holding these sales are more interested in cleaning out their houses than in making big bucks, so they price their stuff to sell. At our local town-wide yard sale one year, my husband and I picked up a boxed set of four classic films starring Alec Guinness for $5 — only $1.25 apiece.
2. Secondhand Stores
Some people dumping their DVD collections don’t want to go to the trouble of holding a yard sale, so they just donate the discs to a local thrift store. Our local Goodwill, for instance, has a modest collection of movies on DVD and Blu-ray for $4 apiece. Secondhand bookstores often carry DVDs as well.
3. Online Sellers
Several online resale sites carry DVDs and Blu-ray Discs along with their other items. For example, eBay can be a good place to look for hard-to-find titles like that great TV miniseries you watched years ago and haven’t seen since. SecondSpin, which specializes in used CDs, has DVDs for as little as $1 apiece and Blu-rays starting at $2.40 apiece.
Online booksellers like Alibris and Goodwill Books also carry secondhand discs. Just make sure to check the shipping costs before you buy, since these could add up to more than the price of the discs themselves.
Of course, watching shows and movies isn’t the only way to relax and have fun at home. You could always turn off the TV entirely and read more books. Reading can be a better way to unwind right before bed than watching TV since studies show that the blue light given off by TV and computer screens can interfere with your body’s sleep cycle.
Reading books doesn’t have to be a solitary pleasure. Back in the days before TV and radio, people used to read aloud to each other in the evenings for entertainment. My husband and I have revived this old-fashioned activity, with me reading aloud to him while he does chores around the house. He enjoys having something to entertain him as he works, and I have a lot of fun acting out the book and doing different character voices.
Brand-new books can be expensive, but there are lots of ways to find good books for less money. Here are a few places to try:
1. The Library
The first place to look for any book you want to read is your local library. If it’s available there, you can read it without paying a cent. Of course, a local library doesn’t have as big a selection as Amazon, but even at our small library, we’ve found more than half of the books we’ve looked for. And if your branch doesn’t happen to have what you want, you can always try requesting it from a different branch through interlibrary loan.
Your library is also a great place to stop in and browse if you aren’t looking for anything in particular. I’ve discovered several interesting reads in the social sciences section, and my husband has found some addictive series of graphic novels, simply by browsing.
2. Used Bookstores
Secondhand bookstores don’t usually have a huge selection, so they’re not the best place to go looking for a specific title. However, if you go in with an open mind, you can find some real treasures.
Prices at used bookstores vary considerably — I’ve paid less than $1 for some volumes and upwards of $10 for others — but they’re nearly always less than you’d pay for the same books new. To find used bookstores in your area, just run a search on “used books” along with your address.
3. Book Swaps
There are several online swap sites specifically for books, including PaperBack Swap and BookMooch. These sites allow you to trade your old, unwanted books for others that are new to you, paying only for the cost of shipping. You can also have a book swap party with your friends and bring all your old books to trade with one another.
4. Little Free Libraries
A Little Free Library is a drop-off point where you can leave your unwanted books and pick up ones that interest you. There are currently more than 100,000 Little Free Libraries in over 100 countries around the world. To find one in your area, use the searchable world map at LittleFreeLibrary.org.
If you belong to a Freecycle group, you can often find listings for books that people in your area are giving away. Some of these offerings aren’t that useful, such as textbooks that are years out of date. However, you can sometimes find whole boxes of fiction and nonfiction books being discarded by someone who’s moving or cleaning out their house.
If you don’t mind doing your reading on a screen rather than a printed page, you can find lots of e-books online for little or no cost. Many older books that are out of copyright have been converted to digital form and made available for nothing through the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg. You can also borrow e-books through Open Library or your state e-library.
The Kindle Store on Amazon has thousands of free titles you can read on a Kindle e-reader or any device with the Kindle App, and even more that you can purchase for $3 or less. Likewise, Barnes & Noble has a wide selection of free Nook books, which you can read with any EPUB reader, in its online store.
Games of all types are another great way to have fun at home on a budget. If you think games are just for kids, think again; according to a 2018 Pew poll, 43% of American adults say they play video games sometimes or often.
Old-fashioned tabletop games are also growing in popularity. CNBC reports that worldwide sales of board games reached $9.6 billion in 2016, and Quartz says that the games category is the most funded category on Kickstarter. Here are some great low-cost options to enjoy by yourself or with others.
Advanced gaming systems are amazingly sophisticated — and expensive. The latest game consoles from Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo all cost hundreds of dollars, and games for these systems run between $25 and $60 apiece.
Fortunately, you don’t need one of these high-priced systems to have fun. There’s a wide variety of free or cheap computer games out there, from light and casual to hardcore and immersive. Places to look for video games on a budget include:
The Steam game platform is free for Mac, Windows, and Linux computers, as well as mobile devices. Once you download it, you can play any of the nearly 30,000 titles in the Steam store. Some popular Steam games cost nearly as much as console games, but others are cheap or even free. Free Steam games that earn praise from tech publications include “Warframe,” “Path of Exile,” and “Star Trek Online,” a game in which you explore the galaxy in your own Federation starship.
The online gaming site Battle.net is run by Blizzard, a leading game developer. Here, you can find free-to-play versions of several popular Blizzard games, including “Hearthstone” and “Heroes of the Storm.” There’s also a free starter version of the massively multiplayer online game “World of Warcraft.”
3. Social Media
Over the years, social media sites like Facebook have featured a number of popular games, including “FarmVille,” “Angry Birds,” “Candy Crush Saga,” and “Words With Friends.” Social media games tend to be casual games you can play whenever you have a few spare minutes. You can play them either in your browser or through a mobile app. To find amusing social media games, just visit your home page and click on “games.”
4. Microsoft Store
If you have a Windows computer or tablet, you can find lots of games in the Microsoft Store, including many that are completely free. There’s a free version of the fighting game “Killer Instinct,” originally developed for Xbox One, that earns a recommendation from ExtremeTech.
Game developer Origin also has a wide selection of Windows-based games. You can search for games by genre — such as puzzle, role-playing, or sports — or click on “deals” to find games for under $10. There’s even a small selection of free games, including demos, betas, and freebies. Several reviewers like the free-to-play version of “Star Wars: The Old Republic.”
JayIsGames is a website that publishes game reviews. You can search the site to find the top-rated games in your favorite categories, such as adventure, escape, or puzzle. It covers browser-based games as well as games for Mac, Windows, and Linux, most of which are free to play. The site even has hints and walk-throughs from other players to help you if you get stuck.
7. The Interactive Fiction Database
If you want to go old-school, you can find tons of free, text-based adventures in the Interactive Fiction Database. Some can be played right in your browser, while others require an interpreter program that you can download for free. If you’ve never played this kind of graphics-free game before, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it; many writers of interactive fiction can paint pictures with words that are amazingly immersive. You can search for games by title or author, or browse the lists of games for particular features or themes.
“Tabletop games” is a catchall term that refers to pretty much any game you can play around a table with a group of people. Games of this sort can provide hours of fun for a social gathering or family game night.
You can find inexpensive tabletop games in a variety of categories, including:
1. Board Games
Board games can be pricey to buy. Many popular games cost $50 or more, but that can still be a good value if they provide you with many nights of entertainment. If you don’t want to spend that much upfront, you can find a variety of smaller games for as little as $5 at game stores and large bookstores like Barnes & Noble. Cheapass Games is also a good source of inexpensive games, with many selections under $20 and a whole page of free games you can print out yourself. To find good games to try, check out the recommendations on BoardGameGeek.
2. Card Games
There are hundreds of different games you can play with nothing but a deck of cards that costs less than $5. At Pagat.com, you can find the rules of popular card games, such as Spades, Rummy, and Blackjack, as well as hundreds of varieties of poker. The site is also a good place to discover new games you’ve never heard of, such as Doppelkopf and Cucumber.
3. Role-Playing Games
Role-playing games, or RPGs, are like formal versions of the “pretend” games you used to play as a kid, with players taking on roles and building a story together. All you need to play most RPGs is a set of rules, some paper and pencils, and a set of special multi-sided dice you can pick up for around $6 at a game store or online.
The best-known RPG system, Dungeons & Dragons, has several rule books that cost about $50 a pop, but you can get started with just a set of basic rules available for free from Wizards of the Coast. There are also several inexpensive RPG systems and tools available at DriveThruRPG.com. If you’ve never played RPGs before, Paste Magazine and Critical Hit suggest some good choices for beginners.
4. Party Games
If you want to entertain a big group of people, party games are a good choice. You can buy large-group games such as Apples to Apples and Balderdash, but there are lots of other options that you can play for free. Some are family-friendly, while others, such as drinking games, are strictly for adults. You can find rules online for popular games such as Charades, Celebrity, Fictionary, and Telephone. PartyCurrent is another good place to look for party games suitable for adults.
If you’ve been a cable or satellite subscriber for a long time, getting by without pay-TV might seem impossible. It’s hard to imagine what you’ll do with yourself at the end of a long, stressful day if you can’t flop down on the couch, flip through those 100 channels, and veg out.
But once you start exploring all the different ways there are to have fun at home without pay-TV, you’ll realize just how little you miss that cable subscription. After a while, you’ll hardly even notice it’s gone — but you sure will notice that extra $110 a month in your wallet.
Do you pay for TV service at home? If you don’t, what other ways have you found to entertain yourself and your family?