In the old days of cable, you paid one giant price for more TV than you could ever want. It was awful. It was expensive. And who even watches most of this stuff? Now, every media company has its own streaming subscription that you can buy à la carte. And it’s still awful, but in a different way.
Earlier this year, HBO announced it would start a streaming service called HBO Max, on top of its existing HBO Now service, which will eventually be the home of “Friends.” Disney recently introduced Disney Plus, which is home to most of the Disney library, including new Marvel and “Star Wars” TV shows. NBC will offer a subscription service that will become the home of “The Office,” which might be enough on its own to tempt viewers.
This is all on top of a slew of existing streaming services that you may already subscribe to — including Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, CBS All Access, Amazon Prime and more. In other words, it can get expensive to pay for all of them. In some cases, it might even be more expensive than a regular cable subscription.
If you were to subscribe to just the streaming services we have mentioned, here’s what your monthly bill would look like:
Netflix: $9 to $16, depending on how many screens you want to watch on and whether you want 4K.
Hulu: $6 or $12 without ads. For Live TV, plans start at $45.
HBO Now: $15. Reportedly, HBO Max will cost more and have more content.
CBS All Access: $6 or $10 without ads.
Amazon Prime: $13 or $120 if you pay by the year (though Amazon Prime comes with many other benefits beyond streaming).
Disney Plus: $7 or $70 if you pay by the year.
Even a conservative estimate of all these subscriptions puts a monthly bill at about $75. Though, interestingly, if you were to spring for all the extras — no ads, 4K, etc. — and also opt to pay for the entire year upfront where you can, that monthly bill would cost only $5 more, or about $80. The boots theory of economic unfairness comes even for the streaming world.
This math, of course, doesn’t take into account the streaming services that are coming in the next couple of years. And they’re likely to be tempting. Last year, Netflix famously paid $100 million for “Friends” alone. NBC will soon pay the same amount per year to outbid Netflix for “The Office.” What you could once get for a single $13 per month subscription will soon cost considerably more.
Something has to give.
Option 1: Pay for just the services you’re using right now
The rapidly rising cost of all the streaming services you might ever want to use can make it feel as if you’re facing the sky-high cable bills, only with a few extra steps. But despite all of its pain points, there’s a reason à la carte TV was so appealing for so long: You can pick and choose what you want to pay for. And not just what you want, but when you pay for it.
Personally, I have a few subscriptions that I keep around no matter what. These are the ones that I come back to regularly and which have enough content to justify paying for throughout the year. For me, it’s just Netflix and Hulu. I splurge on the 4K and ad-free options, which makes my normal monthly bill about $28.
Of course, there are shows on other services I want to watch, too. When “Game of Thrones” was on, I signed up for HBO Now so I could watch it live. I briefly signed up for CBS All Access to watch the new “Twilight Zone,” though that didn’t last as long. Most services are $10 to $15, so adding one won’t blow out my budget too much.
The key, however, is to rotate your extra subscriptions. Leave one or two slots in your budget for an extra streaming service that you don’t intend to stay subscribed to. Then, while you have it, watch as many of the shows you want to watch on that service as you can, before moving on to the next one. This especially works if you schedule your rotating subscriptions around the big shows or events that you’re excited to see.
For example, say you want to bring Netflix into your rotation to watch the new “Stranger Things.” Well, “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” came to the service that same week, and the show “Love, Death & Robots” had been out a few months earlier. It won’t take too long to get through a big tent pole like “Stranger Things,” but once you’re subscribed, you have at least a month to catch up on the other things you might have wanted to see. When you’re done, just cancel your subscription and move on to the next one. Just make sure you remember to cancel.
Option 2: Maximize your add-ons and bundles
Another option to save money is to look for add-ons and bundles to your existing services, rather than signing up for each individually. In order to consolidate billing and keep customers locked into a certain service, some streaming subscriptions let you sign up for other sites as an add-on to your account.
For example, Hulu offers the opportunity to sign up for a Showtime subscription add-on for the regular $11 per month (on top of your normal Hulu plan), and Starz for an extra $9 per month. So far, this is the same price you would pay if you bought them separately. However, Hulu also offers the option of getting both Showtime and Starz for a discounted $15 per month. If you want both services, you save by getting them together.
You can also look beyond video subscriptions for sweet bundle deals. Spotify previously offered a deal that allowed you to get the ad-supported version of Hulu (normally $6 per month) for the same $10 per month that Spotify on its own cost, essentially getting Hulu for free. The company has ended that offer, but there’s still an even better deal if you’re a student. If you can prove you’re a student (and pay for the year upfront), you get access to Spotify, ad-free Hulu and Showtime for $5 per month. There’s a lot of money to be saved by hunting down these bundles.
Option 3: Roll your own live TV bundle
Live TV subscriptions work a bit differently than sites like Netflix or Hulu. These function like cable, allowing you to watch whatever is being broadcast at the time and “record” shows as you would on a DVR. They also tend to cost more than traditional streaming. However, if you’re up for putting a little more legwork into your TV habit, you can get a lot of content for a smaller price.
Sling TV, for example, offers a broad selection of channels including FX, AMC, NBC, and tons more for $40 a month. For a little less, you can get just a selection of those channels, with some packages as low as $25 per month. This is the closest you can get to regular cable without talking to a cable provider, but the more modular bundles you get with Sling let you save if, for instance, you want to pay for the Disney Channel one month and TLC the next.
Most other live TV services including YouTube TV, PlayStation Vue and Hulu TV offer one big package that you can’t customize quite as much as Sling TV. However, they also offer bigger collections of TV channels you can record from (including sports channels), which alone might be enough to satisfy your viewing habits. The only major downside is that big name shows from services like Netflix or HBO will probably never be available through live TV broadcasts. For some people, that may be a small enough sacrifice.
Option 4: Make the most of all the free trials you can get
Many streaming services require you to sign up for a free trial using an email address and a credit card — then check against that email/credit card combo if you try to sign up for multiple free trials. While it’s not impossible to sneak around the system for an extra week or month of your favorite shows, it’s cumbersome and not usually worth it. But you can still make the most of the free trials you do get.
One strategy is to save up shows or movies you want to watch. For example, when CBS All Access debuted its new “Twilight Zone” series, it released episodes one week at a time, much like a traditional broadcast. However, if you were to wait for the season to end, you could conceivably watch the entire season during the one week free trial that CBS offers.
HBO’s “Game of Thrones” similarly released episodes one week at a time — it was something of a cultural event — but timing can still be a factor even if you want to watch every episode when it airs. For example, HBO’s potential next big show, “His Dark Materials,” will feature eight episodes per season. That could easily fit inside two monthly payments if you timed it right. And if the timing doesn’t line up — say, if HBO decides to skip a week, as it sometimes does — that weeklong free trial might give you the extra coverage you need to avoid paying for a third month just to watch the finale.