How to squeeze more savings from your cable bill

Being stuck with your cable company doesn't mean you can't save money.

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Like it or not, you’re probably stuck with your cable company even if you cut the cord on pay TV.

Cable companies, after all, still provide the home internet service that’s necessary for streaming video. Mobile internet plans are still no substitute for cable-based internet, and much-hyped alternatives like 5G home internet and high-speed satellite internet are still years away from being widely available.

That doesn’t mean saving money on your cable bill is a lost cause. Whether you haven’t quit cable yet or remain tethered to cable internet service, you can still maximize your savings in several ways. Here are some ideas:

Don’t fear slower speeds

If you try to cancel cable TV, you might encounter some scare tactics as your provider tries to upsell you on speed boosts. But even for streaming video, upgrading your internet speed might be unnecessary.

Let’s look at Comcast as an example. The cable giant charges a non-promotional price of $78 per month for 100Mbps “Performance” internet, versus $93 per month for 200Mbps “Blast” internet. While doubling your speed might be nice, 100Mbps is more than enough for streaming, even in 4K on a few TVs at the same time. (Netflix recommends a connection speed of at least 25Mbps for 4K video, and that is the FCC’s minimum spec for broadband internet.)

Cox, meanwhile, charges a non-promotional price of $66 per month for 50Mbps speeds, which is $18-per-month cheaper than 150Mbps service and should also be fine for one or two simultaneous streams. If you’re having streaming problems at these speeds, I’d wager the problem is with your Wi-Fi router, not a lack of internet bandwidth. (More on that shortly.)

Beware of “free” internet upgrades

Related to the above, cable companies sometimes try to sneak in speed upgrades that appear to be free, but can cost more later if you’re not careful.

When you bundle TV and internet with Spectrum, for instance, you might get an offer for 400Mbps service at the same price as 200Mbps service. After a two-year promo period, however, the faster plan becomes $20-per-month pricier than the cheaper one.

Comcast goes further, promoting 200Mbps speeds at a lower price than 100Mbps service. While the slower tier costs $78 per month, the faster service costs $40 per month for one year, but jumps to $93 per month after that. In both cases, the cable companies are hoping you won’t bother to downgrade in the end.

Return your cable boxes

Credit where due: After years of dragging their feet, both Comcast and Spectrum have stopped making cable boxes mandatory, so even if you stick with cable TV, you can save money on rental fees by watching TV through a streaming device.

Comcast charges $5 per month for each cable box, but its Xfinity Stream app is free on Roku devices, Samsung TVs, and LG TVs, and it offers 20 hours of cloud DVR storage at no extra cost. Spectrum charges $8 per cable box, but has free streaming apps for Roku devices, Apple TV, Samsung TVs, and the Xbox One with cloud DVR as a $10-per-month add-on.

With a small enough TV package, going box-free might even bring you into the same price ballpark as live TV streaming services such as YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV. Comcast’s off-contract bundle price for 125 channels and 200Mbps internet, for instance, is $133.70 per month, including fees. That’s fairly reasonable compared to Comcast’s internet-only price of $78 per month at 100Mbps, especially with live TV streaming services costing upwards of $50 per month.

Unfortunately, most other major providers such as Cox, Optimum, and Verizon Fios still don’t offer TV apps, but if cutting down on rental fees is the priority, you can load up your streaming device with apps for individual networks such as ESPN and HGTV instead. Sign into these apps with your pay TV credentials, and you can watch live and on-demand content from each channel.

Bring your own modem and router

Speaking of rental fees, your internet provider might be charging you a monthly toll for a modem and Wi-Fi router. Investing in your own own networking gear can pay off in the long run, and might give you better Wi-Fi performance compared to rental hardware.

Just pay attention to what’s hooked up to your cable line. A cable modem has a round coaxial cable plugged into it, running from a wall outlet, and provides internet service to the house. A router connects to the cable modem with an ethernet cord, and allows devices around the house to connect wirelessly. If you only have one box, it’s probably a modem-router combo, and you’ll need to purchase both a standalone modem and router to replace it.

The old cancellation threat

I’ll end this column with a personal anecdote: A few months ago, I noticed that my Spectrum internet bill had crept up from $65 per month to $70 per month. I’m fortunate to live in an area with two high-speed internet options—the other being Cincinnati Bell—so I decided to play one against the another.

Now, I didn’t explicitly threaten to cancel service. Instead, I merely started asking Spectrum’s customer service reps when would be the best time to end service, so I could switch to another provider without losing connectivity. That line of inquiry earned me a quick trip to Spectrum’s customer-retention department, where a representative offered two years of service for $50 per month with no contract. (He also tried to sell me on a “free” 400Mbps upgrade for one year, which I declined for reasons stated earlier.)

Spectrum in particular has a lot of deals for prospective cord-cutters, including cheaper TV packages with a small number of channels. If you do your cord-cutting research and come prepared to quit cable, you might find that you don’t have to.

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