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6 ways to save money on TV streaming without losing the shows you love

I cut my video streaming bill in half, and so can you, with these six tips.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor
hand holding a TV remote
Getty / Sean Locke / EyeEm

Cord-cutting was supposed to be the smart way to free yourself from exorbitant cable bills. 

But you add a Netflix here, a Paramount+ there, toss in some Hulu and Max and Apple+ and your favorite sports network, and pretty soon you're paying $100 or more every month. And that's not counting the never-ending "Can you top that?" competition as the streaming services ratchet prices up ever higher.

Also: The best VPNs for streaming your favorite shows and sports

What's a smart streamer to do?

That was me a few years ago. Today my total cost of video services is half what it was then, and I never run out of entertaining stuff to watch. 

In this post, I'll show you how I did it, and how you can do the same.

How to cut your video streaming bill

1. Make a list, check it twice

Streaming providers, like your neighborhood fitness emporium, count on their members signing up and then putting their monthly payments on autopilot. Maybe you come back, maybe you completely forget that you have a paid subscription to Starz or Paramount+. If you don't go through your credit card statements with the eye of an IRS auditor, you'll never notice those monthly extractions.

Also: The best live TV streaming services

The solution? Track the services you subscribe to, so you know exactly what you're paying for. If you're not using a service, you can and should cancel with extreme prejudice. If you're not bothered by occasional interruptions, you might be able to save a few bucks by choosing the ad-supported plan instead of a more expensive premium plan.

This is the sort of job that spreadsheets were made for. I use Excel, with my files stored in OneDrive so I can view them online or in the desktop app. If you live in Google's cloud, feel free to use Google Sheets. You could also use OneNote, EverNote, or another note-taking app.

If you want another incentive to check that list regularly, consider also jotting down the series and events you watch or plan to watch on each service.

The important thing is to make that list and then remember to check it at least once a month.

2. Take advantage of offers from your mobile provider

Streaming services know that people are increasingly watching their content on phones and tablets, which means they're eager to cut promotional deals with mobile providers. You can save money by taking advantage of those deals.

T-Mobile, for example, offers a long list of streaming discounts. With a Go5G plan, you get "Netflix on Us" and Apple TV+ and (as of January 2024) Hulu (with ads). That adds up to more than $20 a month, and you have the option to upgrade that Netflix plan with 4K support for a minimal extra fee. (And yes, the 55+ plans qualify.)

Also: The best TVs: Expert-tested picks for gaming, streaming, and more

Verizon offers a $10 credit on a Disney+ bundle, with Hulu and ESPN+ (ad-supported) and Disney+ with its top two unlimited plans. With lower-priced plans, you can get a $5 credit on your choice of Netflix, Max, or Paramount plans. Those offers are noticeably less generous than they were a year or two ago.

AT&T includes a no-charge Max subscription with some of its legacy unlimited plans.

For some services, you have to cancel your existing streaming subscription, wait for the current subscription to end, and then sign up again using the mobile provider's portal to take advantage of these discounts. But the savings might make it worth the small hassle.

3. Take advantage of offers from your credit card company

Streaming services love to rope in credit card companies as partners. That makes sense, because you're probably going to use a credit card to pay for that service, and the card issuer chips off a little piece of each transaction as part of the deal.

If you have a top-of-the-line American Express Platinum card, one of your benefits is a $20 monthly Digital Entertainment Credit, which you can apply to Disney+, Hulu, ESPN+, or a bundle containing all three services. Peacock is also on the list of eligible video services.

Also: 3 easy ways to save on your home office energy bill

You might be able to find similar deals from other cards, but the more likely option is an inflated cash-back option for streaming services, with some cards giving between 3% and 6% of the total bill as a rebate, sometimes for just a few months. It's always worth checking.

4. Cut your monthly cost with an annual subscription

Some streaming services offer a powerful incentive to convert your monthly subscription to a prepaid annual deal. 

If you know you want to subscribe to Max every month, for example, why pay $10 (for the ad-supported plan) or $16 (for the ad-free plan) every month, when you can purchase an annual subscription that effectively gives you two or more months free?

Not every provider offers this option (Netflix is monthly only, for example), but it's worth checking for any service that's on your list.

5. Use the "subscribe-binge-cancel" strategy

Sometimes a service doesn't have a selection of content that's compelling enough to justify a long-term subscription. But what do you do when that service has a series or two you're dying to watch? That sums up how I feel about Starz every time another season of Outlander rolls around.

The simple solution: Once every episode is available, sign up for a monthly subscription, binge the series before your month is up, and then cancel.

Also: The best TV antennas: Top picks for signal strength

And here's a tip to avoid accidentally paying for a second month because you forgot to cancel. After you've paid for and activated your monthly subscription, go to the service dashboard and cancel. You won't get a refund; instead, you'll get a notice that you can continue watching until your month is up. Just be sure you watch that final episode before the clock runs out. Calendar and/or Alexa reminders can help you with that. 

6. Sample what's available on free services

The surest way to cut your streaming bill, of course, is to replace paid services with those that cost nothing at all.

After all, not everything is "appointment TV," where you're so eager to tune in to the latest from a favorite series that you set a reminder to be on your couch, remote in hand, when the episode drops. Sometimes you're just looking for a distraction, and something corny or campy or nostalgic might be just the ticket.

For those nights, try exploring the free apps and services that are probably already on your streaming device. You can watch the adventures of Jed Clampett and kin in The Beverly Hillbillies on the Roku Channel, You get classic Dr. Who and Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Pluto TV, and Tubi TV has a huge video library drawn from the vaults of Lionsgate, MGM, Paramount Pictures, and Starz Digital.

Also: Tubi TV adds AI-powered search to help you find something to watch faster

This roundup from ZDNET's Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols can get you started: "The 7 best free video streaming services"

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