Cable television can be a costly habit: average consumers may pay over $200 a month when you include hidden fees. Paying that much to watch commercials and surf through hundreds of uninspiring channels doesn't sound like that great of a deal, right? But luckily, better options are out there. Cutting the cord doesn't have to be boring, thanks to these free or inexpensive alternatives to cable TV.
Borrowing DVDs from the library
Libraries are one of the most under-utilized resources we have available today. They're one of the few remaining community fixtures that welcome you without the expectation of spending money (unless you lose track of when your books are due—note to self!). In addition to books, you can usually find events, groups, classes, tax help, job assistance, and the relevant part to this article: a wide selection of shows and movies on DVD.
Typically, you can borrow DVDs for a week and renew them for longer if another patron hasn't requested them. I'm a regular at my local library as it's a great place to get focused writing done, so I often see new arrivals of shows, movies, and documentaries on the shelves.
If your library doesn't refresh its collection as frequently, you can usually submit a request for something you'd like to watch and it will be shipped from another library in the system. The flexibility and up-to-date selections make this one of my personal favorite cable alternatives.
And if you got rid of your DVD player as soon as Netflix got big, you can likely pick one up quite cheaply on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. Or, if there's an Xbox or Playstation in the house, those consoles are also capable of playing DVDs and Blu-rays.
Bonus: Can't find anything you want to watch? From time to time my partner and I do "random movie night", where we each pick a movie off the shelf with our eyes closed. It's a fun way to either find hidden gems or laugh at how terrible a film is.
Installing an antenna for local networks
Local channels are free to watch, as long as you have an HD antenna to receive them. Usually, you'll get content from major networks and affiliates including ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and PBS, in addition to sports, weather, etc. Enter your zip code on the FCC website to see what's available in your area.
As far as what antenna to get, TechRadar did a roundup of good indoor antennas here. Prices will differ based on what kind of range and reception you want. If you live close to a city, you might be fine with a cheap 30-mile antenna, but options go up to 80 miles. Remember, this will just be a one-time purchase with no ongoing costs, so I think it's worth spending a little extra to get good quality and plenty of channels.
Watching online TV channel content
Networks often have websites where they upload recent episodes for free. You'll just have to be quick on the draw to watch episodes while they're still online.
A few popular options offering free online episodes and clips include:
Subscribing to cheap streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, etc)
Paid streaming services usually have a lot of up-to-date and popular content, plus original shows. The three biggest options, which you've probably already heard of, are Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video.
Now, you could get all three and it would still be cheaper than cable, but the most cost-effective option is to keep one subscription at a time. Watch through all the shows you want to see on that platform, then cancel that subscription and switch to one of the others. (Or, piggyback on a family member's account if they have a plan allowing multiple users, and throw them a couple bucks.)
Streaming on free ad-supported websites
There are plenty of free, safe, and legal websites where you can watch content online as an alternative to cable TV. The catch? You usually need to be okay with ads, and with not watching the most popular shows right when they drop.
Some of the biggest players in this space include:
For more details on these sites and others, see my full article on free Netflix alternatives here. The internet is also full of sketchy streaming sites that definitely are not as safe or legal, so stick with the verified ones.
Watching YouTube videos
On YouTube, you'll find thousands of channels with free content, including clip libraries from popular TV channels and shows.
For instance, you can subscribe to the YouTube channels of:
YouTube also has a Movies & Shows section, where you can buy them, rent them, or watch some for free.
Of course, there are also countless individual creators putting out their own entertainment, tutorials, and other content on just about every topic under the sun, from skincare to neuroscience. Check out the Clever Girl Finance YouTube channel!
Usually on YouTube, you'll need to watch a short ad or two before the video begins, and sometimes there's a mid-video commercial in longer clips.
Listening to podcasts
If you're ready to take a break from watching a screen, try some audio cable alternatives instead! Podcasts are especially convenient to put on while you're getting ready in the morning, driving somewhere, cleaning, on a walk, etc.
Free apps like Podcast Addict have thousands of podcasts available to stream or download. If you already have Spotify, you can explore their podcast section as well.
The content of podcasts can be fiction, real-life stories, educational entertainment (history, psychology, etc), interviews, news—just about anything!
For example, try some of these to experiment and see what appeals to you:
- Finance: The Clever Girls Know Podcast (of course!) and ChooseFI
- Psychology: Hidden Brain (one of my current favorites)
- History: Revisionist History or Hardcore History
- Philosophy: Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life
- Crime: Criminal
- Fiction: The Truth (ironically)
Head back to the library to browse the bookshelves in addition to DVDs! Books may be old-school, but they're absolutely still one of the best forms. Pick up a well-written book with good imagery and this cable alternative is like activating a personal built-in TV inside your brain as you picture the characters and unfold a new world.
Books are also great alternatives to cable TV because of all the benefits they offer for your intellectual, emotional, and even physical health. Regular reading can slow cognitive aging, increase your empathy, reduce stress (which comes with quite a cocktail of health benefits), and more. Check out this ultimate list of best books for women!
Whether your pleasure is modern fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries, or learning about the many topics represented in the nonfiction section, they're all accessible for free with a library card. If you prefer to build up a book collection of your own, look at used bookstores or search on eBay to find cheaper copies instead of always buying brand-new.
Armed with all these cable alternatives, are you feeling ready to cut the cord? I promise—you won't miss the commercials!