Kids & Money

Want to cut the cable? First, cut cable costs

I have a love-hate relationship with my cable company. I love history shows, soccer and other live sports, but I hate getting socked with a bill for a lot of channel surfing that comes up empty.

It reminds me of playing a game that I cannot win.

Despite stepped-up efforts by cable providers to improve customer service and offer more options that include bundling TV, Internet and telephone services, the industry still gets low marks from numerous consumer groups. For three consecutive years through 2010, cable and satellite TV companies are the services most complained about on the Angie’s List website.

Today the average cable customer pays about $128 a month in fees for all services, including cable, Internet and phone. That’s about a fourfold increase from a decade ago, taxes not included.

With three kids, our household cable TV bill has always been a big-ticket item in the family budget, especially as we’ve added the Internet and phone to become a triple-play customer. But when our one-year contract came up for renewal with Time Warner Cable at the start of the new year, I decided to make it my mission to trim it down. Maybe I’d also be a role model for my kids on how to balance the bills.

I reviewed Time Warner Cable’s promotional deals, surveyed the competition — AT&T U-verse — and looked at satellite and streaming video services, such as Dish and Roku. I spent more than enough time on hold, waited for calls to be returned that never were and received different answers from customer service agents on pricing services.

It was complicated, aggravating and never-ending — and I’m the customer paying the bill.

Here are some lessons I learned in the process of trying to find the best deal, along with tips from several experts on how you can prune your cable costs or cut the cord altogether.

• You can pay less by asking to pay less. It always amazes me how many people refuse to ask for a deal. There’s more competition than there used to be in the cable business, so consumers have more choices.

Before you call your cable service, arm yourself with competitors’ promotional prices for new customers and know whether they provide service to your area by checking their websites.

One caveat: Because of the often bewildering array of service options, it can be difficult to find the perfect comparison. Still, once you find a plan that fits your needs and pocketbook, ask your provider “Can you match it?” Once you get a response, ask “Can you do better?”

If you’re not sold on the offer, be prepared to end your service. Remember, you will still need to return equipment and possibly change email addresses.

• Determine what you need versus what you want. A good place to start is to decide on bundling multiple services — say, TV, Internet and phone. Putting all your services under one contract should save you money, although bundling tends to be more lucrative for cable companies too.

However, bundling might not always be better. If you really don’t use your landline phone much, ditch it. And maybe even the TV. Stick with the Internet.

You could save money by subscribing to a basic cable TV package, then adding your favorites a la carte, say, the sports package for about $6 a month, said Dave Borchardt of Time Warner Cable in Kansas City.

Likewise, figure out the speed you need on the Internet. If you are using the Internet mainly to look at email, you probably don’t need high-speed service.

“Prioritize what you really, really want,” Borchardt said.

Check on whether getting out of an existing contract will cost you before determining your bottom line savings, according to Angie’s List.

• Cut down on DVR boxes. The retail price for DVR service for Time Warner Cable locally is $10.95 a box, up about $1 from 2011. Going from three boxes to one could save $22 a month, or $264 a year.

• Don’t get locked into a long-term contract. A one-year commitment should be as far as you’ll go. Two years, given the way technology and competition are changing for the better, is too long.

• Keep tabs on promotions. Those $89.99 deals that are available in your neighborhood? Forget about them unless you’re a new customer. I asked for that promotional rate as an existing customer and got turned down every step up the customer service hierarchy. Still, I’ve heard of some current cable customers snagging the new-business promotions.

One more point: If you receive a perk but it only lasts for six months, make note on your calendar to call back at that time and ask for an extension. Keep meticulous notes on whom you talked to and the date you called. (If you’re a college student, companies typically offer a special service plan.)

Dealing with the cable service is complicated, and it promises to get even more complicated as technology evolves. I decided to stick with Time Warner Cable for another year after cutting my bill about $35 a month by dropping HBO and getting six months of free DVR service.

Before my kids come home from college this summer, I’m going to analyze my cable bill again and I’ll share my knowledge with you.