If you are like most Americans, you’re watching more and more of your TV on streaming services — and less via traditional cable or satellite providers. Same for movies. Less in the theater and more via Internet streaming. This is likely true whether you’re a cord cutter, a cord never, or a cord “supplementer” (a subscriber to streaming services to supplement your traditional provider).
With the streamers investing boatloads of money into exclusive original content with the hope of grabbing market share, odds are that your favorite shows span multiple services. That is certainly true for me. I finally cut the cord in February 2021 after realizing that my family and I were watching virtually nothing via our DIRECTV satellite package. Paying for both legacy TV service and multiple streaming subscriptions no longer made sense.
But the gotcha with on-demand streaming is that you can easily get addicted to the luxury of being able to watch anything you want at any time. If you’re not careful, you can end up paying more than you intended for an ever-increasing number of streaming services — and negating some of the savings you expected from cutting the cord.
In the end, you could subscribe to so many streaming services that you’d pay about the same as a mid-tier to a high-end cable package. Even if you can afford that, who wants to pay for more than you need? Or to waste money on services you watch only a few times a year?
With that in mind, I thought I’d review the practices I’ve used to minimize my streaming costs without depriving myself of content I want to watch.
A couple of caveats:
- I’m allergic to commercials so any strategy around saving money by choosing ad-supported plans or services is out of the question for me.
- I watch almost no sports or live events, so I don’t have a need for an online live TV service (such as YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV, and Philo). If you’re looking for a live TV streaming service, then Sling TV is usually the most cost-effective, assuming one of their channel lineups suits your needs.
With those caveats out of the way, here are my tips for ways to save money on streaming services.
Direct Promotions from the Streamers
The first place to look for deals is straight from the source — most streamers offer free trials and promotional discounts.
The typical free trial is seven days. However, services sometimes offer longer trials as special promotions.
For example, Paramount+ (formerly known as CBS All Access) usually offers 30-day free trial promotions, including for the ad-free Premium plan. Jared Newman of Cord Cutter Weekly, claims to have used rolling 30-day trials to continuously subscribe for free for months on end. Even though I love saving money, I don’t mind eventually paying the regular price for Paramount+ since I want to financially support their ability to make Star Trek shows.
Even if a free trial isn’t available, streamers offer other promotional discounts. For example, around the time of this writing, Disney+ was offering a month of service for $1.99 before the regular price kicked in starting month two.
I last subscribed to Hulu nearly eight months ago. Every few weeks, they send me a returning customer offer for one free month. When I’m ready, I’ll redeem it.
Another example: Apple TV+ offers three months of free service with the purchase of qualifying Apple hardware. Previously, they offered a full year.
Discounts from Promotional Partners
Many of my streaming services are available for free or at a discount from promotional partners.
I’d gladly pay full price for HBO Max to get access to the treasure trove of HBO TV series, a growing collection of Max Originals (e.g. Doom Patrol, Search Party, The Flight Attendant), and Warner Brothers movies. However, AT&T gives the service to me for free as a benefit of subscribing to their gigabit fiber Internet service.
Except for Ted Lasso, I wouldn’t pay for Apple TV+ based on their current offerings. However, Apple granted me a free year of service from an iPad purchase in 2020. Immediately after that expired, I redeemed four additional months of free service as a Target Circle member. Once that special ends, I’ll redeem a year of free service from T-mobile (my mobile phone provider).
Also via T-Mobile, I qualify for $8.99 per month towards my Netflix subscription. The company just announced a new promotion for a one-year free subscription to Paramount+. Alas, it’s for the ad-supported Essential plan.
You should check your mobile phone provider to see if they have partnered with any streaming services for special promotions.
A final example. Amazon has been promoting six months of free Disney+ for Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers.
August 15, 2022 Update
I just learned that one of my credit cards (from American Express) is offering a $7 monthly statement credit on the Disney Bundle (if you use the card to pay for your subscription). I don’t care about ESPN+ and usually subscribe to Hulu and Disney+ on a rotational basis, so the deal doesn’t make sense for me. But for anyone who already subscribes to all three services, the offer is a great way to get a further discount on your already-discounted bundle price. The takeaway: also check your credit cards for partnership discounts.
Promotions via “Indirect” Third-Party Subscriptions
Some streaming services — e.g. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Apple TV+, and Disney+ — allow only direct subscriptions via their apps. In other words, you pay them directly and you have to use one of their TV or mobile apps (or their website) to watch content.
Other streaming services — e.g. Paramount+, Showtime, and Starz — also allow subscriptions indirectly via bigger third-party streaming platforms.
Let me give you some examples.
You can subscribe to Paramount+ directly (with no third party in the middle) and use their app on your TV or mobile device. However, you can also subscribe to Paramount+ indirectly via Amazon Prime Video Channels or Apple TV Channels. In this scenario, you pay Amazon or Apple and the Paramount+ content appears inside either the Prime Video app or Apple TV app. (You don’t use the Paramount+ app at all.)
One reason you might want to do this is to take advantage of a special offer from the third-party platform. For example, around June 2021, Amazon was offering two months of Showtime (normally $10.99/month) or Starz (normally $8.99/month) for just $0.99/month. Normally, I don’t pay for those services, but I subscribed to both to catch up on several movies which were streaming exclusively on Showtime — and to watch the Starz original TV series P-Valley.
After two months, I had caught up on all the content I wanted to watch and canceled those channels from my Amazon Prime Video subscription. Total cost: $4.
In the case of AMC+, they offer their streaming content only via third-party services. There is no standalone AMC+ app. Instead, you subscribe and watch via Amazon Prime Video or another major platform.
In addition to promotions, I have three more reasons you might want to indirectly subscribe to a service:
- Fewer apps to deal with. I don’t mind using multiple apps to watch my shows, but the simplicity of having your content consolidated into one service is appealing. For example, if you were to subscribe to both Paramount+ and AMC+ via Amazon, then you could add their movies and TV shows right alongside the “regular” Amazon Prime Video content, all in the same watch list.
- Device availability. If you have an older streaming device or television, one or more of your services may not offer an app for it. For example, the Paramount+ app isn’t available on my 2017 LG OLED TV. They offer the app only on LG TVs made in 2018 or later. To solve this problem, I could instead subscribe to Paramount+ via Amazon Channels since the Amazon Prime Video app is installed on my TV. In my case, I actually have another option. The NVIDIA Shield streaming box hooked up to my TV does offer the Paramount+ app (via the Google Play store).
- Better picture and sound quality. When it debuted, the picture and sound quality on CBS All Access was pretty poor compared to bigger services like Amazon and Netflix. When Star Trek Discovery came out, the CBS All Access app struggled to reach HD picture quality and did not offer Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. On the other hand, if you watched the same content on Amazon instead (with an indirect subscription), they offered it in full HD and Dolby Digital 5.1 — like any other Amazon Prime Video content.
Note: As of this writing, I have a free month of Paramount+ via their own app (no third party). The quality has come a long way since the CBS All Access days. Watching Star Trek: Prodigy with my son, the picture is in full HD and the sound is in 5.1. Even better, we watched A Quiet Place 2 in 4K UHD.
March 19, 2022 Update
After watching both Star Trek: Discovery season four and the beginning of Star Trek: Picard season two directly on the Parmount+ TV app, I can report that the shows look infinitely better on that platform than they do on the Amazon Prime TV app (on my 4K OLED TV). The shows stream in 4K HDR on Paramount+ but only in HD on Amazon, where the picture quality looks washed out by comparison.
With so much quality content available via the various streaming services, you can end up paying for services you’re barely watching — for lack of time. Or maybe you’ve caught up on everything you want to watch on a particular service until a new series or season comes out.
For these reasons, one strategic way to save money is to rotate your streaming subscriptions. For example, the only thing I watch on Paramount+ is their Star Trek series (other than the occasional movie to which they have exclusive rights). So, it’d be a waste of money for me to subscribe to it between Star Trek series. Also, while I want to watch some series (like Discovery and Picard) as soon as each episode drops, for other series (like Lower Decks), I’m fine with waiting until an entire season is available and then binge-watching it.
Likewise, I subscribe to Disney+ only when they have a must-see Marvel or Star Wars series that I want to either binge or watch week to week.
I do the same for Hulu — subscribing only when they have built up enough original TV series (e.g. Ramy, What We Do In The Shadows) or exclusive movies to warrant a subscription.
One advantage of this strategy is that the company may offer you a returning customer promotion (such as the free month of Hulu that I already mentioned).
The streamers are well aware that many of their subscribers are employing this tactic. In response, they are producing more and more content to get you to stick around. Eventually, Disney+ will have enough shows in their pipeline that at least one Marvel and/or Star Wars TV series will be “on the air” (dropping new episodes) year-round with few if any gaps between them. Ditto Paramount+. With five Stark Trek series in active production and more in development, they plan to eventually offer new Star Trek episodes year-round. AMC is employing a similar strategy with their Walking Dead franchise (to which I’m hopelessly addicted).
Free Streaming Via Your Library
Their selection is limited, but several times a year I find movies on Kanopy or Hoopla that aren’t available on Netflix, Amazon, or my other paid services.
In my experience, the picture and sound quality are better on Kanopy than on Hoopla.
Savvy consumers use several other methods to save money on streaming. However, I don’t use any of these for various reasons.
Sharing Passwords Across Households
While it makes sense to share the same account (with different viewer profiles) for family members in the same household, many friend groups use this technique to game the system. Depending on the service, sharing passwords between different households may violate their terms of service. So far, the streamers haven’t been aggressive about enforcing the restriction.
For me, the practice feels slimy and I’d rather support the companies financially so that they can keep making the content I like.
If you’re interested in multiple streaming services all owned by the same parent company, they may be available in a discounted bundle.
For example, Disney offers a discount if you subscribe to Disney+, Hulu, and EPSN+ as a bundle. This is a great deal if you want all three services at the same time. In my case, I don’t care about ESPN+, and I rarely have even Disney+ and Hulu simultaneously.
March 19, 2022 Update
Disney recently introduced a new bundle where Hulu subscribers can add Disney+ for just $2.99 per month (vs. the regular $7.99 monthly fee). Since I currently have a Hulu subscription, I’ll take advantage of this deal to catch up on some movies and TV series.
Likewise, Paramount offers a discounted bundle with a pairing of Paramount+ and Showtime.
Subscribe to Ad-Supported Plans
Many services, including Hulu and Paramount+, offer a cheaper subscription plan with ads and a more expensive plan without ads. I can’t tolerate commercial interruptions, but my understanding is that the ad volume is much lower than what you’d see on traditional television.
Some services (e.g. Disney+) will give you a price break if you prepay an entire year. This is a good deal if you’re confident you’ll consistently watch the service year-round. However, you’d be giving up the opportunity to rotate your subscription and take advantage of new/returning customer promotions.
Some services offer student discounts.
A Case Study
Now that I’ve outlined the various ways I try to save on my streaming services, I thought it’d be helpful to describe my streaming service setup as a case study.
My “Permanent” Services
I subscribe to three services on a continuous basis.
If it were just me, I’d likely subscribe to Netflix year-round because I watch it fairly regularly between their original and licensed TV series and movies. However, when you add in the viewing habits of my wife, daughter, and son, then Netflix is a slam dunk and our number one must-have service.
- Plan: Premium (4 simultaneous streams and 4K UHD video)
- Price: $11/month (after $8.99 T-mobile discount)
I probably watch HBO Max as much or more than Netflix. I think it’s the most underrated service on the market. The rest of my family doesn’t watch as often.
- Plan: Ad-Free
- Price: $0/month (included with my AT&T Internet service; normally, $14.99/month)
Amazon Prime Video
I watch Amazon Prime Video semi-regularly — a few original series (e.g. Upload, The Expanse, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) plus some original and licensed movies. We are Amazon Prime members for package delivery. And since membership includes Prime Video, you might say we are getting it for free. Otherwise, for just the streaming service, I’d likely subscribe on a rotation.
- Plan: Amazon Prime Membership – Annual Payment Plan
- Price: $139/year (which works out to around $11.58 per month)
- In February 2022, Amazon raised the price of Prime subscriptions from $119 to $139 per year.
- You can subscribe to Prime Video as a standalone service for $8.99/month.
My “Rotational” Services
I subscribe to various other services anywhere from once a year to multiple times a year.
Paramount is expanding the content on Paramount+. The number of movies will grow with originals released directly on the streamer as well as big-screen movies from Paramount Pictures that will debut 30-45 days after their theatrical release. Between movies and the numerous Star Trek series, I suspect, Paramount+ will soon be a “permanent” service for me.
- Plan: Premium (ad-free)
- Price: $9.99/month
If I weren’t frugal by nature, then Hulu would be on my permanent list. They frequently have original or licensed movies on my watch list. Plus, they have a few TV series I like. However, I subscribe and cancel about two times a year to save money.
- Plan: Hulu (No Ads)
- Price: $14.99/month*
*As of October 2022.
My primary interest in Disney+ is the Marvel and Star Wars content. Disney is planning an avalanche of new series in these cinematic universes. But since its launch two years ago, I’ve subscribed a few times for just a month or two when enough new content has built up.
- Plan: Monthly subscription
- Price: $7.99/month*
*The rate will increase to $10.99 in December 2022.
The launch of AMC+ as a stand-alone streaming service (independent of any cable or satellite subscription) was a key factor in enabling me to finally cut the cord. That’s because I like to watch The Walking Dead and its spinoff shows in real-time as they air week to week. Before AMC+, the only way to do this was to subscribe to cable or satellite and watch on the “linear” AMC channel.
The only streaming option was to either subscribe to an expensive Live TV service or wait months until the shows were available on Netflix or other streaming platforms.
With AMC+, I can watch new episodes not only in real-time but one week earlier than their regular broadcast on cable. Also, I have access to other shows on AMC (e.g. Better Call Saul and Killing Eve). Thank you AMC+ and — SNIP — audios DIRECTV.
- Plan: Monthly subscription
- Price: $8.99/month
AMC has produced three different Walking Dead series so far and has plans for more. So, AMC+ looks to be in frequent rotation for me, if not permanent.
Between the direct promotion from Apple and partner promotions from Target and T-Mobile, I’ll ultimately receive 2.3 years of free Apple TV+. After that, I expect Apple TV+ to be in infrequent rotation since they have few TV series or movies I want to watch.
- Plan: Monthly subscription
- Price: $4.99/month
Kanopy & Hoopla
As mentioned, I sometimes watch movies on these services which are free through my local libraries. As such, I don’t subscribe to them. They are always available to me. However, I watch content on them only a few times a year.
Every blue moon I want to watch a movie sooner than its streaming debut, or one that isn’t available on any of my current streaming services. In those cases, I’ll rent the movie on a VOD service like Amazon, Apple, or Vudu. Depending on whether the movie is available in HD or UHD, a typical rental is anywhere from $3.99 to $5.99.
Total Monthly Cost
Since I rotate subscriptions between multiple services, I don’t have a fixed monthly streaming cost. So, I’ll break it down by minimum, typical, and maximum.
With only my core (“permanent”) services:
Netflix ($11) + Amazon ($11.58) + HBO Max ($0) = $22.58.
If you consider that I’d be paying Amazon anyway for package delivery, then you could argue that my true cost is only $11.00.
Without my partner discounts, my monthly cost for the three services would be $46.56.
At any given time, I’m usually subscribed to at least two additional “rotation” services. For example, currently, I have Paramount+ and AMC+ subscriptions.
Assuming I don’t have any promotional discounts on those two services, they sum up to $18.98, bringing my total monthly cost to $41.56.
Without discounts, the monthly cost would be $65.54.
If I were to subscribe to all of my various streaming services at the same time, then my total monthly cost (with discounts and bundles) would be $59.54.
Without discounts, the total cost would be $88.51.
March 19, 2022
- When the 49ers reached the playoffs in early 2022, I added an indoor HD Antenna to my setup. I now get dozens of broadcast channels from the Sacramento TV market, including the affiliates for FOX, NBC, and CBS. Sadly, my antenna can’t pull in the ABC or PBS affiliate. If those were truly important to me, I could explore getting an outdoor antenna.
- I’ve updated references to “ViacomCBS” to “Paramount” due to a corporate rebranding.
September 20, 2022
I’ve updated the prices and calculations in the post to reflect various price increases from the streaming services, including Hulu’s announced hike in October.
If you combine various trials, promotions, and discounts with the practice of rotating your less-watched streaming services, you have several levers you can pull to save money on your streaming services.
Tons of tech news sites provide lists of ways to save on streaming. I hope my more personal case study gave you an idea or two to help you watch what you want at a strategic price. Let me know in the comments.
(Note: I moderate all comments so you may experience a delay before your comment appears on the post. For any SPAMMERS out there, don’t waste your time submitting as I will reject your comment.)