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Billshit: A line-by-line look at your bloated, horrible cable bill

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Paying too much for cable stinksI know. Here I am, a person who writes about living frugally and saving money and all that, and I still subscribe to one of the biggest rip-offs of all time: Cable TV. I’m not proud of it, and I blame Breaking Bad. I couldn’t exactly get rid of cable when Walt went on the lam, and, ever since then, well, I’ve just been lazy.

Despite the variety of alternatives that now exist, lots of people still have cable. So in this edition of Billshit, I thought I’d run down my bill, call my cable company and get the details of every single line item. It was pure hell, but hopefully reading about it won’t be.

Time Warner Cable Bill

In the photo, you’ll find the cable bill for Ms. Kristine Nong. I have no idea who this is, but I’ve been paying her cable bill for quite some time now.

The first thing you should notice is an insane one-time $199.00 charge for ‘NBA Season.’ My boyfriend paid for this, because he loves basketball and wants to watch basketball for the next six months. Yes, I’ve tried telling him this price is crazy–if you want to have a go at it, feel free to sound off in the comments. Until he comes to his senses, we’ll have to ignore this.

Let’s look at the ‘Monthly Services’ section of this bill, along with ‘Taxes, fees & surcharges.’

HD-DVR Box & Remote: $10.00

My cable company charges customers $10 a month for their cable box and remote control. It’s ridiculous, and I’ve argued this with them before. But for the sake of this piece, I argued again:

“So you’re saying if I want to watch the cable I already pay for, I have to pay for this, too?”

“Yes.”

Internet/Cable package: $109.99

The first thing I noticed about this price is that it’s about twenty bucks more than it was on my last statement. What an outrage, right? Yes, and it’s an outrage I have to deal with every few months. It seems like every three months, some “promotional offer” expires, and this is the “lowest price we can give you at this time.” It’s complete Billshit. I’ve come to understand that a price increase means I’ll have to call and argue my way back to my old price.

“My bill went up $20 this month. Last month, I was paying for ‘Basic TV.’ This month I’m paying for ‘Preferred TV,’” I told the customer service rep.

“Yeah, we changed the names,” she replied. (Huh?)

“Uh, okay. Well, I’d like to go back to what I was paying, or cancel everything.”

“Okay, no problem. I’ll transfer you to our cancellations department,” she said, cheerfully.

This is part of the game. They pretend they don’t care if you quit, then they transfer you to cancellations, where you’re manipulated through a maze of up-selling and convoluted offers.

“Before you transfer me, I’d like to ask about some of these other charges, just out of curiosity,” I said.

DVR Service-$12.99

I pay $12.99 for DVR services, which I don’t need. It came with a package a while back, but now, it’s just an added expense, so I asked to have it removed.

Internet Modem Lease–$5.99

I’m charged a monthly fee for “leasing” something that I can get on eBay for a one-time price of probably five bucks.

To confirm this, I asked, “Can I return the leased modem to you and use my own for free?”

“That is correct.”

Turbo Upgrade–$10

I pay an extra $10 for a faster Internet upload speed. I sometimes edit and send videos for work, and I’ve definitely noticed a difference since upgrading. In fact, I once tried to get rid of this expense and downgrade; it took forever to send files. So I consider this is a necessary business expense.

PEG Capital Fee–$2.99, Franchise Fee–$14.58

Ah, fees and taxes.

PEG stands for “public, educational, and governmental.” This fee pays the city for channels broadcast by universities or local government bodies. The city of Los Angeles has its own public-access station, for example. So does California State University.

Point is, these fees and taxes are regulated locally and vary depending on where you live. While both of the above fees are generally dedicated to the same thing, the capital fee is designated for a specific expense–the local government’s “capital expenses” related to the PEG channels. The franchise fee is an additional fee the cable company has to pay to broadcast these channels.

Here’s how Comcast puts it:

“A local franchise authority may require that a cable operator provide channels for public, education, and/or government access. The LFA may require the cable operator to provide funds for equipment for local studios for these channels and operating funds to cover the expenses of operating the studios.”

Depending on where you live, what company you have and what services you use, you might also pay an FCC regulatory fee, a 9-1-1 fee, a right-of-way fee or a handful of other fees.

Overall, your fees/taxes section is the cable company’s way of passing on their fees and taxes to you.  If you subscribe to cable, you pay for their fees one way or another, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.

Lowering my package price

After verifying the above with the customer service rep, I was then transferred to the cancellation department. This rep began the conversation by reminding me that a) she wants to keep my business; b) she’s a consumer, too.

“Now how I can help you lower your bill? What kind of programs do you enjoy watching?”

Whatever.  I’m really not interested in having a conversation about how often I watch House Hunters. At this point, I’m an old pro. I do this every three months, when they decide to raise my price. I know the game, and each time I play, I navigate it more quickly than the last. In the past, it’s taken me half an hour to argue my way into a less expensive bill. Today, I was done in five minutes. My tactic is:

  • Ignore the marketing formalities.
  • Mirror their patience. If they interrupt, you interrupt. If they raise their voice, you raise your voice.
  • Stick to your guns.

To recap, here’s the price increase of my cable and Internet package:

November 2013: $90.99

December 2013: $109.99

“I don’t want to talk about my television viewing habits,” I told her. “I either want to get my bill back down to where it was, or cancel everything.”

She pressed on, asking about whether I record TV, what I use my Internet for, blah blah blah. Finally, I insisted:

“I’m not interested in discussing any of my habits or offers or promotions. I’m not interested in the details, I’d just like to either get my bill back down to where it was, with the same services, or cancel everything.”

“Let me place you on hold,” she responded, flatly. When she came back:

“At this time, we were able to lower your price back down to $90. Can I help you with anything else today?”

Easy as that. I kind of felt rude afterward, but that’s the game. And this is my potential savings:

  • Savings after arguing over price increase: $19/month
  • Savings after buying my own Internet modem: $5.99/month
  • Savings from removing DVR service: $12.99/month
  • Grand total savings: $37.98/month

Provided I get my own modem, my next bill should be just under a hundred dollars, at $98.56. Of course, the more frugal option is probably just getting rid of cable altogether. But then I wouldn’t get to have those nice chats every few months.

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30 Responses to “Billshit: A line-by-line look at your bloated, horrible cable bill”

  1. Eric says:

    Sorry to say it, but the only suckers in this country are the ones paying for cable TV. I feel terrible that I waited until late least year to do it, but the savings over over $100 per month is well worth it. Cable TV is for the lazy. EVERY SHOW is available via hi-def online for free somewhere, you just have to google it!

    • Kristin Wong says:

      Well, I’m sure there are plenty of suckers in this country who don’t have cable, but yeah, cable sucks. I’m not into the whole pirating thing, but there are less expensive ways to watch the shows you want, and now that BB is over, there’s really nothing I want to watch on cable, anyway. We’re definitely planning to cut it. Considering Internet (for some reason, we can only have Time Warner at our apt), we pay a lot less than I’ve heard most people pay for cable. But still, there are cheaper options.

  2. Mark says:

    Absolutely agree, Eric. I cancelled my TV services and bought a $30 antenna. Great picture quality for local channels, live sports and news. I watch MUCH less TV and don’t miss it. When I want to watch something specific, Netflix, Amazon or iTunes usually has it for a couple of bucks. I don’t miss the rest of it.

    I also noticed that I spend less money on things I don’t need since I don’t see the ads and marketing for them. Nice side benefit.

  3. Brandon Duncombe says:

    While I agree with both you guys, you are leaving out live sports, which is huge. (and no, going to a sports bar is not a better alternative)

    Also, many shows/episodes are not always available immediately online.

    And paying per-show is probably a worse idea than a cable subscription — talk about highway robbery…

    • Eric says:

      There are literally thousands of live streaming sites out there. I just use those. It is actually better than cable. If I see a close football game, I just switch over to it and watch.

  4. KT says:

    Brandon, I believed this too that I couldn’t part with my cable because of live sports. I probably will in the next month and go the route of an antenna and then internet for downloading live sports. I found a few sites like Wiziwig.tv which have links to most games. In fact, you may have more choice than now.

  5. I am so looking forward to ditching cable. Soon!

  6. Vincent says:

    I found a cable modem for $5 at a thrift store.

  7. Megan E. says:

    We haven’t had cable in 3 years – and don’t miss it. We pay around $40 for internet + $30 for netflix (for now, 3 out plus streaming, will go back down shortly to $20) so $60 and free Hulu and other websites let us do pretty much what we want.

    • Megan E. says:

      Forgot to say, thanks for the bill breakdown! Reminds me why we do what we do instead… and how corrupt they are with my cell phone and whatnot as well.

  8. Jerry Mandel says:

    I have AT&T U-Verse cable. Unfortunate that the modem is inside a router, which AT&T calls the gateway. The router sends signals to all the TVs, computers, and land line telephones in the house. Could I try to get them to abate the cable box/DVR and buy my own?

  9. Lynda says:

    One more point is that the internet is steadily rising or having it’s usage capped. I have Comcast and only use the cable because it actually brought my internet price down. I’d like to see a breakdown of an internet bill. There are just as many taxes and fees, and now with the 350G cap on serivces and $10 per additional 50G, I’m wondering if there is a viable way to really check actually usage, not just using their usage meter. Oh, and one other thing, it seems you have to have a “special” moden that only they can provide in order to get internet service. So I continue to pay for that too. :o (

  10. Karen says:

    I live in an area where I can’t get a television signal with an outside antenna, or I would drop cable if that was the case. I have Comcast. I am paying approximately $73/mo for internet and cable. I dropped my home phone when they started charging me $40/mo extra for their ‘triple play’. They gave me a great deal of about $63/mo for 6 months. Now, charges are creeping up on the bill. They are now charging $7/month for the modem rental. I am going to buy my own, and that was even suggested by their staff in the office. I have my own wireless router, so I do not pay rental charges for that. I go into the office every month to pay my bill in person. It’s very inconvenient, as it’s about 14 miles from my house, but well worth it and combine it with other trips like to a decent grocery store. I would NEVER have this on auto pay. The staff seems to work with me on keeping my bill as low as possible, also throwing in free HBO or other promos when they can. If I dropped TV and just had internet, the bill would only be about $20 less. My only other choice is AT&T, and they make you sign a 2-year contract. Comcast has no contract. I have AT&T for my cell phone, and with the multi-service, AT&T uverse would be more expensive. I wish we could select our programming on what interests us and not pay for everything!

  11. bloodbath says:

    Wow!! My bill is $47 for basic – I watch 3 channels out of the 120 available because 103 are QVC types and 4 are broadcast TV which I very rarely watch. I’m cutting cable this month and going with the Roku box. I’m also cutting my landline which about $100/month and I make an average of 12 local calls per month.

  12. CTMike says:

    I also have Comcast in my part of CT and contact their retention dept(now customer solutions) every 6 months to see how much I can save on my services. I just ditched one of my land lines (ATT) which was a waste of money and saved $35/month. I saved $30 a month by ADDING the Comcast triple play (internet/phone/HDTV)($180 became $150 w/tax). I had internet and HDTV (1 DVR-wife records shows to watch when able)and paying for other boxes and modem/router too. I used to own my own modem & router but when they died (every 2 years) the expense of replacement and repair is cheaper when you rent from Comcast. The NEW Higher Speed internet (I went from 20 to 50 high speed in the upgrade/savings) is now one combo modem and router, so Comcast gets you again. I live in the suburbs, bought an HD Antenna and got ZERO channels and returned for full refund. I do not want to give ATT any more of my money, so Comcast is the Monopoly in my part of CT. I can only suggest that you make the call to retention (just changed the name to customer solutions) and ask what deals do you have for existing customers. I also got movie channels thrown in for 6 months (Hbo, Showtime and Cinemax) I have HD Preferred, so I get extra sports and will never pay $200 for a season of one sport. I can watch the NFL Thrs games and their Mon/Sun too!! In all I added Comcast services and SAVED $65/month ($780/yr) in my pocket!!!

  13. NBA season for $199? That can be quite expensive, why don’t he try watching the games online?
    I’m also a fan of the NBA, but because I want to save money, I just check updates online on who win or lose on each game everyday. I may not be able to watch every game, but not all NBA games are a must-watch.

    • Kristin Wong says:

      Tell me ’bout it. He’s a big Kings fan and tried watching the games online, but apparently the stream constantly freezes up or something.

      He paid for it, so that’s his deal, but still, I agree. $199 is crazy.

  14. Jon says:

    I couldn’t live with out the DVR (I’d rather just use one with over-the-air-service).

    If others here are like me, consider building your own DVR with Windows7 and its free, included media center. You probably already have a media PC hooked to your TV if you are considering cutting the cord. The extra cost is a cablecard device (I got my 2-channel one on sale for 60 dollars).

    You’ve just saved $22.99/month on the Set Top Box/DVR rental. You’d now have to pay, typically 2.95/month for the Cablecard that fits in your homebuilt DVR.

    You’ve invested in a media PC, but now you are in control and can play Time Warner against Verizon, and get their 6 month to a year loss leader packages and just switch back and forth without losing the shows you have recorded on your DVR.

    Oops, I see Kristin is tied to TW for ‘net. I’m actually in a similar situation, tied to a condo bulk contract with “Brighthouse”. And since I’m a tennis fan, I can’t live without the tennis channel, so I won’t cut that cord. But I am saving about 30/month with my own cable modem and Media-center DVR

  15. Don T says:

    This year I made a resolution to finally cut the cord and I’m into week 2. I picked up a digital antenna which gets me about 20 channels and I’m using Netflix and Amazon prime through my DVD player.

    I’m not really missing anything and I have noticed that my TV watching has dropped, which is probably a good thing. The only two shows I need to watch are the Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy, which I’ve already budgeted to purchase.

    Overall, I’m glad I finally cut the cord, it will save me $100/month plus it sets a good example for my kids that we are not being couch potato’s.

  16. I tried to cancel my cable once and give up when they made the whole thing just so complicated (which is obviously the point of their process) I think I’ll try again just now

  17. jestjack says:

    I had actual success going to our local customer center in person. Spoke to a great gal and basically asked her did she prefer having her returned cable equipment in a bag…”paper or plastic”… or a box. She realized I was serious…and after some give and take on my viewing habits was able to cut our cable/internet by just about 45%. Of course this included buying my own modem and returning the “rental modem” that Comcast was kind enough to rent to me for about $7 a month. Sadly didn’t find a $5 modem…got mine at the local WalMart…identical to the rental for under $50. Thank you for this interesting article…it seems EVERYONE is trying to get in our pocket these days….

  18. Carol Baum says:

    Thanks for the article you wrote. I have been through the same maze and continue to “work” it every time the yearly increases occur. It’s a game they play and the uninformed get taken to the cleaners for lack of knowing.

  19. Terri says:

    … and you never mentioned that you are paying for 25 sports channels, 6 religious, and 18 foreign language stations that you don’t give a damn about. I want an a la carte menu!

  20. Sarah Mueller says:

    We cancelled cable (Directv actually) back in October but we are considering subscribing again (cable this time in our new house). My husband misses the live sports. With RCN,t it would only add about $30 to our bill which currently covers Internet.

  21. Brian says:

    Hi Kristin,

    You mentioned Los Angeles. Have you tried an antenna with an amplifier? I live in Temecula. I can receive over 70 channels in HD that are broadcast from LA and OC. We cut the cord in 2004 and haven’t ever considered going back. Yes, I still pay the cable company $50 for internet. I purchased the cable modem at Costco. Little pricy at $70 but that was a one time charge many years ago. Congrats on getting the bill reduced as much as you did.

    Brian

  22. Got rid of cable a long time ago, there isn’t much you can’t get on Netflix nowadays.

  23. adam carolla fan says:

    good article. cable suxxx!

    i’m a cheap bastard and i’ve never paid for cable. ever. even when i had a roommate that was die-hard on having cable (for sports) i still resfused to pay…on general principle. and, yes, i did watch some of the shows (property virgins, ufc stuff, and pawn stars, etc). instead of throwing him some money i’d instead just buy him lunch once in a while. this way, i could feel good about not paying for cable directly….but directly feel like i was being a good friend by buying my mate lunch.

    i use an antenna to get OTA channels now. eventually i’ll also use hulu to watch shows and docs. lovvvvve hulu!


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