...or at Least Drive a Hard Bargain
If your relationship with your cable provider is driving you mad like this man, brace yourself. It’s only going to get worse.
The average monthly cable TV bill is rising 6% a year. It’s projected to hit $123 a month next year and top $200 by 2020, according to market research group NPD. To be fair, part of the surge is because the cost cable providers pay to license shows is getting steeper. But the near-monopoly that cable TV companies have in many places is to blame, too.
Most areas have just one or two pay-TV providers. And even if you’re lucky enough to have more choice, that will probably change if the Time Warner Cable-Comcast and AT&T-DirecTV deals are approved. And less choice means that the providers that remain don’t have to go above and beyond on customer service. As if they did already.
Can’t live without your favorite programs but fed up with the bill? Here are four moves you can make to cut the cost—and not all require you to cut the cord.
Downsize. How many of the 700+ channels that you get do you actually watch? A growing number of pay-TV providers are offering pared-down packages. Verizon recently rolled out its Select HD no-sports package that’s $15 a month cheaper than its $65 a month standard Prime package. Last year, Time Warner Cable launched Starter TV, a bundle of 20 premium channels plus HBO for $29.99 a month—40% less than its 200-channel, no-HBO option. And Cox Communication’s TV Starter is $24.99 a month for 155 channels vs. $49.99 for its Advanced package of 220 channels.
Play hardball. Despite their dominance, pay-TV providers are still loathe to lose customers, says digital media analyst Dan Rayburn. Call the cancellation department to talk with a retention specialist trained to hang on to customers. Ask about promotions or a discount if you’re a long-time customer. They’ll try hard to keep you, but if they don’t give, you can likely get a better deal as a new subscriber if you have a satellite dish or cable competitor where you live.
Go a la carte. Even though the Aero service that delivers low-cost broadcast TV via Internet shut down thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling, there are still plenty of other lower cost alternatives for those who want to cut the cord, says technology industry analyst Jeff Kagan. Hulu Plus costs just $7.99 a month and shows many current programs the day after they air. If you can wait a season or two to catch up with your favorite shows, Netflix is $7.99 a month (though will go up $1 or $2 for new subscribers). Amazon Prime Instant Video, which comes with Amazon’s $99 a year Prime membership, gives you unlimited streaming movies and TV shows.
NetFlix, Hulu and Amazon are also spending millions on high quality original content. In May, Hulu announced that it would be tripling its budget for exclusive programs and launching six new shows this year, including the much-buzzed-about reality show parody Hotwives of Orlando, which premiers tonight.
Get an antenna. Today’s antennas aren’t the rabbit ears of your parents’ generation. An HD antenna for your roof or TV set top will cost you about $30 to $100,and you can get local TV channels for free. You won’t get cable programs, but you’ll pick up more than 30 broadcast networks (such as ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, FOX). And picture quality is even better than cable, says Kagan.
Right now, prices at the pump are as expensive as they've been all year. With any luck, though, it'll be all downhill from here.
According to the federal Energy Information Administration, as of Monday, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline reached $3.70. That’s 13¢ higher than a year ago at this time, and it matches the previous high thus far in 2014, set in late April.
The bad news, beyond the obvious—you know, having to pay more to fill up and all—is that prices have been creeping upward just at a time the opposite was supposed to happen. The expectation was that gas prices would actually decrease in June, as they have in each of the past three years. The summer forecast from AAA called for a 10¢ to 15¢ per-gallon drop in prices at the pump this month, and predicted that the national average would remain in the vicinity of $3.55 to $3.70 through the summer. We’ve already hit the high end of the predicted price range long before anticipated—and gas prices have tended to rise toward summer’s end in recent years.
That said, prices at the pump aren’t exactly spiking. Nationally, the per-gallon price is only up a few pennies compared to a week ago, or even a month ago for that matter. Still, because everybody was expecting a significant decline this month, drivers are justified in feeling like they’re paying a lot more than they should to gas up right now. Turmoil in Iraq is being blamed for the persistently high gas prices.
So what’s the good news here? While drivers in 41 states and Washington, D.C., are currently paying more for gas than they did at this time last year, a handful of states are starting to see price breaks. According to the gas-pricing monitoring site GasBuddy, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan drivers have all seen a per-gallon price decrease of 9¢ to 12¢ over the past week. And areas that have experienced a gas price hike lately can expect prices to flatten out going forward. “Many areas that saw gains over a nickel should see a calmer, cooler week at the pump,” a GasBuddy post on Monday explained. “So far this morning, oil prices are down 55 cents a barrel while gasoline spot prices are generally negative, a good sign for motorists.”
Then again, the analysts have been wrong before. Like when they were making predictions just a few weeks ago, for instance.
This year's brutal winter wreaked havoc on roads, homes, and most likely, your finances. Here’s a look at a few of the groups that got hammered by the harsh weather, and that are likely to bear the costs of the season for quite some time
The brutal winter of 2013-2014 wreaked havoc on roads, homes, and most likely, your finances. It’s been a horrendously awful winter for many businesses as well.
There was reason for some to welcome the stormy, bitterly cold weather that descended on much of the nation in early 2014. Supermarkets thrived during the peak (nadir?) days of polar vortex frigidity as shoppers stocked up on staples in anticipation of waiting out the storms, and businesses selling plows and snowblowers understandably made a killing as the snow and ice piled up week after week.
Then there’s the rest of us, who will remember the winter that’s just passed as one chock full of tire-busting potholes, frozen pipes, roof collapses, and monster heating bills. Restaurants, retailers, car dealerships, delivery services, and other businesses have also suffered. Even some businesses that normally cash in when cold and snow arrive fared poorly because this winter brought just too much, well, winter. Travel Michigan noted that the ski and snowmobile business dipped in recent months because the weather has caused tourists cancel trips. Yes, people have been deciding it’s too cold and snowy to go … snowmobiling.
Here’s a look at a few of the groups that have gotten hammered by the winter of 2013-2014, and that are likely to bear the costs of the season for quite some time:
By late January, it was clear that the winter was shaping up as an epically bad season for potholes. The mix of heavy precipitation with rapid freeze-thaw cycles has resulted in an inordinately large number of potholes on roads, and dangerous, tire-wrecking conditions have arrived much earlier than usual in the season. Drivers shouldn’t expect the pothole plague to disappear anytime soon, as local public works crews have been overwhelmed by requests to fix damaged roads. Cities like Des Moines, Iowa, have received more than 600 calls since December from citizens reporting potholes, for instance, while greater Indianapolis has fielded more than 10,000 pothole service requests this season.
Every day, it seems, there are more reports of potholes causing chaos for drivers—for instance, a huge pothole on I-75 in Detroit this week, which caused traffic to slow to a crawl as two lanes were closed so that crews could do a quick patch job. “It’s the worst we’ve seen it in decades,” a West Virginia DOT spokesman, speaking of this winter’s potholes and road conditions, told the MetroNews recently. “It’s unbelievable.”
Last fall, a transportation research group known as TRIP released a report on bumpy roads, indicating that during a normal year, drivers fork over the equivalent of $277 per year due to vehicle repairs, tire wear, and depreciation thanks to potholes and generally poor road conditions. This year, drivers should anticipating paying a lot more than that.
Unusually cold temperatures make for unusually high heating bills. This is especially the case for homes heated by propane, thanks in part to a propane shortage that hit several states early this year. Citing data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, USA Today reported last week that the average homeowner will pay 54% more this year for heating a home with propane. Homes in the Midwest heated by propane will see their bills soar the highest, from an average of $1,333 last year to $2,212 for this season. Homes heated with electricity, natural gas, or coal, meanwhile, are projected to face bills that are 5% to 10% higher than last year.
Beyond budget-busting heating bills, homeowners around the country have been hit with plenty of other costs related to the brutally cold winter. The list of headaches—and hefty expenses—includes a heaping share of frozen pipes, roof collapses, and ice dams. Oh, and soon, flooded basements are probably inevitable. As one insurance agent told the Detroit News, as spring arrives, “The warmer temperatures will exaggerate and accelerate the melt, and then we’re going to have basement issues.”
State and Local Governments
Around the nation, many towns have already exhausted the budgets they allocated to clearing and salting roads and fixing potholes. In many cases, local authorities have been forced to use emergency funds to keep roads open and safe. West Virginia, for instance, just announced it was increasing the spring pothole-patching budget to $30 million, up from $18 million.
In recent weeks, states have been scrambling to round up precious road salt to cope with storm after storm. Things were so bad in New Jersey that the transportation department warned the state might be forced to close down major roads—even interstates—because crews didn’t have enough salt. Inevitably, the combination of high demand and insufficient supply of salt led to soaring prices; in some cases, the cost of road salt rose by a factor of four. The Washington Times noted that some salt supply companies have seen shippings triple in recent months and net four-quarter earnings rise by as much as 94%.
Abnormally cold weather has caused people to stay inside rather than go out and spend money. That’s the basic explanation used by car dealerships, fast food, and other business categories for months of underwhelming sales tallies. The list of businesses blaming Mother Nature for subpar earnings and sales reports also extends to the likes of Federal Express, which said all the storms resulted in it losing $125 million in profits last quarter, and Walmart, which pointed to snow and cold weather as a reason for slumping sales in January and early February.
Speaking of the world’s largest retailer, Walmart just announced a huge lawn and garden sale that plays off homeowner desires to shake off winter. “Given the extreme winter many of our customers experienced, we know they are preparing to restore their gardens and outdoor living spaces,” Michelle Gloeckler, senior vice president of home, Walmart U.S., said via press release.
Of course, Walmart also helps the sale, featuring $1.97 bags of mulch, discounts on grills, mowers, and the like, will help the company recover from the brutal winter and kick off a big spring.
The bad news for consumer, homeowner, driver, and retailer alike may be that, despite what the calendar says, winter—meaning cold and snow—hasn’t necessarily disappeared. The latest extended forecasts from the National Weather Service, appropriately published in angry CAPS, offers the following predictions for the days and weeks ahead:
THE FCST REMAINS FAIRLY CONSISTENT FOR AN UNUSUALLY WINTRY PATTERN OVER THE CNTRL-ERN STATES DURING MOST OF THE PERIOD WITH A BROAD AREA OF TEMPERATURE ANOMALIES REACHING 10-25F BELOW NORMAL BEFORE MODERATING BY DAY 7 THU. AT SOME LOCATIONS EXPECTED TEMPS WOULD BE CLOSER TO MID-JANUARY NORMALS… THIS COLD AIR WILL SUPPORT A PERIOD OF WINTRY PCPN POTENTIAL FROM THE NRN/N-CNTRL PLAINS INTO THE MID ATLC/NORTHEAST.