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How I Cut The Cord And Saved Over $100 Per Month

I want to start this article with a myth. It is said that if you put a frog into boiling hot water it will immediately jump out but if the same frog is placed in tepid water and you gradually raise the heat that the frog will allow itself to be boiled to death as it only recognizes the relative change. Even though this is a myth when it comes to frogs, it is very true of millions of Americans regarding the price of cable TV. I am old enough to remember rabbit ear antennas and only having 4 channels to choose from (ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS). In more than a few ways, this was superior to today's state. For instance, programming went off the air after the 11 o'clock news so there were no infomercials at 3AM to tempt with consumerism garbage. Cable TV changed all of that and I remeber how mesmerized by the magic of a crystal clear picture on countless channels I was. I am embarrased to admit how long it took for me to wake up from the spell and take corrective measures.

The television entertainment industry makes billions of dollars each year and I was paying what I now consider an obscene amount of money to be part of it. There is a growing faction of dissenters that are cutting the cord and finding alternative means for entertainment. For those young enough not to remember the birth of the global internet, technology is so ingrained into every facet of life that they may never subscribe in the first place. On the other end of the spectrum, elderly on a fixed income that isn't keeping up with inflation may be forced to unplug simply because of the rising costs. The impetus for my awakening was trivial - the invention of a $2 a month fee for local sports programming, but my shocked reaction was immediate and viceral. It was only having others in the house to consider that made my transition gradual.

Stage 1: Negotiating The Bill

At first I still believed that cable TV was a necessary staple of life and that the only recourse was to negotiate what I was paying. If you are not yet ready to take the plunge, at the very least you should ensure you are paying the absolute lowest amount possible. I know it can be time consuming and frustrating to deal with the misnamed customer service but it helps to be in the right frame of mind. First, every little bit counts because you are paying it in perpetuity. Second, remember that while it the job of any customer service representitive to retain you as a customer while maximizing profits for the company, they are not personally out to get you.

You will be most effective when you negotiate from a position of power. Customer acquisition and retention are the two places where cable companies are willing to concede the most amount of money. These are positions of power which is why they try to keep you in position of being under contract with large early termination fees. Even if you are under contract, you can still wield a lot of power if you educate yourself.

  • Know who the competition is and what they are offering including satellite providers
  • Remember that even if your condo association has an exclusive contract with provider X, the customer service representative is unlikely to know that
  • Know exactly what your contract says. Typically only the class of service (TV, Phone, Internet) is contractual so downgrading services, returning equipment, etc. is not out of bounds
  • Know how much the early termination fee is. Typically these are prorated depending on how of how much of the original term has already been completed
  • Do the math including installation fees, equipment fees, taxes, etc and know how much it will cost to switch, how long it will take to break even and how much will be saved after that point

Once you are armed with knowledge, it is time to make the phone call. Customer service representatives likely deal with irate threatening to leave customers all day which is why my first attempt was always helpless customer instead. You will want to have a notebook handy to record dates/times, representative names, nature of discussion, etc.

  • Begin the conversation with some variation of: Hello <name>, I have been a <provider> customer for <duration> and love the service but <excuse such as "hours cut back at work"> and need to see how I can lower my bills.
  • The representative may try to give you additional services at no extra cost rather than downgrading at first. This is a trap. These are temporary periods which you must call back to cancel or your bill will eventually go up. Write down the offer in your notebook and say something along the lines of Thank you for your generous offer but that really doesn't lower my overall bill (or lower it enough)
  • Try to avoid asking a specific question such as How much will I save if I (return hardware, downgrade cable, remove calling feature X, etc) This is a close-ended question and doesn't allow the representative to be creative. Instead, enumerate them all with something along the lines of: Is there anything you can think of at all to lower my bill? I would be willing to (return hardware, downgrade cable, remove calling feature X, etc), just about anything?
  • At this point you may not yet have succeeded at getting your bill low enough or feel that the concessions necessary were too drastic. You want to simply ask for a temporary loyal customer discount. I once received $20/month for a year. Is it possible to get a temporary discount until <excuse> resolves itself?
  • If you are still unsatisfied, ask them how much the early termination fee is for you to cancel. You already know this but you are asking for two reasons. First to let the representative know you truly are willing to consider all possible avenues and second to ensure they are being truthful (be sure to write this in the journal if they are not). Here is where you hit them with <competitor> is offering new customers <package> for <cost> and <bonus> (usually a prepaid credit card). I would love to stay a <provider> customer but it looks like switching to <competitor> will actually save me moneyi

If you succeed, you may want to press it even further by asking if offer you declined earlier is still available. If it is, accept it and set a reminder (I use Google Calendar) to call back and cancel a few days prior to the end of promotion. On the other hand, if the above steps failed, it is time to change from helpless customer to frustrated/angry customer. Call back later that day or perhaps the next day. Follow the same steps as above but with a few differences. You want to have an edge to your voice implying you are more than ready to go if you have to. The first step may look like this instead:

  • Hello <name>. First I want to tell you that while I am extremely frustrated, my frustration is not directed at you and I hope you will be able to help me. I called at <date/time> and spoke with <representative name> to try and keep from going bankrupt but they were of no help. While I have enjoyed being a <provider> customer for <duration>, I can't remain loyal to a company that isn't willing to help me when <excuse> and I can't afford it

They will very likely attempt to get you back under contract if you are month-to-month or get you to sign a new contract if you are already under one lengthening your obligation. It is completely up to you if you want to buckle but this is an article about cord cutting. If you aren't yet convinced that is the way to go, there is one more step to this process. Call back a 3rd time but don't deal with the normal customer service representative. During the automated prompts, select the option(s) to completely disconnect all services. As soon as you get a human tell them you want to speak to a retention control specialist because unless they can convince you to stay, you are cancelling everything today. Retention specialists have the ability to authorize greater discounts then normal representatives but there may be no way to get them without going back under contract. If you want to avoid going back under contract or extending your existing obligation and no deals can be had without it, ask for the temporary loyal customer discount until you can make a decision.

I should mention that even if you are completely happy with your services and price, you should call every six months to find out what promotions they are running. They run these promotions for existing customers in hopes that they will like the service and keep it or, more likely, be too lazy to call and cancel. I just used a Google Calendar reminder about a week before the promotion ends to call and cancel.

Stage 2: Cord Shaving

I eventually tired of the frustration and time needed to keep the bill reasonable. Yes, I was still deluded enough at this point to think because I was paying 40-50% less than everyone else that the price was reasonable. Everyone we cared about called us on our cell phones and only telemarketers used the home phone. There were a bazillion channels but judging by the DVR we only watched a miniscule fraction of them. I naively assumed if we went from a 3 service to a 2 service bundle and downgraded from the highest tier cable package to a lower tier, we would save money. I was floored when the customer service representative told me that my bill would actually increase if I dropped phone service and that downgrading my cable package would save me about $5 a month but I signed a new two year contract she could add additional services, keep my existing package tier and still lower my bill by about $5 per month. I went into research mode.

Unwilling to let go of the security that I believed the umbilical cable cord gave me, my first attempt was:

  • Physically unplug the home phone but keep the service (I could still check voicemail online)
  • Reduce my cable package to local channels only
  • Stop renting a DVR set top box at $20 per month

Finding the local channels only option was difficult and misrepresented as it claimed there were only 15 channels (in reality there were dozens and most in HD). During my research, I discovered that cable companies could not force you to use their set top box and were mandated to offer a cablecard instead. The monthly charge varies by cable provider but it is certainly cheaper than paying for the set top box. There are a few downsides to this.

  • You have to pay for your own equipment which has a larger up front cost though you can break even in a few months and start saving money thereafter
  • The integrated channel guide and on-demand services will likely not work as there is no mandate to provide these services
  • You will have to deal with the cable company to register/activate your cablecard which can be a pain (adding premium services such as HBO may require you to repeat this process)

I decided to go with the SiliconDust HDHomeRun 3-Tuner. It has a number of features that make it a great choice:

  • 3 tuners instead of the 2 that come with most cable company set top boxes
  • Complete flexibility on what channel guide and/or DVR service you want to use (Windows Media Center, MythTV, NextPVR, MediaPortal, JRiver Media Center, InstaTV Pro, etc)
  • Ability to watch anywhere on your home network (desktops, laptops, DLNA capable smart TVs, media players or on Android devices via the HDHomeRun app or this HomeRunTV 3rd party app
  • Note: Different options have different capabilities (SD vs HD, copy-freely vs copy-protected)

I went with Windows Media Center as it was already installed and offered a free channel guide, DVR capabilities comparable to what we were used to and we already owned an Xbox 360 which can be used as an extender to your TV. I did a bit of research and found that you can often find them very cheap on Ebay or Craigslist if you look for ones that are missing hard drives, missing controllers or have broken CD trays which you don't need to use it as an extender. You may also want to purchase a Xbox 360 Media Remote if you go this route as it is far less expensive then a controller and feels more natural. If this all seems a bit complicated there are a few resources you should know as they can be immensely helpful.

I am purposefully trying not to get too technical with this article but I want it to stand on its own and need to dive down temporarily. Windows Media Center uses UDP not TCP to communicate with the Xbox extender which means wifi is not a well suited solution. It doesn't matter how strong your signal strength is, how fast your speed is or how much your bandwidth you have. The first reason is because, unlike TCP, if a piece of information (dropped packet) is missing - UDP does not ask for it to be retransmitted. This can result in a stuttering broadcast or heavy pixilation. The other reason, which compounds the first, is that wifi is typically super saturated. Think of how many wireless devices there are in your neighborhood. The frequency wifi is allowed to operate is relatively narrow which doesn't allow sources to spread out (most people leave their device on the default channel anyway). There are a limited number of antennas in a wireless router which means it can't have a dedicated conversation with a single client. I want to stress that this is a problem specific to Windows Media Center and watching live TV on an Xbox extender. If you are streaming to an Android device directly from the HDHomerun via an app, I believe the content is first buffered and transmitted over TCP such that if a packet is dropped it can be retransmitted from the buffer. I haven't researched it but my guess for the reason the Android app only supports SD and not HD is to maximize this buffer as live HD traffic is huge.

Ultimately I ended up wiring my house with network cables using the following equipment: Linksys (EA4500) wireless router, NETGEAR GS105 Switch, various lengths of Cable Matters network cables and several NETGEAR Powerline adapters which allow you to use your home's electrical wiring as a network extension cord. I would have prefered to use these DECA adapters which allow you to use your coaxial cabling as a network extension cord instead but the previous owner used signal amplifiers and low end splitters in the walls and that was more headache then I was willing to undertake. If you decide to use them, be sure to only use balanced digital cable splitters.

Even with the additional hardware purchases, this configuration certainly saved me a considerable amount of money. In hindsight, I spent a lot of time and a little bit of money unnecessarily as it seemed like I was the only one in the house using live TV. I say a little bit of money unnecessarily as I prefer the majority of my home network to be wired. I limit wifi to truly mobile devices (tablets, phones, etc).


                             

Stage 3: Cutting The Cord

I researched statistics on how often people cut the cord ultimately change their mind and go back to cable but I couldn't find anything I consider reliable. Based on how zealous the community is, I would estimate the number to be very low. I do have to point out though that most cable companies won't consider you a new customer unless you have been gone for at least 6 months so if you decide to go back, you will likely need to go to a competitor or apply under a different household member's name (I am not a lawyer and can't speak to the legality of this) to get a decent bill.

The biggest deterents to cutting the cord that I see are:

  1. Antenna doesn't work
  2. Housing authority doesn't allow external antennas
  3. Unable to record shows using an antenna
  4. Not enough content (having to settle for previous seasons)
  5. Can't stream on-demand local news or weather
  6. Premium Channels (HBO, Showtime, etc)
  7. Sports
  8. Pay Per View

Over The Air Antenna (issues 1, 2 & 3)
1) Your housing authority may be breaking the law if they are prohibiting you from installing an external antenna. I am not a lawyer though you may want to consult one as this seems pretty clear:

The rule (47 C.F.R. Section 1.4000) has been in effect since October 1996, and it prohibits restrictions that impair the installation, maintenance or use of antennas used to receive video programming. The rule applies to video antennas including direct-to-home satellite dishes that are less than one meter (39.37") in diameter (or of any size in Alaska), TV antennas, and wireless cable antennas. The rule prohibits most restrictions that: (1) unreasonably delay or prevent installation, maintenance or use; (2) unreasonably increase the cost of installation, maintenance or use; or (3) preclude reception of an acceptable quality signal.

2) While it is possible that you are too far away from a broadcasting area or that that there are geographic obstructions preventing you from getting a good signal, you should not draw this conclusion without first obtaining a TV Fool report. You can view mine here. Next, go read this guide to understanding the results. If you see that there are channels in green then the problem is likely then the problem might be that you have a bad antenna, are experiencing signal loss possibly due to a unbalanced splitter or don't have the antenna oriented in the right direction. Even with a newer omni-directional antenna, you should use the report to figure out which direction to point the antenna. I spent a couple of hours with pencil and paper marking various different locations in the window and then performing a channel scan to figure out which place was best. I found that moving it two inches could change the results by as many as 10 channels. Please don't let that deter you as once you have done the work, anchor the antenna in place and forget about it.

I experimented with 3 different indoor antennas. The Terk which I received as a gift, the Mohu Leaf which my research found came highly recommended and the Amazon brand. All three performed satisfactorily but that may be because I am in the middle of two markets (Baltimore and D.C.) and was able to install on the second floor. I did find the Mohu Leaf to be best constructed. I would not recommend the Terk because the coaxial cable is soldered to the antenna and is quite short. To lengthen the cable you need to use a barrel connector. What I would recommend is spending no more money than is necessary. Some people have had success by just using a paperclip. Others have built their own as effective as a store bought amplified antenna. This winter (2014) I am going to sell my current antenna and build a super antenna of my own in the attic for roughly $20 in materials which should have me break even.

Note: As a general rule, indoor antennas are not strong enough to support multiple TVs though there are exceptions but typically require an amplifier. The Wineguard FAQ says Only the FlatWave Amped can connect with multiple TVs. Additional parts (not included) may be required, however. The FlatWave Non-Amped and Mini are designed to connect to a single television at a time. Splitting these antennas between multiple TVs degrades their signal.

3) You have a suprising number of options if you want to DVR shows from your over the air antenna. Personally, I sold my HDHomeRun and purchased this Hauppauge PC Dual TV Tuner which allowed me to leave my entire Windows Media Center configuration intact. I do not have a lot of experience with the other options so I will simply enumerate them here but will add notes when/if I learn more.

  • Software based (Windows Media Center, MythTV, NextPVR, etc)
  • Boxee (Acquired by Samsung and undergoing transformation)
  • Tablo (Very popular but requires external USB hard drive limited to 2 TB)
  • Simple.TV (Partnered with SiliconDust - a company I trust and recommend, requires external USB hard drive)
  • Tivo's Roamio (latest product from a veteran company - features look impressive)
  • Mohu Channels (Coming soon from the same company that builds the digital antenna)
  • Numerous Others

                                               

Streaming Content (issues 4 & 5)
4) I cut the cord back in November of 2013 and it is really hard for me to believe some people believe there is more content available on live cable TV then there is available to stream. I admit there are a few valid and salient concerns that I will attempt to address. In general the amount of content is much larger allowing you to watch what you want when you want (called time shifting). The most popular options being:

  • Netflix ($7.99 / month for existing customers, $8.99 for new customers - 30 day free trial)
  • Hulu (Free and paid options: $7.99 / month - ad supported with 1 week free trial)
  • Amazon Instant Video (Prime) ($99 / year - numerous other features such as streaming music and free shipping - some content only available to rent/buy)
  • Vudu (Purchase a la cart - access any of your UltraViolet movies as well)
  • Apple Itunes (Purchase a la cart - rent or buy)
  • Redbox Instant ($8 / month - hybrid solution where you can stream, buy digital content and even get physical media)

I haven't tried Redbox Instant yet since I haven't came across something it provides that I am missing. The only one we strictly pay for is Netflix. We love the original programming (House Of Cards, Orange Is The New Black, etc) and there is a ton of content for the kids. We became Amazon Prime members for the shipping but love all the added extra perks like free streaming of music and videos. We use Hulu but only the free version (more on that later). We will rarely rent movies through Vudu because it becomes hard to justify a $4.99 for a single HD movie when for a few more dollars we can get an entire month's subscription with the other providers. Please don't let that discourage you though. We are frugal to an extreme but with all the money you are saving by cutting cable you shouldn't feel guilty about ocassionally spending the extra money for a new release movie.

I haven't come across a fair and unbiased review of the different options. You will find some prefer one for movies and another for tv shows. Some will say the content on one is far superior to another while someone else will make the exact opposite case. This can be confusing at first because they are locking in exclusive deals. For instance, this summer Amazon partnered with HBO for a first of its kind exclusive deal to offer HBO content to Prime subscribers without an HBO account and Netflix is rumored to have just signed an exclusive deal with NBC to pay two million per episode for The Blacklist. I believe it boils down to preference. You can check them all out without paying anything so you should think for yourself and determine which combination provides you with the most content that you are interested in.

This isn't even scratching the surface of what's out there. Just ask your search engine for "streaming sites" or "streaming tv" or "streaming movies" and prepare to lose a few days just cataloging options. If your brain hasn't exploded yet, hang on as the ride continues. There are also a ton of ways to watch. Like before, I am only going to list the most popular. If there are particular shows you want to look for, there are a couple of websites to check out.

I have used both in the past when attempting to add a new show to the mix but hadn't used either for a while. For the purposes of this article, I decided to randomly test them to see how they compared. I chose the show Bates Motel. Yidio identified three sources (Amazon Instant Video, Vudu and iTunes) but didn't tell me how much the episode would cost. Can I Stream It on the other hand only identified two sources (iTunes and Vudu) but told me how much the episodes would cost. Your mileage may vary but I recommend using both of them before making any software/hardware purchases to ensure you don't invest in one direction before realizing it doesn't support something you or a loved one can't live without.

  • Roku 3 (headphone in the remote and search across channels)
  • Amazon Fire TV (impressive hardware with voice search and gaming capabilities)
  • Apple TV Part of the Apple family - AirPlay
  • Google Chromecast (lowest price - requires mobile device to operate)
  • Gaming Systems such as the Xbox One
  • Smart TVs such as the Vizio 60" (I own the 2013 model)
  • Internet enabled DVD/Blu-Ray players such as the Samsung 3D Blu-Ray
  • Your home computer

I saved about $600 on my Vizio smart TV by purchasing it on Black Friday - the only day I buy TVs. I would not recommend spending the money on a smart TV if a comparable non-smart TV option exists. Likewise, I would not pay the extra money for an internet enabled Blu-Ray player soley based on the internet feature. They are typically far more expensive, the variety of available apps is limited and upgrades are much slower. Dedicated streaming devices are incredibly cost effective, are portable and have entire communities dedicated to innovating and adding content. Turning a PC into a home theater PC (HTPC) isn't a bad choice (TV as a monitor) - especially if you get a decent remote. If you have more than one TV to worry about, a HTPC becomes only part of your solution. We have almost all of these items in our household - the exceptions being an Apple TV and Google Chromecast.

You can find some pretty fair and objective reviews on the various options. They focus on the hardware, performance and available content. Do your research, read the reviews but you will need to choose what makes sense for you. If you are heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem then getting an Apple TV probably makes sense. If you are not a tech-savvy household you may want to avoid the Chromecast as their is no dedicated interface and it requires a mobile device to operate. In all honesty, these are the reasons they are missing from our repertoire. We primarily use Android devices not Apple and our youngest daughter was 5 at the time making the Chromecast a bit too advanced. We never use the streaming features of the smart TV, gaming system nor the internet enabled blu-ray player anymore. The HTPC is an integral part of our solution but I have disconnected it from the TV as its primary job is to store, stream and proxy content to all the TVs. Where does that leave us? We use the Roku 3 and Fire TV exclusively.

The Roku 3 has been around for a while now with nearly 2000 channels. This massive number stems from it being a neutral party in the content wars (it doesn't peddle its own content focusing on hardware instead). It is also relatively easy to develop your own channels making it very extensible. While Roku also offers lower end models, the Roku 3 has integrated a headphone jack in the remote allowing. The search function works across channels making it extremely convenient to see the various different channels a program is available and what cost is associated with each. You can regularly find deals on Roku or get one bundled with some other product/service at a discount

The Amazon Fire TV is a relative new comer but has been making a pretty big splash. I am admittedly biased here so I will just list a bunch of features and let you do your own research. It has impressive hardware specs which allow it to double as gaming system (optional controller), has voice search built-in to the remote, has parental controls, has an exclusive ASAP feature that delivers content nearly instantly, and side-loading apps doesn't require rooting/jailbreaking.

5) If an over the air antenna won't work and streaming is your only option, one more thing to consider when deciding how you want to stream is the availability of local news and weather. The HTPC option is probably the best because many local markets are making content available to stream on the web (sometimes live) even if they don't create a dedicated app/channel (though many do). There are also apps for your mobile device that will give you breaking headline news in real time as well as up to the minute weather assuming you are willing to read rather than watch. If you can't find a local channel you will no doubt be able to find a regional channel. If all that fails, you may even be able to hire someone to write you a channel with all the money you are saving from not paying for cable. I am actually serious about this - I have written a number of channels myself.

I need to side track for a second. Mirroring your screen (desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, etc) to your TV doesn't require a dedicated HTPC. A couple of the popular streaming devices have this capability built in. Apple TV supports AirPlay for mirroring Apple products and the Amazon Fire TV will mirror newer Kindles. You can even use AirPlay with the Fire TV by using a 3rd party app (I recommend AirPlay/DLNA Receiver (PRO) or AirReceiver). If you haven't decided on a streaming device, you can probably still mirror your screen to your TV without wires using Miracast - I recommend the NETGEAR (PTV3000) which has the added benefit of working with the Kindle Fire HDX.

                                         

Premium Channels (issue 6)
6) This is one of the valid salient complaints that I don't have a great answer for. HBO did partner with Amazon earlier this year making a massive amount of their original content available for no additional cost to existing Amazon Prime members though they are lagging a couple of seasons behind. You could also pay for a season pass or per episode to numerous shows and still not come close to the cost of cable TV. It is funny how we seem to have no issues paying $13.99/month to add HBO on to our already $75/month cable bill but can’t stomach the idea of paying $1.99 for an episode of The Walking Dead. A popular, but unscrupulous, option is to share the cable login of a friend or family member. A number of non-premium TV channels such as History and Lifetime require you to authenticate through your cable provider to view some, if not all, their content. I am not a lawyer and can't speak to the legal implications of this nor am I one to proselytize ethics. I am not sure why we think nothing of getting together to watch the big game/fight but having a regular Sunday night Game Of Thrones get together is weird. What I can say is that there is a ton of quality content available for reasonable prices without getting into gray areas. I would likely subscribe to a premium channel if there were a way to do so without cable but really there are only about a half a dozen shows that I truly love.

Sports (issue 7)
7) Most major sports own their content and license it to the TV networks. They have also realized that cord cutters are a growing market that they can tap into and so they are making creating new ways for you to watch. I need to disclaim that I am not a huge sports fan so most of this information I have learned by research rather than first hand experience. The usual responses given to this issue are:

  • Use an over the air antenna (blackout rules apply - very interesting and elucidating read)
  • Go to a friend's house
  • Go to a pub
  • See if it is streaming live
  • Watch a replay
  • Go to the game

I am not exactly sure if anyone considers wrestling a sport but the WWE recently made their content available for $10/month. Other more traditional sports like Major League Baseball offer full access for $109.99 - $129.99 per year. You might be aghast with sticker shock but consider what you pay per month for cable TV. The problem is most, if not all, still apply the local blackout rule. If you have a questionable moral compass then you are in luck as it is a lot easier making your computer look like it is in another location to get around blackouts then it is making your house actually be in another state with over the air signals. I will write more about this (using geography masking proxies and VPNs) later as it is also comes into play for accessing content when traveling abroad. Rather than go through each sport and what options are available, I will just point you to a few resources I came across.

Pay Per View (issue 8)
8) To be clear, the complaint isn't concerning on-demand content but rather timed events such as boxing matches that have to be purchased individually. I am not a huge sports fan and am frugal at heart so this complaint is a bit foreign to me. I don't have a really good answer but I can tell you what I would do. If I had a friend who shared my interest in the event that had cable, I would ingratiate myself to ensure I got invited. Let's be honest, I am not the type of guy that ingratiates himself anywhere so what I would probably do is bribe my way by offering to pay for the event as well as pizza/wings/beer and turn it into a social engagement. If that didn't work, I would find a local pub that was showing it. Sorry I don't have a better solution but I can't think of a single time where I have ever paid to watch a pay per view event.

But what about... (issue X)
X) Nothing is ever perfect. Your argument may be some daytime talk show that you simply can't live without. Rather than looking for excuses not to cut the cord, I simply suggest that you look for reasons to save a thousand dollars a year. We live in an age of consumerism with instant gratification so I can understand why learning something new may seem like work rather than a way to empower yourself. There are communities of folks willing to spend their time helping you along the way. Be willing to make a few concessions and try something new and a whole new world is out there.

Building Your Home Theater PC

At its heart, the purpose of a HTPC is to provice access to your media (music, videos, photos, etc). It is not necessary to build a HTPC to cut the cord as many simply get by with a Netflix subscription. We do not typically access content directly on the HTPC itself which enthusiasts would say defeats the purpose. The traditional approach to a HTPC is to achieve superior quality graphics and sound and potentially gaming capabilities at a fraction of the cost of traditional audio video hardware while having the ability to do targeted upgrades. If I only had myself to consider, this is the approach I would take. We primarily use the HTPC as a service provider to the four TVs and various mobile devices we have instead which some might argue means we don't have a HTPC but a glorified DVR. Here are a few of the reasons why I decided to incorporate a HTPC as part of our cord cutting solution.

  • Personalized DVR: Massive storage with more features and flexibilities than cable provider's DVR
  • Physical Digital Media: Ability to store a digital copy of physical media (DVD, CDs, etc) and access it anywhere at any time
  • Conduit to the internet: Ability to access content from the internet otherwise inaccessible on our TVs
  • Commercials: By watching recorded shows, commercials are a thing of the past thanks to software
  • Record streams: There are a few situations where we record a stream locally rather than watching it as a stream
  • Smaller footprint: function specific hardware such as blu-ray players could be sold

Much of the software that makes all of this happen works great and can be configured to do what you want. One thing I like having a HTPC at the core of our media entertainment is because I can develop my own utilities to make things exactly as I want them when the software doesn't quite fit our needs. I know this isn't an option for everyone but I bring it up for a reason. Most of the software that you will need to do this was created by enthusiasts that wanted others to share their passion. That means the software is either free or very inexpensive and likely has a community of developers working on making it better. There are forums where you can go and ask questions and get help. It may even restore your faith in humanity. Here is the software we use.

Windows Media Center
WMC has many more capabilities than we are using. I have explored some of them but find that I prefer Plex. You should do your own research. The primary task we use it for is to schedule and record over the air programs that are not readily accessible through the streaming options (Jeopardy for instance). Rarely, it is also used to watch live broadcasts on TVs with an XBOX 360 extender such as when we have house guests that want to watch the news or a football game. It provides a free on screen channel guide and has a lot of common DVR features such recording all new episodes of a series. It also is extensible through plugins/addons such as being able to display the station logo in the guide or adding codecs to be able to watch a variety of formats

Plex
Plex is so feature rich that I could dedicate an entire blog article to it. In a nutshell, the Plex server runs on your computer serving content while clients run where you want to view. For instance, if you have the Fire TV you would use the Plex App. I also mentioned XBMC. I am not trying to start a flame war but I find Plex more polished and user friendly for the novice and feel that XBMC is the way to go for a power user who wants complete control over everything and is willing to invest the time and energy into it. I fall into both camps but I value my time and had a family to consider. Here are just a few of the things we love about Plex:

  • Unlimited folders to organize and personalize content (kids shows don't get mixed up with our shows)
  • The ability to delete media on the server from the client after a show has been watched
  • Automatically identifying the show and downloading meta data (program description, captions, artwork, etc)
  • Huge community providing plug-ins for extensibility and customization
  • Channels (since the FireTV is new, a number of channels are not yet available but we can get them through Plex - channels within channels)
  • It just works - automatically transcoding files that will not play natively on the client
  • Not just for video, provides access to music, photos, etc

PlayOn
PlayOn acts as a proxy allowing you to stream things from the internet to your computer and then on to your TV. You may be thinking what's the point - the major players have already made it possible to go straight from the internet to my TV or streaming device? This may be true for you and I don't want to talk you into spending money without value - this is a frugal website after all. I purchased a lifetime license in conjunction with PlayLater but here are the three use cases specific to PlayOn that justified the purchase to me.

  1. Save money by not paying for content that is free from a PC only (such as $7.99/month for Hulu)
  2. Browser plug-in allows me to create my own custom channel of online videos simply by bookmarking them
  3. You could learn to program your own channel in a day

At the time I am writing this article, there are 3 differences between Hulu Plus and the free version:

  • Free version only has the most recent 5 episodes of a show
  • Free version is in standard definition (paid is 720P if available)
  • Free version is only available from a computer
Even if I was only using it to get Hulu for free, I would be saving money in less than a year since a year of Hulu Plus is more than a lifetime license of PlayOn. I don’t just use it for Hulu though as it has a ton of content/channels. I absolutely love the PlayMark feature. Imagine browsing the web and coming across videos that you would like to watch on the big screen later or perhaps know that someone else in the house would like. Simply bookmark it and it will show up in the PlayMark channel. You have probably heard of Chromecast and its ability to cast a video from the web to your TV. PlayOn has PlayCast which works very similarly but works in more places as it is not limited to specific sites or the Chrome browser and can cast to any device running the PlayOn client not just Chromecast hardware though Chromecast is a supported device too. I also like that the programming language to build your own channel is so simple anyone could build their own channel in a day. This means that if there is a site that doesn't already have a channel/app then someone has probably written a PlayOn plugin for it. Not to toot my own horn but one of the channels I built (The CW) became so popular that PlayOn adopted it as a full time supported channel and offered me a lifetime license to PlayLater as a way of saying thank you. I was also able to use my programming knowledge to create channels that I can password protect keeping my children safe.

PlayLater
PlayLater is a DVR for web content. That may seem crazy since streaming content from the web is "on demand" but this allows you to download content overnight while every one is sleeping - you can then watch it streamed from a local device (even while "off-line"). I also have young daughters that can watch the same show over and over again. The FAQ says PlayLater is a legal technology that is designed to let individuals watch legal online content at a time of their choosing. Just like the broadcast DVR and the VCR before it, PlayLater is designed for personal use and convenience.. If you aren't reading between the lines you may not see that this technology could be abused for nefarious purposes such as recording local copies of content with limited time licenses such as 24 hour rentals. I am not trying to give you any ideas (there are far easier ways then this) but raise awareness that you won't mistakenly run into trouble.

MCEBuddy
MCEBuddy is a great example of what I meant about software being created by a passionate enthuisast that wants to share it with the world. The software is free but donations are accepted and are required if you want early release access. There is a feature list a mile long but here are the main features we use.

  • Automatically convert files recorded by Windows Media Center to formats more widely understood
  • Automatically remove commercials during the conversion process
  • Automatically rename files according to Plex naming convention

Handbrake
As I mentioned above, we only used Handbrake initially and since we no longer buy physical media do not have a use for it. As part of the cord cutting process I wanted to get rid of all of the dedicated CD/DVD/Blu-Ray/VCRs that we had. This meant making digital copies of all the physical media. I learned about Vudu's Disc To Digital program and took a stack into Walmart. You may be wondering why, for a frugal guy, I was willing to pay again for movies I had already paid for. Even though I got a little caught up in the moment, I don't regret my decision. First, I don't have to worry about the condition of my physical media and scratches seem to be inevitable with young children. Second, they don't actually convert the media. They verify that you own a legal copy and then you get access to it in the cloud which means there is no fidelity loss. I also don't have to worry about ensuring they are backed up. Ok, but what does this have to do with Handbrake? Not all of the movies could be converted due to licensing issues and other reasons. This meant I had to do the conversion myself. My research indicated that Handbrake was the way to go and I have to admit it was pretty simple. You may have to download a plugin for certain copy-protected sources (knowledge, power and responsibility).

The Elephant

Just a few months ago there were a number of options to watch live broadcasts streamed to you over the internet that do not exist today. The first is Aereo which lost a legal battle that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. The other is Justin.TV which went offline when Amazon bought Twitch. This is a very polarized topic and I am not interested in a debate. I mentioned them to bring attention to the fact that while you may be able to find a source to stream live TV it may not be legal and it may not last so be careful - especially if you are paying money.

I guess it is time to address the elephant in the room since I have been dancing around it the entire article. It is extremely easy to intentionally bypass restrictions and gain acces to content that you should have to pay for. I am not writing this article this to encourage you to do so or even tell you how to do so but since my target demographic the complete initiate I need to try and help prevent them from getting into trouble accidentally. For instance, you learn that some online websites change their prices depending on where you live, what competitors are in the area and what they are charging. After a quick google search you discover that Hola can make the website think you live a few miles down the road instead. It dawns on you when you are traveling abroad next month that you can use this to can get around Netflix geographic restrictions - should you? Say you learn that buy paying for Plex Pass (or perhaps you get a Slingbox) allows you to watch your content anywhere - a great thing. Should you share this capability with friends and family that wouldn't otherwise have access to this content? I have tried to be as comprehensive as possible but I have to leave you here. If you do decide to step firmly over the line educate yourself so that you know what you are doing.

Terms And Acronyms

For the uninitiated lay person, it can be tough understanding what people are talking about. Expect this section to grow as people ask questions.

  1. HTPC - home theater personal computer
  2. DNS - domain name service. As an analogy, think of it like a phone book converting names of websites into internet addresses rather than phone numbers
  3. DVR/PVR - digital/personal video recorder
  4. OTA - over the air
  5. Proxy - a device that acts on your behalf effectively hiding/protecting your computer
  6. SSD - solid state disk. A blazing fast hard drive
  7. STB - set top box. Traditionally your cable box but after you cut the cord may mean your Roku or Fire TV
  8. TCP - transmission control protocol. A reliable way to transfer data over a network
  9. UDP - user datagram protocol. A fast but unreliable way to transfer data over a nework
  10. UltraViolet - a service that allows you to own a digital copy of media in the cloud that would traditionally exist physically (DVD movie for instance)
  11. VPN - virtual private network. Connects two networks

Disney World

Every single aspect of Disney is designed to extract as much money from you as possible so being frugal can prove to be difficult. I recently completed a trip to Disney and are providing my experience below.

Guide Book

This electronic guide book is well worth the cost and includes free updates. I paid less than $10 for it and it saved me just over 7% on tickets alone. It goes into an extremely wide variety of topics and has helpful hints for saving money. For instance, I had no idea you were welcome to bring your own food and drink into the park until after reading this book.

Tickets

Getting a great deal on tickets is nearly impossible. Do NOT buy tickets from any place other than Disney or an officially authorized re-seller. You will end up throwing your money away. While it is possible to get free tickets (agreeing to participate in a multi-hour long hard sell timeshare sales pitch for instance), I would just recommend buying the guide book and using the promo code. There are two kinds of tickets.

  • Tickets that expire 14 days from first use (cheaper and more common)
  • Tickets that never expire (more expensive and less common)
If you are planning a trip in the future and you are positive you will be going, buy your tickets now as Disney has been increasing the prices almost annually and tickets that have never been used don't expire. Tickets are also associated with your finger print upon first use so it can't be transferred to another party. This is why buying cheap tickets is likely a scam (partially used tickets associated with someone else's fingerprint). I highly recommend you also get a quality photo of the back of the tickets because if you lose yours, this is the only hope of getting them replaced. Disney does offer discounts for Florida residents as well as military but do not attempt to use these if you do not meet the requirements as Disney regular checks for proof and will deny you entry and you will forfeit your ticket. As of this writing, it is still possible to get never expiring tickets but they are way more expensive. Tip: Do not pay to have your ticket sent to you if the seller has an office near Disney - just pick them up when you get there. The place I bought my tickets in January held them in a safe until I arrived in August.

If you have never been to Disney, figuring out where you want to go and what you want to do can be daunting. Personally, I would avoid the water parks if you have access to a pool. Additionally, I wouldn't pay for the Park Hopper add-on unless you are going to be there less than 3 days as you can avoid Epcot if you have young children and spend 1 day at the other 3 parks. We got a great deal on 5 day tickets and ended up spending two days at Magic Kingdom.

Getting There

With a family of four, we chose to make the 14 hour drive rather than fly. I avoided traffic as well as the cost of hotel and rental car by leaving at 10:30 PM and driving through the night. If driving isn't practical, you may still be able to avoid the car rental. Many of the hotels and resorts have shuttles to/from the airport/Disney. You will need to consider where else you plan on going (SeaWorld, Universal Studios, Walmart, etc). We used the Gas Buddy Trip Cost Calculator to find the cheapest places to buy gas along our route. I would also recommend using the Road Ninja App. Normally we get our gas discounted at Costco using a credit card that gives us 3% cash back year round but since that wasn't practical for that trip, we used a card that gives 5% cashback. Traveling through the night had other advantages such as fewer restroom and food stops. We brought food with us and just prepared simple things like sandwiches along the way which saved time and money.

Where To Stay

In addition to avoiding the cost of a rental car and daily parking, staying on-site at Disney has some distinct advantages. There are extra park hours not available to other guests as well as affordable (and potentially free) dining plans. Typically, the cost of staying on-site is far more expensive but there are tricks in the Guide Book to beat the system. I considered trading timeshare weeks but opted just to rent this house instead (about $100 / night).

   

This four bedroom villa is only 4 miles from Disney and for a small additional fee is pet friendly. We went grocery shopping on our first day and took advantage of the full kitchen to avoid costs on eating out. We swam almost every single morning and night which was extremely refreshing. The cost was shockingly low and I can't recommend this place highly enough. Using the pool allowed us to save on the cost of the water parks. If you decide to stay here, please let me know how it was because we plan on going back. Free high speed wi-fi is included and if you can't sleep, there are multiple flat screen HDTVs with cable.

Parking

As of August 2014, the cost of parking was $17 per day. Hang on to your receipt because it is valid for re-entry to the same park that day if you need to leave for any reason or to the other parks if you decide to drive instead of using the Disney transportation to go inter-park hopping. There really is no good way to avoid paying for parking if you do not stay on-site unless your hotel offers a reliable frequent shuttle service. It can get exciting but try to remember which lot and which section you parked in because at the end of a long day, the last thing you want to do is spend a couple of hours looking for your car. The two worst times to try and get in/out of the park are opening and closing. Essentially any other time it is a breeze. If you would like a non-good way of avoiding paying for parking, you can park at Downtown Disney and catch a bus. You will need to jump through a number of hoops/transfers but if your purse strings are tight it can be done.

Fast Pass

Disney offers a fast pass service which allows you to select 3 rides per day up to a month in advance that you would like to avoid waiting in line for. What I discovered on my first day is that once the three have been used, you can continue to add fast passes one at a time. There are also kiosks through out the parks that allow you to make changes. If you are trying to get on as many rides as possible and avoid long lines here is the strategy I would follow:

  1. Schedule your 3 fast passes for as early as possible in the day (maximizing the amount of time you can schedule extras)
  2. Use a park map to ensure the walking time from each ride aligns with the fast pass window
  3. Arrive at the park about 30 to 45 minutes prior to opening (at Magic Kingdom, it can take that long to get from your car to the entrance because you need to take a tram and then a bus/boat ride)
  4. Make a bee line to a ride that you want that is not one of your fast passes (no line yet)
  5. Go through your fast passes and any time the stand-by line is 20 minutes or shorter, go stand-by and then use the kiosk to change your experience
  6. Add as many extra fast passes as you can
Personally, I would get burned out following the above advice as we seemed to spend less time at the parks the longer our trip went. Another strategy would be to just choose the things you know you will really enjoy on a schedule that is the most relaxed and just use the base three adding extras if they make sense. There are only a certain number of fast passes for each ride so don't assume you will be able to add something later. There is also an app for your mobile device but it wasn't compatible with our Android phone so we used the kiosks.

Eating

We had a full kitchen at our villa so we ate breakfast and several dinners there. You are allowed to bring your own food and drink into the park so we brought in dry snacks such as granola bars to help curb the appetite. They even have locker rentals so you don't have to lug it around with you. You can also get free ice and/or tap water anywhere that has access to those things. If you are going to go this route, I suggest sticking to places that serve fountain soda and asking for a cup of ice and water as the water fountains tasted horrible. You may find the water from the fountain soda machine acceptable (especially cold with ice) which will save you money but more importantly get you out of lugging water around but I am too particular about my water. Purchasing bottled water was $2.50 on-site so we chose to carry a small soft sided cooler with us as walking to the lockers each time we needed a drink wasn't practical. If you go in the summer you can easily go through four or five bottles per person per day so it would be wise to purchase a case of water from Walmart or Costo for a few dollars like we did if you are picky as well. Tip: Empty about 1/4 of a few bottles and freeze them. As the day gets hotter and the water begins to warm up, you can pour the unfrozen water into these bottles for ice cold water. We tried to keep eating meals on-site to once per day. The kid's meals were only about 60 - 70% of the cost of the adult meals and were large enough you may want to consider ordering one of these instead of the adult meal. I didn't try this so I don't know if they would question you if you didn't have kids but given the number of people going through the lines I would be surprised if they did. Supposedly there is one place in every park that gives free re-fills on fountain drinks. The only one I found was the Backlot Express at Hollywood Studios.

Character Engagements

If you have children and they want to meet their favorite character, I'm sorry. Use a fast pass when/where you can. The characters are only at certain locations for a short window which means you have to show up early and wait and hope you made the cut-off. The very popular characters (Frozen for instance) will not allow you to get a fast pass online - the website claims there are no more available but I do not believe this to be true. Apparently you can sometimes get the fast pass the same day on-site at one of the kiosks. Epcot is also a good place to get a lot of character meetings out of the way but there isn't a lot else for young children there in terms of rides/attractions. What I did was make a dining reservation with character engagements. I chose the Akershus Royal Banquet Hall (Epcot) with the Disney Princesses. This was a multi-course meal at the cost of about $42 per adult and $25 per child. Included in the cost was free professional photos with a Princess and then through out the meal other Princesses would visit the table and would sign autographs and pose for photos (your camera).

What To Do Off-Site

There are a ton of things to do (and spend money on) off-site. It is quite common and easy to think you need to inject every possible experience into this one trip. Don't. It will only cost you money and will not enhance your experience because of the additional stress of compressing so much. If you want to eat out, find a Groupon before you go. If you don't have a Medieval Times near you and you absolutely want to go, plan ahead and find your discounted tickets before you go. This is a tourist destination so SeaWorld and Universal Studios are near by but, like Disney, they are designed to extract as much money from you as possible. We had a ton of fun spending time with each other swimming in the pool. There were helicopter rides for $15 to $20 as well as the world's tallest human slingshot that I would have been willing to pay for but we simply didn't find the time.

The Parks

Magic Kingdom

Magic Kingdom is the place for young children. Unlike the other parks, there is no alchohol here though all parks have limited designated smoking areas. Each park is broken up into themed areas (Fantasy Land, Tomorrow Land, etc). We spent two days there and open/closed the park on the first day of our trip. Here is a list of the things we did.

  • Seven Dwarf's Mine Train: New ride so very long wait. Very short ride and more visual than thrilling
  • Met Gaston near Gaston's Tavern: Saw a short line while we were making a restroom break. He is very much in character
  • Under The Sea - Journey Of The Little Mermaid: Mild ride but very visual - enjoyed it
  • The Walt Disney World Railroad: Not really a ride but a nice way to take a break and get from one side of the park to another
  • The Tomorrow Speedway: Guide track so no real steering - waste of time.
  • Space Mountain: Thrill ride - very fun - recommend fast pass if available
  • Incredibles Super Dance Party: character engagement (no line - outside dancing/music)
  • People Mover: Mild informative ride that is a guide to all of Tomorrow Land (nice break but not fun)
  • Monster's Inc. Laugh Floor: Funny interactive show inside seating
  • Stitch's Great Escape: Kid's did this with their Aunt and complained of Stich's foul breath
  • The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh: Mild ride - visual (mostly for young kids)
  • Enchanted Tales With Belle: Many of the kids get to participate and if you do, you get to get a photo with Belle
  • It's A Small World: Mild boat ride that is very visual. Short lines and a nice break (inside air conditioning)
  • Peter Pan's Flight: Mild ride - mostly visual. I wasn't impressed but the long wait may have contributed to that.
  • Mickey's PhilharMagic: 4-D show inside. Very fun content but quality of 3-D wasn't great
  • Haunted Mansion: I was hoping for the same 3D experience as Busch Gardens. It isn't 3-D and was just so-so
  • Columbia Harbour House: This is where we ate for the first day (no free refills on fountain drinks)
  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad: Thrill ride - fast pass recommened if available
  • Splash Mountain: Thrill ride - fast pass recommened if available (Good chance of getting wet)
  • Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn And Cafe: This is where we ate for the second day (no free refills on fountain drinks)
  • Pirates Of The Caribbean: Mild ride, mostly visual
  • Jungle Cruise: Boat ride with corny puns - mildly entertaining but jokes will go over young kid's heads
  • Enchanted Tiki Room: Very short inside show - nice 10 minute break if you can walk right in
  • The Magic Carpets Of Aladdin: Kiddie ride of the carousel variety
  • Dumbo The Flying Elephant: Kiddie ride of the carousel variety
  • Country Bear Jamboree: Very short inside show - nice 10 minute break if you can walk right in (content was a little suggestive)
  • Swiss Family Treehouse: Not a ride and no line - think jungle gym up in the air
  • The Barnstormer: Moderate coaster - more for children then adults
There is also a nightly parade and fireworks show. They do an indescribeable but amazing projection show on the castle during this time. If you want to get a good viewing location, plan to get there up to an hour early. There are fast passes for this but I didn't see where you got to be if you had one so I don't know if this is a good idea or not.

Animal Kingdom

The Animal Kingdom closes early (6 or 7 PM when we were there) so plan accordingly (Park Hopper perhaps). The Tree Of Life exhibit was closed for upgrades but this park had some of the best shows and rides. We didn't do as much on our 3rd day due to the shortened hours and because we were already exhausted from two days at Magic Kingdom. Here is what we did.

  • Kali River Rapids: Thrill ride - fast pass recommened if available (You will get wet and may get soaked)
  • Festival Of The Lion King: Amazing acrobatic show - fast pass recommened if available (scheduled showtimes so plan accordingly)
  • Kilimanjaro Safaris: Take a guided ride through an animal refuge (think zoo where they drive you to the animals)
  • Restaurantosaurus: This is where we ate for the day (no free refills on fountain drinks)
  • DINOSAUR: Non-Coaster thrill ride - fast pass recommended if available
  • Finding Nemo - The Musical: 40 minute re-telling of the movie. Great show (scheduled showtimes so plan accordingly)
  • Expedition Everest: Hands down the best thrill ride coaster - fast pass recommened if available
  • Anandapur Ice Cream Truck: Soft serve ice cream (over $4 for a cone) - it was hot and needed

Hollywood Studios

This is Disney's version of Universal Studios. My sister agreed to take the kids for the day so most of the day was spent just the two of us. It was scorching hot on our fourth day so we attempted to do as much indoors as we could. I will update this later with what things she took the kids to do if possible. Here is what we did.

  • The Great Movie Ride: A slow moving ride through some of Hollywood's iconic movies - with a little live role playing and gunfire
  • Muppet Vision 3D: A very humorous high quality 3D show in nice air conditioning
  • Star Tours: 3D (seat moves giving the feeling of forward motion but is stationary) - fast pass recommended if available (you can go multiple times and get slightly different experiences)
  • Backlot Express: This is where we ate for the day free refills on fountain drinks.
  • Min And Bill's Dockside Diner: My wife insisted she needed a nearly $12 turkey leg (I justify this expense as frugal as a divorce would be far more expensive - I did cry a little though)
  • It isn't on the guide map but there was an impromptu comedy show on the street that we watched (from the doorway of an air conditioned candy shop)
  • Beauty And The Beast: Live show - fast pass recommended if available (limited seating and scheduled showtimes so plan accordingly)
  • Twilight Zone - Tower Of Terror: Amazing thrill ride - fast pass recommended if available (line was short so we went twice back to back)
  • Fantasmic: Awesome live show with fireworks - fast pass recommended if available (limited seating and scheduled showtimes so plan accordingly)
  • Hollywood Scoops: Hand scooped ice cream. Same price as the soft serve at Animal Kingdom (over $4 per cone) but a much better value (sister treated)
  • Toy Story Midway: 3D ride that doubles as a carnival style shooting game (made a bet with my wife on who would score the most - I won)
  • Studio Backlot Tour: Didn't go myself but my sister told me it was a real behind the scenes tour with special effects and interactive

Epcot

We were so ready to be done by our 5th day that if I hadn't had character dining reservations, we may have just swam in the pool all day. We knew we had to get up extremely early the next day so, combined with the fatigue, this turned out to be a very short day. Here is what we did.

  • The Seas With Nemo And Friends: A slow moving ride - mostly visual
  • Soarin: Stationary but with effects (including smells) that make you feel like you are hang gliding - fast pass recommended if available
  • Living With The Land: Slow boat ride showing all the advances being made to have a symbiotic relationship with the land
  • The Circle Of Life: 20 minute movie about conservation and the devastating impact humans have on the earth with spliced in cartoons of Lion King characters telling the story
  • Journey Into The Imagination With Figment: Compared to other rides/parks, this was undewhelming though I valued the message. Slow ride stressing the importance of imagination.
  • Captain EO: Ancient 3D film (Michael Jackson stars) that probably should have been left in the 80s.
  • Mission Space: Two options (light and intense) mission to mars. I went with intense (2.5 Gs) - fast pass recommended if available
  • Maelstrom: Moderate boat ride telling Nordic viking history
  • Grand Fiesta Tour: Slow boat ride with video screens and cartoons
  • Akershus Royal Banquet Hall: Reserved dining - see Character Dining above for longer write-up
I would have loved to have done Epcot properly and gone on an around the world tour of food and drink. We could have made it work (going to separate parks) but it was far more convenient staying together and by the time we did Epcot together we were plumb tuckered out.

Photos

There are dozens of professional photographers at each of the parks at strategic locations (such as in front of the Castle). These photographers will take your photo free of charge and you can choose which, if any, photos to buy online after viewing them. You can associate these photos with your ticket or magic band if you have one so there is no need to get a new photo card each time. These pictures are very expensive (about $15 per digital download). You can avoid these costs by having the photographer use your camera too (part of their job). Disney also offers a Memory Maker package for the advance purchase price of $149. Everyone in your group can use this so the break even point is about 10 photos. The rub is that it has to be purchased at least 3 days before your first photo to get the discount as the regular price is $199. My recommendation would be to stick with having the professionals use your camera for free. If you know how to intercept http requests, you can even get copies of the professional photos but that borders on the unscrupulous. If you do decide to pay for the professional photos, be sure to ask for the "surprise photos". They will take one photo and have you point at the ground or perhaps open the palm of your hand like you are holding something - then, they will doctor the photo with a surprise. One nice thing about buying the memory maker is they can also stitch multiple photos together so you don't all need to be at the same place at the same time.

Souvenirs

Just don't. They are exorbitantly priced, take up room and may get ruined/lost if a young child is holding them. Take plenty of photos and videos as they are far better memories than some trinket. If I haven't convinced and you absolutely must, do not buy them at the park. Walmart is a licensed Disney seller and many of the same things you can buy at the park you can buy there for far less. There are dedicated gift shops off-site. I only ventured into one and it had extremely deep discounts because it was selling things from the previous year (2013 t-shirts when it was 2014). My children particpiated in a free educational program over the summer and I told them that they could each have a certain amount of money to buy on souvenirs but they needed to budget accordingly and that everything they bought was their responsibility (to carry it around, make sure nothing spilled on it, pack it when it was time to leave, etc). I recommend doing something similar if you have kids as it helps teach valuable life lessons.

Miscellaneous

We went in the 3rd week of August. Many rental places consider August 15th the end of peak rates and the crowds begin to die down because of the return to school. While these are pluses, the heat is still face melting. A common thing was everyone rushing to get into the parks early in the day and then thinning out heavily in late afternoon. My theory is that they do not hydrate their children enough and don't have the stamina for the long haul or else they get scared off by the rain. It rains almost daily during the Florida summer. It usually hits in early afternoon and doesn't last for very long. For this reason, you may want to consider waiting to go to the park. You could also consider leaving for a few hours (12 - 4) and coming back later. If you have your own place like we did you could swim in the pool and eat lunch affordably. If you do stay and it rains, don't buy an umbrella or poncho at the park. Get one ahead of time such as this 4 pack.

If you go on a ride that snaps photos, always check your photo when exiting the ride even if you do not intend to purchase it. Whenever a rider does something obscene during the ride, they will cover the photo and not allow it to be sold. If this happens to you it is great news. Simply talk to an employee and they will take you back to the ride (bypassing the entire line) and allow you to go again. There is no obligation to buy the picture if you do this. I discovered this by accident because I was actually interested in the photo.

Fast passes and ruined photos aren't the only way to get on a ride quickly. Some rides have single rider queues which move very quickly. If you are the only one that wants to ride the ride or you do not mind riding by yourself, this is a quick way to get on. These rides are marked on the guide maps.

You don't need a special event or reason to visit Disney but it can get you a free pin/button. I assume they have something similar at all the parks but at Magic Kingdom, City Hall will give you a free pin/button for your first visit, birthday, anniversary, etc. This is one souvenir that is ok in my book. The other thing I would recommend is picking up two guide maps on your way out of the park each day when you leave. That night, keep one in pristine condition and circle what things you did and any notes worth keeping. This is another no-cost way to keep the memories alive.

If you have a moment of weakness and end up spending money on something that you really didn't need, don't carry it around with you as it can get lost or damaged (rain for instance). There is a courtesy service to have your items waiting for you at the front of the park that you can pick up on your way out. If you are staying on-site, they will even deliver it to your resort for you. Note: They request at least 3 hours to get your items up to the front so do not use this free service if you are leaving right away.

Being frugal isn't the same as being cheap. If it were, we would never go to Disney. Being frugal is about deriving as much value out of something as you can. For this reason, I chose to wait until my children were old enough to make lasting memories and not have some vague recollection of the experience. I recommend you do the same. You don't have to worry about strollers though the park was very stroller friendly. I also recommend you educate your children and yourselves on what to do if you get separated while at the park. It is a big place with a lot of people and can be overwhelming. Tell them how to identify an employee and what they should tell them. You may even want to laminate an emergency contact card and put it in their clothing.

Reserve early. Character engagements, character dining, rides, tours, etc - reserve early. You may have to wait up to 6 months to find availability for breakfast with Cinderella for instance.

Resources

Online Shopping

I shop online whenever possible as it allows me to research, price compare and read customer reviews as well as save time and money. I avoid paying for gas, long lines and avoid the temptation to buy things I don't need.

Slick Deals

Slick Deals is an online community of people sharing all the slick deals they come across. Users vote on deals which drives awesome deals to the top. The information is well organized and it is easy to search for sales, freebies, promo codes, etc. While you can use the site without registering, there are a few reasons why you should register:

  • Create custom deal alerts
  • Almost a daily giveaway
  • Subscribe to threads

The first reason alone is a killer feature. You can be notified instantly if something you want goes on sale anywhere on the net. If you have already searched high and low and can't find an acceptable deal on the item you want, spending time searching everyday is not an effective use of your time. Just create a custom alert and sit back and wait for an army of volunteers to notify you instantly when a deal becomes available. Typical examples of the almost daily giveway are a $200 pre-paid VISA card, iPad Mini and a Kindle Fire HDX.

If you are reading this, you are probably as disappointed as I am. A file somewhere got over written and all my work on this blog post was lost. I am in the process of slowly recreating it and I apologize for the inconvenience.

Credit Cards

This post is about making money with credit cards. I know that is a dirty word for many people but armed with knowledge and discipline, credit cards give you FREE MONEY.

I just signed up for a credit card with a $200 cashback bonus for spending $500 in the first three months. Additionally, I get $25 for adding an authorized user (my wife). The card also gives 5% cashback on special categories of purchases that change quarterly and 1% cashback on everything else. That means for going through the trouble of filling out an application and meeting the spending obligation, I earn between $230 and $250. In four months, I will cancel the card and wait for it to come back around again next year.

There is a whole art form to this called churning with a subreddit devoted to it. They know exactly how much a hard pull affects your credit rating and how long it lasts with the goal of getting as much as possible out of the process. Personally, I turn over 1 or 2 cards a year. On the other hand, I have other credit cards that I have had for years and make almost every possible purchase I can using them. I think it is silly to turn down free money and having long established accounts helps your credit score. I am only interested in cashback but different cards specialize in different benefits such as airline miles.

If you are someone who just doesn't have the discipline not to spend more than you can afford and don't have a credit card for that reason, good for you. If the reason you don't use a credit card (or only have it for emergencies) is because you don't believe they are beneficial, take a look at what my favorite credit card gives me:

  • 5% cashback on special categories that rotate quarterly (currently gas stations)
  • 1% cashback on all other purchases
  • Not happy with your purchase, return it within 90 days regardless of the store's policy (up to $500)
  • Up to $500 replacement if purchased item is lost or stolen within 90 days of purchase
  • Up to $500 refunded if an item you purchased goes on sale within 90 days of purchase (great for Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals)
  • Doubles the warranty (up to an additional 1 year) for any purchase
  • Get additional cashback when purchasing from dozens of partnered retailers including Walmart and Home Depot

To be clear, I do not purchase anything for the rewards or that I would not have otherwise not purchased. I do use my credit card everytime I purchase something if at all possible. I never pay annual fees and I never pay for interest. You may be wondering then, how the credit card company can afford to keep me as a customer - aren't they losing money off of me? Never bet against the house, the house always wins. Merchants are charged a percentage and/or a flat fee for allowing you to pay with a credit card. That is why, since 2010, it is legal for merchants to set a minimum purchase of up to $10 in order to use a credit card. According to the article I just linked to, cashback cards have a higher fee associated with them so it is the merchant that is giving you the cashback - not the credit card company.

I know 1% doesn't seem like that much but would you walk past a $100 bill lying on the ground? To make the math easy, let's assume $10,000 per year on a credit card (groceries, gas, Christmas shopping, clothes shopping, school shopping, entertainment, etc). That's $100 a year back in your pocket. That's if you aren't able to maximize your cashback by having multiple cards like I do. I get 3% cashback on gas year round on 1 card, 2% at restaurants and for travel. On that same $10,000, I manage to get $176 back (without bonuses). I have linked my card's cashback with Amazon so I can use it immediately.

If you would like a free $50 and get all the benefits I listed above on my favorite Discover card, apply here. For referring you, I will get $50 as well

BGE Free Home Energy Audit

This post is for all BGE residential customers, including renters, but similar programs probably exist regardless of your provider.

Trying to decipher where and how all the energy in your home is consumed can be a daunting task for most. While I recommend educating yourself, a great first step is to leave it up to the professionals. For free, BGE will walk through your home, provide a detailed report and optionally install a number of energy saving items. I say free but it turns out the program is paid for out of a pool set aside BGE from a very small surcharge on each and every customer's monthly bill. By not having this audit done, you are not getting the full value for your investment. Here are the items that they will install for free.

  • Up to 12 compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) with options for dimmable, three way, candelabra, globe and spiral bulbs
  • Four faucet aerators
  • Two efficient-flow fixed or handheld showerheads
  • Water heater pipe insulation (installed on hot and cold pipes for six feet from water heater)
  • Water heater tank wrap (electric water heaters only)
  • Smart Strips

* If your home doesn't require one of the energy-saving measures offered during the Check-up, or it cannot be installed, an additional four CFL bulbs can be substituted as an alternative measure.

Here are some lessons learned from my experience. They will not replace a broken light bulb because it isn't consuming energy. Likewise, they will not hand you the smart strips, they need to be installed. In other words, they have to be able to say they reduced your energy consumption. Also, they may tell you that your hot water heater doesn't require a blanket because it is newer and already has sufficient insulation. Fine, get your additional light bulbs. Speaking of light bulbs, if you require special features like dimmable then be sure to stress that when you make your appointment and when they call to confirm. BGE also offers another more in-depth audit for $100. They will give you another set of all of the items listed above as well as do a seal test to identify air leaks.

BGE customers learn more. If you are not a BGE customer, contact your provider to see if they have a similar program.