Ready to Cut the Cord? 12 Cost-Saving Alternatives to Cable

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By now, you’ve likely heard about how much less expensive it is to forgo your cable package and fulfill your television needs with streaming services—heck, your friend/neighbor/cousin/chatty coworker has been droning on about it for months. You’re finally ready to take the plunge; but where do you start?

First, make sure your router is up to the task: Don’t invest time and money in setting up new subscriptions and gadgets only to wind up with buffering video. Look for routers with dual-band connectivity; Netflix recommends a download speed of at least 5 Mbps (Megabits per second) for HD quality video, and over 25 Mpbs for Ultra HD. Then, substitute your cable or satellite provider for one or a combination of these 12 options.

1. THE BIG THREE

Often referred to as “The Big Three,” Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime are considered the cream of the crop in online streaming because they offer outstanding original programming in addition to large catalogs of existing shows and movies. Subscriptions to all three can be fairly reasonable, with Amazon Prime starting at $99 a year or $12.99 per month. Netflix's standard plan goes for $10.99 a month now, while Hulu will set you back $7.99 a month with limited commercials, or an extra $4 per month with no ads.

2. FLAT ANTENNAS

Since 2009, television stations have been required to broadcast exclusively in digital, rendering old-fashioned “rabbit ears” obsolete. Now, you can watch live shows on networks like NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, PBS, The CW, and others by installing a flat antenna in your home. Models by Mohu (starting at $17.99) and Channel Master ($19) are affordable and easy to install.

3. OVER-THE-AIR DVR

The one drawback to relying on a flat antenna is that you must watch your shows in real time, with no fast-forwarding, pausing, or rewinding. Solve this issue with an over-the-air (OTA) DVR. Services like Tablo or Plex DVR allow you to record live TV shows and then store them on an external hard drive for delayed streaming. (The catch is, some of these services require you to purchase a corresponding device—they won’t work with just any antenna.)

4. TV STREAMING SERVICES

Want more TV channels than are available through your antenna? For $20 a month, you can subscribe to Sling TV to get 28 live-streaming cable channels, such as AMC, CNN, TNT, Comedy Central, and the History Channel. A $40 monthly subscription will give you access to over 40 channels, including ESPN. There are other emerging services that might work for you, too.

PlayStation Vue has multiple plans depending on your interests, and you don't even need a PlayStation 4 console to use it. YouTube TV has fewer channels and plans than the Vue, but at $35 a month, it has a solid selection of high-profile networks, including ESPN and FX. Hulu has also entered the game with a live TV service, touting 50+ channels at $39.99 a month (which also includes the limited commercials Hulu streaming subscription). DirectTV Now has a package that starts off at more than 60 channels for $35, and it tops off at $70 for 120-plus channels.

You'll have to browse through each individual service to find out which one is compatible with the devices you own and if these plans are more cost-effective than your current cable package. But with no equipment costs or long-term contracts, these services are worth considering if you're ditching cable.

5. SPECIALIZED SUBSCRIPTIONS

If you have more unique tastes than even Netflix can account for, chances are there is a specialized streaming service that can give you what you want. Fans of British television should check out Acorn TV, which allows you to watch episodes of Jeeves and Wooster and the original Prime Suspect on your smart TV or mobile device for only $5 a month. If anime is your thing, Crunchyroll professes to be “one of the few legal, official anime and drama streaming sites out there," with premium subscriptions starting at $7 a month. Cinephiles have a few choices for popular art house and indie movies: Check out Mubi, Fandor, and FilmStruck, which is a streaming service collaboration from Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection.

6. CHROMECAST

Google's Chromecast ($35) quickly turns any HD TV into a smart TV. Just plug the Chromecast dongle into your TV’s HDMI port and connect it to your home Wi-Fi network. Now you can stream various apps (including Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Now, YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and more) onto the TV in your living room, while using your Android or iOS device as a remote control.

7. ROKU

Roku is a little black set-top box that connects your TV to the internet via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. It comes with a simple remote control and features more video streaming content than any other device or media streamer. You can even plug in a USB drive to play your own video and music files on your TV. Available in a number of models, including a USB stick version (starting at $49.95), many experts consider it the best and most reliable streaming device on the market today.

8. APPLE TV

If you’re an iTunes user who owns an iOS device and a MacBook, then Apple TV might be the best choice for you. Like Chromecast and Roku, Apple TV gives you easy access to the Big Three as well as HBO and Showtime; what sets it apart for Apple users is its seamless integration of iTunes and other Apple apps. It also comes with a nifty touch-surface remote that lets you swipe or use Siri to surf channels. With prices starting at $149, it’s the most expensive set top-streaming box for cord cutters, but it will be well worth the cost if you already live in the Apple ecosystem.

9. PLEX

If you already have a large digital movie, music, and TV library, you can use Plex to easily watch your media files from your computer or television. Sign up for and install the Plex Media Server (it’s free!) on your computer and it will catalog, organize, and label your files into a user-friendly interface that’s watchable on Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, Android and iOS devices, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

10. STANDALONE PREMIUM NETWORK SUBSCRIPTIONS

In the past, if you wanted premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime, you’d have to include it to your cable subscription package at an additional cost. But the networks have gotten hip to the cord-cutting trend and now offer standalone subscriptions. HBO offers HBO Now for $14.99 a month, while Starz has a streaming service for $8.99 a month that is compatible with Apple TV, Android, Roku, Chromecast, and Amazon Prime. Showtime offers streaming for $10.99 a month, or you can add Showtime to your Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime accounts for an extra $8.99.

11. DIGITAL NEWS OUTLETS

There are also great streaming options for news junkies. While CNN and MSNBC don’t have standalone streaming services, the cable news networks are available on Sling TV. News outlets like CBS News, Sky News, ABC News, Bloomberg TV, Fusion, and Newsy, meanwhile, all offer free live streaming services for Roku and Apple TV.

12. SPORTS PASSES

For some people, watching live sporting events has been one of the biggest barriers to completely canceling their cable subscriptions. But over the years, major sports leagues and entertainment venues have started to cater to the demands of cord-cutters. Now you can watch live, out-of-market Major League Baseball games on MLB.tv, hockey with the NHL GameCenter Live, and basketball with NBA League Pass. The NFL and DirecTV are now offering NFL Sunday Ticket to non-DirecTV customers, so more people can watch live, out-of-market NFL games every Sunday. You can even subscribe to the WWE Network for $10 a month for access to an extensive back catalog library and every new pay-per-view event.

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

5 Easier Ways to Water Your Christmas Tree

Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images
Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images

A decorated Christmas tree adds instant holiday cheer to any room—for a few days, at least. If you neglect to care for it, however, it doesn't take long for that tree to start dropping needles and dry up into a brittle, brown fire hazard. The key to keeping your tree looking healthy until the New Year is to water it every day. Of course, that comes with its own problems, like sap-covered clothing and sore knees. Here are some alternative methods for watering your Christmas tree that won't have you wishing for the end of the holiday season.

1. Rig a funnel and PVC pipe.

The worst part of watering a Christmas tree is crawling around on your hands and knees, but once you've set up this funnel rig, you can water it while standing up. As Eric Palonen demonstrates in the video above, all you need to do is stick a PVC pipe into the tree stand, attach a funnel to the other end with an elbow connector, and pour in the water.

2. Dig out a pool noodle.

Don't have a spare PVC pipe at home? A foam pool noodle works just as well as the receptacle for your funnel.

3. Disguise a DIY water dispenser as a present.

On Instructables, Rickyspears shares his step-by-step process for building a Christmas tree-watering rig. Using a bucket and plastic tube with brass fittings, you can create a water-siphoning system that automatically keeps your tree hydrated. And because a big bucket of water beneath the tree isn't the most festive sight, Rickyspears also tells you how to disguise it by hiding it in a box decorated with wrapping paper.

4. Use a wine bottle.

Still have some leftover wine bottles from Thanksgiving (or the weekend) lying around the house? Use one of them to water the base of your tree while keeping a safe distance between you and the sticky branches. (Though if you do get some sap on your hands, there are a few easy ways to get rid of it.)

5. Invest in an automated watering system.

DIY watering rigs are inexpensive, but if convenience is your main concern, it's hard to beat a product that was designed just for this purpose. The Christmas tree watering bag from Elf Logic senses when your tree needs water and replenishes it automatically. Plus, it hangs on a branch like an ornament, making it easy to tuck away.

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