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Save Money by Turning Off Your Television?

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I love television. If I'm at home, there's probably an 85% chance you'll see the television on. While I like to think I watch educational programs and news, I do catch a fair amount of Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, and Family Guy. On the way to work yesterday, I heard something distressing... watching television can cost you money. I think I already knew this, but I didn't want to face then and I'm not sure I want to face it now.

How much does watching television cost? If you believe Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor, an hour each week of television costs you $200 a year. The theory according to Juliet Schor? "Television viewing results in an upscaling of desire. And that in turn leads people to buy." As CNN Money would have you believe, "a handful of sitcoms and a reality series or two can cost you more than a grand a year."

It sounds like a good chunk of change, but let's break that down a bit. The $200 a year number breaks down to $4 an hour of watching television (since it's report was based on weeks). If I watch three hours of television each day, that's still $12 more that I could have in my pocket. That's $4,380 a year. Wow that's a lot of money! It sounds a bit like too much money. I would buy an argument that watching television stops me making money, but I'm not sure it saves me $4,380. In fact, I would think that without television, I would incur new costs... my wife and I would go out to dinner. We'd go to the movies more. We might even spend time... gasp... at the mall. Sure a lot of the nights, we might stay home and read, play with the puppy, and do other activities like that. But a $40 dinner out once a week eliminates half the savings of not having a television. Going to 25 movies puts another dent into those savings.

When I think about it, I'm usually watching television much as one would use a radio... just listening. Much of the time, I'm doing other things that actually make money, such as writing articles for this website, researching future articles, or creating new website. I'm also chatting with friends and/or reading about sports online.

The CNN Money article finishes up with an interesting thought, "...stop watching shows centered on the lifestyles of the fictionally the rich. Try COPS or The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. No one ever looked at the PBS anchor and said, 'I've got to get a blazer like that!'" I couldn't find Juliet Schor original study, but I'd love to read the methodology behind it. What you watch may be very important. I watch a fair amount of sports. I do buy some sports merchandise, like the shirt if my team wins a championship, but that's a purchase I'd make as a sports fan, not because I'm watching television. I don't buy Ford F-150s nor do go out and get beer when the ads comes on.

I'd like to know how commercials factor into the equation. Does the fact that I watch much of my television on DVR while fast forwarding through the commercials make me less exposed? As an active personal finance blogger, am I less immune to this because I focus on frugality?

In the end, this may just be an average. It doesn't necessarily mean that everyone applies to it equally. There will be people all over the spectrum. Just like how you might read that the average person in America has $800 dollars in credit card debt... it doesn't mean that you do. The fact that you are reading this website probably means you are anything but average financially.

If you enjoyed this article, I have many more on how to save money.

Last updated on May 22, 2009.

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20 Responses to “Save Money by Turning Off Your Television?”

  1. First, I thought this article was going to talk about the energy cost :)

    You’d get along well with my wife. Our TV is constantly on to provide “background noise”.

    Yeah, you’re probably more immune to making impulse decisions based on TV, due to personality traits. Many people DO buy a lot of product that are advertised on TV, though. Heck, look at all the advertising money in NASCAR. (This article points out my odd tendency to unconsciously avoid products that my favorite driver endorses -> http://www.observingcasually.com/nascar-and-brand-loyalty/ )

    I watch very little TV (other than sports). When Monk and Psych are on, I watch them, but the only “appointment viewing” I have now is “The Office”. I’ve managed to watch anout 20% of the episodes this year, which isn’t bad for me :)

    I prefer to actively be doing something. Writing articles, researching topics of interest to me (baseball, murder, etc), reading a book, or listening to my Rockies games. I can multi-task and do a few at once.

    FYI – I think you might mean that the average American has $8000 in CC debt, not $800.

  2. Lazy Man says:

    Hmmm, that’s what I get for trying to think off the top of my head. You are right, it is $8000. That’s even crazier than I thought.

  3. Alex says:

    There’s a lot of ultra-hidden health costs to watching tv. In addition to the extra health costs stemming from a less active, tv-watching lifestyle, studies show that watching tv can distract someone, so that they don’t pay as much attention to the feeling they get when they are full, and thus people who eat in front of the tv tend to eat more. Also watching tv probably means you are less willing to spend extra time preparing a healthy meal. Thus, watching tv can lead to a less healthy lifestyle, which can lead to larger health costs.

  4. Lazy Man says:

    I’m pretty sure the study was more about excess spending due to the content of television. If I watched (and did exercise shows) the healthy angle might not apply. And reading a book probably has the same health issues (neither is very active).

  5. Manshu says:

    well, there is a difference between being cheap and being frugal. I guess stopping things that give you pleasure and don’t put a dent in your pocket is the first step towards crossing that line

  6. thisisbeth says:

    If you don’t watch TV, you’ll need hobbies to fill your time. Odds are likely that that hobbies are much more expensive than sitting to watch a television show (I grew up with TV, that’s how I know about hobbies…).

    I think, however, it isn’t even necessarily the commercials (although I’m sure that’s a big part). If you’re watching a sit-com, you might see their lovely living rooms, and feel the urge to re-do your living room so it can be lovely. And look how well put together than bedroom is! I need to get a new comforter and lamp stands and definitely need to get some striped wallpaper up…and so it goes.

  7. I thought this was going to be about how TV turns your brain to mush and how that can cost you. I’ve been battling with trying to watch less and less TV recently and the fact that there are so many nagatives to watching too much TV makes it even more frustrating.

  8. Rob Bennett says:

    Television has to cost most of us large amounts of money or it couldn’t exist. They have to pay writers and actors and producers and taxes and insurance costs and rent and on and on. The money must be coming from somewhere. We pay it indirectly (by buying the products advertised). But we obviously are the ones paying it. The people paying for the commercials are obviously not taking a loss. The fact that the cost is paid indirectly makes it that much more insidious. It would be easier to keep track of this if we covered the cost directly.

    You reduce the cost if you don’t see the commercials. But companies pay to influence what goes into the shows too. When Apple Computer pays for a product placement, they aren’t doing so to enhance the development of the plot.

    They’re out to get us!


  9. meinmillions says:

    That’s a facinating study. When I read the title I also thought you were talking about energy savings (everything’s about going green and saving money these days!).

  10. So, if I Tivo a show and fast-forward through the commercials, does it only cost me 2/3 of $4/hour, or $2.68? I wonder what the effect is of not being exposed to the commercials. Then there’s the electricity I save by watching only 2/3 of an hour instead of an hour. I guess if I really wanted to save, I could turn off the TV and read a book.

  11. Barbarian – better yet, just watch TV with one eye closed!

  12. DollarDream$ says:

    I am with Beth # 6.

    Watching TV is lot cheaper than some of the other hobbies. Its cheap entertainment. Lot of other alternatives will cost more money.

  13. Stacey says:

    DollarDreams, how much does your cable bill cost? In our area it’s about $60-80 per month. With all due respect, I’m sure I can entertain myself for much less. :-)

    Let’s see… my family can go to the library, take a walk outdoors, or take a full hour to eat dinner and talk (all $0). We’ve been television-free for two years now. It was an economic necessity at first, but we never got around to turning the TV back on.

    There’s nothing wrong with television – but you’ve got to be aware of the financial, physical and time costs of “cheap entertainment.” I’ve personally found that I would get sucked into shows and waste entirely too much time watching television – it’s just easier to do without.

  14. Lazy Man says:

    Watching television doesn’t necessary mean having a cable bill. With high definition antennas out there, it’s pretty easy.

    There are plenty of ways to entertain for free (as Stacey shows), but it depends on the person and the situation. I know that when I lived in Boston, there was little chance of going to library or walking outdoors in the wintertime after 5PM (when it gets dark and cold). I’m sure that once or twice or month, we’d use the idea of taking a full hour to eat dinner and talk to a restaurant (it’s more entertaining to eat out than stay in when you’ve been locked in due to the cold and dark outside).

    Getting sucked into television shows is a somewhat different discussion that the one presented here. The idea from the study is that by watching 90210, you’ll want to live that lifestyle… not that you’ll lose the opportunity to make more money in elsewhere (which is certainly true for me).

    I don’t want to dismiss that discussion, it’s a good and important one to have… just thought it was interesting the influence of watching television.

    I didn’t mention it in the story because it occurred to me know, but I think the friends you keep impacts spending more. If they are into the latest fashions, electronics, etc. you may find yourself keeping up them.

  15. brainiac says:

    My SO and I got rid of our television completely. Instead, we use our computer!

    A growing collection of websites (hulu.com and many of the network websites like nbc.com, and cbs.com) offer free streaming episodes of tv shows and movies. Typically there will be a single advertiser for each episode, and you usually see the same commercial 3-6 times during the episode.

    It’s great for many reasons: we get to watch the shows we want to watch, when we want to watch them. Before we moved to online-only television, we would plop down in front of the tv and watch filler until our favorite shows were on. Or we would stay up later than we wanted to see how they ended. We also endure fewer commercials. Most sites have a few 30-second commercials for the same product. A couple have 1:00 commercials, but still less than the average televised version.

    I agree that it’s “cheap” entertainment – and I also think that if a person is easily influenced by the ads they watch, or the lifestyles of the show’s characters, they probably do spend more. But part of being frugal is finding a way to resist the temptations we’re constantly attacked with – whether they come from television, roadside billboards, celebrity endorsements, etc.

    Just my $0.02. ;)


  16. marci says:

    who has time for tv watching? not me!
    I listen to the local weather events – background noise in the morning getting ready for work – and then turn it off again.

  17. Kaylie says:

    I stopped watching tv and reading magazines. I found they made me less content with my own life and I wanted to spend money more often. I have to agree I’m much happier with my life and myself without those two things.

  18. Rosa says:

    You should read Schor’s books, they’re really interesting, especially The Overspent American. It’s a little dated (pre-Tivo for sure) but one of the effects she’s talking about is how TV affects your idea of what normal is.

    People on TV have bigger houses and nicer cars and newer appliances than real people, plus depending on what you watch you see the inside of their houses (you probably don’t see the living room of most people you interact with). That affects what you think of as normal, which affects your consumption habits. The same with the friends you have – if “everybody” has a Lexus, you’re not going to be very happy with a nice new Toyota, much less an old, reliable, sort of dingy one.

    I’ll bet you’re right that sports has less of an effect, though (unless it makes you feel bad about your body and go hire a personal trainer.)

  19. Lazy Man says:

    I think hiring a personal trainer is a fine use of money. All spending isn’t bad.

  20. I rarely watch tv. when I do its fox news, animal planet, discovery channel, etc. something I can learn from.

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