Watching Away a Small Fortune: How Watching Television Depletes your Retirement Accounts

I, like most Americans, love to spend considerable time wasting away in front of the television. I have my “can’t miss” shows but don’t limit myself to those… I watch whatever looks interesting. Now I don’t watch the national average of four hours of television a day, but like most people I also love movies. I watch at least three or four movies every week. I have nearly 200 movies in my own personal video collection.

So how does sitting in front of the television amount to lost dollars? Well, there are a lot of financial obligations that accompany t.v. watching, from hooking up the cable, to buying your television and sound system, to renting movies. This is one of the most expensive forms of (a rel=”nofollow” onclick=”javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview(‘/outgoing/article_exit_link’);” href=http://www.richonanyincome.com/save/entertainment/index.htm>entertainment.

Watching television


Americans now watch 28 hours of television each week. This number is declining with the increase in internet time but no matter how you look at it four hours a day is a lot of time.

In an effort to optimize enjoyment in t.v. land there are many luxuries that you can indulge in: your television itself, television service (cable, satellite, HD, etc), and even the junk you eat while you waste away.

The Gear. I don’t really understand why people who make less than $15,000 a year need a 60” plasma screen (currently retailing around $4000) but go into any trailer park and you’ll find that this is a definite priority. Much more reasonable is a $1000 32-inch LCD. Or, if you’re like me, a 27 inch no-name brand flat screen ($250) works just fine. You should expect to use your television for 10-20 years before upgrading or replacing. At 20 years the price breakdown (excluding electricity) for television purchases would be: Plasma ($200), LCD ($50), cheapo ($12.50).

You’ll probably also want to buy a DVD player ($20-150), VCR ($35-80), DVR ($100-1000), and speakers ($50-1000). You probably know as well as I do that buying electronics cheap comes at a price… they break down quickly. You don’t have to be extravagant, but don’t be cheap with your toys either. If you buy decent peripherals: DVD $75, VCR $50, DVR $250, and speakers $300 (total=$675) and they each last 10 years, that only amounts to about $70 each year or $6/month.
The Service. Cable or satellite can easily cost $40-80/month. Throw on the extra channels, on-demand programming, and TiVo and you could be spending $100 or more each month. Most people can’t imagine life without cable and Tivo but I’ve managed it just fine. Most of the major networks now show many of their shows online for free, and for my other viewing needs I check out television shows from the library. Want a quick way to save $100 each month, try giving up cable. A good option for those who NEED internet, local phone, and cable is bundling those costs. You can usually get a deal around $100/month for all three which should save you some money.

Breaking down television


Bad idea: Buy a 60 inch plasma ($15/month), get all the fancy peripherals ($20/month), digital cable with extra channels and TiVo ($100/month), and spend all day every day wasting away. Total: $135/month.


Good idea: Buy a 32-inch LCD ($6/month), get decent peripherals ($6/month), basic cable ($30/month), and occasionally go out for a walk. Total: $42/month


Better idea: Buy a decent 27-inch flat screen ($1/month), not brand name but reliable peripherals ($4/month), and watch t.v. online or check out DVDs from the library (free). Total: $5/month


Best idea: Give up t.v. altogether. Total: free


If you decide you are spending too much time and money on television, good for you! The money you save each month from going from bad idea to better idea is $120/month. Over the course of your working lifetime (35 years) that money invested in the stock market (10% annualized return) would return you $1.4 million dollars.

Paying for movies


In the last five years I have amassed nearly 200 VHS, DVDs, and iPod movies and television shows. A dozen or so of those movies were given to me as gifts but the great majority I purchased myself. Because most of these purchases came from garage sales, Goodwill, and eBay I paid only a fraction of the estimated retail value. I estimate I spent somewhere in the ballpark of $600-700 for my entire collection (retail would have run them close to $5000). So I spent a little over $100 each year feeding my video collection.

I also watch movies that I don’t own. Once upon a time I went to Blockbuster but now I can’t imagine paying $5 to watch a movie when I can wait a couple of months and buy the same movie online for the same price. Netflix has been the way to go for many of my friends, but again, I don’t understand the whole concept of renting… why should I be paying $5-25 each month to borrow movies. I can do that at the public library for free—which is exactly what I do. I check out several movies each week. For movies I just can’t wait to see I go to the grocery store and rent it for $1 out of the Redbox machine. “Renting” movies in this way I spend less than $10 each year. The best way to go, however, is by not spending any money at all and checking out your movies from the public library or borrowing from friends. This will potentially save you hundreds of dollars a year and thousands over your lifetime.

Start saving now on your entertainment


There is no reason to be spending $100-200 each month on television and movie watching. By taking advantage of some of the tips you can easily save $50-100/month or more every month, which, if invested can return literally thousands of dollars over the course of your life. Save $50 month and you’ll have $600 year… compounded monthly over 35 years = $590,151. Not bad.

Tyler Christensen is currently a PhD student in Learning Sciences at Indiana University in Bloomington. He is a Professional Development researcher for the Quest Atlantis project and his personal research interests include: online learning, personal finance, professional development, teaching with technology and web design. He maintains the website RichOnAnyIncome.com, a personal finance resource site for students. He resides in Bloomington with his wife and two children.

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