Cut Back on Screen Time and Save $30,000 or More Over Five Years

Because my family is working on cutting screen time, I figured I’d attempt to figure out how much money you can save by cutting back. I started a post yesterday morning about cutting screen time as part of my save $50,000 over five years series, but it was proving EXTREMELY COMPLICATED to organize. How come?

  • There are so many screen options out there that it’s hard to know where to start.
  • How families use screens vary a lot.
  • Costs associated with screen time are really variable.
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Is there any way to figure out how much excessive screen time costs the average family?

Sort of. What I did was take some national averages related to screen time use and media costs. This info, along with screen time issues I’m aware of among my own household and friends and family gave me some numbers to work with. For the purposes of this post, I’m not figuring in some screen stuff, such as…

  • Going to the movies (whole other $ issue).
  • Most random media purchases such as repairs, extra cords, apps, and so on, because it’s just too variable.
  • Kindle and e-books, which is screen use, but after looking up statistics, I realized that fewer people use e-books than use them, so it’s not an average USA cost.
  • Cost of computers and phones – which is significant in the USA, but too hard to figure out in an average sort of way.

What I’m counting as screen time and screen time costs

Obviously we all have our own ideas about what constitutes excessive screen time. For the purpose of saving money, I decided to cut out any costs related to screens that simply seem excessive (or extra), such as numerous TV sets, all day texting and surfing the Internet via phones, and stuff like that.

Why this post won’t be perfect

You’ve got a plethora of choices when it comes to screens. There’s On Demand, super premium channels, iPads, various computer programs, internet fees, a million apps, Amazon video rentals, Redbox, DVD purchases, energy costs of screen use, equipment repairs and the health care costs we end up paying when we sit and sit and sit in front of screens.

It would literally be impossible to figure out the costs of all screen related issues in the world.

Overall it’s just astounding  how much people spend on screen time when you start thinking about all the costs involved. For the purposes of saving money, I’m going to keep this post pretty basic. Below are some screen uses and their associated costs….

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TV Costs

How many TV sets do people have?: According to Nielsen’s 2009 Television Audience Report, 99% of American homes have a TV set, but the average American home had 2.86 TV sets (or about 3). That’s roughly 18% higher than in 2000 (2.43 sets per home), and 43% higher than in 1990 (2.0 sets). In addition, Nielsen’s reports have continually, through the years shown that there are, on average, more TVs per home than people. For example, in 2009 the average U.S. home had only 2.5 people but 2.86 television sets. 66% of U.S. homes have 3 or more TV sets.

How much TV do people watch?: According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day (or 28 hours/week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year). At this rate, if you live 65 years, you’ll have spent 9 years glued to the tube. Nielsen also notes that TV is turned on an average of 6 hours, 47 minutes in the typical home, 66% watch TV while eating dinner, and Americans watch 250 billion hours of TV annually. Translation – a lot of TV is happening.

What do TVs cost?: In 2009, not counting cable costs, the average household spent $875 on television, radio, and sound equipment, video game hardware and movie players.  It’s hard to figure out how much is just spent on TV sets alone, but since most homes have more than one TV, I know that many people are spending more than they need to.

Cable Costs

Who has cable and how much does it cost?: Not only is it tough to figure out who has what sort of cable, but figuring out the actual monthly cost of a cable TV is very complicated once you work in taxes, fees, equipment charges and so on. Here are some basic stats though…

  • Nielsen reports that 38% of U.S. TV homes have digital cable.
  • 1 in 4 homes now have satellite.
  • In 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that cable prices had risen 77% since 1996, roughly double the rate of inflation.
  • In 2010, research firm Centris noted that the average digital cable customer paid almost $75 a month for cable.
  • According to the newest research the monthly rate for pay TV has been rising at an average of 6% annually and hit $86 a month in 2011 for very basic pay and premium-channel TV. An NDP survey estimates that most consumers will be paying an average of $123 a month in 2015 and $200 a month by 2020 for cable.

Using the rates above, you can assume that right now the average family has some sort of cable and pays around $100 for per month for the privilege, with some paying more and some paying a bit less.  On average though families pay $1,200 a year or $6,000 over five years.

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Streaming TV Costs

Not all families use cable (or cable alone). According to the “Entertainment Trends in America” report from The NPD Group, many consumers supplement pay television offerings from cable TV, satellite TV and IPTV operators, seeking out TV programming and movies from Netflix and other video streaming services. Some people use free streaming video from sites like Hulu and YouTube, but many use pay-based services.

NPD reports that of U.S. subscribers who do use television-services (i.e., cable TV, satellite TV, or IPTV), 27% also subscribe to Netflix, while almost half (46%) pay for a premium movie channel or sports channel.

We have basic Netflix and we pay $7.99 a month which gets you unlimited streaming to your TV or computer, but Netflix has price options up to $30 per month, depending on if you want DVDs too. Hulu also costs $7.99 per month, but people spend twice as much money on Netflix over Hulu, according to reports and Netflix’s revenue was reportedly $3.2 billion in 2011.

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Cell Phone Costs

I don’t consider having a basic cell phone screen time if you’re just using it for calls and such. I DO consider a cell phone screen time if you’re using it to continually text or if you use it for Internet.

What do basic cell phones cost?: According to Time, the average basic cell phone costs $605.95 annually, including recurring monthly charges, taxes, overages, and such (not including the cost of the phone itself). I have a cell phone that I only use for actual calls and like 20 texts a year. I have the lowest plan my cell company offers, which is still way too many minutes for my needs, because I’m not big on phone calls, but sadly, my company doesn’t go lower. I pay around $588 per year so I believe the $600 figure is typical for basic cell use.

What do texting, internet and smartphone plans cost?: Most people (adults and kids) text a lot more than I do and use their phone for Internet-based needs too. With my cell company, adding unlimited texting and internet use for a non-smartphone costs an extra $30 a month, which pops the average bill up to $80 per month (960 per year – $4,800 over five years).

Smartphones are an entirely different story. Time notes the average iPhone user can easily spend $1,900 per year ($9,500 per five years).  According to the Wall Street Journal, the average data, texting and minute plan for a smartphone costs about $2,100 for a two-year contract. However,  Yahoo finances reminds you that’s not the real cost. Taxes on smartphones are about 15% and some can be as high as 20%, plus you’ve got overage charges and other fees.

How many people actually have more expensive phone plans?: Fancy phone use is becoming the norm over basic phones used just for calling people. Most Americans, including kids and teens, have cell phones now with extras like unlimited texting and internet capabilities. Smartphones are also becoming more common, although they’re not quite the norm yet.

According to Nielsen’s global survey of multi-screen media usage, in-home TV and computer are still the most popular devices to watch video content, but growth in online and mobile technologies is making a sustained impact. 74% of global consumers report watching video via the Internet (on any device), up four points since 2010, and over half of global online consumers (56%) say they watch video on a mobile phone at least once a month and 28 percent at least once a day.

Here are some stats: Almost all Americans own cell phones (around 9 out of 10) and spend 2.7 hours per day socializing on their mobiles. 1/3 of all adults own smartphone over basic cells. Almost half of teenagers (47%) now own a smartphone, according to Ofcom’s latest Communications Market Report. 86% of mobile users watch TV while using a mobile phone and sadly while just 73% of kids report owning books, 85% of kids say they own a phone.

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Video Game Costs

Obviously video game use and costs vary among families, so I tried to look up some general stats.  Luckily, Entertainment Software Association (ESA) had some…

  • Consumers spent $24.75 billion on video games, hardware and accessories in 2011.
  • Purchases of digital content accounted for 31 percent of game sales in 2011, generating $7.3 billion in revenue.
  • The average U.S. household owns at least one dedicated game console, PC or smartphone.

According to a preliminary estimate released by NPD, total consumer spending on all video game content in the US was between $15.4 and $15.6 billion during 2010, including physical console and PC games, digital downloads, used games, rentals, subscriptions, social network games, DLC, and mobile game apps.

It’s hard to tell the USA average overall, but I’ve seen reports that the average person spends $36.46  per month for video games and $12.51 for mobile games.

Time Costs

Time spent on screens is one of the larger costs associated with screen time. For example, when researching my addiction to tech post, I found that kids alone spend about 75% of their lives staring at screens (on average) – or as other research spouts, practically every waking minute.

Adults don’t fare much better. A study released by the Council for Research Excellence notes that adults are exposed to screens — TVs, cellphones, even G.P.S. devices — for about 8.5 hours on any given day. Of course, some of that time can be figured as working hours or paying bills and such (required tasks) but adults are also spending a ton of free-time using media.

The Nielsen Co.’s 2009 “Three Screen Report” referring to televisions, computers and cellphones notes that the average American now spends more than 151 hours using screens – or five hours a day, an all-time high. In fact Nielsen estimates the value of the time spent JUST watching TV in America, assuming a low wage of S5 per hour, is S1.25 trillion annually.

If you figure the average adult wage (41,673.83 in 2010) you can estimate that your time is worth, on average about, $21 per hour. If you’re using screens 5 hours a day, that would make your screen time worth $2,940 per month or $35,280 per year. A lot!

Even if you figure out your screen time using the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009) it’s still a lot of money if you’re on screens 5 hours a day –  $1,087 per month or $13,050 per year. The average of the lowest pay and average is around $2,014 per month.

How much can you save if you cut back on screen time costs?

CABLE: If you cut cable entirely you’ll save $1,200 a year. If you cut cable and replace it with Netflix, you’ll still save a lot – $1,104 per year or $5,520 over five years.

SMARTPHONE USE & EXTRA CELL PLANS: If you’ve got four people in your home, and two have smartphones while the other two have basic cell phones with bells and whistles (i.e. extra text and internet capabilities) that’s an average bill of $476 per month ($5,712 per year). If everyone ditches their smartphone and extra plans, switching to basic cell phones (for calls and minimal texts only) and a decent family phone plan, you’d save a ton of cash. For example, my cell company offers a family of four plan (basic cell use) for about $70 per month, which would save you $4,872 per year or $24,360 over five years. OMG right?! (no texting pun intended).

EXTRAS: If you do stuff such as….

  • Not buy cell phones for kids under 12 or so.
  • Limit your DVD and video game purchases.
  • Limit the amount of movies you rent.
  • Avoid owning more than one TV set.
  • Buy minimal (or zero) apps for your media devices.

The savings above will add up in small ways, allowing you to save more each year. Based on spending averages above, I’d have to estimate that all these small changes could save you maybe $200 a year at least (if you’re an average media use family) and of course if you’re a high use media family, you’ll save even more, but we’ll stick with a savings of $200 per year or $1,000 over five years.

TIME: I’m not going to figure out how much time you’ll save if you cut back on screen time, because only you know what your life hours are worth. But keep in mind that every hour you spend using screens does equal some sort of monetary cost.

To sum up…

As you can see I didn’t figure out each screen cost and situation variable, because it’d be tough to do so for every family in America. Using some basic averages though, it’s clear that many families of four could save $30,880 or more over five years by making three simple screen use changes – cut cable, cut smartphone and Internet phone use, and limit screen related spending for extras.

Think it sounds like I over-estimated your savings? 

If you think I’m overreaching about screen time costs, you’d be wrong. In my house alone, we’ve got one adult with a cell phone (basic), one with a smartphone and two kids with full texting and Internet plains on non-smartphones (around $367 per month; $4,404 per year; $22,020 per five years) plus my son will need a basic cell phone next year too.

We only have one TV, and no cable, but we do pay $8 for Netflix each month ($480 over five years).

We also buy video games, DVDs, apps, cords and other stuff related to screens (about $500 per year or $2,500 over five years).

I didn’t figure in Internet costs (which I need for work), computer costs, energy cost, repairs, Kindle or e-books, all of which we have in our house. I also didn’t figure out our time costs and yet, already we’re spending $5,000 per year or $25,000 per five years on tech. AND honestly, although IMO we’re having screen time issues, we still use the same amount of screen time or less screen time than many of our friends and family who have more than one TV and cable and such.

So really, the costs of screen time are substantial, even in a household that’s already trying to cut down. Cutting back more on screen time can really save you some major cash.

How much $ are you spending on tech and screen time?

Images in order: by wilton via sxc – by Flickr User vauvau; …love Maegan; philcampbell and chelseacharliwhite – by fangol and svilen001 via sxc.

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  1. Lynn says

    All I can say is “wow” and thank you. As always, you have clarified the situation in a way no one else seems to do. I hope people will read this and realize they could afford more organic food if they’d cut down!

    Question: Do you have cable internet but not TV? My problem is getting my husband to give up basic cable TV because of sports although honestly he doesn’t watch that much. But when he wants to he wants to. And assuming you don’t have cable TV, the only TV watching you do is via Hulu and Netflix.

    Thanks! You did good girl :)

  2. Jennifer Chait says

    I’m glad you liked it, because it wore me out. I literally couldn’t believe the amount of money it costs to have stuff like cable and smartphones, so I re-ran the figures over and over. I was in shock when I finished. Even at my house we spend SO much – it’s insane. And, you’re right, $30,000+ is a whole lot of organics!

    We have one TV and one DVD player to watch movies on. Our TV gets ZERO channels without cable, so we don’t watch any normal TV. We do have Netflix, although we debate getting rid of Netflix once in a while because it’s not very great and does lure you into watching more TV. I’m not sure if you mean Netflix when you say “Internet cable.” But there are no games on Netflix.

    Dave’s dad has complained when he’s come up before because he’s, “Missing a game” and we won’t get cable. We tried once to find his game on the computer, but couldn’t. I don’t have a great solution for situations like that. We’re not a sports watching family so it’s not an issue, but I know plenty of people like sports.

    The only thing I can think of is one, going to a pal’s house when the game is on – that’s what Dave did when the grammy awards were on. Or two, figuring out if there’s an all sports channel you can find online or buy through the cable company without buying others, but I’m not sure if that’s a reality. This issue would make a great post. I found one post already about this that you might find useful –

  3. Lynn says

    Well, all your work showed. I’m bowled over as usual! What I meant by “internet cable” is whether your internet is connected via cable. We have comcast which is our cable TV and also how we connect to the internet, that’s all I was meaning.

    Steve will occasionally go to our son’s house for a game because he has a big screen tV and we don’t. But he likes to watch sports when he’s washing dishes etc. and when I suggested getting rid of cable TV before, he said and I quote, “No way,” even though I actually watch far more TV than he does. I love old movies, foreign films and documentaries so Netflix works fine for me. Thanks for that link though, I’m going to keep it in my arsenal in case I ever decide to bring the issue up again :)

  4. Laundry Lady says

    That is an impressive article. You did a great job on the research. Do I count my use of my Wii Fit? We do have a Wii, but I only ever use it for exercise (though my husband sometimes plays the one game we have that isn’t exercise orientated). I’d rather be outside but the Wii Fit allows me to exercise while the children nap. The above stats are truly disturbing.

  5. Jennifer Chait says

    I don’t think it sounds like you’re using your Wii Fit excessively. My whole deal with screen time is the solo, excessive, ignore other people and vegetate issue. For example, the kids play Wii bowling (me too) together, and standing, so it’s not so obnoxious to me but a kid stuck alone in a room with a screen for 10 hours is – there’s a HUGE difference. I think you should count it as excessive if it becomes a problem for someone in the house. Since your screen use is low-key, and actually useful, I personally wouldn’t count that as trouble.

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