Amusing Yourself Completely (and Legally) for $100 a Month
Currently, I pay a stupid amount of money every month to amuse myself and my family. We pay for music, movies, television and books, DVDs and video games and so on and so forth. The economy, such as it is, loves us for it, since apparently we’re some of the few still doing that right about now. But let’s say that in these recessionary times we decided that enough was enough, that we were done with just shoving money down the entertainment hole, and set for ourselves a strict entertainment budget of $100 a month — that’s $100 a month for all three of us, to be clear, not $100 each. Could we (and, implicitly, you) amuse ourselves sufficiently with that sum, without resorting to hand puppets? Legally?
Sure. Here’s how I would do it.
Bye-bye, Dish Network, hello Netflix. An $8.99/month account gets me a single DVD at a time from the company — but more importantly, it gets me access to the company’s streaming service, which streams about 15,000 movies and television shows directly into my computer. Granted, not every movie in that 15k collection is, shall we say, a classic. But enough are that we could watch a movie a day, every day of the week, without running out of good movies to see. If that’s not enough, and having one DVD out at a time is working for us, a 3-DVD plan is $16.99. Aside from Netflix, I can get other TV/movie fixes from Hulu and the various network sites that stream complete recent shows, all legal.
Yes, the video quality in online streaming video sometimes sucks. Welcome to recession pricing, people. It’s not high-def friendly.
So long iTunes and CDs (which, frankly, I had waved bye to a while ago), and hello Rhapsody, which streams millions of songs and hundreds of thousands of albums (including almost all new releases) for $12.99 a month, and for $14.99, you can take on the “to go” feature, which means you can stuff your not-an-iPod MP3 player with as much rented music as it can take. Yes, it’s rented, and it has DRM on it, but as long as you know that going in, it’s not a horrible thing; speaking as someone who’s used Rhapsody for years, it’s not a huge deal as a practical matter. And the vast library of tunage means you can play around and discover stuff not only risk free, but also in a place that’s better organized and curated than the totally random placement of music online in general. And finally, Rhapsody is set up to pay artists when their music is streamed/rented, and that’s a nice feeling. Aside from Netflix, of course, there lot of sites that post legal music for free, from MySpace (where lots of musicians stream their latest work) to Imeem to last.fm and Pandora and so on. But $13 a month gets you everything with a minimum of having to forage all over the ‘net for it.
If you have a desktop computer purchased in the last couple of years, that you didn’t buy for less than $500 (i.e., with an actual video card rather than integrated graphics), GameTap will take care of your general gaming needs for $9.95 a month ($5 a month if you buy a year up front). This includes some recent new games (including quasi-exclusives like the groovy Sam & Max series) and thousands of old school games that even a crappy computer can handle. Again, this is all rental rather than buying; you’ll just have to get used to the idea that in a recession, renting is what happens. If you’re a console gamer, there’s GameFly, which lends out console games, Netflix style, through the mail, but be warned it’s the most expensive monthly subscription here, at $22.95 for two games out at a time (there’s a less-advertised $15.95-for-one-game option, too). And of course the Internets have lots of flash games for casual time wasting.
Dude, it’s called a library. Pretty much every town has one. You can check out tons of books, totally free (minus, of course, what you pay in taxes to support your local library and its services). Sometimes new books have waiting lists, but all the more reason to use the recession to catch up on your classics. Extra bonus: most libraries these days also lend videos, and some rent video games, too. Nearly all also have Internet access as well. Who knew these secret repositories of information, hidden in nearly every town and city in the nation, could be so useful in these hard times?
So, adding these all up, what are our monthly costs? They range from $0 (Watch Hulu, listen to MySpace, play Flash games, read library books) to $55 (3-DVD Netflix plan, Rhapsody-to-go plan, GameFly standard plan, read library books). My own personal current “here comes teh recession” set-up (1-DVD Netflix plan, Rhapsody-to-go, GameTap on the yearly plan, library books) comes out to $29 a month. Being theoretically able to handle a family of three’s entertainment needs for less than $30 a month (or $360 a year) really doesn’t suck.
But wait! Some of the more observant of you say. We see what you did there: Outside of the library and GameFly, every option here is a fairly bandwidth-intensive computer subscription, which implies a high-speed Internet connection. Well, yes, this is entirely true — in addition to the amounts listed above, you’ll also need high-speed Internet. How high speed? That’s up to you, although if you’re doing a lot of media streaming, I would suggest no less than a 3Mpbs line.
It is possible to get a DSL line with that speed for a fairly reasonable price: Verizon, for example, offers “naked” DSL (that is, a DSL line without a telephone line attached to it) at 3 Mpbs for $29.99 a month. Some other phone providers are reluctant to offer “naked” DSL (for example, my own provider, Embarq, will offer naked DSL only if one is already a subscriber, and threatens to cut one’s service entirely without it), but it’s worth asking for specifically — and then poof, there go your landline costs, replaced by cellphones and/or Skype or some other “voice-over-IP” setup.
So to be on the safe side, let’s say that a 3Mpbs internet line is $40/month. Adding that cost to the most maxed-out of our entertainment scenarios above gets our monthly entertainment costs to $95 a month. My own current “recession plan” set-up — I pay Embarq $40 a month for a 5Mpbs line — comes to $69.99 a month, or about $840 a year. So $840 a year could get me and my family all the personal entertainment we could handle, plus all the various other Internetty things we do, like e-mail and Web browsing and instant messaging and writing on blogs and so on. That comes to just under 77 cents per family member, per day. Cheap enough to throw in popcorn.
Would this be an optimal entertainment experience? Obviously not, and even while factoring in the high-speed Internet costs, I’m making some other fairly large assumptions here, most notably that one’s home situation includes a desktop or laptop of fairly recent vintage, and that a family would be happy to timeshare said computer without friction — and indeed, would be happy to make the computer the centerpiece of their entertainment experience. We can argue how realistic this is, especially if one is in a one-computer household. And of course, speaking as someone who makes his living selling people like you his creative work, I’d hope that even in these challenging times, you might choose to buy an occasional bit of entertainment, especially books, especially ones with my name on the cover. I like to eat and pay my mortgage, you know.
But remember that this isn’t meant to be an exercise in optimal experiences, either for you as a consumer or for me as an entertainer; this is an exercise in “could we still amuse ourselves whilst tightening our belts to an insane degree.” The answer is: actually, yes (just remember to ask your library to buy my books. Thanks).
I will say this, however: Were I just starting out in life, and save for books, which I have an enduring weakness for, this is pretty much the way I’d go: A reasonably robust laptop, a personal media player/phone, high-speed Internet, subscription set-ups more or less like above, and we’re done. I suspect this philosophy will come as no great surprise to current 20-somethings, who are already living like this. But for everyone else, it’s a reminder that there are new and cheaper ways of doing things. Which is good to remember in times like these.