I’m not a doomsday prepper or anything, but most of my financial commitments are probably soft enough to pull off a pretty decent bug-out plan.
I won’t step foot in a gym unless it’s month-to-month (and rarely at that). I'll ditch my cell plan for a slightly better deal like I change T-shirts. And any credit card I use has a wallet life of about 90 days, designed only to deliver me maximum upfront airline miles before being unceremoniously swapped out for the latest offer I read about on The Points Guy.
With a few key strokes, I can shut down any recurring charge, ongoing subscription or consumer membership and be moving on by lunch. Basically, I live my financial life by the Rambo rules: travel light, keep no ties.
But amid my loose fiscal attachments, one long-term contract has managed to stay chained to me like an ankle monitor: my cable TV plan.
Despite my efforts to pry free, the company’s crack representatives have knocked back each of my escape attempts over the years with a singular, unwavering tactic: throwing me some middling offer that they know I, average consumer, will find utterly impossible to resist. Most times it’s a waived fee or promotional price reduction. Once in a while, it’s the granddaddy of them all: a no-charge sports package.
Scoring these small victories feels pretty great in the moment—as anyone in my circle can attest after the third time I tell them how I “worked” some overmatched cable rep who clearly never saw the likes of me coming.
But make no mistake: they saw me coming—and they liked what they saw.
That’s because every offer I’ve accepted over the years has come with a very specific catch: a lengthy contract extension. So while I set out to furiously binge every episode of Dexter within the three-month window of my new free Showtime trial, my cable company commits me to two more years of three-figure monthly payments. It’s the consumer equivalent of winning the battle while losing the war—something Rambo would never do.
Waking to the fact that my status as a long-term subscriber was severely limiting my negotiating power, I made a different kind of call to my cable company late last year. In fact, I asked just a single question: What was the end date of my current contract?
This seemed to spook the agent on the other end for a second, but she was no rookie. She quickly mentioned my contract’s end date—eight months in the future—before naturally turning the conversation to some promo offer I conveniently qualified for. Only this time, I didn’t punk out. I simply said “Thank you,” and inputted the stated contractual end date into my digital calendar.
Then I waited.
When the big day finally arrived, I did what I always do before a conversation with some corporate rep: I grabbed a water, set up a war room of unnecessary printouts related to my account all over the kitchen table, and I dialed.
After finding my way to a representative, I confirmed my details and immediately detected a pause on the other end. On these calls, this is usually where we commence with a laddered system of unspoken deal-making that leads to escalating levels of freebies. A bit of fake outrage about what various fees are “all about” might get me a free cable box. Asking to speak to a manager will usually yield a premium channel or two.
They’re the kind of morsels captors throw prey that’s stuck in their trap. But this woman knew I wasn’t here for morsels. I was now her personal Neo—off contract and operating free of any of the rules of her world.
Knowing I held all the cards in our new dynamic, the diabolical chirp of her usual spiel played out this time like an unconditional surrender. Without uttering a word, I was offered a previously unimaginable bounty: I would keep the exact same plan, but my monthly bill would be reduced from $120 per month to a mere $39.99.
“Would that work for you?” the rep inquired.
She knew, of course, that it would. But, smelling blood, I wasn’t giving in yet. So after making her confirm that there would be no contract at all going forward, I went for the kill.
“Actually, I’d really need HBO and Showtime as part of the deal or I’m probably not that interested,” I said, clearly testing the far outer boundaries of my leverage.
“Not a problem,” she said, as she added them on the spot.
And that, as they say, was that.
When I got off the call, I did one of those sitting half-collapses that little-known football prospects do when they get selected with the last pick in the draft. I felt victorious, for sure. But also a bit silly. After all, I’d spent years of my cable journey basically clamoring for more peanuts in coach when I could have been flying first class—and all because I’d been inadvertently denying myself my only advantage as a consumer: the ability to walk away.
In the ensuing months, the price of my package has inexplicably dropped even further and now sits at a paltry $23.99 per month—slightly less than what I pay for a walk-in haircut. And while I’d like to credit my negotiating genius for finally slipping this last remaining strap on my financial straitjacket, my honest take is this: The cable company really had no choice.
Fact is, sticking people with long-term contracts is fast becoming an unfeasible proposition for companies of all stripes—whether they sell phone plans, cable channels or even cars. Customers like me are waking up to the fact that—unless you hit baseballs for a living—long-term contracts are a loser for anyone but the company offering it. They keep us from finding better deals elsewhere, can needlessly gobble up our available credit, and are fast going the way of other dumb corporate mandates like long-distance charges and 11 a.m. breakfast cutoffs.
The companies that want to survive are listening. Even my own cable service recently came out with an app that undercuts their own contract-based box service—all with no commitment and a $40 monthly fee. Competing against yourself like this doesn’t make any sense, of course. But when the enemy gets scared, they start acting irrationally—and that’s how you know you’re winning. #RamboRules.