Illustration by Ben Mounsey

Paying bills is never fun, and that goes double for cable TV, the least customer-friendly industry this side of repo men. It's not your imagination—the bill really does balloon every year. From 1995 to 2014 the price of expanded basic cable increased at almost 2½ times the rate of inflation.

But in the past year an explosion of online viewing services has turned cord cutting into child's play, and it can be a very lucrative game. You still need to pay for Internet, but Greg Ireland, research director for multiscreen video at market-analysis firm IDC, estimates that for people with a "double play" bundle—cable TV and Internet in the same bill—canceling cable would save an average of $75 a month. If you switch to online streaming, you could duplicate a basic-cable menu for $34 a month.

The big advantage to streaming is that you generally pay for only what you watch: no more Spike or Oxygen or the Jewelry Channel unless you want it. There are tradeoffs. While cable is essentially one-stop shopping—a single box and a single tier of programs—streaming requires you to be a more active consumer. You'll need to explore various services to find the ones with your favorite shows, then pair them with the right hardware.

The following guide will give you an overview of the major streaming services. Once you know who carries what shows, you can start to mix and match programming that matches your tastes. Or if you want to make it even easier, just pick from one of the seven plans we've put together for viewers of all kinds.