These days, many of the things we buy regularly are becoming part of a monthly subscription service. You can have pet food, groceries, meal kits, and more delivered on schedule monthly for a set fee.
Even some traditional monthly charges have been broken up into multiple subscriptions. Where we used to have a hefty cable TV bill, now many of us have several smaller subscriptions to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+, and Amazon Prime.
Different kinds of subscription services
Decades ago, we always had to remind our debt management clients to cancel magazine subscriptions to save money. These days, magazine subscriptions are all but a memory, but there are so many new kinds of subscription services in our lives, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. They take many forms:
Whether it’s through cable or internet service, online media streaming like the ones we mentioned above are common. There are also music subscriptions like Apple Music and Spotify, and software subscriptions, like Microsoft Office 365 for $7 per month. And online video game services carry extra subscription fees, like PlayStation Plus for $10 per month, Xbox Game Pass for $15 per month, Nintendo switch Online for $4 per month, or Apple Arcade for $5 monthly.
You may even have individual smartphone apps that carry a subscription charge of a few dollars per month.
Food subscription boxes
You might have a subscription for food delivery, either for yourself or your pets. Since you know you’ll always need food, it makes sense to have it delivered on a regular schedule. This is really nothing new—for most of the 20th century families had a “milk man” deliver fresh dairy and other food products, and modern food delivery services are similar.
Many modern food box subscriptions form a ‘meal kit’, so you have all the ingredients and instructions to make a home-cooked meal, without having to shop for individual items and without having food waste to deal with.
Clothing box subscriptions
There are a lot of clothing subscriptions, where socks, underwear, or other clothing items are sent to you every month. Some clothing subscriptions have variable pricing each month depending on what you buy, and some are “personal styling services” designed to help you create a coordinated wardrobe.
Beauty and grooming subscriptions
Makeup and men’s shaving gear are popular subscription items. These kinds of goods are typically expensive and have high markups, so getting a good deal on a regular monthly delivery for makeup or razor blades can help you save money.
Memberships & clubs
Joining a gym or club near you involves a regular monthly subscription charge, and while they don’t involve regular deliveries, they should be included in your catalog of subscription services.
Credit monitoring subscriptions
These days, everyone’s data has been involved in some kind of data breach. Anyone who has suffered from identity theft might need to subscribe to a regular monthly credit monitoring service to ensure there isn’t any fraudulent activity on their credit report. We usually recommend starting with a credit report review first to determine if you need ongoing credit monitoring.
Other recurring subscription services
There are all kinds of other subscriptions like “theme of the month” boxes that contain small collectibles or gifts, or online dating app memberships, web hosting, book club or eBook subscriptions, home security monitoring, cloud storage plans, and more.
How do subscription services help?
Subscription services are popular for good reason. Used properly, they can help you create a stable budget and save you money.
It’s easy to keep track of spending
If you subscribe to a service that sends you groceries, pet food, etc., then you’re typically spending a set amount every month on that item. When you use our free budgeting resources (like the Power of Paycheck Planning workbook or financial worksheets available from our downloads page), it helps to have some of that spending figured out and consistently planned every month.
Of course, some subscriptions won’t cover an entire category, but if you have a subscription to a meal kit that costs $12 per meal and you have four meal kits delivered per week, then that’s a chunk of your food budget that is predictable and fixed.
They can save you shopping trips
Every time you go to the store, there’s an opportunity to spend more than you planned to. Avoiding impulse buying is a big part of the process of achieving financial freedom. By having more things delivered as part of a subscription service, you’re not heading out to the store and risking a big unplanned purchase.
Something like pet food delivery is a good way to avoid buying extra chew toys and treats for your pet. You’ll get exactly what they need, on a predictable schedule and budget, and you’ll only go out and buy those extras intentionally, when you have a plan for them.
Groceries, too, can lead to unwanted extra spending. “Don’t shop hungry” is common advice we give, but with a meal subscription service, you’ll never throw a box of snacks in your cart or grab a candy bar at the register.
You may find financial savings
While impulse buying is important to be guarded against, the #1 form of overspending isn’t impulse purchases — it’s paying too much for things. By not comparison shopping, people pay more than they have to for many goods. But subscription services let you do your shopping online, where comparing prices is easy and you’re less likely to overspend.
Of course, one service might be better than another, so you will want to gauge the quality of what you get and decide if it’s worth it to spend a few more dollars on another service.
Do subscription services really save you money?
New subscription models seemed like a good way to save us money at first, but now many of us are paying as much as we did before. If you canceled your $100/month cable bill, then switched to a $10/month Netflix subscription plus $40/month for internet access, you cut one bill in half. But now add Hulu, Apple TV+, YouTube TV, HBO Max… it’s easy to get right back to that $100/month you were paying before.
And if you never actually canceled your cable subscription, then you’re definitely paying more.
These subscriptions keep piling up, leading to a growing “subscription fatigue” among the population. A recent study by Deloitte found that households subscribe to 3 media streaming services on average, and over half (53%) of consumers are frustrated by the many subscription services they need to access all of the content they want.
Because each individual subscription seems inexpensive, it’s easy to ignore the math when adding another charge to the budget. An extra $4.99 per month doesn’t seem like it’s going to break the bank, but just like morning lattes, those charges add up quickly.
Find out if subscriptions are saving you money
Tackle your subscription fatigue now and re-evaluate your budget:
Identify every subscription
Look through your emails, bank and credit card statements, and identify every monthly charge you currently pay. Create a list of subscriptions, identify the product you’re subscribing to, and note the monthly cost.
Look at the rest of your budget
While you’re doing this exercise, look at the rest of your spending. Spend some time on one of our free budgeting courses, so when you have your monthly spending laid out you’ll know how to propose a new budget for the following month.
Decide how much you can spend
Once you’ve budgeted, you should know how much cash you have available every month for the various subscriptions you currently carry. If you’re spending too much on them, you’ll need to set a new spending cap.
Figure out which ones you can live without
The first task in tidying up your list of subscriptions is to drop the ones that are easy to say goodbye to. Anything you don’t use or didn’t even realize you were subscribing to, should be canceled before it impacts next month’s budget.
You may need to make some harder choices
Which subscriptions do you really rely on? Which ones do you barely use?
When you’re making these tough choices, don’t throw out anything you’ll regret later. If you’re paying $2.99 per month for iCloud storage, chances are you’re doing so to back up all of your photos.
You don’t want to lose all of that info if something happens to your phone, so don’t risk all of your data just to save a few dollars per month. You might do the same calculation around home security. You might save some money by shutting down that plan, but if your home were burglarized, how deeply would you regret that cut to your budget?
Remember why you subscribed in the first place
If it was an impulse spend, you could probably cancel it without any issue. But if a subscription was really important, you should remember that in your ranking of which subscriptions to keep and which ones to jettison.
Cut costs where it’s unnecessary
Find ways to make subscriptions cheaper if possible. If you’re over budget, but you really want to keep Hulu, you might switch from the ad-free Hulu plan for $12 per month to Hulu with ads for $6 monthly.
Many subscriptions get cheaper if you buy a full year rather than pay monthly. The online gaming subscriptions we mentioned earlier all get cheaper if you pay for 3-, 6-, or 12-month subscriptions instead of one month at a time. Bundling multiple services can also help; if you subscribe to a lot of Apple services (like iCloud, Apple Music, Apple News+, etc.) then switching to their consolidated “Apple One” subscription is about 30% cheaper.
Be careful, though, that you’re not extending a subscription you don’t need or bundling in extra services you’ll never use just to save money. Just like coupons can be a way to get you to spend more than you would have otherwise, bundling can saddle you with services you never needed.
Try rotating subscriptions
If you only subscribe to something like Disney+ to watch one particular show, subscribe for one month after the season has fully aired. Then you can binge watch the show, cancel the subscription, and renew again in a year when the next season airs. You can do this for all the myriad tv subscriptions you have. Don’t pay 12 months’ worth of subscriptions if there are only a few shows you want to watch from that provider.
Set a calendar reminder for expiring contracts
Set alerts to remind you when subscriptions are coming due so you can make a fresh decision each month whether you want to keep paying or take a break from a particular subscription.
If you’re over-extended and need help getting your budget under control, we can help. A certified financial counselor can offer expert coaching and advice to help you create a budget you can live with and get your debt under control. Don’t wait – get started today.