Before You Sign Up for That Cool New Monthly Subscription, Consider the Hell of Trying to Cancel It

Angela Colley — Good Idea/Bad Idea

You can barely go online anymore without being bombarded by free trials of streaming services, suspiciously cheap no-contract monthly memberships, and delivery packages promising a treasure trove of stuff you can’t live without. The subscription economy is big business. What used to be the unique business model of gyms and movie rentals has morphed into a golem of complicated monthly charges.

Don’t want to go to the gym? Sign up for this home workout video series. Looking to network? Upgrade to LinkedIn professional. Want to watch TV? Forget cable, you can sign up individually for an ever-growing list of streaming services.

And then there’s the subscription boxes. From makeup samples to DIY beer kits to sex toys, the subscription box industry went from zero to overwhelming in two seconds flat. Amir Elaguizy, the founder of Cratejoy, estimated the industry was worth $5 billion in 2014. Oh, and Cratejoy, that’s a service that helps businesses create other subscription services.

For the consumer, $10 here and $15 there adds up to something that isn’t simple to manage—or easy to get out of. My once streamlined budget has become a mess of small, recurring charges, most of which I’m not even using. On top of barely being able to keep track of it all, I’m also continually forgetting to cancel the subscriptions I know I don’t need. And when I do make the effort, getting out ranges from byzantine online forms to emotionally draining fights with customer service representatives.

One day I hit my breaking point: I’m tired of paying $9.99 a month for services I hardly need and barely recall signing up for in the first place. So I set out to defeat the golem.

What are you really paying for?

Before actually scrutinizing all my monthly payments, I didn’t think those monthly payments added up too much. Some streaming services, sure, but not much else.

Wrong. I am spending way more than I realize, and I’m willing to bet you are too.

Here’s what my monthly please-just-take-my-money-so-I-can-forget-to-use-your-service costs actually look like:

Streaming services:

  • Netflix – $9.99 per month

  • Hulu – $7.99 per month

  • HBO Now – $14.99 per month

  • Starz Play – $8.99 per month

  • Showtime – $8.99 per month

  • PlayStation Plus – $5 per month (with $59.99 annual subscription)

  • Tidal – $9.99 per month

Monthly memberships:

  • Amazon Prime – $8.25 per month (with $99 annual subscription)

  • Costco Executive Membership – $9.17 per month (with $110 annual subscription)

  • Microsoft Office 365 monthly subscription – $9.99 per month

Subscription boxes:

  • BarkBox – $29 per month

  • Try the World – $19.50 per month ($39 bi-monthly subscription)

  • Julep Beauty Box – $24.99 per month

Total: I’m spending $166.84 per month and roughly $2,002 a year. While freeing up less than 200 bucks a month isn’t life changing, it’s maddening I don’t really want (or even know what) half this stuff is.

Sure, I use Netflix religiously and my two rescue pibbles can actually sense when a BarkBox arrives at the door, but the rest of it? I signed up for Tidal because it was the only way to watch Lemonade and then never logged in again. I have two containers full of nail polish after a year’s worth of Julep Beauty Boxes and my nails are bare right now. And that fancy Costco membership? Pretty sure I upgraded to that to get a free rotisserie chicken and some coupons and then returned three times in a year, executive spender indeed.

And then it got worse

During my subscription service investigation, I realized that I’m not just paying for stuff I’m not using, I’m paying twice for something I only signed up for once. Hooray for financial responsibility!

Oh, Microsoft 365 account, why didn’t I just buy you outright? After realizing I’ve spent more in monthly fees for the cloud service than I would have purchasing the software upfront, I knew I had to cancel. To do that, I’d need the account number. In the course of figuring out that number, I discovered I’d been charged not once, but twice a month for a year, $119.88 down the drain.

So I tried contacting Microsoft. It took three online chats, six phone calls, and a conference call between Microsoft, PayPal, and me to get the duplicate account sorted out. For all that effort, I only secured a 50 percent refund.

But I did learn a valuable lesson. I had a dizzying array of subscriptions spread among my debit card, two different credit cards, and my PayPal account. And since I rarely check my PayPal account directly (I know, I know), I didn’t notice I was being charged twice. It would be far easier to figure out these types of unhappy accidents if all subscriptions were charged to one card. But if it’s necessary to charge some things here and some things there, at least commit yourself to reviewing your account statements early and often.

Quitting ain’t easy

Canceling a subscription should be fairly easy: You log in to your account, cancel, confirm, fill out that ubiquitous “Why are you leaving us?” survey and be done with it. But as I came to understand, there isn’t a unified cancellation policy. And all the different rules and requirements can trip up consumers as they try to stop payment for unwanted services.

In fact, getting out of these charge cycles is so tricky it’s sprung a whole cottage industry devoted entirely to helping people find and quit their subscriptions. There’s Truebill, Bobby, SubscriptMe, and Trim—though each come with their own unique set of limitations.

Truebill makes money by suggesting new subscriptions services to you based on what you already have, which is at cross-purposes to me getting out of the whole game. Bobby and SubscriptMe are merely monitoring services to help you keep track of all those payments, something you could do yourself without having to give away all your sensitive banking information. And Trim insisted on connecting to my Facebook Messenger and my bank account so it could send me notifications about my spending habits, upcoming bills, and other reminders in some sort of horrible modern version of stranger danger. For all that, Trim only found two of my subscriptions and both were ones I wanted to keep.

All the services are free to the user—for now, Trim plans to add premium services in the future. The concept of outsourcing tracking and canceling seems like a godsend to us busy/semi-lazy folk, especially services like Trim that can make calls on your behalf as well as cancel monthly fees. But I found each service’s drawbacks made each approach more trouble than it was worth.

Eventually, I decided that just calling every company myself was the most direct route. I didn’t have to dig around the internet for the cancellation procedures, or rely on an online form, or wait for an email response. But it was grueling. Canceling the eight subscriptions I decided I could do without took the better part of two afternoons.

But I did come to realize there is a reason why this industry is booming: We’re lazy. Most of the time it is just easier to let that $9.99 charge hang on for months, even if you aren’t using it. The best thing any of us can do is ask ourselves why we’re really signing up in the first place. Are you actually going to use three nail polishes every month as you watch HBO, Showtime, and Starz?

Test out the value before you commit. Compare that new streaming service against the one you already have to see if you’re really getting enough new entertainment to justify the cost. Buy a cheap bottle of nail polish and see how long it takes to use up before you commit to three new ones a month, forever. And try to visit shoppers’ clubs like Costco with friends or family to see if you can even buy what you want before you lock it down for a year.