I’m not exactly sure where the subscription model started, but the cable companies of the 1980s seemed the most adept at solidifying the public’s willingness to pay a recurring fee for content as a service. Sure, utility companies had been doing it for years, but those could be considered necessities under the eye of the public sector.
Then, the Netflix addicted, Amazon Prime-fueled millennial generation made the subscription service a staple of American living. You can now subscribe to services that manage your clothing, meals, shaving needs, and much more.
Personally, I’ve subscribed to a number of them myself: Netflix, Hulu, and live TV streaming services like Playstation Vue and Sling TV. After a while, they become an entrenched, albeit often unused, part of my life.
Then I rid myself of every single one – even Amazon Prime.
Now that may seem blasphemous for someone who values a digitally-driven lifestyle – but hear me out…
So why are subscription services bad?
I don’t consider subscription services inherently bad, there’s something nice about knowing exactly what you’ll be paying for on a monthly basis. For budgeting purposes, I appreciate what they do, but like other payments that become a normal part of your monthly budget, they have their own set of risks.
They Encourage Waste
Subscriptions only benefit the consumer when they’re right-sized for their needs, and since that varies person-to-person and month-to-month, it means one of the following likely happens:
- Subscriptions go unused: The worst-case scenario is having a subscription that is forgotten and goes unused every month.
- Subscriptions go underutilized: This was the scenario I found myself in with Amazon Prime. Although the $119/year subscription seemed like a great value, and I had a huge ecosystem of Amazon products that could leverage Prime services, I had no need for the content many months. After scrutinizing my habits, I found I could pay for most of what I needed a la carte and save.
- Subscriptions create waste through over delivery: While unused digital services create little environmental harm, subscription services based on physical goods can lead to waste, such as using more blades than you need for shaving or throwing away unused food delivered from a meal service.
They Reduce Financial Mindfulness
Pulling out cash or paying a monthly bill forces you to think about what you’re paying for, unfortunately, subscriptions don’t. Subscription services start with a simple sign up form that asks for your credit card, and from that point forward there’s no mental friction each time it gets pulled from your account every month.
The format of most digital services, essentially mass bundling of content, also abstracts you from what is being spent under the covers and what percentage of the content you actually need or use on a regular basis.
They Perpetuate Bad Habits
Even if you avoid the pitfalls of underuse, and are one of the consumers who get full value out of what you’re paying for, it can create bad habits. I got into a scenario where I was watching 4-5 hours of Netflix, Amazon Video, and streaming TV each night. My use-to-cost ratio was high, but I found myself watching mindless content that didn’t really add any value to my life.
So what can I do about the subscriptions I’ve made a part of my digital life?
Spend some time doing a subscription audit every few months and make a decision on how to handle each subscription.
If you get good value out of a subscription and aren’t overusing (or underutilizing it) – just keep it going.
If you’re not using it, eliminate it. Most services allow customers to restart without penalty, so don’t feel obligated to keep it going because ‘I might use it in the future’. Furthermore, if you find yourself on the opposite end of the spectrum, consuming content in an addictive state, perhaps it’s time to go cold turkey and eliminate the service too.
If you find it valuable, but may not be utilizing it the most effectively, spend some time configuring your plan. If you need only one stream on Netflix, drop to a lower tier. If you have too many blades being delivered, throttle your service. If your meal plans are going unused, change the timing and number you get each week.
In addition to that, take some time to explore ‘the old fashioned’ way of doing things. While subscription services may be all the rage, some of the old school ways of doing things are not only better, they’ve evolved to give consumers greater convenience and a more diverse offering.
For example, instead of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Sling TV, try throwing up an antenna and watching Over-the-Air (OTA) TV. You can even record the content with products like Amazon’s Recast, Tablo’s DVR, and SiliconDust’s HD Homerun.
If you subscribe to a meal service, try instead using curbside pickup from your local grocery store or Walmart Grocery. The meals aren’t prepared for you, but at least you can save time getting what you need to prepare a meal, and avoid buying what you don’t need while you’re there.
Spend some time auditing your subscription habits, and along the way mix in a few old school ways of doing things. See if the pain of those ways still exists and you may be surprised to find the friction that drove you from the old way of doing things is no longer a concern. Better yet, you may find some pain that forces you to think about what you’re doing with your money and why.
I’m not recommending folks completely purge themselves of digital content subscriptions. In fact, I still mooch off my brother’s account for Netflix (Shh!!!) and will occasionally watch live TV apps with my parent’s cable login. All I’m asking is to be mindful of your subscriptions and give that list a good spring cleaning every so often. You might just find a few things worth parting with.
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