Subscription services make life easier, but costs can add up

  • TECH
  • Friday, 21 Jun 2019

In this Sunday, June 16, 2019, a bike messenger rides past boxes of Amazon Fresh deliveries in New York. With the proliferation of subscription services, mobile payments and other conveniences, it's become easier for consumers to lose track of what they've signed up for and how much it's costing them. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

Sure it’s nice to have your groceries delivered now and then. Ditto dinner. Want to stream your favourite movies? Why not. Curated clothes and books sent to your home? Yes please. But too much convenience can cost you. 

“It’s very easy for consumers to lose track of what they are purchasing,” said Kate Ryan, a director with TIAA Financial Solutions. 

There has been a proliferation of subscription services in recent years. Throw in auto-billing and the ease of mobile payments, and you can see how some expenses can fall under a consumer’s radar. 

About 15% of online shoppers have signed up for one or more subscriptions to receive products on a recurring basis, according to a study released last year by McKinsey & Co. More than half of US consumers streamed video content via subscription last year, according to NPD Group. And nearly 2 billion foodservice deliveries took place for the year that ended in March, according to NPD. 

Here are a few tips on how to get a grip on it all. 

Do an audit 

If you aren’t already tracking your spending, do so. Pay close attention to all the payments you make – recurring or not – and to the forms of payment: credit cards, Venmo, etc. 

Don’t guess. Research by Waterstone Management Group found that 84% of consumers underestimate how much they spend on subscriptions. Waterstone looked at 2,500 American budgets and found that while consumers estimated they paid almost US$80 (RM331) a month on certain subscriptions, they actually paid closer to US$240 (RM995). 

Subscription services are attractive because they’re easy to sign up for and come with minimal monthly financial commitment, said researcher Dhaval Moogimane. But small costs can add up, and prices can increase over time. 

“I’ve never worked with someone who after we calculated their expenses is spending less than they thought,” said Ryan. However, she said that sticker shock can often be a good call to action. 

Consider the value 

It’s time to decide if all these costs are worth it. 

This is a highly personal decision. Grant McOmie of Portland, Oregon said that he and his wife began to cut back last year to focus on paying down student loans. They decided ridesharing didn’t have a spot in their aggressive budget and they ditched Amazon Prime, Netflix and various music streaming services as well. 

“Ultimately none of these services were worth it,” he said. He estimates that over the past 18 months – through taking the bus instead of Lyft or Uber, or making a meal instead of ordering delivery – they’ve saved around US$5,000 (RM20,722). 

In some cases, however, convenience can pay off. 

Sarah McLaughlin moved to Austin about a year ago and has yet to set foot inside a grocery store. She relies primarily on Instacart for her groceries and estimates she’s cut her monthly grocery spending by US$200 (RM829) by curtailing her impulse spending. Instead of picking up extras like magazines, makeup and prepared meals, she buys only what is on her list and is able to use online coupons to maximise her savings. 

So calculate what your convenience spending may be a substitute for and which is more costly – Stitchfix (a clothes subscription service) versus shopping at the mall, for example; or Hulu and Netflix versus cable. 

Consider other benefits too: A time-starved parent may be thrilled to pay extra for food delivery. A pricey at-home workout subscription might be worth it to a fitness junkie. While these types of services sometimes get a bad rap, experts say many people are happy with the benefits they get. 

So how can you decide the value (financial and otherwise) for yourself? Utpal Dholakia, a professor of marketing at Rice University, has a simple suggestion. Ask yourself: If I didn’t have this service today, would I buy it again? If no, toss it. If yes, keep it and enjoy. 

Still not sure? Then consider whether you would pay cash each time these charges occurred. 

There’s plenty of research to show that a consumer is likely to spend more if they use a credit card, versus the inconvenience that comes with paying cash. Companies have made paying for these services and products nearly frictionless. So ask yourself whether you would hand over US$50 (RM207) cash for that last Uber ride or peel off a US$100 (RM417) note every month for barre classes and see how that feels. 

Make changes 

There are some actions you can consider to adjust your habits:
– If you know you are ready to ditch something, unsubscribe or delete your account. Be prepared – they will try to lure you back.
– Add some friction. Even small steps to make payments less easy may curb your spending, such as eliminating auto billing or deleting an app on your phone.
– Put all your subscription or convenience spending on one card to better monitor it, Moogimane suggests. Or try his more draconian suggestion: Cancel your credit card, forcing you to only update billing for the services you truly want.
– Set an alternative goal. If there is something you want, such as money for a car or a down payment on a house, remember that when you are tempted to make a purchase. That can help keep your spending focused.
– Go on vacation or do something else to disrupt your life. Dholakia says research shows the best way to break a habit is to change the context in which the habit was developed. So if you get meal kits each week, a vacation may change your routines and help shake your reliance on them. In the end, it all comes down to you. 

“You have to be in charge of saying this is something I am not enjoying or using,” Dholakia said. “You can't have someone else do it for you.” – AP

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