Why I Can’t Stop Wasting Money on Subscriptions I Never Use, According to Experts
Last year I became obsessed with getting a perfect credit score, and it turned out I was just too young to have an 850.
Now, in a fun 2019 development, my neuroses are now officially costing me money.
Like any good millennial, I have a ton of monthly subscriptions. I pay for Amazon Prime, Dropbox, Spotify, Squarespace, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. (I also have access to Netflix, Hulu, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times via friends' accounts, even though I know it's legally and morally dubious. Don't @ me.)
I use these digital services frequently, so I'm not ashamed that I spend a significant part of every paycheck shelling out for them. But I am embarrassed about two other subscriptions that I don't use on a regular basis: MoviePass and Adobe Creative Cloud.
As a personal finance reporter, I'm well aware I should cancel these subscriptions. At $9.95 and $31.49, respectively, they're burning a lot of my hard-earned cash. I know my primary fear — that I'll regret deactivating them — is irrational. But for some reason, I can't bring myself to actually pull the proverbial plug. These are costing me close to $500 a year. And. I. Don't. Use. Them.
What's going on here? Is this normal? Am I insane? And can I convince myself to get it together and just cancel them already?
I called three experts to help me find some answers. Here's what I learned.
It's a Trap
To start, I want you to know that I'm not actually crazy.
Subscriptions are legitimately tricky. People severely underestimate the amount of money they spend on digital services every month, according to a study from management firm Waterstone. I'm not even alone in my phobia of canceling. Twitter is filled with posts from users complaining about feeling too awkward to quit Planet Fitness or Apple Music or even Kohl's emails.
That's no accident — the brands want customers to feel that way. Utpal Dholakia, a Rice University marketing professor and author of the book How to Price Effectively: A Guide for Managers and Entrepreneurs, tells me there are several techniques brands employ to keep subscribers paying for their services. Many of them are guided by retention marketing, a trend he says was popular with phone and TV companies back in the '90s.
"The idea is that it's much harder to gain a new customer than to keep an existing customer," Dholakia says of retention marketing. "They're wanting to hang onto their subscribers, even just for a few more days."
Dholakia has experienced this himself. Every time he tries to unsubscribe from Hulu, he says he has to last through through several screens reminding him about all the shows and movies he'll miss. It's a last-ditch effort to tempt him into staying on, similar to when you call to cancel cable and the rep offers you a short-term discount. Praise be to the algorithm.
Those approaches might have worked a few decades ago, but they're no longer considered best practices. Dholakia says that it's better for business to make unsubscribing quick and painless, because it means the customer will remember the company fondly — and maybe even resubscribe later on.
"All the new companies, the Ubers and Airbnbs of the world, they are not on board with these ideas," he says. "You never want to take advantage of the customer."
In theory, that means it should be easier for me to delete my MoviePass and Adobe accounts.
The FOMO Factor
MoviePass has a whole host of issues, but my personal problem with it involves one scary-sounding sentence in the terms and conditions. In threatening all-caps letters and bold font, it says that "ONCE YOU CANCEL YOUR MOVIEPASS SUBSCRIPTION, YOU MAY NOT SUBSCRIBE TO THE SERVICE AGAIN FOR A PERIOD OF NINE (9) MONTHS."
Told you — it's terrifying. What if I want to see all 17 movies The Rock is in this year? I obviously can't do that if I don't have this sweet, semi-unlimited pass at my disposal.
Don't even get me started on Adobe, which I use primarily to update my résumé in InDesign. I'm freaked out that the moment I cancel my Creative Cloud account, I'll suddenly wind up unemployed and need the program for job applications.
My fears are definitely over the top, but subscription #FOMO is a real phenomenon, according to Liz Cadman, the founder of My Subscription Addiction, a blog that reviews more than 100 subscription boxes for over 1 million unique visitors every month. She tells me sees it a lot with fans of subscription box services — they'll be "thinking about quitting, but they're really worried they're going to miss out on a future month."
It's worse with product-centric makeup subscriptions like Ipsy and BoxyCharm, which often force new customers to sign up for a waitlist because items are limited. If you sacrifice your spot, "you run the risk that you see the next box is your dream box and you can't get it," Cadman says.
"People comment [on the blog,] 'Oh, BoxyCharm, why can't I quit you?'" she adds.
Cadman relies on a Marie Kondo mentality to keep her subscriptions under control. If it doesn't spark joy, she doesn't continue paying for it — and she says I shouldn't, either.
To that end, Cadman recommends I start using a PayPal account to manage my subscriptions. She says they're easier to cancel that way. I can unsubscribe directly from the PayPal portal instead of having to navigate to individual websites to cancel, therefore skipping several steps in the process and shortening the amount of time I have to talk myself out of it.
Letting It Go
This is where things get deep.
Jennifer Savary, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona who has researched this subject extensively, tells me there's a whole lot of psychology that goes into canceling a subscription. It's not just a financial choice. Like it or not, subscriptions become part of a person's identity — a way to accomplish a goal, or a symbol of progress — so deactivating them takes on more significance than it probably should.
People who hold onto unused gym memberships, for example, might avoid canceling because it feels like giving up on their fitness. People who let unread copies of The New Yorker pile up might view canceling as a confession that they're not intelligent. People who are hesitant to cancel Adobe Creative Cloud may be writing an article about it because they fear losing their job.
"The letting go is a part of ourself, almost," Savary says. "The more tightly a brand has woven its message around your identity and representation of important values, the harder it's going to be to give it up."
The way to combat that is to increase a person's confidence in who they are. So Savary gives me homework: to write an essay that lays out my values and how I see myself. Basically, I need to remind myself that I am fun and resourceful, and if I want to go to the movies, I can just purchase a ticket at full price. I am employable, and if I want to update my resume, I can find a way to do it.
"Once you're not using the subscription in order to tell you who you are, that frees you to say, 'This is a bad economic decision,'" Savary adds.
This is a bad economic decision. I don't need to feel dependent upon MoviePass and Adobe, and I certainly don't need to waste $40 a month on them.
Goodbye, baggage. Hello, unsubscribe button.