The Unseen Cost of Subscription Boxes

UNBOXING MATCH Are the monthly surprises worth the mess that popular subscription services create?
UNBOXING MATCH Are the monthly surprises worth the mess that popular subscription services create? Illustration: Dominic Bugatto

WE’RE LIVING in a Golden Age of subscription services. Gone are the days of boring cheese-of-the-month clubs or Columbia House five-for-a-penny album deals that eventually drain your funds. Now, the offerings that can show up at your door monthly range from custom-pressed vinyl records to sleek shaving kits to bags of idiosyncratic specialty coffee.

It’s simple to see why subscription boxes have taken off: More than just a relatively easy way to acquire a fun mix of necessities and luxuries, they’re also a method for discovery—snacks from around the world (trytheworld.com), nerdy toys (lootcrate.com) or an odd pairing of Swedish-made headphones and a moonshine kit that might arrive in consecutive months (bespokepost.com).

Yes, you can find all these things in stores. But you have to spend the time hunting and be willing to pay more; since most subscription brands don’t dole out overhead for bricks-and-mortar locations, they can charge surprisingly reasonable prices. And who really enjoys the stress of shopping? If like me, you have found yourself paralyzed by the glut of toothbrushes at CVS, the ability to outsource that low-stakes decision without paying a premium is a hassle-zapper that saves time, money and energy. My Quip toothbrush subscription costs much less than an average electric brush; paste and heads are delivered on a dentist-recommended schedule; and the brush comes in a handsome rose gold finish that (a trivial benefit, I know) matches my iPhone.

Another proponent of subscription boxes is Roy Baumeister, author of “Time and Decision” and a social psychologist who coined the term “decision fatigue” to describe how easily our decision-making abilities can be depleted. “We evolved under conditions where there were fewer choices,” he said, “so the immense number of choices, from what to wear, to what to listen to, puts a lot more demand on our system than it evolved to handle.” Accordingly, the way subscriptions limit decisions can ease stress. “Things just happen—you don’t have to exert your free will to make decision after decision.”

A service that both allows you to conserve your free will, and delivers handmade products, fresh socks and underwear, or cocktail recipes to your door? Count me in. Bonus: Subscription boxes make really smart, simple gifts for mom and dad.


WHEN MY FRIEND receives her Fab Fit Fun wellness subscription box in the mail each season, we film a cheesy video of ourselves oohing and ahhing at each product. My welfare has never hinged on an encouraging ceramic mug (and feigning excitement over one can be hard work) but I admit there’s joy in a monthly mail-order surprise.

Beware: It is a false, fleeting joy. For hoarders like me who cling to junk for a lifetime on the off chance it may someday prove useful, subscription boxes are a problem. Sure, they introduce me to items I might have otherwise overlooked, but they also eliminate the crucial step of inspecting those items before they occupy valuable space in my home.

Then there’s the cost. “A subscription box may sound like something that makes you feel good in the short term, but in the long-term it could end up impacting your financial well-being,” said Amanda Clayman, a Los Angeles-based financial therapist. “After a few months, even when it works a good percentage of the time, the novelty is gone.” And some sources of novelty are truly inane. Hankering for a house coated in slime? Get Squishtastic (squishtastic.shop), which delivers slime kits. Have a bone to pick with the lack of skeletons in your closet? Try Skulls Unlimited (skullsunlimited.com).

In an era when self-determination is in vogue, subscription boxes atrophy our decision-making muscles, making us lazy consumers. As a subscriber to a beauty box that delivers five random products monthly in hotel-toiletry-like sizes, I felt taken advantage of. But I didn’t know why until I spoke to Barbara Kahn, professor of marketing at the Wharton School, who explained that subscription services tend to offer several cheap items instead of a larger, well-made one, since each item provides its own high. I’ve never felt more like a lab rat.

I had passively paid a $10 monthly fee rather than cancel—$120 annually I’ll never get back for products I don’t want or need. To help other subscribers avoid the same mistakes, Ms. Clayman had this advice: “At least once a year if not semiannually, cancel all of your subscription products and see which you choose to add back.”

We all have our own motivations as consumers, but I can’t justify monthly expenses to laugh and gawk at something that will just end up in storage.

YOU SEND ME / Three Subscriptions Worth Signing Up For
The Unseen Cost of Subscription Boxes
Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

Vinyl Me, Please sends a custom pressing of albums, cocktail recipes and artwork inspired by the music. From $29/mo., vinylmeplease.com

The Unseen Cost of Subscription Boxes
Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

Quip sends tubes of toothpaste and replacement heads for its sharp-looking electric brush. $25 to start, $5/mo., getquip.com

The Unseen Cost of Subscription Boxes
Photo: Atlas

Atlas Coffee Club sends 12-ounce bags of single-origin coffee from places like Burundi to Brazil. From $9/mo., atlascoffeeclub.com

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