How much are we paying for our subscription services? A lot

The dollars are adding up fast. So here are some tips for pruning the subscriptions you no longer use.

  • By Brian X. Chen,
  • The New York Times News Service
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Online subscriptions sure sound cheap, but what do a few bucks a month to watch TV shows, store photos online and stream music add up to?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

In 2019, we each spent $640 on digital subscriptions like streaming video and music services, cloud storage, dating apps and online productivity tools, according to an analysis for The New York Times by Mint, the online budgeting tool owned by Intuit (INTU), using data from millions of its users. That was up about 7 percent from $598 in 2017.

We increased our spending the most last year on streaming TV services, paying $170 to subscribe to the likes of Netflix (NFLX), Hulu and new entrants like Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus. While that was far cheaper than most traditional cable TV packages, which cost roughly $1,200 a year, it was up 30 percent from the $130 we spent on streaming TV services in 2017.

Our spending on digital subscriptions is likely to only rise as more of our possessions become connected to the internet, like our television sets, home security systems and cars. At the same time, it will become harder and harder to keep track of all of the services we pay for.

Just ask Josué Rojas, an artist who runs a nonprofit in San Francisco. He said he paid for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify (SPOT) and Apple’s iCloud storage service — all told, his annual cost is roughly $410, which is below what the average consumer pays.

But Mr. Rojas occasionally loses track of his spending. Last year, he said, he and his wife subscribed to the CBS All Access streaming app to watch the Grammys. After the ceremony concluded, the couple forgot to cancel the $6 subscription for several months.

“Coming home from work and essentially needing a spreadsheet to keep track of all these different subscriptions can be pretty overbearing very quickly,” Mr. Rojas said.

Kevin Westcott, a vice chairman for the research and consulting firm Deloitte, who led a study on digital media trends, said the No. 1 reason that people subscribed to a streaming service was to watch exclusive content — like original TV shows, including HBO’s “Watchmen” or “The Mandalorian” on Disney Plus.

“The question that arises is, once you’ve watched that series, do you continue to use it?” Mr. Westcott said. “Is there enough of a library that keeps you engaged? Otherwise, it becomes a subscription you have that you haven’t used.”

Plenty of us have fallen into this trap. It’s wise to regularly audit our subscriptions and prune the ones we no longer need. Here are some tips.

Cancel ahead of time

Many of us wait until the last minute to cancel a subscription, but there is generally no drawback to ending payments ahead of time.

Let’s say Netflix bills you on the 28th of each month. If you decided on Feb. 5 that it was time to cancel, you would still be able to use Netflix until Feb. 28. There is no benefit to waiting until Feb. 27 to end the subscription.

With some forethought, you can get savvy about managing your active subscriptions. For example, if there is a six-episode TV show on Disney Plus once a week, you can set a calendar reminder to cancel your subscription a few weeks before the show ends its run. If the calendar alert appears and you realize there is still something you want to watch on Disney Plus, you can continue paying and reschedule the calendar reminder to appear again a month later.

Audit your subscriptions

Using budget-tracking tools like Mint and regularly checking your credit card statement are obvious steps to watch your spending, but subscription charges can easily be overlooked when they carry generic labels like “Amazon (AMZN)” or “Google (GOOG).”

It can also be challenging to find out what services you are still subscribed to, let alone how to discontinue memberships. So here’s a cheat sheet for finding the controls to cancel the most popular types of subscriptions:

  • On Apple mobile devices, open the Settings app and tap on your first and last name at the top, then tap Subscriptions. You can see a list of the apps you have subscribed to, like Apple TV Plus, Apple Music, HBO Now and Hulu Plus, and cancel the ones you no longer use.
  • On Android devices, open the Google Play Store app. Tap the Menu icon (three horizontal lines) and then tap Subscriptions.
  • Amazon subscriptions are the most confusing to manage because the company offers so many different types of subscriptions and the controls are scattered throughout different parts of the website. Here are the most important settings:
  • For canceling memberships like Amazon Prime and ComiXology, hover over “Accounts & Lists” and click on “Memberships & Subscriptions.”
  • For Amazon app subscriptions, hover over “Accounts & Lists” and click on “Your Android Apps & Devices,” and then select “Your Subscriptions.”
  • For managing Amazon photo storage, hover over “Accounts & Lists,” click on “Your Amazon Photos,” then click “Manage Storage” and, finally, click “Cancel my plan.”
  • For managing Kindle books subscriptions, hover over “Accounts & Lists,” click “Your Kindle Unlimited” and, under “Manage Membership,” select “Cancel Kindle Unlimited Membership.”
  • For managing Amazon Music, hover over “Accounts & Lists,” click “Your Music Library,” then click “Your Amazon Music Settings” and select “Amazon Music Unlimited.” Finally, click “Cancel” in the Subscription Renewal section.
  • For managing Audible audiobooks subscriptions, visit Audible.com, click “Account Details” and click “Cancel my membership.”

If keeping track of subscriptions sounds daunting, that’s because it is — and this is partly why many companies have shifted toward subscriptions. But a subscriptions audit is worth undertaking at least once every three months.

After thoroughly vetting my credit card bills and subscriptions dashboards, I noticed my wife was paying for Audible, the audiobook service, even though she no longer downloaded audiobooks. I confess I gave her something of a hard time — only to realize later that I had neglected to cancel my subscription to Amazon’s ComiXology Unlimited after starting a free trial to read one comic book.

I ended up canceling the ComiXology subscription, but only after paying an extra $18 over three months.

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The New York Times News Service
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