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A financial guide to subscription boxes

Here’s how to make sure subscription boxes stay fun and don’t drain your finances

Summary

Subscription boxes can help you plan your life more efficiently – but you need to have a plan before you subscribe.

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Why are subscription boxes so popular these days? The answer is simple – especially when you ask the people who subscribe.

“Subscription boxes are fun!” says Carrie Anderson, co-owner of Pretty Great Cheesecake. Anderson initially got into subscriptions because she didn’t like shopping for items on her own – and with subscription boxes ready to supply you with everything from food to clothing to fitness gear, a well-chosen subscription can save you not only money but also time.

James Bullard, founder of SoundFro, did a lot of research and brand comparison work before signing up for PetJoy – not only because he wanted to get the best value for his money, but also because he wanted a subscription box that was good enough to impress his best friend. “My French bulldog Lucky was immediately interested in the box when I opened it in front of her. I liked the variety of treats in there and right off the bat, you could tell they were good quality. Lucky is quite snobby when it comes to toys and snacks, and she has gobbled every treat and is still playing with the toys from the first box.”

Deepak Shukla, founder of plant-based meal subscription service Plant Sumo, notes that a good subscription service can also reduce waste. If you find yourself regularly throwing out groceries that you don’t use, for example, you might consider signing up for a meal service that does the planning, shopping and portion sizing for you. “By using a meal subscription service, the food might be slightly pricier, but you don’t waste any food.”

Signing up for a weekly meal kit might keep you from wasting food – but how can you ensure that your subscription boxes won’t waste too much of your money? We’ve got an in-depth guide to subscription boxes, including how to decide whether a subscription box is right for you, how to use subscription boxes to build your credit and how to choose the best credit card for subscription boxes.

We also have advice on what to do when you need to cancel a subscription service – because once your subscription box stops being fun, you need to know how to downgrade your subscription or unsubscribe.

Are subscription boxes right for you?

Subscription boxes can take away the hassle of shopping for new clothes or planning your next meal. A good subscription box can also improve your skin care routine, get your kids excited about STEM and introduce your family to new ingredients or recipes.

Does that mean you should sign up for every subscription box that catches your eye? Not necessarily. The costs of subscription box services can quickly add up, and just three or four subscriptions – one for you, one for your partner and one for your kids or dog – could end up costing you over $100 each month.

“I don’t believe subscription boxes save me money,” says Anderson. “If anything, I spend more money!”

Bullard agrees. “I wouldn’t say I saved money by doing this, but my best furry pal loves her treats and toys and that’s the most important thing.”

Before deciding whether a subscription box is right for you, ask yourself whether it fits into your household budget. Then, ask yourself whether it fits into your life. Will you have enough time to cook the meals in your meal kit, or are your family’s evenings too busy for anything more complicated than frozen pizza or fruit pouches? Do you have a free afternoon to experiment with the new looks in your beauty box, or will the box sit unopened on your dresser until the next box arrives?

Subscription boxes can help you plan your life more efficiently, but you need to have a plan before you subscribe. Otherwise, a box designed to save you time and money could end up wasting both.

How to lower the costs of subscription boxes

How much does the average subscription box cost? MySubscriptionAddiction reviews and tracks some of the most popular subscription boxes on the market, and its list of top subscription boxes  ranges from a $5 per month Dollar Shave Club subscription to a $60 per month Menlo Club subscription. Some subscriptions include free shipping, but others don’t so keep that in mind as you comparison shop.

“Meal services might seem like an easy and inexpensive way to feed your family,” says Daniel Carter, founder of Zippy Electrics. “My wife and I would have spent way more if we shopped for groceries on a weekly basis. However, that $8 shipping fee still added up and made it more costly than we would have liked.”

If you want to lower the costs of your subscription boxes, we have a few tips to help you save money while keeping your favorite subscriptions active.

Start small

Many subscription boxes offer different packages or tiers – so if you’re considering a new subscription box service, start small. Choose the least expensive tier or choose a package that sends you items once per quarter instead of once per month. That way, you’ll be able to evaluate the quality of the subscription without investing too much money. Remember, you can always upgrade your subscription once you decide it’s worth the price.

Sign up for free trials

One of the best ways to test out a new subscription service is by taking advantage of a free trial. Many subscription boxes come with try-before-you-buy offers, so check to see if it’s possible to get one month free before committing to a subscription.

Keep in mind that most subscription services require you to provide a valid credit card number before sending you a sample box or a free trial. If you don’t cancel your subscription before your free trial expires, the subscription box service will begin charging your credit card as if you had agreed to subscribe – so make sure you cancel any services you’re not interested in using!

Look for discounts

Whether you’re just starting out with a subscription service or whether you’re ready to upgrade your box to a more expensive subscription, don’t forget to look for discounts before you purchase. Not only do subscription box companies offer discounts on a regular basis, but you might also be able to find cost-saving coupons by following social media influencers who are promoting the company’s products.

“There are always opportunities to upgrade your boxes and purchase more items at a discount price,” Anderson explains.

Turn items you don’t use into gifts

If you end up with more subscription box items than you can use, don’t assume those purchases are sunk costs. Instead, start thinking of your subscription boxes not only as treats for yourself but also as opportunities to treat the people you love.

“I’m the type of person who will always find a use for something,” says Anderson. “I’ve been able to give items away.”

If you turn an unused subscription box item into a gift, you can brighten someone else’s day while saving money, reducing waste and introducing a friend or relative to one of your favorite brands or products. Some subscription box services offer you a discount every time you refer a friend – which means that a thoughtful subscription box gift could turn out to be a double win!

How do subscription boxes affect your credit score?

Believe it or not, signing up for a subscription box can help you improve your credit score, especially if you’re still learning how credit works.

“Getting an affordable subscription box can help you build your credit score since it’s easy to pay the full balance,” explains Ben Reynolds, founder and CEO of Sure Dividend. “It’s also an excellent start in making smart financial choices.”

If you’re new to credit, putting a subscription or two on your credit card and setting up autopay to ensure you pay off your subscriptions in full every month can help you build a positive payment history – and since your payment history makes up 35% of your FICO credit score, it’s a good idea to establish a record of on-time payments as quickly as possible.

Plus, only using your credit card for subscription boxes can help you avoid credit-busting mistakes like buying more than you can afford or maxing out your credit cards. “When you only use your credit card for low-priced subscription boxes, you can continue improving your credit score with a low utilization ratio,” says Reynolds.

Of course, most of us are probably going to want to use our credit cards for more than just subscription boxes – so let’s do the math on how you can keep your subscriptions active and make new purchases without hurting your credit score.

Here’s what you need to know: As you add more subscriptions and purchases to your credit cards, try to avoid using more than 30% of your available credit. If your credit limit is $1,000, for example, avoid carrying any monthly balance larger than $300. Why? Because the amount of money you owe on your credit cards makes up 30% of your FICO credit score, and if your balances get too high, your credit score could drop.

There’s one more way you can use subscription boxes to boost your credit – and that’s by putting a subscription box on an old credit card. If you’ve been using credit for a long time, you probably have some old credit cards you no longer use on an everyday basis. Instead of closing those credit card accounts, use subscriptions to keep them active. That way, you won’t risk the credit score hit that comes with canceling an old credit card.

The best credit cards for subscription boxes

Which credit cards are best for subscription boxes? We recommend using a top rewards credit card that offers at least 1.5% cash back on all purchases. That way, you can maximize your credit card rewards no matter what kind of subscription box you choose, plus you won’t have to worry about hitting a rewards cap.

The Wells Fargo Active CashSM Card, for example, offers 2% cash back on all purchases with no rewards cap or limit. This isn’t just one of the best flat-rate cash back cards out there – it’s also one of the best rewards cards on the market and an excellent choice for anyone who wants to get the most credit card rewards out of their subscription boxes.

If you’re looking for a credit card that also gives you the opportunity to earn bonus rewards, consider the Chase Freedom Unlimited®. You’ll earn 5% cash back on Lyft purchases (through March 2022), 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3% cash back on dining and drugstore purchases and 1.5% cash back on all other purchases. This gives you the opportunity to earn 1.5% cash back on your subscription boxes while taking advantage of higher-level rewards on other spending categories like travel.

Here are some of our favorite cards for subscription box purchases:

Card nameRewards rateSign-up bonusAnnual feeAPR
Wells Fargo Active CashSM Card2% cash back on all purchases$200 after spending $1,000 in the first three months$00% intro APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers, then 14.99% to 24.99% variable
Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card1.5% cash back on all purchases$200 after spending $500 in the first three months$00% intro APR for 15 months on purchases, then 14.99% to 24.99% variable
Citi® Double Cash Card1% cash back on all purchases

 

1% additional cash back as you pay off those purchases

None$00% intro APR for 18 months on balance transfers, then 13.99% to 23.99% variable
Chase Freedom Unlimited®5% cash back on Lyft purchases (through March 2022)

 

5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards

 

3% cash back on dining and drugstore purchases

 

1.5% cash back on all other purchases

$200 after spending $500 in the first three months

 

5% cash back on grocery store purchases (not including Target or Walmart purchases) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year

$00% intro APR for 15 months on purchases, then 14.99% to 23.74% variable
Citi Custom CashSM Card5% cash back on purchases in your top eligible spend category each billing cycle (up to the first $500 spent per cycle, then 1%)

 

1% cash back on all other purchases

$200 cash back after spending $750 in the first three months$00% intro APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers, then 13.99% to 23.99% variable
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card2 miles per dollar on all purchases60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months$9515.99% to 23.99% variable

Canceling your subscription box

Remember Carrie Anderson, who originally got into subscription boxes because she didn’t like shopping? She has since unsubscribed from all her boxes. “I am trying to take on the mindset of a minimalist,” Anderson told us. “I can’t justify spending money on these items when I really don’t need them.”

Linda Smith, of burlap+blue, recently canceled her own subscription boxes for a similar reason. “I’ve been trying to focus on less for 2021.” Although many of the items Smith received in her subscription boxes were fun, they weren’t items she would have bought on her own – which made her question the true value of her subscription services.

Luckily, canceling subscription boxes is nearly as easy as signing up. “With all of the subscription services I’ve done, I have never had trouble unsubscribing,” says Anderson. In one case, she had to use Google to look up how to unsubscribe from the service. In all her other cases, she was able to easily locate the information on the subscription website.

If you don’t want to cancel your subscription completely, you might be able to downgrade to a smaller package. “I used to get a box of four razor blades from Dollar Shave Club monthly,” explains Rick Wallace, founder of Tackle Village. “With COVID, I have reduced the frequency to once every two months since I can get away with shaving every second day for Zoom calls! It is far cheaper than buying razors any other way – it’s only costing me a dollar or two a week.”

Deepak Shukla, who runs the subscription meal service Plant Sumo, suggests looking for subscription services that not only make it easy to cancel but also offer you the option of pausing your subscription for a period of time. “To manage your subscription responsibly, be sure to use a subscription service that offers free cancellation or pauses. This means if you go on vacation and you don’t need a delivery that week, you can pause your subscription and won’t pay for meals you don’t need.”

Remember, a good subscription service is designed to save you time and money. If your subscription box ends up costing more than you can afford or cluttering up your life with unwanted stuff, it’s time to part ways.

Bottom line

Subscription boxes can make your life a lot more convenient – but if you don’t choose your subscription boxes carefully, you could end up paying for items you don’t use. Before you sign up for a beauty box or meal kit service, make sure you have both the money and the time to make your subscription worthwhile. Look for free trials and discounts to minimize the cost of your subscription boxes, and use a top rewards credit card to earn cash back on each monthly subscription payment.

If your subscription box stops being fun and starts feeling like a chore, it’s time to cancel – but until then, enjoy your subscription! As Linda Smith puts it: “Who doesn’t love happy mail?”

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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