Image of a Disney-Plus login screen
Photo by Marques Kaspbrak on Unsplash

It’ll happen everywhere. I’ll click on an article, and a minute into reading it, a little pop-up window tells me that I can’t finish the whole story without paying $5 every month for a membership. I go on YouTube and watch a video that’s sponsored by some amazing service that’s only “$10 a month.” I’ll also see something that I’m getting for free peddle me to “upgrade to premium” for a monthly payment.

The consumer world has become a whole new Wild West landscape where everyone is competing to become the next big $8.00 per month “Disney+” or “BirchBox” until the average household racks up $10 subscription after $10 subscription, making their monthly expenses towards music, TV, dog toys, skincare products, and clothes add up.

In fact, on average, Americans spend about $237 per month on subscription services.

It’s no surprise that subscription services are popping up. They provide companies a guaranteed monthly customer base. They’re easy for people to sign up for. Better yet, they’re a great way for startups, niche services, and small businesses to build a following for themselves.

Still, why do we fall for it? What is it about the whole subscription craze that made it bump up by a staggering 800% between 2014 and 2017? Why do we buy subscriptions for things that we don’t actually need — or at least, don’t necessarily need on a monthly basis — or even things that we could get for free? Like TV?

I’ll try to draw on my own experiences. Currently, I’m watching The Golden Girls on Hulu, which costs $8.00 a month for me to watch it ad-free and in sequential, binge-worthy order. On my way to work, I use my $10.00 Spotify subscription going for podcasts and curated playlists. To cut down on my social media time, I subscribe to an app that blocks Facebook and Twitter in time blocks. When I want ambient music to help me focus while I work, I have a $4.00-per-month music app playing tunes curated by neuroscientists and musicologists while I focus. Finally, I pay a $5.00 subscription to this site.

On one hand, there are things that have become a part of our world. Music streaming services, for example, are becoming the new way to listen to music.

Chart showing through the decades different music listening mediums rising and falling in popularity. At the end, “MP3” and “Streaming” are gradually rising
Chart showing through the decades different music listening mediums rising and falling in popularity. At the end, “MP3” and “Streaming” are gradually rising

As you can see in the graph, music sales are beginning to increase for the first time in a decade. It’s not hard at all to see why. When I got Spotify, it changed my world. In the span of my lifetime, I went from having to buy an entire CD for nearly $15.00 for just a couple of songs that I really liked, to downloading music to my iPod one $1.29 song at a time, to now being able to stream entire albums on my phone at my heart’s content with no feeling of a sunk cost fallacy — for $10.00 a month.

Then, of course, there are things that we know we just don’t need. Looking at my own subscriptions, I know that I bought some of those services because I thought “Well, it could help me — and it’s just $5.00.” I also think about how the amount of TV subscriptions out there feels like an overhaul. You can now subscribe to specific networks, making it so that all of your NBC shows are under one app and your CBS shows are on another app, and if you want something with more variety, there’s always Netflix.

Obviously, the answer seems to just be “moderation is key.” Are you spending too much money on monthly fun boxes? Quit it! You don’t need them!

However, I think the problem is more complex than that. There’s more at play to why we want to sign up for subscriptions than just “because getting stuff is fun!”

There are benefits to subscription-based services. For one, there’s the convenience of it. Whether they’re a box of pre-selected items brought to your mailbox, downloadable music on your phone, ad-free TV, or any other service, the subscription model’s marketing tactic relies heavily on the us-serving-you mentality.

Photo by Supply on Unsplash

The other bonus is that they’re tailored personally to the customer. Subscription services need a reason for people to not only say, “Buy this!” but “Get this regularly!” They do this partly by making the product feel specially created for you — it creates a “you want this” factor. While factoring in how the service comes to you instead of you coming to it, subscription services highlight the fact that the products are for you specifically. Notice how brands like StitchFix and Dollar Shave Club will create a more personalized experience for the customer. They’ll create quizzes when you sign up and allow you to customize your order through your account.

Finally, there’s the factor of price. It’s true that subscriptions can save you money. For example, if you use a meal-based service like HelloFresh, you can have a fixed expense for your monthly food spending instead of a fluctuating one where you might binge-spend at the grocery store.

Also, as mentioned earlier, one can listen to as much music as they want to for $10.00 a month through a streaming service. Not only does a single album cost more than that, with just $10.00 you can listen to multiple albums plus hundreds of new songs through available playlists.

However, then you get the “perceived” need. After all, these are businesses, and subscriptions benefit them just as much as they benefit you. They need to “create” the need. You need to get a box of toys every month. You need to spend $5.00 a month so that you get a fresh toothbrush head four times a year. It’s so much better to spend nearly $100 a month to get expertly pre-selected wines sent to your door.

The obsession comes when we forget to notice the “perceived” part of the need. If you prefer to pay for one or two $8.00 TV subscriptions a month instead of $60 to $70 a month on cable, that’s a much better use of your resources for something that you will use. However, if you buy five TV subscriptions because you watch a couple of shows here and there from each service, then you’re adding more to your fixed expenses than you need. If you buy anything that comes to you each month but you don’t really need it each month, then that’s a perceived need.

Companies are all competing for our money and buying power. With technology, it’s become easier for businesses to be recognized, for consumers to choose products, and for people to receive services quickly and conveniently. However, companies also recognize the power that the subscription model really has to the point that they’ve become a staple of online consumerism.

So I say this to you: you’re now surrounded by a world where product placement and consumerism are more fervent and effortless than ever. Do some spring cleaning on your subscription services. Know what you can live without.

Allison is a writer based out of Minneapolis. She lives with her two cats and is loving life.