Subscription-based digital services are convenient—and their small monthly fees to stream video, listen to music or audiobooks, or store your stuff in the cloud make them seem like good deals when signing up.

But it’s also easy to subscribe for something and forget about the monthly subscription payments that are automatically billed to your credit card or checking account, even if you no longer watch Hulu, download whodunit audiobooks, or need cloud storage for thousands of grandkid pics.

“You get on this endless treadmill of paying for something you’re not even using,” said Brian Chen, consumer technology writer for The New York Times. “This is exactly why all the tech companies are moving toward a subscription model, because they expect that you are going to hit inertia and forget. You’re just paying for nothing at that point.”

One of the main reasons people sign up for streaming services is to watch exclusive content, such as The Mandalorian on Disney+ or the many Star Trek series on CBS All Access. But once the season ends, customers may forget to cancel, even if they don’t tune in anymore.

Many streaming services have free trial offers but require a credit or debit card number to get started. If you miss the cancellation window, you’re automatically subscribed and charged for it.

TIP: If you sign up for a trial, mark the end-date in your calendar, so you can cancel without cost if you decide you don’t want to pay for this service.

Small monthly subscription fees can add up to thousands of dollars each year. But most people don’t know how much they’re paying for these services. In 2021, West Monroe, a business and technology consulting firm, asked 2,500 Americans how much they spent on “recurring monthly expenses” associated with digital services, devices, and subscription boxes. None of them knew how much they were spending, “with the vast majority underestimating costs,” the report noted. Even when taken through an “exhaustive inventory of their recurring monthly expenses across 21 categories,” their guesstimates were off.

Chances are your subscription expenses aren’t limited to digital services. Do you belong to a gym or health club? What about subscription boxes for toys, meals, health products, or clothing? Use a dating app? Have cloud storage or credit monitoring? Subscribe to any newspapers or magazines? The list goes on and on. The only way to figure out the total strain on your budget is to follow the money.

  • Several online services offer to check on subscriptions for you, but doing this yourself isn’t that difficult:
  • Start by making a list of the recurring subscriptions and membership fees you remember.
  • Go through your credit card and checking account statements. Look at an entire year’s worth of statements.

Check your mobile device or visit the app store you use to get a list of the apps you’ve downloaded. Do any of them have recurring charges?

Now that you know how much you’re paying annually for subscriptions, review your list and decide which services are important to you and which are not. (We hope Consumers’ Checkbook is on your “keep” list.) You may find that you’re oversubscribed in some categories. For example, do you still need three video streaming services?

If you want to trim your budget, cancel the subscriptions you don’t use or want anymore.

TIP: In some cases, you may be able to switch to a digital service or app that does the same thing for free or at a lower price. Many streaming services now offer lower monthly fees if you’re willing to watch commercials.

In some cases, you may be able to switch to a less expensive membership tier that still provides what you need. For example, many streaming services now offer lower monthly fees if you’re willing to watch commercials.

Expect pushback; companies don’t like to lose customers. With some services, threatening to quit might work in your favor. For example, SiriusXM’s intro rate is usually three months for $1; after that, it charges $18.99 a month for its most popular mid-tier package. But if you try to cancel your subscription, SiriusXM often offers a rate as low as $5 a month to continue.

Finally, kudos to Netflix. The company updated its subscription renewal policy in 2020 and now contacts customers who haven’t used the streaming service for 12 months or more to find out if they want to keep their membership. If they don’t respond, Netflix will automatically cancel their subscriptions.

 




Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He has been protecting consumers for more than 40 years, having covered the consumer beat for CBS News, The Today Show, and NBCNews.com. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.