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Are Monthly Subscription Boxes Worth It? – Costs, Pros & Cons

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These days, you can get nearly anything in a monthly subscription box. From beauty sample boxes to meal delivery services, these companies will deliver a fresh selection of products to your door, month after month, for a flat monthly fee. People love subscription boxes for their convenience and the thrill of getting a surprise package each month. And with prices as low as $10 a month, they can look like an unbeatable deal.

However, even $10 is no bargain if you’re spending it on stuff you wouldn’t normally want to buy – or stuff you could get for less at a store. So, before you jump on the subscription box bandwagon, it’s worth taking a closer look at what these services really have to offer, what they cost, and what their hidden catches are.

Types of Subscription Boxes

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The subscription box was born in 2010 with the launch of Birchbox, a $10-a-month beauty sample box. Since then, this business model has spread to nearly every kind of product you can buy. In fact, there are now thousands of different types of subscriptions boxes. Here are a few of the most common types, and the most popular services for each.

Beauty and Grooming

The whole idea of the subscription box started with beauty boxes, and this is still one of the most common types. Here are some of the top choices in this category:

  • Birchbox. This is the box that started it all, and it’s still one of the most popular, with over a million subscribers. For $10 per month or $110 per year, it provides an assortment of five beauty samples – all specially chosen to meet your particular tastes. Items include lipstick, mascara, skin cream, dry shampoo, and fragrance, all from high-end brands. If you like the samples in your monthly box, you can order full-size versions from the Birchbox website. Birchbox now offers a men’s grooming box as well, with products like hair gel, deodorant, and beard oil.
  • GlossyBox. GlossyBox is a pricier service than Birchbox, with monthly rates ranging from $17.50 to $21 depending on the length of your contract. However, it gives you more for your money, providing both samples and full-sized products from trendy brands. Consumerist reports that when its sister publication, ShopSmart magazine, tried the box, it included a full-sized lipstick that would have cost $20 by itself. Unlike Birchbox, this service usually sends the same items to all its subscribers each month.
  • Julep. The monthly Julep box has a focus on nail polish, though it includes other beauty items as well. Unlike many services, Julep gives users the option of previewing the month’s selections and picking out the specific items they want. The service has two tiers: My Maven, which provides $40 worth of products for $25 a month, and Maven Luxe, which delivers at least $60 worth of products for $40 a month. You can save $5 a month off either service by signing up for a three-month subscription.
  • GoodBeing. Formerly known as Goodebox, this service focuses on organic and eco-friendly products. It offers a choice of subscriptions: an all-beauty box that contains makeup and other beauty products, and a “lifestyle” box that adds in wellness items like sunscreen, supplements, and products for the home. Both boxes are available in a $10-per-month mini size with only two items, or a $25-a-month standard size with four to five items of varying sizes. If you choose the standard size, you can personally select one or two of the items you receive each month. You can shave a few dollars off the monthly fee by signing up for six months in advance.
  • Dollar Shave Club. Subscription grooming boxes aren’t just for women. The Dollar Shave Club is a monthly service that delivers high-quality razor cartridges for both men and women. Choices range from a two-blade razor for $3 per month to a six-blade model for $9. If you don’t like the blade you’re using, you can switch membership levels at any time. When you first join, you get a handle to go with your cartridge of choice and a selection of sample-sized grooming products, such as “shave butter”; if you like them, you can add on a full-sized version to your monthly delivery.

Beauty Grooming Boxes

Clothing and Accessories

These days, subscription boxes can do more than groom you – they can dress you from head to toe. The best-known clothing subscription is Stitch Fix. This shopping service is a bit different from other subscription boxes. For $20 a month, you get a box with five items – clothing, shoes, and accessories – chosen just for you based on your style preferences. However, if you want to keep the items, you have to pay for those separately.

Stitch Fix offers boxes for men and women from both well-known and new brands like Joie, Citizens for Humanity, Original Penguin, and Converse. Items cost an average of $55 each, and the $20 “styling fee” is deducted from the cost. If you choose to keep all five items, you get a 25% discount on the lot. If not, you can send back the ones you don’t want in a prepaid envelope.

Another clothing subscription service, Nice Laundry, focuses specifically on socks. Every three months, it ships you six pairs of dress socks, especially chosen for you. Each quarterly shipment has sock weights and styles appropriate for the season. Socks are only available in one size, which will fit most men as well as women with larger feet. It costs $49 for one quarterly shipment, or $99 for a full year.

Pets

Subscription boxes aren’t just for humans. You can also get monthly deliveries of goodies for your furry friends. The best-known box of this type is BarkBox, which contains toys, treats, and chews for dogs.

Each BarkBox contains four or five items, which are never the same from month to month. When you sign up, you enter your dog’s weight to get items that are sized appropriately for your pooch; you can scale up or down at any time. And if there’s an item your pup doesn’t like, you can exchange it free of charge (up to one item per month). The service costs $29 per month, with a discount for 6- or 12-month subscriptions.

For cat people, there’s KitNipBox, which provides a monthly assortment of cat toys, treats, and other accessories. The basic subscription costs $19.99 a month and includes four items; the multi-cat subscription provides six items for $29.99. A portion of this monthly fee goes to shelters, rescues, and other charities that help cats in need.

Food

A relatively new variant of the subscription box is the meal delivery service. The two best known of these are HelloFresh and Blue Apron, which ships a refrigerated box each week containing recipes and all the ingredients you need to make them. All the ingredients are pre-portioned to cut your prep time, so you can cook a complete meal in about half an hour.

Blue Apron offers subscriptions at several different levels, with two to four meals per week for either two or four people. The prices range from $48 to $140 per week, which works out to between $9 and $25 per person per meal. This is less than most restaurant meals, but more than you’d pay to cook at home if you did your own grocery shopping.

In addition to meals, there are subscription boxes for specific types of food items. For instance, UrthBox delivers healthy snack items each month, along with a few extras like supplements and personal care products. Prices range from $20 a month for a six-item mini box to $50 for a large box with 25 to 30 items. There are also subscription services for vegan and gluten-free foods, wine, beer, coffee, and even hot sauce.

Meal Delivery Services

Entertainment

Several gift boxes offer entertainment of one sort or another. For instance, Book of the Month delivers a new hardcover book each month for $14.99. You can choose your book from one of five monthly selections, or skip a month if you don’t like any of them.

Other services offer books for more specific audiences. For instance, Comic Bento ships a monthly assortment of graphic novels with a cover value of at least $50 for $25. OwlCrate is a themed monthly box containing a young adult novel and various related items like pens, bracelets, and bobbleheads for $29.99 plus shipping. OwlCrate Jr. provides the same service for tweens, with subscriptions starting at $27.99 a month plus shipping.

Speaking of kids, you can also get subscription boxes with educational toys or projects for children. KiwiCo includes a monthly magazine and an age-appropriate creative project, along with the materials needed to complete it. There are subscriptions for all age groups, from toddlers to teens, and you can choose between art-themed or science-themed boxes for older kids. All boxes are $19.95 per month, with a discount if you commit to a 6-month or 12-month subscription.

Other just-for-fun boxes cater more to adults. For instance, Loot Crate is a $16 monthly subscription box “for geeks and gamers” containing a themed assortment of t-shirts, decals, figurines, and more. And Spicy Subscriptions is strictly adults-only, providing a monthly selection of sexy products like massage oils, candles, and adult toys for $34.95.

Advantages of Subscription Boxes

For most people, the big advantage of subscription boxes is the fun factor. Experts who spoke with LearnVest about the psychology behind subscription boxes say people enjoy the suspense of looking forward to each month’s box and wondering what it will contain. As addiction expert Amanda Dorman explains, “Waiting for that box each month – not knowing what it is, but knowing it’s coming – creates an adrenaline rush.” It’s like getting a birthday gift every month.

Other perks of subscription boxes include:

  1. Custom Picked Items. With many subscription boxes, the items you receive each month are chosen especially for you, based on your particular needs and preferences. This can be a major boon for people who have trouble finding what they like in stores, or who just don’t enjoy shopping. And for many people, knowing the items were chosen just for them increases the thrill of opening a new box. According to Dorman, getting these “handpicked” items boosts people’s self-esteem and “makes them feel unique.”
  2. Convenience. Having items delivered automatically each month can save shopping time. For example, LearnVest quotes a subscriber named Lindsay Karr, who’s a teacher and also the mother of a six-month-old baby. She uses the Subscribe & Save service from Amazon to get baby food, toilet paper, and other home goods on a monthly schedule. That way, she doesn’t have to take time out of her busy schedule for “running around town from store to store.”
  3. Potential Savings. Having goodies shipped to you in a subscription box is often cheaper than buying each of those items separately. Karr says her subscription service gives her a 5% discount on all the items she has shipped from Amazon. Others subscription services offer even bigger savings. For instance, GlossyBox says its October 2017 box contained $69 worth of beauty items for about $20, and Loot Crate promises at least $45 worth of nerd-culture joy for $16.

Subscription Boxes Advantages

Disadvantages of Subscription Boxes

Subscription shopping also has some big drawbacks. The most obvious one is that, with most services, you don’t get to choose the items you receive. You get the thrill of looking forward to a surprise package, but when you open it, the surprise isn’t always a pleasant one. You could find yourself stuck with a bunch of stuff you don’t actually want, and not enough of the stuff you need.

This, in turn, can cancel out the convenience of monthly shipments. For instance, if your monthly grooming box sends you sunscreen, but what you really need is deodorant, you have to go to the store for it. You don’t save any shopping time, and you have to pay for the deodorant on top of what you’ve already paid for your subscription.

Other problems with subscription services include:

  1. Overbuying. While a subscription box usually costs less than buying all the items in it separately, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t buy all those items if they didn’t come in your box. For instance, a $29-a-month BarkBox subscription works out to $350 each year. Chances are, that’s a lot more than you’d normally spend just for toys and treats. Over the long term, it could add significantly to the cost of owning a dog.
  2. Unclear Value. Normally, when you shop for any product, you can look at all the choices and compare their prices to see which is the best deal. But with a subscription box service, you get a different assortment of products every month, and you don’t even know what they’re going to be. That makes it much harder to figure out whether your box is really worth what you’re paying for it.
  3. Problems With Returns. Some subscription services, such as Stitch Fix, let you return or exchange items you don’t want. However, it’s not always easy to do, and so many people just don’t bother. Consumer expert Mitchell McCall, speaking with LearnVest, says people are much more likely to leave something on the shelf in the store than they are to return an item they’ve already received – even if they know they won’t use it.
  4. Difficulty of Quitting. In theory, you can cancel a subscription box at any time. However, it’s not always easy to do. McCall says the hassle of canceling is often enough to make people hold on to a service, even after they’ve lost interest in it. He compares it to a gym membership you’re no longer using: As long as the fee is low enough to make it seem like a good deal, it won’t seem worthwhile to cancel the service.

How to Determine If a Subscription Box Is a Good Deal

With such a huge variety of subscription boxes out there, it’s impossible to say that they’re always a good deal, or that they never are. You have to look at a specific box – its contents, rules, and cost – to decide whether it’s a good value for you personally.

Here are some questions you can ask to help you make the decision:

  • Are These Items You Can Use? The most important thing to know before you sign up for a monthly box is whether you’ll use everything in it. With some services, such as Dollar Shave Club, it’s easy to tell, because you know exactly what you’ll be getting every month. But with others, you can’t be sure what to expect. However, you can get a pretty good idea by checking reviews online to find out what items the box has held for the past few months before you take the plunge.
  • How Does the Cost Compare to Retail? Once you know what’s in a typical box, you can check the prices of those items on retail sites like Amazon. By adding them all up, you can figure out what the contents of the box are worth and compare that to the subscription price. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of shipping, if there is any.
  • Is It More Than You Need? A box isn’t a good value if it’s going to tempt you into buying more of any one item than you would normally want. Even if the cost per item is good, it’s likely to be more than you’d spend buying just one item each month. Plus, you’ll be cluttering up your house with more socks, cat toys, or bottles of nail polish than you can use.
  • How Much Control Do You Have? Some subscription services send the same monthly box to every subscriber. Others, such as Stitch Fix, tailor the contents to your personal tastes based on a questionnaire you fill out when you sign up. A few, such as Julep, allow you to preview each month’s box before it’s shipped and skip that month if you don’t want it, or even personally choose some or all of the items you receive. This means you’ll never have to waste money on an item you don’t want – but on the downside, your monthly box won’t be a special surprise.
  • What’s the Return Policy? With many services, you’re stuck with whatever you get in your monthly box. Others let you return items you don’t want – but it isn’t always easy. Before you sign a contract, check it for details about how long you have to return items, how many items you’re allowed to return, and whether you have to pay return shipping costs.
  • How Hard Is It to Cancel? If you’re not sure whether a box is a good deal for you, you could plan to try it for a month and then decide. Liz Corry of My Subscription Addiction, speaking with RetailMeNot, says nearly all subscription boxes offer a month-to-month subscription plan. However, canceling your subscription can be tricky. Some services, such as Birchbox, allow you to cancel your subscription online; others, such as Julep, require a phone call to customer service. Also, many sites are set up to automatically renew your contract whenever it expires, unless you call in time to cancel it.
  • Can You Really Afford It? Although subscription boxes can contain useful items, most of them are clearly wants rather than needs. Even if a box is a good value, it’s not worth buying if you don’t have room in your budget. Financial planner Katie Colman, speaking with LearnVest, says it’s okay to splurge on a monthly crate of goodies only “as long as you’re meeting all your other financial obligations and it’s not impacting your ability to meet your goals.”

Determine Good Deal Subscription Box

Final Word

There are ways to get some of the perks of subscription boxes without having to commit to a monthly service. For instance, if what you like about them is having products specially chosen to fit your style, you could join a loyalty program like Sephora’s Beauty Insider. This program rewards you for shopping at the store with bonus products tailored to your tastes.

On the other hand, if your favorite thing about your subscription box is getting a special treat each month, you can give yourself the same experience by creating a category in your personal budget for “mad money.” This is a sum of cash – which doesn’t have to be large – that you can spend on anything you want. It allows you to treat yourself to something special each month – and since you pick it yourself, you can be sure it’s something you’ll really use.

Pro tip: If you don’t have a budget for yourself yet, make sure you sign up for Personal Capital today. This will allow you to track where your money is going each month, helping you become more aware of your personal finances.

Have you ever subscribed to a monthly subscription box? Did you think it was worth the money?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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