Spring Clean Your Subscriptions

Since reading Marie Kondo’s book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up back in 2017 (and making a bit of an exception to my no-TV-in-2019 rule earlier this year to watch her show on Netflix), I’ll admit that I’m a fan of her idea that we should focus on what sparks joy in our lives. 

I also think that idea translates surprisingly well to personal finance.  

So this month’s money question is simple: are all of the subscriptions you pay for on a monthly basis sparking joy in your life?  

(If you don’t know what all your subscriptions are right now, or you don’t really know if they are sparking joy or not, you aren’t alone... but it is time for some spring cleaning!) 

Gather Your Subscription Data 

In order to determine whether or not you have some subscriptions that you need to get rid of, you need to figure out what subscriptions you currently have.

The easiest way to determine where your money is going each month is to use an automatic budgeting or spending tracker. There are several systems I’ve heard and read about (including You Need a Budget and Personal Capital), but the only system I can recommend from personal experience is Mint. Mint is free, it’s backed by Intuit (the same company that makes TurboTax), and I’ve been using it to track my money since 2012. If you don’t use any tracking system for your money, go ahead and find your credit card statements and bank statements.  

List Your Subscriptions 

Now that we have some historical information that we can review, start looking for recurring charges. Anything that comes out on a set date each month for a set price is probably a subscription of some sort, so highlight those or write them down. While the TV subscriptions are more memorable for most of us (Netflix, Hulu, etc.), check for those sneaky subscriptions that are easy to completely forget. Some less obvious subscription categories that may be charging you money on a monthly basis are: 

  1. Business, blogging or social media software (Microsoft Office or G Suite, a VPN provider, web hosting, the system you use for SEO, email marketing or list management systems, social media scheduling programs, LinkedIn Premium, etc.) 

  2. Design software, photo software and applications (Adobe products, any photo editing apps or software, other recurring charges from mobile apps, etc.) 

  3. Other forms of entertainment (book subscriptions paid monthly, magazine or newspaper subscriptions, Audible, Spotify or other music providers, random TV channel subscriptions you set up as a free trial and forgot, etc.) 

  4. Online learning (Rosetta Stone or other language software, Coursera or other online course providers charging monthly, anything else you may have enrolled in online, etc.) 

  5. Physical product subscriptions (CSAs, food delivery companies, and every other type of subscription box: makeup, toys for your dog, clothes, scrapbooking materials, razors, wine, vitamins, you name it... check for all of these) 

  6. Service subscriptions (gym membership, if you’re paying monthly for access to anything else health or wellness related like a health club, pool, massages, tanning, etc.) 

Now that we have a list of everything, we can get to the fun stuff.

Spring Clean Your Subscriptions 

Let’s get clear on something right up front: this isn’t a negative exercise. Don’t beat yourself up about recurring monthly charges you found that you forgot about: it happens to everyone (that’s the reason companies love subscriptions!) You are about to address all your subscriptions and make a conscious decision about which ones you want to keep in your life... and that’s a positive thing.  

Thinking through your subscriptions to decide which ones spark joy or make you happy is a good place to start, but these traits will generally coincide with the subscriptions you’re using regularly. If there are items on the list that you haven’t used or forgot you had, those probably aren’t sparking joy, and getting rid of those is a good place to start. Go ahead and add those sneaky subscriptions to the list to be cancelled. 

Once you’ve pared down the subscriptions that you don’t really use (yay for quick wins), we can consider those subscriptions that are a regular part of your life. If you have a goal to save more money, there are several things you can consider about your subscriptions to make the smartest possible decision.  

  1. Consider subscription overlap. If you are paying for books, music or movies from several different providers or in several different formats, it is worth considering whether or not you can cut back to one provider or format in each category.  

  2. Apply logic. Aside from the fact that subscriptions are easy to forget about, another reason that businesses in many sectors want to charge you for their products or services in a subscription format is that it’s highly profitable for them... which generally means it’s not highly profitable for you. For the product and service subscriptions especially, it’s worth doing some math on what each product or service costs based on your own individual usage.  If the box of products you get on a monthly basis costs $30, but there is generally only one product in the box you love enough to go to a store and buy, figure out whether or not that product actually costs $30. If it costs $10, you could go buy one every month at the store, cancel your subscription, save $20 a month and be even happier. 

  3. Consider subscription waste. If any of the items you are paying for on a monthly basis get used, but don’t get used enough to make the cost worth it, it may make sense to consider more cost-effective options. If you go to a gym that costs $100 a month, but you only go twice a month, you’re paying $50 per visit. You may want to consider a gym that offers different payment options (maybe a per-class rate vs. monthly unlimited, for example).  

  4. Batch subscription usage. If you want to learn a language or take an online course on Coursera, or even catch up on an entire season of a show that is available on a subscription service (Game of Thrones, anyone?) it’s helpful to consider whether or not you could batch your usage. The faster you can learn the language or finish the coursework on many of these platforms, the faster you can stop paying monthly. While I won’t argue that binge-watching TV indefinitely is a good plan, it may be worth it to sign up for a subscription at a time when you’ll actually have time to use it so that you can stop paying monthly as soon as possible. Just remember to cancel when you’re done! 

  5. Consider free alternatives. It’s easy to fall into subscriptions because they are so convenient. While it doesn’t feel convenient to spend time researching alternatives to your subscriptions, a little time spent researching can make a significant positive impact on your budget. For books, consider the library. For TV and movies, consider only using Amazon Prime if that is something you pay for already on an annual basis to get the free shipping. While not all free software options will be a good fit for you, there are a lot of free alternatives online for many paid products that may be worth considering (free blogging platforms, manually scheduling and managing your social media, Canva or other free design tools instead of Adobe products, looking for free courses or books to replace paid options, etc.) 

  6. Take an aggressive approach and backtrack if needed. If you’ve been through the first five items on this checklist but still don’t like the monthly total of all the subscriptions on your list, one option is to cancel some of the ones that you know are borderline (they overlap with something, they aren’t quite cost effective enough to make sense, you could purchase the products on an as-needed basis from another source, etc.) The thing about subscriptions is that you can always bring them back – they are happy to have you anytime! If you go a month and notice the absence of one of the subscriptions you cancelled, sign back up. There may be a few that are easier to live without than you originally thought, and this is one good way to find out if that’s the case.  

Keep the Subscriptions That Spark Joy 

If you’ve followed the steps outlined so far in this post, you’re in a better place with your subscriptions than most people... but you still may not feel that way. This is one of the hardest things about going after money goals: it’s hard to determine where the line is between being smart with your money and still enjoying your life. So I’ll state my opinion for the record: if you’re at the point that you love all the subscriptions left on your list, you should keep them all.  

You’re making a conscious decision, after careful review, to keep the subscriptions that bring you the most joy... and that is the point of this post. Taking one more subscription payment off the list at this point won’t make a life-changing amount of difference in your budget, and if it’s going to make you unhappy, it’s not worth that small monthly cost savings. Remember that you can always review your subscriptions again later to make sure the mix is still working for you and making you happy.  

Now go enjoy your optimized subscription list this spring! You earned it!