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Are Women’s Subscription Boxes Worth It, Or Are They Just A Nicely Packaged Drain On Our Bank Accounts?

Lauren Tassone  |  October 4, 2019

Who doesn’t love the exhilarating rush you get when you open your mailbox to find a little present or the spoils of a recent online shopping session waiting on you?

There’s a reason we love it so much. When we get “rewarded” with material goods, our brains get a rush of dopamine akin to what we feel when we eat sugar, do drugs, have sex or any other pleasurable activity. In other words, there’s a reason why terms like “shopaholic” and “shopping addict” ring so true — we’re biologically wired to want more, more, more. And it’s our desire to have a steady stream of stuff popping into our mailboxes that companies love to capitalize on — particularly subscription box companies, which promise to keep the fun rolling in every month… for a fee.

Subscription boxes are still relatively new — Birchbox shipped its first ever box of mini makeup goods in 2010 — but today there are thousands of companies competing in the space and you can get everything from razors to organic wine delivered to your doorstep once every four weeks. Some of the biggest players in the space include FabFitFun, Ipsy, StitchFix and Fabletics, and they all offer a way to get your fill of makeup, beauty, clothing and accessories without ever leaving the couch. 

Which begs the question — do these boxes make it too easy to spend our hard-earned money, potentially representing a hazard to our budgets? It’s easy to go overboard, according to Antoinette Russell, who at one time was subscribed to 12 (yes, 12) boxes at once. She says she was drawn to the concept of a subscription box because it enabled her to get a beautifully wrapped little present in the mail every month, complete with surprises inside. And although 12 subscriptions may not be the norm — she’s since chronicled her recovery from shopping addiction on the blog Overcoming Overshopping — there’s no denying subscription boxes have an alluring quality that is irresistible to many. Here’s how to keep these happy surprises from also being a major drain on your bank account. 

Understanding The Appeal 

Dr. Jane Thomas, marketing professor at Winthrop University, also known as “Dr. Shopping,” says people usually get into subscription boxes for two reasons: The first is hedonic consumption. Simply put, people love the pleasure, fun and thrill of the unboxing itself. The second is to fill a basic need. If you’re out of a product (whether it’s moisturizer or razor blades), you simply need to replenish. Although both reasons can spell trouble for your finances, it’s usually the first one that trips us up, because it falls distinctly into the “wants” category of our budget. 

“Shopping is entertainment,” says Nicole Leinbach Reyhle, founder of Retail Minded. “With subscription boxes, it feels as if a surprise shows up at the door, and you almost forget you paid for it. It’s like a gift you’re giving yourself.”

When Overspending Becomes A Problem 

People will always buy things they don’t need, but at what point are you “overdoing it” with spending on subscription boxes? Thomas says she worries that many women who subscribe may be trying too hard to justify the expense to themselves — they may reason that they’re actually saving money by subscribing, because they know if they went into the store they’d potentially be spending more on, say, cosmetics from Sephora, than they’re spending on their monthly delivery from Birchbox. … But what they aren’t considering is that they could easily avoid the store altogether, and be saving that money. In other words, any non-necessity we have as a line item in our budgets should always be viewed as a net loss rather than a net gain. 

Sarah Newcomb, Ph.D, director of Behavioral Science at Morningstar and expert in behavioral economics, says that the offerings of some subscription boxes (fitness gear, wrinkle cream, etc.) may make us feel somehow more connected to our identities as women — or our vision of who we want to be.  If you notice yourself feeling that way about your monthly subscription, watch out. You don’t need to try all of these products to be a well-groomed, gym-going, in-touch-with-what’s-cool woman.  

What To Consider Before Subscribing 

If you want to try a subscription box, and you have it in your budget to do so, absolutely go for it — just be smart about it. Here’s a look at some things to consider before you confirm your purchase. 

  • What’s my total annual investment for the service? Assess whether the investment you’re making in the box aligns with the general budget and preferences you have for this specific category of product, Reyhle suggests. It’s always a good idea to compare the cost of the item in the box to the cost of what you would spend to buy it in a store.
  • Is it a need or a want? Many boxes will fall into the “wants” category, and you’re allowed to treat yourself as long as your budget allows, says Reyhle. Just narrow in on what the box is delivering to you as a consumer, and make sure you’re getting a good ROI once you’ve spent a month or two with your box. 
  • Be ready to unsubscribe. If you subscribe to a recurring delivery service, check in with yourself in about two to three months to see if the box is working for you. Are you really enjoying and using the contents of the box, or are you just addicted to the excitement when you see it show up on your doorstep? If it’s not bringing you joy, don’t be afraid to cancel — and don’t let the sales rep talk you out of canceling. Yes, subscription boxes can be fun, but so is keeping your monthly expenses down

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