Updated on 02.06.12

Following the Time Trail and Downgrading Subscriptions

Trent Hamm

In the past few months, we’ve ended our subscription to GameFly, reduced our subscription to Netflix to streaming-only, stopped receiving four magazines, and given away or sold a bunch of items around our household.

At first glance, one might think we were going through some sort of economic crisis. After all, this is the exact same kind of cutting back that I regularly suggest to people who are finding themselves in a financial pinch.

We actually made these decisions based on time, not money.

With each one of those spending cuts we made, we realized that we simply weren’t getting our money’s worth out of the item.

With GameFly, I recognized that my time playing electronic games was actually pretty small, and most of that time was actually spent at my computer. We would get a game in the mail, it would get played an hour or two on the day it arrived, then it would usually sit for a long time and eventually get mailed back.

With Netflix, we had a very similar problem. The disks we’d get in the mail would sit for a month or so until we could find a great evening to watch that film.

With the magazines, we realized that some of our magazines were consistently going unread. We’d end up with a pile of unread magazines, then one day we’d just flip through them, tear out a piece or two that we wanted to read, and toss a pile of magazines.

With the other items around our home, we just got rid of items that we didn’t use.

In each case, we cut our spending on an item that we didn’t use enough to justify the cost.

Over and over again, though, I see people having a challenging time making that justification or, in many cases, never bothering to make that justification at all.

My own original experience with Netflix is a perfect example of this.

About eight years ago, I opened a Netflix account. Sarah and I used it like crazy for several months, then the usage dropped off. It reached a point where we would have a couple of Netflix envelopes on our DVD player for weeks, almost gathering dust. Why didn’t we cancel? We liked the convenience of having the movies available if we did decide to watch them. We ended up keeping the account until our 2006 financial meltdown, and only resubscribed a few years later due to the availability of streaming and a large backlog of children’s movies that our kids wanted to watch.

The natural counterargument that many people have when they hear about such changes is that we’re losing some degree of convenience or joy by making these changes. In fact, we actually have great alternatives to each of these if we were to use that service.

For example, the reason we had GameFly is so that I could try out new video games if I wished. However, at the rate of one per month, it’s actually less expensive to just keep trading games at the local used game store. If I end up keeping a game for two or three months (as would happen), I’m far ahead simply trading games.

With Netflix, if we decide that we want to watch a particular movie that’s not on streaming, we have lots of options to rent that movie, from Redbox to Amazon Instant Video. Considering that we’re looking at most one rental a month, it’s far cheaper to just rent them individually.

The same concept is true for the magazines. If I just bought a weekly magazine at the newsstand once a month when something interested me, it’s still far cheaper than the cost of the subscription.

A subscription can save you money if you use it consistently, but if you’re not using it consistently, you’re better off just buying or renting individual items when the opportunity comes up.

In the end, it’s all about time. If your interests are such that you’re actually devoting a lot of your time to a particular hobby, a subscription service might make it worthwhile for you. If you’re doing it mostly for the convenience of the one time every month or two you actually end up using it, drop the subscription and find another option. Your wallet (and your clutter) will thank you.

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  1. Carole says:

    I have let several subscriptions expire because I wasn’t reading them. I found out with most of them you have to actually write them or email them to cancel them or they will keep coming and you will be billed. If you can find the original subscription copy it will say in very small print in an obscure place that they don’t automatically expire. This has turned me off from subscribing to new magazines that I might be interested in. It’s a nuisance to have to notify them when you want to quit especially when you don’t realize the policy exits.

  2. kc says:

    This is all well and good, but I could really go for a little more yellow Neon.

  3. Andrew says:

    Actually, buying a magazine once a month is much more expensive than maintaining a yearly subscription.

    A single issue of the New Yorker is $5.99. Bought once a month, that’s $71.88. My yearly subscription is $39.99.

    A single issue of Entertainment Weekly is $3.99, or $47.88 if bought once a month. My annual subscription is $15.

    I have subscriptions to 12 magazines, and in every single case the cost of buying once a month exceeds the cost of a yearly subscription. Plus, you can almost always lower the cost by calling the subscription department and politely asking them to match their lowest teaser introductory rate. This works quite well, and consistently,

    It’s this kind of sloppiness that has been making this blog less and less worthwhile. Trent as a fixed set of assumptions, and if reality suggests something different, well, that’s just too bad.

  4. Tracy says:

    If you’re only playing the computer games 1-2 hours a month, is it even worth doing the GameStop thing? The trade-in versus cost of even a used game is still a lot of money.

    Why not just pick up a couple of older games off of Steam for a few dollars and actually play them all the way through? At that rate of play, you’d be good for a year for probably under 15 bucks.

  5. Nate says:


    Trent meant that rather than purchasing all 12 magazines individually every month, you should only buy the couple that have articles that truly interest you that month. If you always get enjoyment out of all 12 magazines and have time to read them all, then the subscription is the way to go, as Trent says.

  6. Other Jonathan says:

    I find magazines generally useless. I usually have one subscription that I buy to support my cousin’s school fundraiser; I pick a new one each year, and after flipping through the first couple of issues I generally lose interest. Then I start feeling guilty about getting it and not reading it, which is an annoying feeling.

    We’ve signed up for 1-month free trials of netflix and blockbuster in the past and it ends up dominating the month – we watch a movie practically every day, and it takes up all of our evenings. So to sign up for a real subscription would either a) take up all of our evenings, or b) lead to the same sort of disuse/guilt that I feel about magazines.

  7. Gretchen says:

    Wait. Your “meltdown” was only in 2006?

  8. valleycat1 says:

    #7 Gretchen – yes. Trent talks in his books & opening blog posts about how seeing his baby boy (their oldest, who started school this year) made him realize he needed to get his act together. And how they started looking for a house when their daughter was on the way.

    It makes sense to me to get rid of any routine expense when that item is no longer adding to your life in some way. It surprises me that it takes Trent so long for that to surface into his awareness, though.

  9. tentaculistic says:

    #2 kc “This is all well and good, but I could really go for a little more yellow Neon.”

    Bwahaha – I totally read this Christopher Walken style. “Need more cowbell!!!”

    And now I have Don’t Fear the Reaper in my head. Which is actually a good thing.

  10. Lilly says:

    This is one of the better posts I’ve seen here lately! I totally agree with canceling subscriptions that are not “worth it” for you – whether that means money, time, or whatever.

  11. Marinda says:

    I subscribe to two magazines and I give those same two for presents at Christmas. Both cost me 14 dollars each, so for 28 dollars we get 24 issues. She loves the gift, as on a fixed income, she gets two gifts monthly. I get to email her about articles and we get to discuss the recipes in both.

    Ir’s a win/win and works out well. As far as Netflix, we are about to go all streaming, too. DVD’s hang around for too long.

  12. valleycat1 says:

    We don’t subscribe to magazines, don’t even own a DVR. Basic cable suffices for the amount of time we devote to watching programs/movies. I do buy the occasional magazine but that habit is dying pretty quickly as I’m not finding anything much new there that I couldn’t otherwise find for free online if so inclined.

    And I still don’t understand all the continued discussion about the least expensive way to access video content if people aren’t willing to admit they watch it?

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