The Subscription Box Craze and the Mindlessness of Wasteful Spending

It’s time for another edition of Piggy Complains About Wasteful Spending! In this episode, I’m going to cover a recent phenomenon so antithetical to both minimalism and frugal spending that it has literally left me apoplectic with indignation. I am speaking, of course, of the monthly subscription box.

As best I can tell, the subscription box trend started with Birch Box, a monthly package of beauty product samples to which you can subscribe. Here’s how the model works: you pay a monthly subscription and in exchange you’re sent a monthly box of stuff. You do not get to choose the stuff. You are not told what the stuff will be. And usually you don’t get to exchange the stuff for stuff you would prefer.

Most of the companies providing this service have a theme: there’s the dog theme, the nerd theme, the clothing theme, the healthy snack theme, the makeup theme, I shit you not the Ron Swanson theme, the I-need-help-meal-planning theme, the affluent vegan theme, the agoraphobic bookworm theme, and the I-find-the-wine-selection-at-my-local-liquor-store-intimidating theme, just to name a few.

The point, I guess, is that everyone loves surprises (except me, I fucking hate them). Getting a surprise box in the mail is exciting! I wonder what it could be! Every month a new and intriguing mystery to solve! Here, just have my money in exchange for this regularly scheduled feeling of delight and curiosity!

But is that feeling… worth the money? And is the contents of your subscription box even all that necessary or enriching to your life? I’m here to systematically answer these questions and shit all over your fun!

A subscription box is a waste of money

Listen, I get it. I play video games. I know how goddamn exciting it is to pick the lock on a safe in Fallout 4 to find like six Nuka-Cola bottles, a skill book, and four boxes of ammunition. Hell, I find that shit exciting even when the only thing in the safe is a bottle cap and a rusty lawnmower blade. If there ain’t loot to collect, I don’t want to move my thumbs through forty hours of gameplay!

But we don’t live in a post-nuclear wasteland where survival is dependent on lucky scavenging finds. Therefore, we can afford to plan our purchases with deliberation and an eye toward our loftier financial goals.

My brother subscribes to a subscription box called Loot Crate. It’s the unrepentantly nerdy fanboy version of the monthly subscription box. It costs him about $12 a month, or $144 for the whole damn year.

The problem is—no, one of the problems is—that my brother is perpetually broke and underemployed. He does not have the money to rent his own apartment, let alone disposable income. So he’s paying for this subscription box instead of saving up for a place of his own. Or contributing to a retirement account. Or making any move toward financial independence at all.

And while Loot Crate is but one of what I perceive to be his many money-wasting activities, it sticks out to me as one of the most absurd. Because it’s not like he’s spending $12 a month on a game he really, really likes and wants! He’s spending $12 a month on random shit that he did not personally choose and may not even like. He’s spending $144 a year on uncertainty!

Case in point, he gives some of his Loot Crate loot to me when it doesn’t fit his particular nerdy milieu. And while I dig those Game of Thrones magnets and will definitely use them to affix wedding invitations to my fridge because I can’t resist the grisly irony, they are not something I would have chosen for myself. I don’t particularly need or want them in my life. I would never have paid money for them, and I’m going to eventually throw them away.

Every time I look at these things I’m reminded of how broke my brother is. I think of how his financial situation could be a little bit better if he wasn’t literally casting his money out into the ether in this weird ritual to summon a surprise box of shit he may not even want or like every damn month.

Subscription boxes are the fucking opposite of minimalism

Not to be outdone in wasteful spending, my aunt subscribes to Bark Box. It’s the Monthly Box ‘O Shit, Spoiled Dog Edition. Now don’t get me wrong! Spoiling my dog is like my third most important fiscal priority… right after paying the mortgage so my dog has a place to live and maintaining my car so my dog has a vehicle from which to stick his head whilst traveling at high speeds)

But dogs are relatively simple creatures. They need food, a few toys to tear to shreds, and the attention of their humans.

My aunt with the Bark Box subscription tried to get me to sign up so my house beast would have loads of toys to play with and new treats to fatten him up, just like her little floofers. The floofers in question are frighteningly obese Yorkshire terriers with perpetual diarrhea who don’t get enough exercise and as a result barely have the energy to play.

The contents of her monthly Bark Boxes just kinda… pile up around her house. Along with the stuff from her other subscription boxes, including rapidly expiring Blue Apron meals.

I can only assume that given enough time, the toys and bones and stuff will eventually bury her porky little pups. So I just told her that my dog would be way more thrilled to play with the actual box than its contents. And empty cardboard boxes are pretty easy to come by. All I have to do is ask my friends for the boxes their subscriptions came in.

Having too much stuff literally stresses me out. I don’t enjoy finding a place for useless items in my home. I don’t like looking at an unnecessary thing and regretting the space it takes up or the money wasted on its purchase. And I definitely I hate the thought of unwanted stuff eventually ending up in a landfill. In effect, that’s literally throwing money away.

My dog is one of the bright, shining beacons in my life. I therefore allow him to take up as much space as he wants. But I don’t need to fill my house with random, unchosen toys—for him or for me—that are barely going to get used when an open car window and an empty cardboard box will fill us both with much more joy.

Spending money should be intentional

As we Bitches have said before, there’s nothing wrong with spending money on a simple pleasure once in awhile to get you through the monotony of life. My issue with the wastefulness of subscription boxes is that it’s so fucking mindless. It’s the ultimate way to burn your money without thinking about it.

And it’s not just one-time wasteful spending. It’s repeat wasteful spending you set and forget. Nor is it just clutter you carelessly buy once. It’s an invitation for clutter to enter your life on a monthly basis. It’s not just a convenience charge. It is trained laziness, a habitual inability to spend a little bit of effort picking out the things that you need and want before purchasing them.

Yes, I am still the same person who wrote about how shaming poor people for their latte purchases is fucking evil. But spending money should be intentional. Subscribing to a monthly subscription box of random surprise shit is basically treating your financial goals like a dartboard and your money like the darts… while you’re wearing a blindfold and drunk off your ass.

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48 thoughts to “The Subscription Box Craze and the Mindlessness of Wasteful Spending”

  1. This was just the post I didn’t know I needed.

    I haven’t been in the financial position to subscribe to any but ohhh I have wanted to! And for what? Tiny samples of makeup I won’t use or will use once and never use again (I hardly wear makeup?)… guilty of wanting the Loot Crate but I know it will just be junk from movies or shows I don’t even like… I could go on but you said it all above so I’ll just go read the post again when I feel the twinge to subscribe to a box!!!

  2. I haven’t signed up for any subscription boxes myself but I have given them as gifts. If somebody bought me a subscription, then sure why not. I didn’t pay for it. Lol. I wouldn’t go out and sign up for one on my own, however, the snack box is probably the only one I would consider signing up for it just because it’s food rather than stuff. I don’t know about you, but the idea of getting a food surprise in the mail sounds fun. Especially if you’re hungry and happen to be low on groceries. 😛

  3. I admit being lured by those useless boxes…until I see the price then I think “nah man.” I think the only acceptable reason to buy them is if you’re buying them as a gift for someone. Though, I’m not sure what occasion “box of rando useless junk” is best for.

    1. I agree that a one-time gift box is a nice surprise. I’d be tickled pink if I received a box of snacks or books or lotions in the mail from a friend. But the repeated monthly boxes that you buy for yourself? That’s where I’ve got a problem.

      1. Honestly, I just get them whenever my Tea Company of Choice teams up with a random French Company and gives me free codes (which is rare, but it happens)… The latest one was a Jewelry Subscription box, and the code was for a free box.

        Best case scenario, I love the piece and that’s one less I have to buy for the Jewelry collection I’m trying to build… Worst case scenario? I hate it and that’s one less Christmas present I have to buy for my MIL (who loves practically everything on the planet when it comes to jewelry)… Either way, I’m not out any money.

  4. I kind of enjoy Blue Apron. We pick maybe six meals a month and it is fun preparing them as a couple. Sure it is a luxury but we can easily afford it. I’m already financially independent and retired early and wealthy from corporate life and making 100% of our living expenses piddling on side gigs two days a week. I could also afford a Porsche but Blue Apron is pretty cheap and a Porsche isn’t. But for people still working to get where we are that’s great advice. You nailed everything wrong with the concept.

    1. Oh my god, thank you. I completely agree, especially with the idea of “mindful spending”. What you buy with your money isnt necessarily is important as the consideration behind it.

  5. This post is ON POINT. I’m the last person to harp about splurging on things, but I agree that all spending should be intentional, splurges or not. Subscription boxes are just filled with cast-offs that most people don’t want, disguised as a little surprise at your doorstep. Deceptively evil. The worst are the clothing ones–my office is rampant with boxes from Stitch Fix, Trunk Club, etc. Clothes are so specific to the person, I don’t see how anyone thinks having someone else pick out clothes for them is a good idea. Go buy your own damn clothes!

    1. Thank you so much!!! I share your frustration. The last thing I need is more stuff that someone ELSE picked out. That’s what Christmas is for.

  6. I only have one of these subscriptions (Ipsy), and I just cancelled it. What the hell was I thinking? Thank you for making me see the damn light.

  7. I do think there is a small value you’re overlooking: I *love* mail. Even if I know what it is. There’s even a book-a-month service that you can subscribe to that let’s you pick which book you receive, or skip that month indefinitely. And penpals are fun, but I mostly just get free catalogues from places I shop at to get something to excitingly flip through. There are also some food subscription services, or toiletries that you’d be buying anyway, that are super targeted. So I don’t think they’re all bad! 14 bucks a month is still cheaper than a lot of movie theaters, DVDs, and even recently released ebooks so it really depends on what motivates you.

    I do think that you pointed out some major flaws of the industry that need to change- inflated products cost because of another person it has to go through, not needing items, clutter, stuff you don’t even like. But if it’s something you know you’ll automatically like regardless of what it is (there are chocolate boxes, so enough said there) it could be just as good of a moral investment as lattes. Regardless, an important article for people who don’t actually want them, and needed to hear this to save their money for something better!

  8. I come back to this post every time I get angry about companies advantage of people’s interest in Continuous Stuff For a Small Fee

    Like your bark box aunt, I often get offers from friends to “please take this free $20 value box of pineapple candy so I can get a discount on mine” I don’t have the heart to tell them I think they’re being scammed, so I read this instead LOL.

    A few days ago we tried to pick up a PS4 multiplayer game to enjoy with a friend who doesn’t have the PC version, only to find out you need a “ps plus subscription” ($12 a month!!!!) In order to play the multiplayer… On a game that is BUILT to be multiplayer… That you already pay $50 to own!!! (There is none of this paywall on PC version, you can play as soon as you buy)
    Naturally I refused such blatant extortion & complained on social media, but was blocked by tons of friends assuring me that it sucks, but in the end it’s “worth it” because of “all the discounts and free games you get for that each month”

    …I don’t want fifty games a year. I wanted one game we already had to buy twice to play with a friend & am being asked tens of dollars in annual subscriptions to be able to play. GOD.

    anyway, you bitches understand me.

  9. The only subscription box I have ever considered signing up for was the Muse Monthly Subscription. It came with exactly two items: One type of Tea, and a Book- both of which were picked to be paired with one another.

    Tea and Books are two things I regularly purchase. Tea and Books are two things I’m ok with being surprised with. Tea and Books are two things which absolutely never go to waste in my house. And Tea and Books are two things that I can easily give away / donate if I don’t like them, or I’m done with them (Books to my woefully underfunded local Library, Tea to friends).

    Unfortunately Muse Monthly shut its doors before I ever had the chance to sign up. Which, honestly, is probably for the best.

    1. That’s too bad! I might have actually tried that one…
      Though now that I think about it, if someone started a tea-and-book pairing blog where you could get a description of each before you order them, I’d be way more down for that. Anyone want to start that blog? Anyone?

  10. YES!
    I’ve never understood why people sign up for these. There might be one thing a month you like and the rest of the stuff is either thrown out or given away to the people at work. Waste of time and money.
    By the way, I’m SO with you on the whole dog thing. I only bought my house when I did because I knew no landlord would rent to me with all the animals. My house is a glorified kennel…

    1. It’s my dog’s house. I just live in it. 😉
      Last time I was home my brother offered me a whole box of stuff from his Loot Crate he didn’t want. Made me want to scream.

  11. I admit it, I’ve been a member of the “Ron Swanson club” (Bespoke Post) for about the past 5 years. That one is nice since they take the mystery out of the purchases as well as remove the requirement to even buy it in the first place. They pick a box they think you might like based on your profile and you have until the 7th of every month to login to their website to change the box to another one, cancel that month’s order all together, or do nothing and have the order complete all on it’s own. My last delivery I allowed to go through was Oct 2017 and not one has made mindlessly. All that said, I really enjoyed and very much agree with you on the mindless spending on things you don’t even know that you want.

  12. Most subscription boxes are idiotic (Do people actually pay $300 a year for a monthly delivery of snacks?) but it seems like it needs pointing out that there are exceptions, and that not everyone who uses them is mindlessly throwing money out the window.

    I have severe chemical sensitivities and can’t use 99% of the beauty products available in American drugstores. I also work full time and go to school part time, so my time is not cheap and I don’t have a huge budget for stuff to smear on my face. I subscribe to Goodbeing. For $25 (less than the cost of one tiny pot of chemical free moisturizer at whole foods) I get an entire box of stuff that is guaranteed chemical free, based on a detailed user survey. I very rarely get things I don’t want, and when I do, it’s not a big deal because I still got 4 other products for less than the cost of one–and the hours I saved by not having to research ingredient lists online. There are also delivery options for every other month and quarterly so subscribing doesn’t need to mean burying yourself under more stuff than you can reasonably use.

    As much fun as it is to make blanket statements broadly trashing a category of products, all it does is show that you didn’t do your research.

    1. Wow, clearly the subscription boxes you use have allowed you access to the specialized beauty products you need without disrupting your busy schedule! Sounds like you’ve really weighed the cost/benefit analysis and made the right decision for your health and your finances. Not everyone does that when it comes to subscription boxes. This article is for them, not for you. 🙂

      1. I also have really sensitive skin, but haven’t been able to identify what the ingredients are that cause reactions (and sometimes something is fine one day and TOTALLY NOT FINE the next). I had a few of the beauty boxes for a year or two as a way to regularly try new stuff without paying the full cost of stuff I maybe couldn’t use. I found a few products that I really loved and regularly use that would have been too expensive to try otherwise, was able to avoid a few things that I might have purchased, and gave things I couldn’t use/didn’t like to friends who weren’t as financially sound as I was. I quit them when money got tighter, and I haven’t re-upped because I tend to be better about timing my stock up of beauty products from Ulta with their 20% off coupon and rando bags of 20 samples than I used to be (plus, I have more money now, so I can *afford* to stock up on those things when I have the discount code and can buy enough to make it last until next time the code comes around, because as you well know, being poor is expensive).

  13. I refuse to be shamed for my bark box love. I also am not living paycheck to paycheck, so I appreciate the difference.

    We pay the ~$150 up front for the year, around Black Friday when they have their specials for signing up. When the bark box comes, my now-4-year-old puppy KNOWS that toys are going to jump out of the box. I give her one new toy a week ish that she tears apart. Her excitement, my excitement, all of the excitement. Bark box days are some of the most fun days of the month in our house. We asked for a box with an extra toy instead of the treats, because she’s held to a strict diet of fancy pet food, and they started offering that a couple years ago. We throw out toy carcasses somewhat regularly. #spoiled

      But your dog sounds fucking adorable and I would love to see her rip through her extra toys with pure, joyful abandon.

  14. Thanks for writing this. I’ve been tempted because the food, makeup, and art supply ones seem so fun and some of my friends subscribe to it. Next time I want one I’ll just re read this article

    1. You’re so very welcome! Glad I could help you save a little. When you want makeup and art supplies, go treat yourself to a one-time shopping trip and choose items yourself. It’ll be equally, if not more, rewarding.

  15. Okay, I’m guilty of the subject of this post. HOWEVER! I will say that my subscription box has helped me with impulsive, compulsive, all the -pulsive spendings and I will tell you why.

    Retail therapy is BIG for me. I hate it. I hate that I get an ooohhh feeling about buying random things just to treat myself that don’t matter in the long run, but I do. And doing no-buys isn’t an option for me in the long run. I’ve tried, I get depressed.

    So with my makeup box that’s $12/month (and I don’t even get it every month – like with my Hulu and Spotify, I will cancel and sign up and rinse and repeat as needed, altho it’s a bit of a pain), it satisfies the craving to feast on the “ooohhh ” feeling, and I spend a lot less than if I’d just gone to even the drugstore to buy makeup.

    It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s helped me a lot.

    I agree with everything else, though. Sub boxes for the most part are sucky and wasteful.

  16. I was SUPER into subscription boxes when they first surfaced their evil heads. Because, mail, you know? But after getting a couple disappointing boxes and being like “I spent $30 on this??” I started to doubt. Then I subscribed to BarkBox. It was so fun how excited my dogs were! …….until my cairn terrier immediately disemboweled his toy and started to eat the stuffing. I am NOT paying for a subscription box just to then pay for a vet trip because my dog has a bowel blockage from a toy not designed for his breed or class. That was the end of my fling with subscription boxes.

  17. It’s probably bad, that while I agreed with everything you said and haven’t really been tempted by any boxes previously. and then I clicked the link to the Ron Swanson box on your article and am now window shopping unnecessary items in leather and wood. oops 🙂

    1. Bahahahahah! Yeah, it’s tempting! If it makes you feel better, I considered getting the Ron Swanson box for my husband’s birthday this year. Pobody’s nerfect.

  18. Piggy, you are once again so eloquently describing the very same thoughts that bumble through my head in a disorganized mess, but packaged into something coherent.

    I agree with you on every point! And I laughed to myself about the ridiculous, over-the-top boxes that were up for sale… right up until I found one that was perfect for me.

    Hear me out, I promise that I didn’t waste my money willy-nilly:

    I am a certified Skincare Ho. You name it, I’ve probably tried it and written a scathing review. It’s my “simple pleasure” indulgence, and normally I’m quite frugal about what products I buy and how often I really need/enjoy them. For months I’d wanted to add a weekly “sheet mask” to my routine, but as anybody else who’s dipped their toe into the cesspool of online beauty/wellness products, the sheer variety of products, brands, ingredients, and god knows what else is TERRIFYING.

    I had no idea how to navigate it. So I found a monthly subscription box that sent me exactly 4 sheet masks every month (once per week!), each one with different ingredients and from a different seller. This way, I got to spend 6 months sampling a different high-quality sheet mask every single week, got a screamin’ good deal on all of them (waaaay less than the retail price since they were bundled!), never had to search them out myself, and only had to sample one of each!

    After 6 months, I’d found a whole bunch of different masks that I wanted to buy more of and I’d had a ton of fun sampling the rest. So I could cancel my subscription box and just buy exactly what I wanted afterwards!

    TL;DR: Piggy is right, but sometimes a specific subscription box can hep you SAMPLE something that you’re unfamiliar with. I’ve heard of other people doing the same things with different types of coffee/tea.

    1. I WILL ALLOW IT… but only because you are a wise and beautiful baby bitch who clearly made the subscription box system work to your advantage!

  19. Maybe it exists already, but I’d be a lot more interested in boxes based around introducing consumers to smaller/independent sellers. Like, hey, we see you like Cheez-Its and bacon, perhaps you might like this BGR “F*ck the Patriarchy” tea; it’s got hints of gunpowder to invoke the scent of your torched enemies!” and you can try samples from different tea vendors all in one space and not spend a kajillion dollars on packaging. That’s also probably a hell of a lot more work than any company would put into such a thing, but I always love finding new yarn dyers/nail polish creators/sources of tea that I’d not know of otherwise.

  20. I signed up for a beauty box out of my head return (prepaid for a year) and I love it. I really like trying different skin care stuff, especially the fancy stuff, and $20 a month for a beauty box stops me from buying random things full price at Sephora. (Sephora samples are nice, but I wanna try things for at least a week to see how they work for me.) And the contents of the box are consistently things that would have cost me $150 or more to purchase for myself in the same sizes. It lets me feel fancy for much less money. I *did* cancel my $SustainableItemsBox membership, cos I just wasn’t into what they were sending.

  21. This post is brilliant! (As usual) you have the best points. Useless boxes and products are a scam.
    I am planning of starting my own company selling subscription boxes next year (gotta save up to get started). The plan is for it to be truly useful. Something to learn from and build skills and enrich lives. Thank you for pointing out where to think extra hard about the end product and the options that I should consider to make it as useful as possible for the end users, and worth the money!

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