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Cheese. Cosmetics. Cat Treats. Are those monthly subscription boxes actually saving you money?

July 12, 2018 at 8:55 AM

Blue Apron is one popular subscription service. (Dan Acker/Bloomberg)

It’s meant to make your life easier.

Love fruit?

No problem, you can sign up for a monthly subscription box and you get your healthy fruit fix without having to leave home.

Are you a gourmet cheese enthusiast? There’s a cheese of the month box for you, too.

Meal boxes are now trendy. There’s even a subscription service for school lunches.

Read more: Food delivery services aim to take school lunch pressure off parents

There are monthly boxes for pets. There’s BarkBox for dogs. Your pooch gets a regular supply of toys and treats. Not a dog person? There’s KitNipBox for cats.

Read more: Bark’s dog-treat delivery business tries to avoid the typical subscription-model problems

My husband signed us up for a subscription to Hungry Harvest. Every Friday for $25 a week we get what the service calls “rescue produce” from local farmers delivered right to our front door. And we love it. The produce may look ugly, discolored or be smaller than usual, but it’s delicious and fresh. It’s saved from being thrown out just because it didn’t look pretty enough for the grocery store. And, there’s a plus to this membership. The company also donates food.

This idea for a produce subscription box from Hungry Harvest CEO Evan Lutz won him a deal with Robert Herjavec on “Shark Tank.”

Watch this TEDx Talks video of Lutz talking about his mission: How ugly produce can help solve hunger

If were thinking about canceling the subscription service, I can’t after watching the video.

Read more: I Tested 4 Food Subscriptions, and These Were the Best

“Unfortunately, I soon learned the fantasy of food subscription boxes didn’t fit into my reality: Choices were limited, flexibility was lacking and there were few accommodations for allergies,” Marisa Torrieri wrote for LearnVest. “Fast-forward to now, and the market for food subscription boxes is booming.”

But here’s the thing, think carefully about both the affordability and use you’re get out of a monthly subscription before joining.

I can’t see your hand, but raise it nonetheless if you’ve had a subscription to anything that you ended up not using?

My hand is up.

The cheese keeps coming but you haven’t consumed the contents of the last box. You can’t wear the cosmetics soon enough. Sure, the pet toys and treats are cute, but without the subscription would you really buy all that stuff for your dog or cat? Even with the carefully portioned out ingredients for a full meal and step-by-step preparation guide, you still don’t have the time to cook. So the items from this steady delivery pile up and get tossed out.

Before signing up for a monthly box subscription do the following:
Check your budget. Make sure the service is affordable.
Check the savings. Are you trading convenience for higher prices? Or, even if the price is good, you aren’t going to really use everything in the box.
Check the cancellation policy. Do you have to sign up for a year with no possibility of canceling if you decide you don’t like or can’t use the items? With Hungry Harvest, we can cancel at any time. And they make it very easy to suspend service temporarily when we’re on vacation. It’s an easy online process that took just a few minutes. I could cancel and then designate the restart date.
Check that you fully understand the subscription’s automatic billing policy. I like to receive notice before getting charged even when I’ve setup automatic bill pay. That way, you can reassess before signing up for continued service if you’re still satisfied with the subscription.

LearnVest offered some pros and cons of monthly subscriptions.

Pro
— Bought individually, the items in the box might cost more.

Con
— You might be buying more than you would otherwise use. “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,” according to LearnVest.

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

The appeal of monthly subscription boxes is often convenience. Just make sure the service is truly saving you time and money.

Color of Money question of the week
Do you have a monthly subscription box? And if so, how’s it working out for you in terms of convenience and cost? Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Monthly Subscription Boxes.”

Live chat canceled today
I won’t have a chat today, but please join me next week at noon (ET).

If you missed last week’s chat read the archive here, or catch up on this one Talking with Social Security expert Andy Landis.

Got a student loan? If so, lawsuits against loan servicer Navient could affect you.

Navient Corp, the country’s largest student loan servicer, is facing several lawsuits accusing among other things that it steers borrowers to payment options that cost them more money.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra recently filed a lawsuit against Navient and two of its subsidiaries, Pioneer and General Revenue Corp. alleging misconduct that also included misrepresenting the order in which the company would apply extra loan payments and failing to properly discharge the federal student debt for borrowers with a total and permanent disability.

At issue is a practice to encourage “borrowers to postpone payments through forbearance, an option in which interest continues to accrue, rather than enroll in an income-driven repayment plan that would avoid fees,” reported The Washington Post’s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel.

Navient denies any wrongdoing.

Last week I asked: Have you experience issues with paying your student loan?

Lots of readers wrote that they weren’t aware of their options.

Sheila Still of North Richland Hills, Tex., wrote that her loan servicer didn’t make it clear about her payments. I had “a loan payment that was interest only. I paid that for three years before I found out that all those payments did absolutely nothing to reduce the loan amount.”

“I currently pay over $600 a month in school loans,” wrote Belynda Retana Shine of Dallas. “It’s ridiculous when I have two kids in day care, car note and mortgage. I only make $50,000 a year and they claim that’s what I have to pay per my income.”

Just a note to readers. If your student loan payment is not affordable, contact the lender to revisit all your payment options.

Read: A guide to paying off your student loans

Patricia Brzezinski of Dayton, Ohio, wrote, “I have been paying on a student loan with Navient for my daughter for 20 years. The original loan was only for around $7,000. My balance is now 12,446.34. I am now 67 years old and am going to retire on a fixed income next year. When that time comes, I can’t continue to pay this as I will be on Social Security only.”

Rebekah Brassfield of Missoula, Mont., wrote, “I graduated in 2013 with roughly $23,000 in debt. I began a temporary job with the Forest Service shortly after. When that job ended, I knew that I would need to start paying on my student loans even though I was technically unemployed. I began looking at all my options. When I called Navient to get more information on their repayment plans, I was strongly encouraged to move into forbearance. I was told that until I get on my feet, this would be the best option for me. I found it unnerving how much I was pushed to switch payment plans. I continued with the income based repayment plan, and I’m paying the bare minimum per month because I can’t afford to do more.”

Roseanne Cassidy of Willow Grove, Penn.,  has a situation much like many people who reached out to me. She has a loan that just keeps growing.

“I am stuck with a $90,390 due to forbearance, which was offered to me instead of an income based repayment program, which I am now on after the forbearance rose my interest,” she wrote. “One last note. I didn’t go to Med school.”

Color of Money columns this week
Knowledge isn’t power. The right knowledge is power.

Stay informed about your money.

In addition to this newsletter, please read and share my weekly personal finance columns.

What do your parents owe you when they die?

How much money do you really need to feel rich?

Newsletter Comments Policy
Please note it is my personal policy to identify readers who respond to questions I ask in my newsletters. I find it encourages thoughtful and civil conversation. I want my newsletters to be a safe place to express your opinion. On sensitive matters or upon request, I’m happy to include just your first name and/or last initial. But I prefer not to post anonymous comments (I do make exceptions when I’m asking questions that might reveal sensitive information or cause conflict.)

Have a question about your finances? Michelle Singletary has a weekly live chat every Thursday at noon where she discusses financial dilemmas with readers. You can also write to Michelle directly by sending an email to michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read more Color of Money columns, go here.

Follow Michelle Singletary on Twitter @SingletaryM and Facebook


Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column The Color of Money. Her award-winning column is syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group and is carried in dozens of newspapers nationwide.

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