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Are Trendy Subscription Boxes Cost-Effective?

Some people say they’re full of junk. Others say they’re worth every penny. So who’s right when it comes to subscription boxes?

These grownup goodie bags arrived on the scene in 2010 with beauty box startup Birchbox. The small company had a big idea: Send customers an assortment of skincare, makeup and perfume samples for $10 per month. But don’t tell them what’s coming—let it be a surprise.

The excitement caught on quickly. Today, Birchbox "curates" 100,000 orders every month and earns an estimated $170 million annually, according to Fast Company. So if you’re thinking of joining this seriously successful trend, here are some important questions to consider before signing up.

How Much Will You Buy?

From gourmet meals (Blue Apron) to just-for-you clothing (Trunk Club, Stitch Fix) to exclusive pet care products (BarkBox), specialty boxes have emerged from every corner of the retail industry.

And the prices are all over the place. Dollar Shave Club, which sells razors, starts at about $3, while high-end clothing boxes can run well into the hundreds of dollars.

But the advertised expenses aren’t necessarily all you pay. That’s because customers usually have the option to spend more. Birchbox, for example, sends out a variety of product samples then allows customers to purchase the full-size versions from their online store.

Do this a few times—with several subscription companies—and you could be spending way more than you bargained for. So be smart and selective when it comes to how much you’re actually buying.

What Will It Cost You?

Before clicking that "Order Now" button, determine the total cost of your box with these additional questions:

  • Is shipping included? If not, how much will it add to your overall cost?
  • How many "extras" can you afford each month? (Go ahead and assume you will be purchasing some—whether you upgrade to a nicer razor or splurge on a full-size bottle of perfume.)
  • Does the site allow you to preview the box before you buy it? Can you opt out or swap products if you don’t like them?
  • If money’s a little tight, can you choose an every-other-month or quarterly option?
  • What about unwanted items? Can you return them for a refund? If so, what kind of time frame do you have?

Where Does It Fit in Your Budget?

Once you know the actual cost of the boxes you want, figure out where they fit in your overall budget. If it’s a snack box, beef up your monthly grocery fund. If it’s beauty products, use your household or fun money. And if it’s wearables, that’s obviously your clothing stash.

As long as the cost works within your zero-based budget and you’re pleased with the quality and variety of items, it’s perfectly okay to splurge on a grown-up box of treats.

But if you rarely use the products, or you’re spending way more than you expected, don’t hesitate to cancel—no matter what. Only you can decide if this trend is worth your money.

Ready to try a new subscription box but not sure where it fits in your budget? Or already subscribed and wondering if you’re getting your money’s worth? Determine where these special deliveries fit in your budget by checking out EveryDollar, the online budget tool from Dave Ramsey.

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Ramsey Solutions

About the author


Ramsey Solutions has been committed to helping people regain control of their money, build wealth, grow their leadership skills, and enhance their lives through personal development since 1992. Millions of people have used our financial advice through 22 books (including 12 national bestsellers) published by Ramsey Press, as well as two syndicated radio shows and 10 podcasts, which have over 17 million weekly listeners. Learn More.

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