Know the Good and Bad of Subscription Boxes Before Signing Up

This illustration shows a truck carrying a box into a mailbox. Stickers displaying thumbs up for good and a red and white x for bad are on the box.
Getty Images and Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

The appeal of a subscription box is obvious: A little gift delivered to your door each month. Better yet, the specifics of the contents are a surprise. Sort of like a birthday present.

But like any commercial gimmick, monthly subscription boxes have their pros and their cons. Beauty boxes like Birchbox want to keep you invested, so the monthly plans lessen in price from $15 to $13 depending on how long you sign up for.

That’s nice, but sometimes the introductory price has nowhere to go but up.

We want to take the temptation out of signing on to the wrong subscription box by empowering you with the right questions to ask yourself.

Some subscription boxes are worth the financial obligations, and everything is a self-calculation. But with these green and red flags in mind, you’ll know what to look for the next time a subscription box ad comes knocking in your inbox and the next time you click yes.

5 Green Flags About Subscription Boxes

These are the green flags to look for when evaluating whether to sign up for a monthly subscription box. Reviews are easy to come by online and company sites should have specifics about their products. Know your own needs and finances to make a smart decision.

  • Good reviews
  • Full-size products
  • Good value for you
  • Customizable
  • Unique offerings

1. The Reviews Are Good

When it comes to buying anything online, it’s smart to read the reviews. We know, we know, there’s always that one disgruntled customer who brings the whole thing down. But seeing how real customers interact with the product and the subscription service team is a helpful way to know what they’ll do if you have a problem.

The simplest way to get reviews of a subscription box service before you sign up is to search online. Type in the name of the subscription you’re interested in and you will usually find an independent customer who has reviewed it.

Reviewed offers detailed explainers with full products listed. They also give you a sense of what benefits come with the monthly box. For example, subscription boxes like FabFitFun allow you to access a shop of discounted products. It’s worth remembering that the subscription price might get you more than just the items in your month’s box.

2. The Products Are Full-size

This is a big dilemma when it comes to the subscription box model. Companies might say you are getting five or six items every month but you need to know if they are sample sizes or full-size. The small sample size product is common in subscription boxes for makeup and other beauty products. You may be okay with the sample sizes, but you should know that in advance.

A good way to sort through which monthly boxes get you the most bang per box is by checking out sites like Hello Subscription. This round-up of beauty boxes with full-size products even spells it out. Some popular beauty boxes like  Ipsy Glam Bag Plus and Boxwalla Beauty might include a full-size eye-shadow palette or a body serum in your monthly package.

3. The Value Is Good for You

Know what you are spending money on before you buy a subscription online. Is the subscription box filling a need for you or is it just for fun? This example of money spent on razors can be considered for other products such as pet supplies, baked goods, makeup or other niche offerings.

Rachel Cruze makes a good point: If you’re satisfied with spending $3 a month for a box of 10 razors, then there’s probably no need to belong to the Dollar Shave Club. Shaving subscription boxes for both men and women occupy a popular segment in the market, but are they really worth the fuss?

The question doesn’t come down to the product — it comes down to the value for you, the consumer. If you spend more than $8 a month on razors, Cruze says, then a subscription box like Athena Club, at $9 a month, or Harry’s, which can range in price depending on frequency, might make sense for you.

4. The Contents Are Customizable

A real green flag to look for when it comes to subscription box businesses is the word “customizable.”

It’s important to know what this really means — it’s not that you can choose anything that goes in a particular box, but that you might be able to tailor your items to your needs. Clothing subscription boxes like Stitch Fix, for example, have users take a detailed style quiz so their personal style and preferences are cataloged.

5. The Products Are Unique

When it comes to subscription services, there’s another key phrase to keep in mind: unique. Many subscription boxes offer items you can easily get elsewhere, like baby food or razors. What you’re paying for is convenience. But for those who want curated boxes, you’re paying for an experience and a highly trained eye.

If this is what you’re looking for from a subscription box service, then specialty subscription services like Loot Crate, which sends you pop culture surprises, or Toy Box Monthly, a monthly gift box for your little one, might be the best option for you.

A fab fit fun box is pictured inside a door frame.
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

4 Red Flags About Subscription Boxes

These are the red flags to look for when evaluating whether to sign up for a monthly subscription box. Think twice about subscriptions that are difficult to cancel or make it hard to exchange products. Escalating monthly charges are another red flag. Read the fine print.

  • Difficult to cancel
  • Difficult to exchange products
  • Escalating rates
  • Bad fit for you

1. The Cancellation Process Is a Hassle

Let’s say you start with a three-month subscription. Your new box — the first box  — arrives and you like it, but you don’t love it. Now you have to start the complicated process of trying to figure out how to cancel. If that process feels insurmountable, that’s a red flag.

The best way to figure this out is, again, through reading reviews. But if you don’t want to sift through essays for each individual box, we recommend going straight to the source itself, the company’s website.

Here’s what you want to see (maybe not in these exact words, but this exact sentiment): you can cancel at any time and there’s a clear process. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) pages, like this one for men’s fashion box Menlo House, should clearly explain how and when customers can cancel their boxes.

2. The Products Are Difficult to Exchange

Clothing subscription boxes are among the hardest to negotiate exchanges with. Often, they will work by sending you a number of items and allowing you to return the ones you don’t like. This is helpful, because instead of having to keep 10 items and only liking half of them, you can simply pay for what you want and get the money back for what you don’t.

Subscription services like Dia & Co. and Italic Bold offer free returns. Make sure you check the subscription box’s return policy before signing on.

3. The Rates Start Small But Escalate

Most subscription boxes offer incredible deals on pricing at the start. Introductory deals might get you in the door. Take $110 off Blue Apron — who hasn’t gotten that advertisement and wondered if they should take advantage? That sounds fantastic.

But the reality is that these prices often go up, like any monthly subscription, as time goes on or they are not reflective of the full price of the subscription box. When the discount wears off or you forget that $15 a month actually totals to $180 a year, the minuscule amount of money you were spending on fun surprises delivered to your door suddenly becomes a larger chunk of your paycheck.

We get that companies need to make money, but you also need to know what you’re in for a couple of months after you start the subscription.

4. The Subscription Is Not a Good Fit

This is the predominant red flag with subscription boxes, but don’t take our word for it. Tianna Ouellette reviewed FabFitFun on her YouTube channel and noted why she decided to stop her subscription. It should be eye-opening for anyone considering signing on to a subscription service.

“I honestly found that the items were not the best,” Ouellette said. “Quality-wise, they were a real hit or miss. Some boxes I was basically thinking, ‘I guess I’ll choose this, because there’s nothing else I really want in here.’ It started to get very repetitive.”

This can be the consequence of signing up for a subscription box for the surprise and joy you hope you are going to get.

Ultimately, that may not be enough to keep you paying for those curated dog treats or monthly floral-scented lotions. So before giving one more dime to subscription box companies, do some soul-searching and find out if this is what you really want and need or just something to temporarily fill the void.

Writer Elizabeth Djinis is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder, often writing about selling goods online through social platforms. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Smithsonian Magazine and the Tampa Bay Times.