spending

Subscription Gift Boxes: Surprising Value or Money Trap?

Subscription gift boxes can be a good buy—if you use the stuff that’s inside.

Nothing beats the thrill of presents delivered to your door. Sign up for a subscription box and you won’t have to wait until the next holiday for goodies. Subscription-box services typically charge $10 to $40 a month to send you assorted items in broad categories, such as cosmetics (Birchbox), kids’ merchandise (Citrus Lane), or niche products such as craft beer, local artisan wares or the latest in fishing tackle.

See Our Slide Show: Ways Retailers Get Us to Spend More

Paying $10 for a few makeup samples may sound like a gimmick. But with many boxes, the value of the items is worth twice or three times the dollar amount you pay each month, says Liz Cadman, founder of MySubscriptionAddiction.com, a box review site. Sampling a specialized product without having to pay for a full-size item is valuable, too. The best services include extras, such as how-to videos on the company’s Web site.

But watch out: The surprise and delight that come with a new box every month can be addictive. Companies sometimes sweeten the deal to include exclusive products to keep your interest piqued. Add to that the common practice of automatic subscription renewals and pitches to sign you up for long-term payment plans—which are usually impossible to cancel before the term is up—and you may wind up shelling out more money than you should.

Before you take the plunge, look up previous monthly selections on the company’s Web site and read reviews on sites such as Cadman’s (which can also alert you to poor customer service and rigid cancellation policies, as well as coupon codes and free offers). And track how many of the products you actually use. Even if the retail value is high, “if you’re not using the items, it’s zero value,” says Cadman.

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