Online subscription fees can add up fast

Consumers have never had it better in terms of the variety and ease with which they can instantly access digital content. But all those subscriptions and micropayments can add up quickly and be death by a thousand downloads, Nisha Patel writes.
It's never been easier to access digital content. But all those subscriptions can quickly add up and often overlap. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

As I was going through my bills last week, a few lines caught my eye? 99 cents for an app. $7.99 for Netflix. $6.99 for The Monuments Men.

I calculated what I was paying for cable and internet, TV streaming services, newspaper digital passes, movie downloads, music streaming, apps, games, and online magazine subscriptions— and the cost of my digital life added up fast. Some of the subscriptions I'd signed up for I hadn't even used (much like my gym membership).

So, here are five ways your digital life is costing you:

TV and movies:

In 2012, Canadian households spent an average of $50 a month on cable. While there are cord-cutters who are abandoning traditional broadcast networks, some Canadians sign up for streaming services like Netflix without cancelling cable. And you're paying for that overlap — even more so when you take into account tempting digital downloads for shows or movies that aren't available on the service. Without noticing, I spent more on Downton Abbey last month than I did on transit costs.​


Digital downloads from iTunes are no longer the only option as the music industry sees big growth in all-you-can-listen streaming services. Apple recently dropped a cool $3 billion to get its hands on Beats Electronics, co-founded by rap mogul Dr. Dre. And Google is ramping up its offerings after picking up Songza. Here in Canada, the variety has improved: Slacker, Rdio and Google Play are popular. Some are free with ads and limited functionality, but also charge a monthly rate for premium services. Streaming music on YouTube is still free, though — for now.

Newspapers and magazines:

Many consumers are making the switch from print to online, so they can access favourite newspapers and magazines on tablets and smartphones. For example, you could pay $12 for 12 online issues of the New Yorker. But instead of paying separate fees for your regular reads, consider options like Next Issue that bundle several magazines together. At $10 per month, you could access the New Yorker as well as 100 other titles for less than the price of a few impulse-purchased tabloids while in line at the grocery store.

File storage:

With all the digital files we collect, storage services that send your stuff to the cloud may actually be a good investment. There are many options: Apple's iCloud is $20 per year for 10 gigabytes, Dropbox is $109/yr for 100GB, Google Drive is $24/yr for 100GB.

Some offer small amounts of storage for free so be sure to do your research.

Games and Apps:

Both Xbox and Playstation have subscriptions that can run you between $50 to $60 per year. And while many apps are free — it's the in-app spending that can add up. You shell out real money to buy things in a virtual game. Recently, a British couple was furious after their child managed to spend $1,700 on virtual donuts in a Simpsons app. D'oh!

Ways to cut back

It's not hard to see how the fees to get all the digital content can add up. But there are a few easy ways to make sure they don't get out of hand:

  • Track your subscriptions. Do the math with our worksheet and figure out how much you're spending.
  • Eliminate overlap. If you have cable and multiple streaming services, prioritize the one you use the most and think about ditching the others.
  • Go for free over premium. Make do with the free version of a service, even if you have to deal with the advertising.
  • Don't forget to cancel. When you sign up for a digital subscription, make sure you cancel the print version.
  • Monitor. Keep an eye on in-app spending, especially with kids.

The first step is figuring out what you're actually paying out every month, so use our handy checklist to see where it's all going, before you try to trim the fat from your digital diet.

Cable & Internet$
Streaming movies, TV, music$
Downloaded movies/TV/music$
Newspaper subscriptions$
Magazine subscriptions$
Cloud storage$
Game subscriptions (Xbox LIVE, etc.)$
Phone/tablet apps$

About the Author

Nisha Patel

Nisha has covered business and economics for CBC for several years. She's passionate about personal finance and loves a good deal, especially when it satisfies her wanderlust for an exotic vacation. Born and raised in Calgary, Nisha is trying hard to make line-dancing trendy in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @nishapatel.