How to Manage Streaming Subscriptions As Service Prices Rise

The dream of streaming — watch what you want, whenever you want, for a sliver of the price of cable! — is coming to an end.

With all the price increases for video streaming apps like Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and Hulu, the average household that subscribes to four streaming apps may now end up paying just as much as a cable subscriber, according to research by Deloitte.

To name a few of the price jumps for streaming video (without ads) in just over the past year: Amazon’s ad-free Prime Video is now $12 a month, up from $9; Netflix raised the price of its premium plan for watching content on four devices to $23 a month, from $20; Disney increased the price of its Hulu service to $18 a month, from $15; and HBO’s Max now costs $16 a month, up from $15.

If, like many people, you subscribe to all those services, you are paying about $70 a month, roughly the same as a modest cable TV package.

More changes on the horizon will have people paying more for streaming. Disney announced this month that it would crack down on password sharing for Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+. Netflix told shareholders last month to expect more price increases.

Streaming services still offer more flexibility and potential to save than a cable bundle. If that’s what drew you to streaming, the solution may seem obvious: You could be more judicious about managing your subscriptions — by canceling Netflix as soon as you’re done bingeing “Love Is Blind,” for instance.

But that’s harder than it sounds. The streaming apps are designed to make us forget we can unsubscribe.

You will not get a reminder that your subscription is up for renewal, said Tony Hu, a program director for engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “When you go into a casino, you don’t see the exit signs prominently placed,” he added.

So it helps to be aware of what the companies are doing to help you manage your subscriptions. Here’s what to look out for.

In May, Caroline Sinders, a designer and artist, published the results of an independent study on how companies including Netflix, Hulu, Vimeo and The New York Times make it hard to unsubscribe from their services.

The study, conducted in 2022, found that some media companies like The Times created friction in the process — requiring, in some instances, a phone call to cancel a subscription. The Times now allows subscribers to cancel online without a phone call.

Though the study found that streaming services like Netflix and Hulu were easier to cancel, you may stay subscribed longer than you want to because of what they don’t do, Mx. Sinders said. They don’t send emails reminding you that you have a bill coming up. When you’re billed, they generally don’t send emails of payment receipts.

Harry Brignull, a user-experience consultant and author of a book about the tricks that tech companies use to control you, pointed out that the streaming industry had made consumers accustomed to accepting this practice, even though we would scoff at it for nearly any other transaction.

“How come we’re all OK with this?” he asked, adding that if “you walk out of a store, you want to be handed a receipt.”

The streaming apps do, however, send lots of emails after you’ve canceled, hoping to lure you back with marketing messages about new TV shows and movies.

Netflix declined to comment on why it didn’t send monthly payment receipts or renewal notices, and it said the best way for people to manage their subscriptions and view past payments was through their account settings on the website. Hulu, Disney and Max did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Is a lack of a reminder a harmful design pattern?” Mx. Sinders said. “I would say so. It does put a lot of onus on the user to remember.”

The practices mentioned above have become the industry norm, so it’s on us to create a system to remind ourselves when to unsubscribe to a streaming service.

Setting up a monthly reminder a few days before a subscription renewal is due would go a long way, Mr. Brignull said. And Mr. Hu, the M.I.T. director, keeps a list of the streaming apps he pays for to track the shows that he and his family are watching on each one, which helps them determine when it’s time to cancel.

Paying through a third party is another way to get reminders. When subscribing to a streaming service through Apple’s App Store, for instance, you are billed by Apple, which emails monthly payment receipts. PayPal does the same. Apple also makes it simple to see all your subscriptions and renewal dates in one place inside its settings app, so you can cull them more easily.

I take a more aggressive approach. To disable automatic renewal, I cancel a subscription as soon as I sign up. That means that if I want to keep the membership going after the current billing cycle, I have to resubscribe each time, but I think it’s worth it for the control it gives me over the billing process.

Whatever avenue you choose, the most important step is to slow down, Mx. Sinders said. When you’re ready to unsubscribe, do it on a laptop or tablet rather than on your phone, where you can easily be interrupted or distracted. And when you create reminders in your calendar to cancel your subscriptions, set them up for several days before the next bill hits your credit card.

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