This Is Not A Personal Finance Advice Column
But I will tell you exactly how bad I am with money so you don’t have to be.
This post is a few things: A cautionary tale, a PSA, a story about money, and an explanation of how I finally attempted to get my shit together in a small but meaningful way. I am not known for being good with money: As I explained last week, I’ve never really “had” money so it did not make sense to me to learn how to be better about handling money. I might as well have bought a children’s toy cash register and learned about savings that way, or played with Monopoly money.
But at the beginning of this year I decided I would finally do what I said I would do for years but never did, which is cancel all my recurring payments that I don’t really use anymore or that are no longer serving me. Due to the privilege of spending a lot of time inside and not seeing other people anymore over the past year, I have plenty of time to do this, so why not? I also promised myself I’d do a bunch of other finance stuff, like merge my 401ks from previous jobs into my current 401k, add more money from each paycheck into my 401k, and learn about investing. I have done literally none of the other stuff but I did spend the past three weeks tracking my spending and learning where my recurring payments are coming from, and then canceling the ones I don’t use anymore.
I am decidedly not a “personal finance” news person. I worked for a website once where there was a dedicated personal finance section, and the young reporters who wrote for it would do things like take out $100 in cash on Sunday and not spend any money other than that $100 for the whole week and then write about their experience, and what worked and what didn’t. Other personal finance stories I read on other websites involved people in their 20s paying off $100,000 in debt or buying a house before the age of 26. A footnote in these aspirational stories, written off like it didn’t make all the difference in the world, were facts like: these people were living at home with their parents and had no living expenses, or their parents paid their rent, or they were otherwise independently wealthy. I have since found better personal finance advice and news in resources like the Financial Diet and the Billfold (RIP).
I have made mistakes and been very broke, I have tanked my credit (this is what happens when you aren’t making enough money to pay your rent and your student loans at the same time so you stop making student loan payments for a few months and then your student loan provider tracks you down by calling your work landline to tell you you have to start making payments again and you’re so mortified that you immediately adjust your payments so you can do that before they garnish your wages), I have built my credit back up, I have let recurring expenses pile up for years without canceling them or even knowing I had anything to cancel, even though I really needed the money. For me, thinking about money tends to be paralyzing and stressful and exhausting so I put off thinking about it. So I give you all this context just to say that I am really more of an anti-personal finance person, and this story should be read as anti-personal finance news. The accountant who was forwarded this article by a friend who was like “Hey, look at this idiot” is grinding his teeth subconsciously.
OK, so the recurring payments, and canceling them. The first thing I did was open my bank account on my computer and filter it by deductions so I could see where my spending was happening over the past several months. To me, looking at all the money I spend is like staring directly into the sun, or listening to an audio recording of your own voice. Painful. I also downloaded an app called TrueBill which looks at your checking account and any of your linked credit cards and analyzes your spending and your incoming payments. One thing TrueBill does (this isn’t #spon, I’m sure there are a bunch of other apps that do this too) is identify and list the places that automatically charge you on a recurring basis. So I made a list on Google Sheets of these places and how much I was spending on each of them, and the monthly total of these things. I should note that these are all like, nice-to-have, optional things I’m paying for — not my utilities and my internet, which I could automate, but I don’t for some reason, I guess because I like the consciousness of making the payments so I know I haven’t forgotten about them. The accountant who is still reading this article with a disgusted kind of interest is mentally thanking his clients for being more responsible and straightforward about their spending than this.
When I made my list of recurring expenses, here were the things on it: Spotify, the New York Times (crossword and cooking), the Wall Street Journal, a dozen Substacks and Patreons and a couple other newsletters I pay for like Numlock News and Discourse.blog, Planet Fitness, Blink Fitness (yes, accountant reading this, two gyms, I will explain), Hulu + HBO, Netflix, GoDaddy, Apple (apps I was paying for: the premium version of VSCO, the premium version of a scanning app I forgot to cancel, RoboKiller), Peloton, Italic (this marketplace for “affordable luxury goods” that I paid a subscription membership fee for so I could buy a new Dutch oven. I’m sorry I’m like this too), and Morningstar Research (I bought a premium membership for research for an article I was working on 18 months ago and then forgot to cancel it).
All of these expenses had gone on my debit card because I didn’t have a credit card until like 3 years ago due to being scared of what I would do with a large line of credit (turns out, lol, I didn’t need to worry about being given that much money initially after all) so I couldn’t simply have my credit card company handle any of these cancellations myself. All told, it came out to like $285 a month, or $3420 a year, which is uh, kind of a lot of money. The accountant reading this article is becoming the Joker.
Some of these things I wanted to keep (Spotify for music, GoDaddy for my website, the New York Times, Peloton, my precious newsletters/Substacks/Patreons, Netflix). Everything else, I decided, could go. So in the document where I recorded all of these expenses I went down the list and started canceling them. With a few taps, my Hulu and Italic subscriptions were gone. Apple makes it easy enough to view and cancel your subscriptions, so those quickly disappeared too (I will miss you, premium VSCO filters, but enough is enough). The Wall Street Journal made me call them to cancel my subscription, but that was easy. I was on a cancellation spree. Finally, I thought, cancel culture had gone just far enough.
I had to repeatedly email Morningstar to get in touch with anyone there. Morningstar lost my account information somehow so I had to call them and they seemed very confused about why I had an account because I guess journalists don’t tend to use their website for research? Anyway, a very helpful and polite customer service rep helped me cancel my subscription and even refunded me a month’s subscription because she felt bad that Morningstar had taken so long to respond to my harried email asking for help canceling.
You’re wondering why I had two recurring gym memberships. It’s a fair question. When I was working at my first job, I started going to the 14th Street Planet Fitness early in 2015. My college boyfriend and I had moved in together and suddenly I no longer wanted to be at home anymore so I wanted to pick up a hobby. I decided to make this hobby “going to a gym far away from our apartment” (I don’t really feel the need to do a deep dive on this one but there were clearly some underlying issues here). Instead of unpacking my feelings, I started spending hours every day at the gym, before work, after work, on the weekends. After a month or two I looked great and felt horrible.
We then broke up, and later on I got a new job so I no longer worked in Union Square, but the thought of going to Planet Fitness again to cancel my membership seemed awful, plus when was I ever in Union Square anymore, so any time over the past six years that it occurred to me that I was still paying for Planet Fitness, I thought, I will once again pay the $10 this month to not have to deal with Planet Fitness. This is the tax I will pay for my laziness. If I stopped going to Planet Fitness at the end of 2015 and have been paying for it until now, Planet Fitness has made about $600 off of me. This, I can only assume, is how Planet Fitness makes a solid portion of its monthly recurring revenue.
A few years later I lived near a Blink Fitness so I started going there because they had a super-cheap membership fee and the location near me was always empty. I went pretty consistently up until the pandemic happened, and then I stopped, and then I moved, so it no longer made sense for me to go there, pandemic notwithstanding. The Blink Fitness membership was easy enough to cancel online thanks to recent pressure from lawmakers, which made Blink reform its rules that required members cancel by either going to their location in person or sending certified letters requesting a cancellation.
Planet Fitness, somehow, has evaded these lawmakers, because everything I learned online and from calling Planet Fitness told me that I had to go in person or send a certified letter to cancel my membership. Fine. It was the last thing on my list I had left to cancel, and I was going to do it in person because, I’ll be totally honest, I don’t know what “certified mail” is. And I don’t trust that a place that is this evasive about letting its members cancel their recurring membership fees wouldn’t like, misplace my cancellation letter or something. During my lunch break I put on my medical grade mask and then my Baggu cloth daisy mask that I have been told everyone has now. I got on the Q train and I went to Union Square, ready to settle this once and for all.
I arrived at the 14th Street Planet Fitness and saw a line of people outside. These people, I was told, were waiting to work out. Did they wait in line to work out every day? Yeah, a man waiting in the back of the line told me. That’s how it is now with COVID. Ok, interesting. Instead of waiting in this line, I did what the kind man who answered the phone at Planet Fitness that morning when I called said to do: skip the line.
I went inside and said hello to the two women working at the front desk and asked, “Is this where I cancel my membership?” They said yes. They asked for my phone number. Then they asked for my last name. Then they asked for my first name. When she pulled up my profile, the woman at the computer raised her eyebrows so high that they were practically kissing her hairline. She said in a tone of voice that could only be described as “a bit judgy”: “Wow, it’s been a while.” This was a patently unkind thing to say, but I was not going to get into a fight with the woman at Planet Fitness, so I just said “I know! It’s a pandemic!” as if that excused the several intervening years of my glaring absence at the 14th Street Planet Fitness.
It took like, 60 seconds total to cancel this thing that had been hanging over me for years and years. I walked down 14th Street and back to the Union Square subway station with a spring in my step. I was free from the tyranny of my own past bad financial decisions. To celebrate, I decided, I would have to treat myself to something I wanted but didn’t need, perhaps by buying something online — but in a symbol of growth, it would be a one-time purchase and not a new subscription.