Chris Lees, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Caught in a trap: Making it easier to leave a subscription

3 November 2021

Most of us will have a subscription to a service, like Netflix or Spotify, or to a product, like a newspaper or ingredient kit. Subscriptions can bring benefits but it can also be easy to get trapped in a subscription you no longer want or need. This can particularly impact people with mental health problems, who are more likely to have taken out a subscription compared to people without mental health problems. Common symptoms of mental health conditions, like increased impulsivity, can cause people to sign up to subscriptions they don’t need when unwell and can then make it harder to manage and cancel subscriptions. This can be made worse by companies hiding information about subscriptions or making it unnecessarily difficult to cancel them. 

We responded to a government consultation that looked at how rules and regulations could be changed to make subscriptions fairer. In the response we focused on three key areas of subscriptions – entering, managing and cancelling them.

1. People don’t always realise what they’re signing up for

All too often people can sign up to a subscription by mistake – two-fifths (39%) of Research Community members had signed up to one without realising. Companies can hide important information about the subscription in small print or terms and conditions, which people either don’t read or struggle to understand. It can often only take a few clicks to sign up to a subscription online and if someone is unwell, they might quickly click through without knowing what they’ve signed up for. This can be particularly true when companies offer customers a free trial to their service – a third (34%) of Research Community respondents had signed up to a free trial without realising they would be charged for the full subscription.

“Sometimes I sign up for things I don’t need or want while in a bad mental health state.” Expert by experience

2. Getting trapped with a subscription

Once you’ve signed up to a subscription, whether you realise it or not, it can be hard to remember  to cancel it if you no longer need or use it. This can be especially difficult for people who struggle with their memory as a result of their mental health problem. And while a free trial can allow you to test a service, it can then be costly if you forget to cancel it before the trial ends —  something over half (55%) of Research Community members had experienced. People with mental health problems are more likely to be in financial difficulty and so ongoing subscriptions can put pressure on already stretched budgets. 

“Subscriptions renewing without notifications have taken me over budget so I have had to cut back in other areas, some of which I consider essential.” Expert by experience

3. Cancelling a subscription can be complex and difficult

While it can be very easy for someone to sign up to a subscription, it can often be very difficult to cancel one. Three quarters (74%) of Research Community members have found it easy to sign up to a subscription but harder to cancel. Companies use various tactics to make it harder to cancel, such as requiring someone to ring up, hiding the process on their website, or including several unnecessary steps. 

“I tried to cancel but could not find out how to cancel it…I could not find in my account how or where to cancel it so I left it even though I didn’t want it anymore.” Expert by experience 

These tactics can make cancelling especially difficult for people with mental health problems, who can often struggle with low motivation or low energy when unwell. Trying to cancel can be a  stressful experience and people can give up on the process and end up keeping the subscription. This then puts unnecessary pressure on their finances.

“My mental health impacts my ability to deal with these things and I have previously paid for unwanted subscriptions for years rather than face the issue and deal with it.” Expert by experience

What needs to be done

In the consultation, the government put forward a number of proposals that will help make it easier for someone to manage their subscriptions. We think that several of them will particularly benefit people with mental health problems. For example, we believe that cancelling a subscription should be as easy as signing up to one and we support the government’s proposal to make cancelling straightforward, cost-effective and timely. Additionally, we think that requiring companies to get someone’s explicit consent to continue a subscription after a free trial offer has ended will help those who struggle to cancel.

Read our submission here.