Confessions of a Frugal Fraud

birkenstocks, sunglasses and a pineapple

I was bent over my desk, studying, when I heard a muffled laugh from my roommate. The shifting glow of her screen lit up her face when I looked over. It was freshman year and we had just moved in, so our friendship was in the early stages: tentative but pleasant. She told me she was watching something on Netflix. Just a few weeks later we were more comfortable with each other, and I joined her on her bed. We watched Friday Night Lights (FNL), passing a pint of Ben & Jerry’s between us.

Netflix started glitching and acting really slow, Coach Taylor’s speech stuttering to a halt. It turned out she was using her relative’s account, who was watching a different show at the same time. At that time, multiple people streaming on the same account slowed the service. We waited it out and finished out Coach Taylor’s (very moving) speech a couple of hours later. It was my first exposure to Netflix, and also to the commonality of Netflix account sharing. An estimated 35% of Millennials with Netflix share their passwords, compared to 19% of Gen X and 13% of Baby Boomers.

The Rise of Subscription Services

Every month, resurrected bills rise from the ashes to haunt us. Subscription services sneakily drain our wallets while we patter around unsuspectingly in our homes.

The Waterstone Group predicted that people underestimate how much they spend on subscription services– services like a mobile phone, internet, Amazon Prime, music streaming, subscription boxes, mobile apps, and food delivery. They surveyed 2,500 people to find out if consumers could estimate their monthly spending on recurring payments.

The results were startling. People guessed average spending of $79.74/month, but their actual spending was $237.33/month, triple their initial estimate. To put that spending in perspective, if that money was invested in the market at a 7% average interest rate, in 30 years each person would have an extra $289,535 in their pocket.

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Eliminating these costs isn’t always realistic; for many people, a mobile phone and home internet are essential. However, even halving the bill would make a huge difference in spending.

My monthly spending on all of these categories: $0.

It is impossible to ignore the lack of certain line items on my expense reports, like internet and Netflix, or any subscription service, for that matter. I’m writing this blog post on my home WiFi after watching the first episode of “Tidying Up with Marie-Kondo” on Netflix, so what gives?

Bill to Pay How Much I Paid Then How Much I Pay Now How?
Internet $7/month ($30/month split between 4 roommates) $0 Public hotspot nearby
Phone Bill $35.75 $0 Covered by Work
Netflix $0 $0 Family Plan – Allows up to 4 devices
Spotify $0 $0 Family Plan – Premium allows 5 members
Amazon Prime $0 $0 Family Plan – Household Plan allows up to 10 people

A Late-Majority Adopter

Netflix had already hit their stride when I was living in the college dorm, but you should know one thing about me: I am not an early adopter. I am no trendsetter. It’s 2019 and I only just started considering buying a pair of Birkenstocks after decades of them going in-and-out of style. Netflix was like a pair of Birkenstocks—everyone had them, everyone loved them, but I wasn’t ready to pay for something I didn’t really need. So I happily continued our weekly FNL-watching tradition but did not use Netflix myself until a family member generously supplied me access to their account.

birkenstocks, sunglasses and a pineapple
Every year I wonder if I should buy Birkenstocks…

The Debate

One argument I often hear for having your very own account is that you are properly “adulting,” as if paying more equates to a certain amount of maturity. Subscribers say, “Suck it up! Be a grown-up and pay for what you use!” If no one pays for content, then people won’t continue making content. Why not use your money to support the entertainment industry that made you gasp at Stranger Things and wonder at Sherlock? Cutting corners financially is not a good thing; it is about doing something the quickest, easiest, or cheapest way—often at the expense of doing something correctly (or by ignoring the rules). A simpler way to say it: “Don’t be so cheap.”

Tag-alongs ask, “What’s the real harm in sharing an account across the family?”  If a group pitches into a plan, sharing can benefit everyone. Besides, artists profit from the number of streams and downloads. This means that if I listen to a Muse album on repeat on my friend’s account, Muse makes more than if I had not listened at all. Avoid mooch-status by offering to pay your fair share. If one person shoulders the costs, faithful family and friends should be sure to reciprocate in other ways such as taking them out for a nice dinner or pet sitting while they are out.

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I Wouldn’t Pay For A Subscription, Period.

I joined the 12% of total Netflix users who are not paying for the service,  opting to save money by using a password of friends or family. Various family members supplied Spotify Premium and Amazon Prime subscriptions, and I will be on my parent’s healthcare insurance for another few months before being unceremoniously booted when I turn 26.

I can hear the accusations now: “Financial Mechanic is only frugal because other people pay for the stuff.” Just another entitled millennial killing industries left and right.

The thing that complaint misses, however, is that I would not subscribe to these services should the shared accounts stop. I would not pay for Spotify or Prime or even Netflix (okay, I would pay for Internet and I will pay for healthcare in just a few months). They are convenient and free for me now, so I use them gratefully. However, I would rather head outdoors or pick up a new book, which I really ought to be doing anyway, than pay out the subscription fee. In 30 years, that $289,535 equates to 7 fewer years of work, assuming I spend $40,000 per year, double my current spending.

What Does Netflix Say

While sharing logins is often technically illegal, many companies are not worried. They have a chance to gain more subscribers down the line, and more people are exposed to their advertising. In fact, Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings says, “We love people sharing Netflix.

The Netflix queue for "Others" using the account
The Netflix queue for “Others” using the account.

Many subscription services have plans to allow streaming on multiple devices at once. The premium Netflix subscription, for example, allows you to watch from four devices at the same time for $3 more per month.

Creative Ways to Save on Monthly Expenses

Sometimes going extreme is necessary for getting out of debt or getting to a financially secure position. Oftentimes the community is willing to help– as long as you reciprocate. I applaud those who get creative to get high-returns of value on less. Most people know about saving by going to the library or doing yoga at home, but I asked Twitter about how people ‘cut corners’ with their spending.

EconTeach pays for the workout class she truly values and also participates in free community classes to save:

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Kiwi and Keweenaw borrowed a friend and parent’s car for their car-free year:

Michelle from Frugality and Freedom takes advantage of TV streaming trials and uses her neighbor’s WiFi in exchange for a bottle of wine per month! If you have the right relationship with your neighbor (and they don’t seem like a criminal) sharing WiFi is a creative hack.

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Sometimes offices provide perks to take advantage of, like free food and beverages. In my case, work pays my phone bill. In Confessions of FI’s case, frozen burritos and hot pockets are covered:

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Takeaway

Sometimes I wonder if I am a frugal fraud for excluding these expenses every month. I am lucky to have family members who are generous enough to share. Otherwise, I would bear the Spotify ads, extra days of shipping through Amazon, and Sherlock-less days, content with the knowledge that those resurrected payments can finally meet their end.

What are your thoughts? Do you share a Netflix password? How do you get creative with recurring monthly bills?

15 Comments

  1. I signed up for a subscription after careful considering it for the last 3 years. I decided to sign up for Spotify family (and split it with my fiance’) as part of a christmas gift for my parents so that they can have spotify premium. I previously considered giving them Pandora’s subscription, but we prefer spotify and decided to split it with them. Although I hate paid subscriptions, I hope that my parents will enjoy being able to hear any song that they want on demand, and the artists who made the music deserve to be paid.

    1. It sounds like a very intentional monthly subscription! I enjoy Spotify, especially now that it’s set up with our Amazon Echo. Besides, as you’re sharing with your family you’re getting even more value out of it. I approve!

  2. Thanks for the mention here! I’ll wear the mantle of ‘frugal fraud’ with pride. It’s true: there are certain line items in my budget that I enjoy using but pay little-to-nothing for them.

    Like you expressed, I likely wouldn’t make use of those things if they were costing me a subscription fee, so I don’t think I am misrepresenting my living expenses by having $0 figures for things like tv streaming services.

    Keep up the great writing!

    1. I wouldn’t consider you a frugal fraud! I think it’s perfectly viable to use free signups to try out tv streaming services. They wouldn’t let people do it if they weren’t making money. They just don’t have to make money off of you 😉

  3. I think one of the reasons that the monthly subscription bill for a household is much higher than the person estimated is because family members sign up without thinking to inform other family members. Another reason is free trials. I have almost fallen into this trap several times. I sign up for 30 days free but then the payments kick in 30 days later because I forgot to cancel. Even after you cancel sometimes they still bill you as if to see if you will notice.
    I appear to be getting Amazon Prime. I have no idea how as I have not signed up to my knowledge. It is quite possible someone in the family clicked on the free trial button during the crazy ordering Holiday season. I know I have almost done so many times on that last check out page.I should probably check that I am not getting billed for it….

    1. Definitely! There is a reason companies do so many free trials, it works to retain customers. It is another good reason to keep track of spending, you will notice if $10-20 goes somewhere you don’t expect.

  4. We share an Amazon prime account with my MIL. I might still use the Amazon service without her. I don’t understand Netflix. There is nothing on that platform I find interesting. I’m a mother of 4 young kids, and nope, the cartoons don’t look that good either. We like older shows and movies. We use pirate bay and get stuff from the 50s-80s mostly. It’s more a question of value. If I really livelwhat Netflix offered, I’d probably get my own account. But the better bet would be Amazon firestick.

    1. The Amazon firestick is definitely intriguing. I agree completely that it’s a question of value and how much you and your family get out of each subscription.

  5. Hi financialmechanic,

    While I think your blog is great, I have to leave a comment regarding your takeaway – I do think you’re being a financial fraud with freeloading on the Netflix/Spotify/Amazon prime subscription. I mean, of course you said you could live without these services or just use the free version but have you actually tried?

    I was on Spotify free for 1 month after having my free premium subscription from my phone company ended and it was basically unbearable. I don’t even listen to music all that often and the number of ads that popped up and not having the ability to skips songs I disliked made the service unusable. I quickly started a paid family account with 5 of my closest friends again so I don’t have to pay the full price. I also pay my share of my Netflix account with my two other close friends and I do not have an Amazon Prime account. It just seems to me that you’re freeloading on other people’s generosity. Pretty much the equivalent of people freeloading off their parents by living at home, doing no housework and paying no rent.

    BTW, my yearly share of Netflix with my friends is about $60 and my family Spotify share is $30. It’s not 0 but I’m more then happy to share the costs.

    1. Hi Alex, I actually agree with you. One should contribute by bearing the cost of a subscription in some way. Some people share HBO access to their friend who gives them Netflix. Others do what you do– split between friends. I try by picking up a dinner tab or helping out with things like dog sitting, drives to the airport, etc. The yearly share is still low that way and everyone benefits. To your question: yes I have gone without. For the most part I would just forgo using them. I like Pandora or 8Tracks or Spotify for the occasional song but I don’t listen to much music, etc. However, your point about freeloading still stands. I think it’s important to contribute value in some way and if you are not contributing, you are freeloading. I suppose I’ve avoided some guilt since the subscriptions are spread across a few different people who are genuinely happy to share, but the honest truth is that if I’m not pitching in, I’m not doing my part. You’ve convinced me to ask how I can contribute, and to find out if I’m not contributing enough.

      1. Hi Financialmechanic,

        I appreciate you taking the time to leave me a reply and I hope I wasn’t being too abrasive in my initial comment. I read a lot of financial blogs and sometimes it rubs me the wrong way to see some bloggers (not you!) talk about saving $$ and spending 0 on certain things when they get lots of sponsorship items/money from blog traffic and they had a leg up on saving by living rent free at home for 5+ years and no one calls them out in the comments.

        I just want to commend you for being so open about your life and your finances and thanks again for taking the time to reply to my comment.

        Alex

  6. If you are using any service by breaking the companies stated terms of srevice then you are committing fraud. Perhaps minor and fairly harmless, but fraud nonetheless.

  7. Don’t know about fraudulent but definitely misleading. There’s nothing wrong with pooling together and sharing a resource so everyone can save money. That’s just being efficient. But saying you pay 0 for these services (even as you or others acknowledge paying it back by picking up the tab or buying a bottle of wine) is not accurate. You are paying for these, just not directly. The additional cost is just tucked away in a different budget line. There’s no issue with that, it’s a win win for everyone, but since there is a cost to you in the end, even if it’s through a non-monetary gift to the subscriber, it’s misleading at best to say your subscription spending is 0. It’s probably not, it’s just hidden somewhere else.

    1. I suppose it depends on if you count non-monetary costs in budgets. If someone trades their time volunteering at the gym for free classes, they spent time and energy in exchange for classes– but gym classes won’t end up on their budget. I don’t think they should, either, because budgets and money trackers are strictly for tracking monetary costs.

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