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It began with a bill from the company that had serviced my central air conditioning the year prior. I received a bill, a very high bill, for an annual checkup that I had not yet scheduled nor received. Although the company was nice about reversing the charge, it took two and a half years and a threat to call the Better Business Bureau before they stopped sending the same bill every fall.

If it had been on autopay, I would have paid it without seeing it.  Like the no-fee Jet Blue Mastercard that suddenly was only “no fee” if the consumer contacted the company each year.

I call it the “busy life” tax because if you aren’t checking your bills and emails regularly, you miss it. Professionals call it “opt-out” marketing, and most often, it goes hand-in-hand with subscription services.

For example, as a Christmas gift, my son and daughter-in-law, bought my husband and me a membership to the Wall Street Journal Wine Club, which delivers a very nice case of red wine quarterly. Last month, I received an email that alerted me to “an extra special collection,” that would be sent to me at an “extra special price,” of an additional $169.99. The amount would be billed to the credit card on file unless I contacted the company to cancel.

As a consumer, I don’t like emails that create new tasks on my to-do list to avoid a charge. This was also the second year we were gifted this subscription and the year before, I’d called and talked to a supervisor who assured me that I’d be removed from this “opt-out” offer. Had I been less attentive, my son and daughter-in-law, who are busy working full-time and raising babies, would have just paid the bill, and I wouldn’t have known the difference. 

Life is hectic for all of us, but especially Millennials, Gen X, and Gen Z-ers as they establish their careers, pay off enormous student debts and raise young families. It’s not shocking that many lose track of their recurring monthly or quarterly bills, particularly e-commerce bills.

Besides five paid streaming subscriptions, the average consumer has five paid retail subscriptions, according to C+R Research, a market research company in Chicago that recently conducted a study on this topic. I thought the e-commerce number sounded high, until I sat down and counted, in addition to my streaming services, E-Salon, Spotify, Amazon Prime, Audible, and of course, Wall Street Journal Wine services.

These e-conveniences add up, and according to the C&T Research study, most consumers have no idea how quickly. When asked about their spending, on average, the 1,000 consumers underestimated their subscription costs by $133 per month, or $1,596 per year.

Image Credit: C+R Research

Tricia Harte, the media outreach spokeswoman for C&T, added that in that same survey, 42 percent of the 1000 consumers surveyed in this 2022 study said they’d forgotten about a subscription and continued to pay even when the service wasn’t used.  Respondents were split evenly between Baby Boomers, Millennials, Gen X, and Gen Z, with the average age being 43 years old.

I suspect that some e-commerce vendors rely on this inattentiveness, but Janet Farrell director of digital services at RDW Group in Providence, who advises her clients on email marketing, says that would be counter-productive for most companies.

Opt-out marketing creates its own challenges. Overpaying via a missed deadline or unseen bill impacts the consumer experience of the brand, she says. Companies that employ opt-out email marketing have to couple that with excellent customer service, which costs money.

To Farrell’s point, when I called Jet Blue, they eliminated the fee, and the Wall Street Journal Wine Club had a special phone number and “option,” to cancel out of its special holiday wine shipment.  And about half a dozen consumer representatives were required to field or return my irate calls. 

While I could not get an official company spokesperson on the phone, a detailed email reply from the wine club pointed out that two notices are sent to subscribers prior to shipment, the shipment can be canceled at any time, declined, or shipped back at the company’s expense. The email also said that consumers who didn’t want this opt-out marketing could be permanently removed from the “list.” 

Although if that had been true for me, I would have forgotten about it, like so many monthly subscriptions, and never written this story.

Jan Brogan

Jan Brogan has been a journalist for more than thirty years, working as a correspondent for the Boston Globe, a staff writer for the Worcester Telegram and the Providence Journal, where she won the Gerald...