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Why $10 Monthly Beauty Boxes Are A Total Waste Of Money

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To this day, I remember the buyer’s remorse I felt after I marched into Sanrio as a kid (well, since I didn’t have spending money of my own, really I mean the remorse I felt for my mother). I was a Hello Kitty connoisseur, and I made damn sure to thrust myself through the aggressively pink doors of her store every time my mom took me out. Every single time, I fell victim to the strategic product placement of their infamous “mystery bags.” Every single time, I convinced my mom to spend $5, $10, or sometimes even $20 to indulge my hope that these adorably-decorated paper bags would surprise me with rare Hello Kitty paraphernalia to my heart’s delight. And every single time, it was filled with crap that no one was buying at the store anyway.

Regardless of repeated disappointment, I continued to beg my mom to take me back in the hopes that I would eventually get something good. (Spoiler alert, it never happened.) Hell, she could have bought me one of the vastly-overpriced Hello Kitty plastic bracelets with all the money I convinced her to spend on bags of cheap erasers!

I recognize the above anecdote makes me sound like an entitled brat (and I…won’t argue with that assumption), but I want to share it because it’s an experience that I recall as my first encounter with financial awareness. It was the first time I understood that — in order for a purchase to be “worth it” — the value of a purchased object should be higher than the price tag.

That is why I will never subscribe to any of those sample boxes that have become increasingly popular (Birchbox, Ipsy, and now Sephora has one too??). While I genuinely want to blame Sanrio for all of my consumerist commitment issues, I must admit, those wily “mystery bags” aren’t the only reason that I — as a financially-aware adult — think beauty boxes are a waste of money.

I can’t stand beauty subscription packages for the very same reason that I can’t stand vacation packages — a deal is sometimes a devil in disguise.

Now, I understand the appeal. It’s easy to justify spending a measly $10 a month when you’re getting like, $30 worth of beauty products in return, right?

But DO you really get $30 worth from these beauty boxes? We already know those creams and powders come with a huge price markup by the time they reach shelves. If you took the time to calculate the retail cost divided by the sample size weight (and how many “uses” the sample sizes allow for), you could come up with a more concrete total. But before you whip out the calculator: I think just by gauging the quality of products, it’s pretty easy to see the beauty box’s total value. Most of the time, when my mom receives one, it contains items like a single face mask or paper-slip fragrances (which are in magazines…and free at Nordstrom if you ask for them). Sometimes, the products she receives aren’t even high-quality, reputable brands. When you take the tiny sample sizes, poor brand quality, and amount of completely free products, the box is barely worth the actual $10 you spent on it, let alone the $30 value they boast.

At what point did a SAMPLE become something that companies could profit off of?? I thought the point of getting a small amount of something was to entice you to buy it in the first place. Now, you pay for the sample, and if you like it enough, you also have to pay for the full-size product!

I think the only situation in which subscription boxes would make sense is if they were your ONLY source of makeup or beauty products. Then, these cheap samples would constitute a huge savings (of time spent shopping, and also money). But for most people who subscribe to these boxes, it’s certainly not their only source. My mother has racked up $120 in extra spending on top of purchasing her regular makeup this year, thanks to her subscription box. She justifies this spending because it enables her to conveniently try new products without dropping a huge dollar amount on a full-size bottle at the store.

I understand that my mother’s interest (and most subscribers’ interest) in beauty boxes is entirely motivated by convenience. My mom is one of those people who would rather spend $10 a month on products she may or may not like than haul herself to the store to take a chance on a $40 makeup foundation. Having a cheap sample shipped straight to your door certainly saves you the hassle of having to return something. But considering the fact that most places still accept returns, subscription boxes feel like nothing more than a non-refundable gamble. If you only like 30% of the products you receive, but you’re guaranteed to lose 100% of your money every month, that’s not a worthy value-pricetag ratio.

It seems the only real value of these beauty boxes is their convenience. People like my mom are drawn by the promise not having to choose things for yourself, which seems counterintuitive. I thought the whole point of style and beauty was the personal element. But when you sign up for a beauty box, you put your trust in the user algorithms that “predict” which shade works best with your assumed style. In other words, beauty boxes are the eHarmony of the makeup world! Call me old-school, but I’d rather go out and play the field of testing things on my own.

I’m not sure who I’m more annoyed with — the companies who are profiting off of what used to be a free perk, or the people who passively accept this chicanery and buy into this wasteful monthly ritual. Maybe I’m just too cautious and stingy. But when it comes to setting a budget, particularly for beauty expenses, I find that it’s a much financially-wiser decision to use the trial-and-error method on full-size, fairly-priced products until you find what satisfies you, and then stick with that product long-term.

I’m glad my mom likes her beauty box (that is, an adult version of a “mystery bag”), but my Hello Kitty days are over. I think I’ll pass on the beauty boxes and save the surprises for once a year, on Christmas morning.

Savanna is a freelance writer in Northern California whose hobbies include all things theater and dog-related. She hopes for a world where avocados will be included in the price of her entrée and a 12-step program is widely available to people who obsessively collect air miles.

Image via Flickr

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  • Samantha D

    Is anyone else seeing an ad for birchbox on this page? It’s a bit funny to see.

    • Samantha D

      Also, I get a beauty box (bag? IPSY) and the real value of the $10 is that it is fun. If you’re a makeup lover, it’s great to have the opportunity to try new things and new colors that you normally wouldn’t take a chance on. It’s great to be surprised once a month and step out of your comfort zone. If I get something I really don’t like, I can give it to my mom or a friend. $10 is the cost of one restaurant lunch, and I would much rather get a beauty box. It irks me that the author acts as if those of us who get beauty boxes are being tricked and are incapable of understanding the financial value of the boxes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with spending on something you enjoy.

  • When Birchbox first came out, I remember thinking, “what genius convinced people to pay for boxes of free samples?” If only it were me, sigh.

  • Lol I’ve had Birchbox for over two years and have tried a bunch of single boxes of other subscription services (Glossybox, Ipsy, Boxycharm, Wantable… way too many) and I’m FINALLY realizing that Birchbox is no longer worth the subscription for me.

    It was definitely fun when I first signed up, and I don’t really necessarily think it’s worth the money in a financial sense – if you get a product you never wanted to use, is it really worth the money? I signed up for the boxes because they were a fun surprise every month, and I usually got at least one or two things that I genuinely liked. There are full or deluxe sized samples included in most boxes, but there are also tiny department store perfume samples or foil samples of face creams.

    Anyway, I’ve finally come to the realization that I’m not using the majority of the samples I receive, and it’s just adding to my anxiety having so many boxes and products lying around that I don’t necessarily even care to try.

  • nicolacash

    I subscribe to Sephora’s PLAY box, and so far I think it’s worth it just because instead of spending $30 on trying a new full-sized product at Sephora, which I used to do very often, getting a bunch of samples for only $10 satisfies that desire for ‘newness’ while also exposing me to new brands I otherwise might not have tried if I was in the store

  • Christian Gonzales

    While i generally agree with the author on this subject, i do have to say that in the 6 months i subscribed to birchbox, i did find some products that i genuinely loved and have purchased the full size of. Because that’s kind of the point, to try things you might not normally seek out in an affordable package (it’s the same as what, 3 drinks at starbucks?). They don’t guarantee you’re going to love every sample you get in the box, but that’s why they’re samples, not full size and full price. In the end i decided that it wasn’t worth the price when I was getting more that i didn’t care for than things i liked, but i still don’t think it’s a terrible concept.

    • Yeah, this is also why I used to subscribe to vegan beauty boxes – to be introduced to new products that are not really available to test in stores. There are a number of things I got from those boxes that I still buy (Lily Lolo mascara, konjac sponges, Floss Gloss nail polish, Pacifica tinted balms, Jane Carter hair stuff) while there was plenty I didn’t like and once used, couldn’t pass it on to someone else. But some of that is stuff I would have wasted money on as a full size anyway (some lipsticks, Pacifica mascara, etc).

      I subscribed for about 6-8 months and then got overwhelmed with tiny bottles, tubes of the wrong lip color (and oh god, the perfume samples – P.U.) and discontinued the subscriptions. At that point I had a decent enough idea about the brands and products I’d be most likely to like/use. So, I don’t think it was a waste but it also wasn’t a habit I wanted to continue.

  • Court E. Thompson

    These boxes are CLEARLY not for you. And that’s ok.
    I LOVE mine. I’ve had a 3 and 6-month subscription to Birchbox and always get some great stuff. My current eyeliner and exfoliater (both nice brands) are from my latest subscription. The eyeliner is full-sized and worth $18, so I’ve already made the money back for that box. Some boxes are better than others, yes, but, as someone noted below, they’re a fun way to try new things. And I give any products that aren’t my color to friends.

    Bonus: they’re a great gift! My boyfriend got me the 6-month subscription for Xmas. It’s not too pricey for a gift and I have fun for 6 months!

  • Alexis Graham

    I love my Sephora Play! box. I haven’t been disappointed since I’ve subscribed. You also receive a Play! Pass, which adds 50 extra Beauty Insider points on a purchase you make that month.

  • i don’t think people subscribe to these boxes for convenience, do they? cause they’re not very convenient. sure, you get the box to your house, but you don’t know its content. need a new foundation? well damn, this month’s box didn’t have one, but you get to add another lipstick and mascara to your ever growing collection, which by now will last you a life time. but at least you didn’t have to leave your house! 😀

    i think people subscribe to these boxes because they are fun and exciting! just like those Sanrio mystery bags were. and we all like to get mail right? that isn’t bills etc. these boxes are gifts that you buy for yourself. are they waste of money though? maybe. i for one, don’t really like the aspect that you might get something you don’t want/need. many times i’ve been gifted by a friend a product from a subscription box because they didn’t need or like the product. but then again, i’m the person who only has one of each makeup product i need. if i try a new foundation and it turns out to be a bust, i will keep using it until the bottle is empty! so i wouldn’t like to receive makeup surprises from the mail, i’d be too stressed out to own 3 different mascaras! 😀 but i do love mail (says the 28 year old who still has pen pals!) but i could subscribe to like, say a vegan snack box (those exist too!) but i’d probably just eat everything in one sitting so, better not.

  • Aileen

    I don’t wear much makeup, so I’ve never considered getting one of these subscriptions, but I feel this exact same way about Blue Apron boxes (or any meal prep in the mail). I got a week for free and it sounds great when they say “only$10 per person per meal, cheaper than take-out!” But you still do all the cooking (which is why take-out is expensive) and the ingredients are so cheap! I got like 2 zucchinis, a potato, some pasta and the tiniest piece of chicken. So for $20 I get to prepare a meal that would have cost about $7 from the grocery store, and I get all that wasteful packaging too! I get the convenience factor, but these boxes are definitely not financially worth it.

    • Tara

      Yes, the wastefulness of Blue Apron is what gets me. A friend sent me a free trial — it was like $150 worth of food or something — but I couldn’t bring myself to do it because I hate how everything, even teaspoons of herbs, come individually wrapped. It’s so bad for the environment.

  • Samm Wechsler

    I have a subscription to a Beauty Box (Julep) because I live in a small town and the only place to get makeup is Wal-Mart. I could order online, yes, but it is inconvenient to order something, wait for it to arrive, try it, and possibly return it. That costs more money and more time. It seems like most of the contributors to TFD live in big cities and that’s totally cool! My experience is just not reflected in a lot of the articles.

    • Savanna Swain

      Samm, thanks for the reply! I totally understand where you’re coming from here. It is probably much better to spend the $10 to try things when you don’t live close to where you could return it. In my case, I currently live in a suburban area with an ulta a quick exit away, so in my experience buying subscription boxes is an extra unnecessary cost. Thank you for acknowledging this, I’m happy you are loving your box and it’s working well for you.

  • I half agree with you and I half don’t. I’ve tried out beauty boxes and they’re not for me, I end up with products I don’t always want or need but I did, for a while, enjoy the excitement of trying new products I wouldn’t have ever tried before. I agree that some boxes don’t always reflect the value the site claims they do ($30 worth of products for $10? Clearly not) and some use it as a way to flog underperforming products.

    But it’s not always about the money, if you’re really into beauty then it’s fun to subscribe to a box and try out new products. It’s not expensive and, if you pick your box wisely, you can get a great deal. Some are total rip-offs but there are brands out there doing great things with their subscriptions.

    In the UK customers are unable to take back beauty products for a refund or exchange so beauty boxes do have their place in the market; getting to sample products for cheap is an OK deal if you are unable to test out pricey products without much risk.

    • Savanna Swain

      Sophie,
      Thank you for this information! I actually had no idea about that rule in the UK. I’ve returned things I didn’t like so many times (even after opening them!) and didn’t realize how much of a privilege this was. I can definitely see the boxes having a much higher value in the case where people aren’t able to take/send things back to a store.
      I wrote this piece from the perspective of someone who lives in a pretty suburban area that’s filed with department stores, where nearly ALL of them provide samples for free or offer returns. In my experience, there is no value for myself in subscribing to something when I can try things and return without consequence. Again, thank you for this input! I appreciate it 🙂

  • Melissa Klotz

    I’ve had Ipsy ($10/month) for the past 9 months or so. $90 spent total kind of seems like a lot, but I would’ve only been able to buy, what, 3-4 full-sized products with that? The definition of convenience in this service, to me, is that I can try a trendy new color or get a new makeup brush that i wouldn’t have otherwise bought on my own. I don’t spend much on makeup, so oftentimes the Ipsy bag is the only makeup item I buy each month. There is some repetition (I think they’ve sent me 4 different brands of orangey-burnt sienna lipstick, no thank you), but that’s probably because I don’t review the products each month, so they don’t tailor the bags to what I like or don’t like. There have been quite a few products I use very often, and I like most of the brushes they send. Now I finally know how to blend my eyeshadow, it turns out I’ve been using the wrong brushes for a million years. Oops.

  • Hell No

    I am against beauty boxes, but for less cynical and bitter reasons. Stuff accumulates quickly – you can’t use everything they send you, and clutter builds up. Because of that I cancelled my subscriptions. I would rather save that $120/yr to buy items I know I will love and that I can return if I don’t. You are just stuck with all these beauty box items, whether you like them or not.

  • Mireille Cecil

    I think beauty box subscriptions make nice gifts, especially for a person whose picky. My mom got me a six month one to Birchbox, I enjoyed it while it lasted and I’m happy she didn’t stress herself out over getting me something perfect. But I wouldn’t pay for it myself.

    That being said I was seduced by stitchfix and hate it. I filled out the profile, I made an entire pinterest board for it, I made detailed notes and I got 3 boxes in a row that I bought nothing from. A short flip through social media made me realize the ‘customized’ styling was really anything but. I think it made me come to terms with the fact that that I both hate shopping yet am excruciatingly picky about what I wear.

  • Mary Leach-Cherolis

    I tend to agree with your take on $10 sub boxes, but I continue to get ipsy anyways just for the convenience as well as the fact that for me personally, they are worth the $10 at least because I frequently get brushes which are not samples and often cost upwards of $20(Hello Elizabeth Mott blending brush!!). I have to say though that I MUCH prefer my Boxycharm sunscription. Yes, it is twice the price of ipsy, but I am about to receive my 3rd box and all of the 3 have been valued at over $100 each! $10 subs may be a ripoff in most cases, but $21 for Boxycharm is more than worth it☺