Tech by VICE

These Apps Can Help You Finally Cancel That Subscription You Keep Forgetting

Truebill, Trim, and other subscription management apps promise to help their users wrangle their finances.

by Nathaniel Mott
Aug 26 2016, 6:30pm

Image: photosteve101/Flickr

Burner charges me $5 every month for its premium service, which allows people to make unlimited calls from a disposable phone number. I don't even remember why I signed up for it, and I think about canceling that subscription each month, but I always forget to do so before I get another email informing me that I've paid another $5 for a service I almost never use. These are the moments on which the subscription economy is built: small transactions that most people don't even notice, allowing companies to get paid each month without doing anything.

A cottage industry of subscription management services want to change that. Instead of letting these small transactions get lost in bank statements filled with small charges for cups of coffee, morning snacks, and two-for-one specials at a local dive bar, these services promise to give people the information they need to only pay for the services that they actually use. Now the question is whether these tools are the future of subscription management or just part of a fad.

Truebill chief executive Yahya Mokhtarzada thinks his company is here to stay. It asks people to provide access to their bank accounts so it can figure out what they're paying for every month. It then makes it easy to cancel unwanted subscriptions — whether they're for Netflix, Blue Apron, or some local fitness center — without any charge. Truebill will also let people know when the cost of a subscription rises, giving them a chance to rethink their decision to keep paying for it.

Mokhtarzada created Truebill because he personally needed a service like it. "I was looking at my credit card statement one day, which none of us do enough, realistically, and I saw a $40 charge for in-flight WiFi, which I thought was odd," he said. "I realized that I had been spending $40 per month for 14 months without realizing it, which is kind of shameful, but that's the way it was." So he and his brother partnered up on a service that gives people more control over their finances.

The hope is to eventually make Truebill a one-stop solution for subscriptions. People would be able to sign up for new services without having to retype all of their payment information, or put a monthly subscription like Birchbox on hold for a month, through one central interface. But for now the Mokhtarzadas are content to offer an easier way for people to see what they're paying for and nix any unwanted subscriptions without going through the cancellation process themselves.

Apps like Bobby and SubscriptMe offer similar monitoring tools. A service called AirPaper once promised to help people cancel their Comcast subscription for $5, but it has since shut down. Trim is the most comprehensive rival to Truebill. It charges $6 to cancel subscriptions that require sending a letter or making a call, though, while Truebill is free to use because it plans to make money by recommending new subscriptions based on its users' current interests. (Thereby guaranteeing people keep coming back to Truebill to manage their subscriptions. Clever!)

"We've seen that the average number of subscriptions per-person has doubled over the last 18 months," Mokhtarzada said. "Assuming that people continue getting more subscriptions and more businesses move toward a subscription model, I think it's a pretty safe bet that we're making."

The company has raised $1.75 million to give it time to grow while it tries to reach more users.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about this category's prospects. "Without knowing the exact number and types of subscriptions these apps cater to and how easy they are to use, I can't answer this authoritatively," App Annie senior vice president of research Danielle Levitas said in an email. "That said, I don't see this as a category that will necessarily have broad adoption." App Annie's metrics show that these apps are dwarfed by established finance apps like BillMinder and HomeBudget.

Still, it's not hard to see how Bobby, Truebill, Trim, and others in this market could thrive. All of these apps have been popular on Product Hunt, the public message board where tech insiders share the latest-and-greatest stuff with each other, and Bobby is actually number 157 on the list of top grossing finance tools in the App Store even though it only offers a 99-cent in-app purchase. Call it a fad, call it a boom town. Either way, this industry is more necessary than ever before.