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1. Subscription boxes ‘surprises’
There seems to be a subscription box service for everything these days, from a “salami of the month” club to beauty products to toys for a pet. Signing up for such a service seems fun until you get a surprise you weren’t expecting: A shockingly low bank-account balance. Americans made about 21.4 million visits to subscription box retailers’ websites in January 2016, up from only 722,000 visits in January 2015, according to the e-commerce and consumer analytics company Connexity’s Hitwise division, in a report for the research firm Euromonitor International.
Although several subscription services have more than a million subscribers, such as Birchbox and Ipsy, two cosmetics services, most Americans probably shouldn’t be stocking up, some experts have said. (Birchbox and Ipsy did not respond to requests for comment on this article.) “We’re spending before we even save and then never look back,” said Brandon Hayes, a financial planner and vice president at oXYGen Financial, a financial services firm based in Georgia. “With a cashless society, it’s tough to appreciate a dollar when you never see one.”
Most Americans have barely enough savings to even cover their household necessities, let alone sign up to receive a recurring monthly gift. Nearly half of U.S. adults couldn’t cover an emergency expense of $400 without selling something or borrowing money, according to the Federal Reserve.
There may be a place in the budget for some subscription services that replenish household items people already need, like Dollar Shave Club, which sells inexpensive razors, experts have said. Yet for the most part, many consumers would benefit from putting their credit cards away and just saying “No” to items they don’t need, said Rachel Podnos, an attorney and financial planner based in Washington, D.C. Particularly for people with lower incomes, “you really need to live within your means and cut expenses wherever you can,” she said.
You may be saving yourself a future headache: many subscriptions can be pretty hard to cancel, too.
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2. Fast fashion clothing
Consumer spending on clothing continues to grow in the U.S., reaching $266.8 billion in 2015, up from $240.1 billion in 2010, according to the research firm Euromonitor International. “Fast fashion” companies are known for quickly manufacturing clothing and getting it into stores, have driven much of that growth. Consumers going through tough economic times after the U.S. economic recession often turned to these retailers to keep up to date with trends on a budget, Euromonitor found. (Zara’s parent company Inditex SA is the world’s biggest fashion retailer by sales.)
And yet while the fashions themselves may be inexpensive, the overall cost of producing them can be high. Reports have shown that several retailers have used factories to produce clothing, often subcontracted the manufacturing to third party companies in developing countries, resulting in fatal accidents including this factory fire in Bangladesh in 2013. (Zara did not respond to requests for comment.)
And a huge amount of clothing that Americans buy gets thrown away. The U.S. generates an average of 25 billion pounds of textiles a year, or roughly 82 pounds per U.S. resident, including clothing, footwear, accessories, towels, bedding and drapery, according to the nonprofit organization Council for Textile Recycling. About 15% of the amount produced gets donated or recycled, but 85% goes to landfills. The amount of waste is only expected to grow, from 25 billion pounds in 2009 to 35.4 billion pounds in 2019, the organization added.
Environmental organizations have long been raising alarm about clothing waste and dangerous manufacturing practices, but “the level of consumption, especially with the continued popularity among consumers of fast fashion, is raising the environmental impact of our clothing unlike anything we have seen before,” said Kirsten Brodde, the campaign leader for the “Detox My Fashion” campaign at environmental organization Greenpeace, in an email.
Some retailers have started to help with the clothing waste problem. H&M has started its own recycling program, in which consumers can drop off unwanted clothes (H&M clothes, or not) at their stores year-round. Once H&M collects the clothes, it sends them to sorting plants which determine how they can be used or recycled. And “fast fashion” companies have made clothing affordable for many who may not be able to buy higher-end, more durable items.
For those who struggle to pay for clothing, there are alternatives, said Courtney Jespersen, a retail and shopping expert at the personal finance company NerdWallet. She suggested keeping track of how many times one actually wears an item when deciding if that shopping strategy. Investing in fewer, more basic items may be a better choice financially.Consumers should also consider secondhand or thrift stores, she added. There are also apps including Poshmark that let people not only buy secondhand clothing, but sell their own.
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Timeshares are on the rise again, having made a full comeback since the housing crisis, with more reports from disgruntled vacationers about resorts putting pressure on them in the U.S. and U.K. to buy a piece of paradise that they can use a few weeks a year.
And people are buying. Timeshare vacation plans have been around in the U.S. since 1969 — the first opened in Kauai, Hawaii — and they generated $8.6 billion in annual sales in 2015, up 9% from a year before, according to the American Resort Development Association, or ARDA, which represents many timeshare developments. Timeshare apartments and villas in sunny locales are associated with high-pressure sales tactics that get mocked relentlessly in pop culture and they’re often sold at a loss when it comes time to unload one. Plus, they come with annual maintenance fees that can easily top several thousand dollars and which often increase each year whether you use the timeshare or not.
On the plus side, the U.S timeshare industry contributed an estimated $79.5 billion in consumer and business spending to the U.S. economy in 2015, according to a study conducted by accounting firm Ernst & Young for the ARDA. This not only includes jobs on the resorts themselves, but sales and marketing offices, corporate operations, construction of new resorts, renovation of existing resorts, and vacation spending. Timeshares can guarantee you vacation time since they often come with fixed annual dates for right-of-use, at least for people who like to go to the same place year after year and, experts say, are typically larger than an average hotel room.
But as this writer to MarketWatch’s advice columnist, the Moneyologist, discovered, sometimes the only way to offload them is to die. Resorts and locales come in and out of fashion, and owners are often stuck with rising maintenance fees. And many people use these timeshares to exchange with other timeshare owners (they may never even visit their own timeshare), and enjoy the bartering and excitement of going to a different location every year. However, this is usually done via a timeshare exchange company, which has its own set of fees.
—Daniel Goldstein and Quentin Fottrell
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4. Recalled toys online
When it comes to buying anything for a child this holiday season, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. That may mean forgoing online purchases of recalled toys, even if their manufacturers have fixed the issues. Sometimes, as seen in a recent research report from nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Groups Education Fund, toys recalled for excessive lead, choking hazards or overheating make it back onto the market.
In some scary situations, the wrong toy could end up on your doorstep after you purchase it online, the report showed. Companies will fix problems with the toys and put them back on the market — third-party retailers may (or may not) do the same. Luckily, there have been less recalls in the last few years: there were 24 toy recalls this fiscal year, down from 172 in 2008, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency that manages recalls. Still, it’s always best to be proactive.
The first step should always be to analyze the toy and its potential hazards, and ensure the toy wasn’t recalled, which can be done by searching the CPSC’s database. If you do end up buying the toy, go a step farther before giving it to the child by cross-checking item numbers of the product with those that were recalled. This is especially important with third-party sellers, which may still be selling the original recalled product. You can always call the company to make sure, too.
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5. Ear bud headphones with wires
For many iPhone users, trashing those classic ear buds with wires might not have been a choice. Apple’s AAPL, -0.78%latest version of the iPhone doesn’t include a headphone jack and is intended to be paired with the company’s $159 wireless “AirPods” instead. (Customers who purchased the iPhone 7 before the new headphones were released this year received an adapter so they could continue to use their ear buds).
Of course, wireless headphones, which are available from companies other than Apple, don’t solve all these problems and they create some issues of their own. They last just five hours and need to be charged or housed in a separate carrying case to increase the battery life.
But even if Apple hadn’t tried to force our hands (and ears) this year, it would be worth reconsidering our affinity for those little buds with the long cord. For one, they may be hurting our hearing. More than 1 billion young people are at risk of hearing loss from listening to their personal audio devices through headphones, particularly earbuds. What’s more, they’re constantly tangled.
So give your ears and your sanity a break this year and buy some over the ear headphones — or simply listen to the world around you.
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6. Smart fridges
In January, the smart refrigerator was the breakout product of the 2016 CES trade show, which showcases the upcoming consumer electronics trends. These pricey home devices created a big buzz in 2016, but consumers would be wise to opt for an old school fridge in the coming year.
Although these smart models seem like the fridges of the future, the steep costs and security risks may outweigh any convenience offered by the built-in apps and high-tech features. The Samsung Family Hub, for example, retails at $3,800. The connected fridge comes with a touch screen on the front door from which users can order groceries online and control other utilities in the home. It is also equipped with built-in cameras that “allow you to see what’s inside the fridge without wasting energy.” Like, you know, opening the door. A similar model from Whirpool WHR, -0.78% retails for $3,800 and can be controlled by an app on your phone.
Even if you think these features are worth the extra money (a standard LG 066570, +0.19% refrigerator sells for around $1,000, for comparison), security risks are probably not. Most connected devices, including fridges, are easily hacked. While you might not care if a stranger on the internet can peek at your groceries (you should), these breaches can affect security on an international scale when devices are harnessed for major attacks.
In October, a number of hacked smart devices were used to carry out a distributed denial of service attack on internet provider Dyn, flooding it with traffic and causing websites like Twitter and Spotify to crash. Some security experts said consumers with devices that were hacked and provided a gateway to their internet still used the default passwords they had when they bought the equipment.
Although smart device manufacturers are increasingly taking security into account, American consumers might want to keep our kitchens off the grid, at least for now. (Samsung and Whirlpool did not respond to requests for comment.)
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7. These foods that are touted as healthy
When it comes to healthy eating, a quip by the comedian Kevin Hart comes to mind: “Everybody wants to be famous, but nobody wants to do the work.” Vegetables, fruits and whole grains make up the day-to-day drudgery of health. And research shows that losing weight is even harder than most people think, since metabolism slows as dieters make progress, and sometimes even more than scientists expected.
So it’s no wonder people go instead for the seeming workarounds, which are flashier and more fun: snack foods masquerading under a health halo, fad diets, and their ilk. “Name a trendy diet that has been proposed by pop culture at any time that panned out to be true and worked. Atkins, juicing, the Zone diet, carbo-loading, you name it,” Timothy Caulfield, a professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta, Canada, said.
Wraps are one example of this. People tend to think they’re better for you, but they are often made of stripped white grains and paired with fried foods or bacon, Cleveland Clinic nutritionist Kristin Kirkpatrick told MarketWatch.
So in 2017, let’s swap hype-ensconced, sugar-packed green juices for a cheaper and more filling protein source — actual vegetables, say both Kirkpatrick and Caulfield. Don’t focus on the “spinach” or “sun-dried tomato” labeling on wrap sandwiches and ignore their fried fillings. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, Caulfield said. Healthy living is work. Do the work. And try to avoid eating too much food that doesn’t masquerade as healthy, like candy.
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8. Event tickets from resale sites
Buying tickets can be extra expensive when you buy from ticket resellers. Sometimes they’re coming from sellers who can’t attend an event and need to get those tickets off their hands. Increasingly, however, it’s from bots who mark up the price substantially and can’t be trusted. Consumers have complained in the past that some tickets being sold on these online marketplaces don’t even exist.
Regulators can’t easily target bad actors, either, since all states have different ways of handling ticket “scalping.” New York Senator Chuck Schumer announced proposed legislation earlier this year that would ban ticket bots, a fight Lin-Manuel Miranda, former star of Broadway’s Hamilton, has joined.
Though a few ticket selling websites, such as StubHub and Ticketmaster, provide a 100% price guarantee that the seats are verified or your money back, having to go through the vetting process to ensure the authenticity of tickets or, worse, finding out the tickets are fake after buying them, can be a hassle. And there is sometimes little other alternative: some concerts sell out in minutes, while certain sporting events are sold out months in advance.
“StubHub is firmly against any technology or activity that makes it harder for regular fans to purchase tickets,” a spokesman for the company says. “We believe in a secure, fair and open marketplace, and we will strongly combat any unfair and deceptive practices that make it harder for fans to buy and use event tickets in an open market.”
To be fair, some resellers are unloading tickets at a reasonable cost. But sometimes, like in the case of this year’s World Series featuring an historic face-off between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians, re-sales aren’t always worth a nearly $20,000 ticket price. The New York Yankees changed their digital ticketing policy earlier this year, making it more difficult for season ticket holders to sell some of their tickets.
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9. Dental Floss
There was a moment of relief in 2016 for Americans who are scared to go to the dentist for fear they’d be admonished for their failure to floss. An investigation (yes, there was an investigation into flossing) by the Associated Press revealed that the effectiveness of the practice had never been rigorously researched, even though the government has been recommending we floss since 1979. It turns out most of the evidence that the combination of flossing and brushing is more effective than brushing alone is pretty weak, the AP found. The government stopped including flossing in its dietary recommendations this year as a result.
Dentists will tell you that it’s a mistake to use the findings as an excuse to abandon flossing. And we grudgingly admit that they’re probably right. As an essay in the New York Times pointed out last month, the so-called weak evidence supporting flossing was the absence of a study using randomized controlled trials that definitively proves flossing is beneficial to your health. But there’s evidence, clinical and otherwise, that indicates flossing is good for you. And there’s no indication that flossing is actually bad for you.
What’s more, letting plaque build up could cause gingivitis and other gum disease, the treatment of which could cost $500 at minimum, according to the Consumer Guide to Denistry, a dentistry information site. And health benefits notwithstanding, it’s still annoying to have food stuck in your teeth.
But if you’re sometimes too tired to floss as you head to bed, know that the government (sort of) endorses your laziness.
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10. Celebrity fashion labels
None of us will ever be a Kardashian, but for a steep price we can dress like one.
For $120 you can don a Kendall and Kylie Jenner bodysuit and for $248 you can wear whatever this is from the same line. Celebrity brands are almost always expensive: take this $550 “mystic poncho” from Gwyneth Paltrow or Kanye West’s infamous $120 white t-shirt (which sold out instantly). This metallic mesh crop tee made by Beyonce’s brand costs $58 and probably does not look good on anybody but the pop star herself. (None of these brands responded with a request for comment.)
No matter what you think of these brands, however, they wield major influence, and it allows the fans to feel like they have a connection with their favorite pop star, movie star or reality TV star. In March, West generated $2 million sales out of a pop-up shop in New York City and created chaos when he opened others. He’s argued in the past his pitches for styles like leather jogging pants have been rejected by major labels only to be mass-produced in a few years.