Recurring monthly costs: Which are worth it? Which are not?

I met some friends at a local restaurant Monday night. While chatting, we found ourselves bopping to the music playing on the radio. For more than hour, great song followed great song: U2, Eurythmics, The Police, Elvis Costello, The Clash, New Order. But the ambient noise made it impossible to know what station we were hearing. “I have to know what this is,” I said at last. “This could be my new favorite radio station.”

I tracked down the manager. He told me we were listening to Fred on 44, a channel on XM Satellite Radio. I’d heard of satellite radio, but didn’t know much about it. When I got home, I did some research.

As expected, there’s an upfront cost to obtain a receiver that can de-scramble the satellite signal. Unfortunately, that’s not the only cost. There’s also a subscription fee of around $10/month.

Alas — a subscription fee. They’re not deal-breakers for me, but they turn otherwise sure things into financial dilemmas. I don’t mind one-time costs, but subscriptions make me wary.

I would love to purchase an iPhone, for example. The initial hardware cost is fine. I can justify that. But I can’t justify a $60/month, two-year contract. That’s nearly $1500 for a device I don’t actually need. I stopped playing World of Warcraft because of the subscription fee. I loved the game, but in order to get my money’s worth, I felt like I needed to play more than is healthy.

I view recurring expenses as potential money sinks. Too often I don’t get value for what I spend. For three years I carried an $70/month deluxe digital cable package so that I could watch high-definition television. But at most, I was watching an hour or two of television per month! Besides, who needs to see Antiques Roadshow in high-def?

Over the past year, I’ve cut the number of magazines to which I subscribe, dropped to basic cable, and cancelled my Audible account. These moves have freed over $100/month. Eliminating recurring expenses has made a significant difference to my cash flow. Most of the time, I don’t even miss the things I’ve eliminated!

Of course, we each probably have a few recurring expenses that are easy to justify due to the pleasure or utility they bring us. I’m willing to shell out for The New Yorker because even though I only read about one issue per month, when I do read it, I love it. And if I find the time to listen to audiobooks again, I’ll re-subscribe to Audible — it’s a good deal when I actually use it.

I can’t decide whether paying for satellite radio would be smart or not. I’ve signed up for the free three-day trial of XM’s web service. So far, I like it. I’d probably subscribe:

  • If NPR were available,
  • If there were some sort of device that allowed me to receive XM on my iPod, or
  • If it cost less.

As it stands, am I willing to spend $10/month for XM, and then pay for a receiver? How about $8/month for the streaming web version? I don’t know. For now, I’m just going to dig through my iTunes library to create some new playlists. I can probably duplicate the sound of Fred on 44. Maybe that will be enough…

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