11 min read

The No-Subscription Setup

The No-Subscription Setup

How I reduce the money I pay every month by finding non-subscription alternatives to the programs I use.

It feels like everything becomes a subscription, and I am getting annoyed by the growing amount of money I have to pay every month. I miss the times when I just bought a program once and could use it forever without the fear of losing my notes and ideas if I ever decide to stop paying.

So, I decided to search for alternatives for the programs I use that are either free to use or require only a one-time payment. I tested them for a month now, and while they cannot always hold up to their paid counterparts, a few definitely can - and I even started preferring them.

The OS

Luckily, Microsoft and macOS are no subscriptions, and during the last years, they even got cheaper or free to use. My choice of ecosystem will mainly influence the available programs.

I am currently using macOS, but I plan on migrating to Linux soon because I like the free, open-source mindset and want to test whether or not I like it. I particularly like the looks of Elementary OS and am intrigued by the challenges and opportunities of Arch Linux (I know they couldn’t be more different).

Writing, Tables, & Presentations

The Microsoft Office and Ulysses replacement

Arguably the most vital programs on my computer are Word, Excel, and PowerPoint - the complete Microsoft 365 suite, which costs69,99$ / year for the personal plan. In addition to that, I use Ulysses for distraction-free writing, which is another 49,99$ / year. I love these programs, yet realising I spend over 100$ on them every year seems quite steep when considering that I hardly use anything other than the most basic features.

Microsoft 365 alternatives

Microsoft has built the ultimate office suite, which is hard to replace. But there are a few alternatives that come pretty close and are free to use.

Available on Microsoft, macOS, and Linux

Docs, Sheets, and Slides are Google’s counterparts to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and they do an excellent job of replacing them. When working in a team, Google even has the edge over Microsoft, and the only problem I have with this tool is that I always have the feeling I am paying with my information.

Available on Microsoft, macOS, and Linux

Before Google Docs, OpenOffice was the most common free alternative, and LibreOffice is its modern successor. This open-source office suite does not look as polished as the other alternatives, but it gets the job done and, similar to Linux, follows an open-source policy which I like. It feels like everything I need with my data staying in my control.

Available on macOS

Since I first used my parents iMac, I liked the iWork lineup of programs. Especially Keynote, the Excel equivalent, is a more than worthy replacement for PowerPoint. The other programs are Pages, and Numbers so If you are working on any Apple device, I recommend you try these free tools.

Ulysses alternatives

I don’t like using heavy word processing tools for my daily writing, and that is why, about five years ago, I started using Ulysses, a beautiful writing tool that allows me to focus only on the text in front of me. The problem: $50 / year is a lot for a program whose only function I use is the ability to type text.

Microsoft, macOS, and Linux - $29,99

For a one time payment of $29,99, I downloaded iA writer, a minimalist writing tool that, like Ulysses, allows me to focus solely on writing. It is a beautiful tool and a perfect alternative.

Linux

Technically, this little program works on macOS and Microsoft as well but only with some quirks and I wouldn’t recommend using it outside of Linux. If you are using Linux, though, this is a beautiful writing tool. I am looking forward to making ghostwriter my primary writing tool when testing out Linux.

  • Honorable Mentions & bonus tools
    ByWord (Apple - $10,99) - another distraction free writing tool
    Scrivener (Apple - $49,99) - for serious fiction writing
    VIM (I will try this in the future. Difficult to learn but then, apparently, the best tool to use)
    LatEx (for professional formatting)

ToDos, Notes & Project Management

The Evernote replacement

I love note-taking tools and have probably used all of them by now. While most of them established some kind of monthly payment, there are still some great tools that can be bought once or are free to use. Evernote’s free plan, for example, is actually usable by now, but I decided to move away from it, and I also don’t want to use Bear or Ulysses because they are both subscription-based.

Today, I use the free version of Notion for note-taking and project management, which is better than all the other tools I used before. My ToDo list is Things 3. It is pretty expensive at $10 for the iPhone app and $50 for the macOS version (I had to buy them separately), and there is no version for Windows or Android. I prefer paying for this fantastic tool once instead of paying monthly for Todoist.

Some great and free alternatives are Reminders for Apple, Microsoft To-DO for Windows (or Mac), and Google Keep if you like the Google Suite.

Sadly, the one note-taking program I love more than any other on my computer costs $15/month: Roam Research. Roam made an enormous difference in my productivity setup, and I use it to journal, store ideas, brainstorm, etc. I will write a separate review about this program in the future and a guide on how it fits into my digital setup, but I am afraid I didn’t find any alternative for it at this point (but I will stay on the lookout).

Photography

The Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom replacement

Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription contains some amazing programs: Photoshop, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Illustrator, and InDesign are all industry-leading software, and I would have to have a CC subscription if I’d work in this field. But I don’t, and the price tag for this bundle is high: $52,99 per month (or $20,99 / month for Photoshop only), so I started to look into some alternatives. There is a good offer for students and teachers, but you have to be careful with this one. I am still mad about the time when my student subscription ran out, and Adobe decided to, without warning, bill me a whole year at full price.

Unlike a few years ago, there are some fantastic alternatives to Adobe’s software. That being said, I haven’t found anything that can fully replace Photoshop. Gimp (Windows, macOS, and Linux) and Affinity Photo are both great tools for simple image manipulation, but when working professionally, Photoshop stays the king.

I don’t need all of Photoshop’s abilities, though, and I am fine with one of the alternatives. The program I use more often anyways is Lightroom. Since I started loving photography over 10 years ago, Lightroom has been the most important tool on my computer because I use it to edit the colours of my images and organise them. Lightroom used to be a buy-it-once solution separate from the Creative Cloud, but sadly that is not the case anymore, and Lightroom 6, the program I paid for, does not run on the latest version of macOS. Adobe moves away from Lightroom Classic to Lightroom CC and wants me to use their cloud storage as well.

I use Lightroom for RAW-editing and to access and go through my image library, which I structure in a folder on my hard drive. I need to find tools for both of these tasks.

  • Photo Mechanic
    Windows, and macOS - $139
    Camera Bits’ Photo Mechanics is the best program for organising images. I just finished my 30-day trial, and I like it. I can access the folder structure on my external hard drive and sort through my images in an enjoyable way.
  • Capture One
    Windows, and macOS - $299 ($199 for Sony, Fuji, or Nikon only)
    Also has a subscription model, but you can choose to make a one-time payment of $299. Capture One comes closest to the performance of Lightroom and Photoshop when it comes to editing the colours of an image and is the preferred choice by some professional photographers.
  • darktable
    Windows, macOS, and Linux
    Darktable has a steep learning curve, but according to the internet, it is quite powerful once you get the hang of it.
  • rawtherapee
    Windows, macOS, and Linux
    Another free and surprisingly capable tool. Like darktable, it cannot reach Lightroom’s level of performance but might be enough for most people’s needs.
  • Apple Photos
    As an iPhone user, I use Apple Photos to organise the images I have taken with my phone. It is excellent for doing this and entirely free to use. I like to use it to manage the pictures I take with my iPhone, but I don’t like throwing in the photos I took with my camera because it seems to get very messy.

Good photography software is expensive. Switching over from Lightroom to a Photo Mechanic / Capture One combination would set me back $438, enough for 4 years of Lightroom, the program I have used and loved for over 10 years.

Photography is, even though I spend way too much money on it, a hobby, and I don’t need any professional tools. I am not the one paying for my Adobe CC license but, because it feels like cheating, I removed it from my personal PC and will try to live without it. I decided to buy Photo Mechanic because cataloguing and organising my images is the most important part for me, and I do some light edits in darktable. I have to be honest though; I am not sure Lightroom will stay off my hard drive forever.

Videography

The Adobe Premiere Pro replacement

DaVinci Resolve is not only free, used by Hollywood, and available on all platforms; it is also, subjectively, better than Premiere Pro and gets better with every release. “Great success”. I could buy some additional features for $295, but they don’t add anything I need. Resolve might be the best free software on the internet.

Final Cut Pro X ($299,99) is a fantastic tool that is worth its price tag and runs incredibly fast on macOS.

Graphics & Design

Diagrams.net (previously known as draw.io) is an outstanding tool to create graphs, diagrams, flowcharts, etc. I love using this tool and prefer it over Microsoft Visio.

If you are using Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Designer (Windows, macOS, and Linux - $55), or Inkscape (Windows, macOS, and Linux) might be some alternatives. Alternatives for InDesign would be Affinity Publisher (Windows, macOS, and Linux - $55) or the free version of Canva.

To be honest, in this area, it depends on your specific needs whether or not you can replace Illustrator or not. If you are working in a professional environment, it is likely impossible to replace Adobe’s tools - but in that case, you shouldn’t be the one paying for them.

Sound

Audacity(Windows, macOS, and Linux) looks like it hasn’t been updated for 20 years, but it also doesn’t need to. It has all the features I need and just works.

Screen Recording

Open Broadcast Software (OBS) is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux and is the best software to do screen recordings. On macOS, I also use the included QuickTime Player to record my screen.

Cloud Storage & Device Synching

I like storing some of my data in the cloud, not only because I can access it from anywhere but also because I use the cloud as a backup in case I lose my laptop. I know that I always have to pay to use a service like this, and the free GBs Google, Dropbox, and Apple grant me are not enough for my needs.

There are ways to build a personal cloud and use all the advantages without a monthly payment. I own a Synology Disk Station and recently read about the features of Nextcloud. Ultimately, I decided against using these tools and still pay $10/month for 2TB of iCloud storage because the integration with my apple setup is just too convenient and setting up a cloud costs a lot of time. To build my own cloud that is as secure and easy to use as one of the paid options, I have to invest more time - maybe a project for the future, but right now, I have another focus.

Entertainment

Once upon a time, I was subscribed to Netflix, paid $8/month, and could watch everything I desired. It was the only entertainment subscription I had. Today, I am subscribed to Netflix Standard ($13,99/month), Hulu & Disney Plus ($13,99/month), Amazon Prime ($12,99/month), Sky Germany ($50/month), Spotify ($9,99/month), and Audible ($14,95/month). I also have a Playstation and Nintendo Switch, which require me to pay $5/month and $4/month to use their online features.

In total, I pay $125 every month ($1500/year) just for entertainment - a huge amount I wasn’t aware of completely.

Ideally, I would cancel all of these subscriptions, save $1500 a year, and purely focus on productivity to reach the life of my dreams (the big project I pursue on my other blog). While I’d reach my goals faster, I know that this is not how I want to go. I want to reduce the negative impacts of technology on my life (e.g. the money and time I spend consuming content), but I don’t want to miss parts I love like listening to music and audiobooks, watching my hometown’s soccer team, or watching shows with my wife on a Sunday morning. The problem is not that I use these services but the amount of subscription-based services I started using over time.

I found a few ways that drastically reduced the monthly amount I pay.

  • I don’t need everything

Before Netflix, I never had the opportunity to watch everything whenever I wanted. Why do I need this opportunity now - why do I have to be subscribed to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu/Disney? I don’t have time to consume a lot of movies and shows anyways but only watch a little bit in the evenings and the weekend - so one service should be plenty in particular when considering the DVDs lying around containing all James Bond movies, Friends, and The Office. I decided to cancel my Netflix subscription and only go with Hulu/Disney.

  • Family Accounts

Nearly every service offers some kind of family account, and using them can save money for everyone. Today, I share a Tidal account with my brother and dad instead of Spotify, have an Amazon Prime household, share Disney with my cousins, and watch soccer through my parents Sky (to be honest, I have done this before already).

  • Cancel audible

Currently, I have 25 credits (25 free audiobooks) on my Audible account. I get one free credit every month, so the extra credits I have show that I don’t need Audible’s premium subscription. A lot of people don’t know that you don’t have to be subscribed to Audible in order to use it. You can buy the audiobooks on Amazon, and they will appear in the library.

Be careful: When cancelling an Audible account, all audiobooks will still be there, but the credits are lost. That is why I sat down and just bought any book that looked interesting before cancelling my account.

Apps

I only have a few apps with a subscription, and it was easy to replace them. If you are on an iPhone, there is a great overview of the programs you are subscribed to.

  • Calm (meditation)
    Insight Timer is a free alternative that might even be better than Calm.
  • Lifesum (calorie counter)
    This one was easy to replace. I just cancelled the subscription because I decided that I don’t like to count calories.
  • Windy (weather)
    Apple’s weather app is actually good by now.
  • Chess.com (♟)
    Lichess is much better and free.

Conclusion

Last year, after not owning any Windows device for 10 years, my parents discovered that they are paying for a yearly subscription for Norton’s virus scanner for Windows. It is easy to subscribe to different services and even easier to forget about them.

I wasn’t able to replace all the tools I pay for monthly, and that is ok. I still reduced my monthly bill by more than half, which is a big chunk of money I will save over time. Subscriptions are not fundamentally bad - companies supplying amazing tools can use the monthly revenue to improve them. Still, the trend towards everything becoming subscription-based is, in my opinion, getting out of hand. I won’t pay $3/month for a simple text-editing tool that hasn’t changed in years.

After one month of a mindful approach towards subscriptions, my takeaway is a change in my mindset. I have to be in control of my subscriptions and always know what I am paying for. Then, I have to be aware of the features I actually need. There are many great tools out there that might fit my needs better than the professional tool I pay for monthly.

I will continue this experiment in the future and will constantly be on the lookout for great non-subscription tools. I will notify you in the Digital Oase Newsletter in case anything in this article changes.