J.P. McDade has been getting an alarming message at the top of his Gmail inbox: The free storage that came with his Google account is almost used up, and he's not sure where things went wrong.
"All I did was receive emails, and now I'm dangerously close to not being able to receive them anymore," says McDade, a writer and comedian based in New York City who has been using the free email service from Alphabet's Google for about 10 years.
He's left with a few options. He could go to a different email provider, but he says that would throw his life "into a tailspin" as contacts and companies send messages to his old address. He could pay Google $2 a month for an additional 85 gigabytes of space, but that would make him feel like "a sucker." For now, he's settled on deleting small batches of spam emails every time he gets close to the limit. It takes hours to make even a small dent, he said.
"It's like the boat is filling with water and I'm using a sippy cup to empty it out little by little," he said, adding that he suspects Google can solve its storage issues without his monetary help.
McDade is one of 1.5 billion people around the world who use Gmail, according to Google's most recent public count. But, like him, not all of them are happy with it. The popular message board Reddit, for instance, has a 56,000-member "DeGoogling" community made up of people hunting for non-Google alternatives to the company's email service, search engine and browser due to concerns over Google's power and privacy practices, according to a welcome post on the forum. Others felt indignant when Google ended its free photo storage and said it would count any new photos or videos uploaded after June 1 toward each user's 15-gigabyte limit for email, photos and Drive. Google's competitors in the cloud storage space - including Apple, Amazon, Dropbox and Microsoft - charge similar prices.
The change to storage policies and the push toward paid subscriptions was necessary to keep up with growing demand for storage, said a Google spokeswoman. People add more than 4.3 million gigabytes of content to Google accounts every day, the company says.
If you're worried about running out of space, don't hop to a competing service just yet. Clearing space is easy with some tucked-away Google tools, and starting over with a new email address is a pain.
Not ready to bail
Like McDade, I'm not ready to bail on my Google account. I would lose all my saved YouTube videos and Discount Shoe Warehouse coupons.
But this handy tool from Google says I only have 2 GB of storage left - if you click the link, you'll see your own available storage.
That leaves two options: Pay for more storage or use less.
Google offers three pay-to-play storage options: 100 GB for $1.99 a month, 200 GB for $2.99 a month or 2,000 GB for $9.99 a month. All three are also available on a yearly basis for a discount. Unless you're storing a lot of big files or sharing with a family of power users, the "Basic" 100 GB plan should be a sufficient upgrade.
If you decide to purge to free up storage space instead, start with big photo and video files. This storage management page helpfully groups large photos and videos - as well as blurry photos and screenshots - so you can easily delete them. (You'll need to be signed in to your Google account for it to work.) If that doesn't do the trick, go on to this page and check if there are deleted emails, spam emails, large email attachments or other big files to clear out. Just deleting all the old videos from my Google Drive cleared 9 GB of space, about three-fifths of the free storage quota.
You can go through this same process from your mobile device by using the Google One app, which is available in the Google Play store and the Apple App Store.
Be careful before you mass delete files, though, especially attachments. I found old W-2s, apartment leases and other things I need to hang on to. It's a taste of why switching email providers feels so impossible: Our lives happen on email, including messages from employers, health-care providers and banks. In that sense, Google has Gmail users on the line.
Switch cloud options
If your Google account storage is filling up and Google Photos is the culprit, you can always switch to a different cloud storage option for your photos and videos. But you will also run into the same issue of having to pay for extra storage.
If you use an Apple device and already store data in iCloud, that could be a good landing place for photos. Apple charges $0.99 a month for 50 GB of storage on iCloud+ subscription plans, $2.99 for 200 GB and $9.99 for 2,000 GB. You can buy more storage for your iCloud account from an iPhone or iPad by going to Settings > Your Name > iCloud > Manage Storage or iCloud Storage. On a Mac computer, go to the Apple menu > System Preferences > Apple ID > iCloud > Manage (in the bottom right corner).
Amazon Prime members get free unlimited full-resolution photo storage, and the company offers some upgraded storage options, too.
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Dropbox offers the biggest storage option, with a 3,000 GB "Professional" plan for $19.99 a month.
And Microsoft's OneDrive has personal and family Microsoft 365 plans, both of which come with 1,000 GB per person, along with Office apps like Word and Excel. The personal plan is $6.99 a month, and the family plan is $9.99 a month for up to six people.
Google, Dropbox and Microsoft all offer discounts if you go with a yearly subscription, and the three companies' discounts were about equal at around 17 percent.
Privacy a huge issue
Google doesn't have a great privacy track record. For instance, its Chrome browser collects data on you as you click around the Internet to help tailor Google products to your liking and show ads for things you're more likely to buy. Concerns over a Google-run email service have driven some people toward more private email providers. (Though the company stopped reading your emails for advertising purposes in 2017.)
Proton and Tutanota are two providers that offer free accounts and end-to-end encryption, which means only you and your recipient can see the messages flying back and forth - not even the provider in the middle. To set up an account, just follow the links above, click the "sign up" button, select the free email plan and choose a new email address and unique, hard-to-guess password.
But if you're lazy, busy or above it all, just toss some video files in the trash and carry on. Your Gmail is salvageable - and familiar.