2009-12-12

Cheap

If I were to describe myself in a word, it would be “cheap.” Well, I suppose if I were having good self-esteem on that particular day I might instead say “creative” or even middling self-esteem I might go for a euphemism like “frugal,” but on just about any day, if I were being honest, “cheap” would definitely be in the top ten.

When I heard about Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, a book by Ellen Ruppel Shell, I made it a point to read it to see if I could challenge my thrifty inclinations. Truthfully, I admire my own frugality. It’s what makes life more manageable in my recent period of un(der)employment. The fact that I didn’t spend much money even when I was earning it also makes it easier. However, while cheapness can be good, I know it often comes at a price, so I wanted to educate myself on the subject. I didn’t rush out and buy Cheap; being cheap and all I just waited patiently for it to come in on hold at the liberry.

Cheap was a good read, and raises some interesting points. There is a lot of focus on the thrill of the deal. Sale prices trigger excitement on the part of the consumer, and I am no exception. Through some psychological… I’ll call it a quirk, but feel free to call it a deficiency… I can barely bring myself to pay full-price for anything. I’ll buy the brand of cereal that’s on sale that week or search tirelessly for online coupons for products I’m interested in. Although saving 50 cents won’t make or break me, it does make or break whether I buy something ultimately. I wish I could get over that, but it’s not a unique mindset apparently.

Even if Shell hasn’t shaken the frugality out of me, I am at least a more educated consumer for having read Cheap. For one, the book dispels the appeal of outlet stores. I always assumed that these stores were stocked with surplus items, but apparently many just house items made specifically for these locations. These products are of inferior quality and the stores won’t stand behind the products by way of returns and warranties in the same way they will at their regular stores. Instead, they are merely using an established brand name with the promise of a deal to lure customers. Furthermore, people will typically spend more on gas traveling to these outlets than the difference in price had they bought them at a nearby store.

Another lesson is to do your homework, because Wal-Mart and other big-box discount retailers are selective in their low prices. By having the cheapest prices on the products we are most familiar with the value of (milk, batteries, socks, etc.), they use that to earn a reputation and get you into the store and actually jack up the prices of less conventional goods. Once you think everything is cheaper at this spot, you’re less likely to research and discover that the same clock or pair of headphones is actually $20 cheaper next door.

The book is also littered with fun facts. Shopping carts were invented because, previously, shoppers would never buy more than they could carry. A funny notion, huh? When the first grocery store introduced carts, consumers wouldn’t touch them; the men saw them as emasculating and the women viewed them as unpopular. To reverse this trend, the store paid burly men and attractive women to push carts around the store until the general public followed suit. To this day, people buy more items when they push a cart than when they hold a basket, which reconfirms my tendency to never grab more than a basket when I shop.

While reading this book, I was in the market for a bed, and most of my friends vouched for Ikea. I saw that there was a whole chapter devoted to Ikea, which I figured wouldn’t be too favorable, so I almost decided to buy the bed before reading the chapter so that I could plead ignorant. Since ignorance was the exact opposite reason I chose to read the book in the first place, I forced myself to confront the issue.

The Ikea chapter was linked to the death of the craftsman. Quality, built-to-last items are now losing in popularity to cheap, flimsy counterparts. Though the quality items cost more, you buy less of them over time, hence saving money. Unfortunately, for many people, they can’t afford to make the long-term investment and have to choose the cheaper, short-term option.

Author Shell wonders whether we live in a world that doesn’t cherish craftsmanship anymore. I’d say yes. Oddly enough, the chapter reinforced the reasons why an Ikea purchase might still be the wisest for me. An Ikea bed is appealing because of its disposable nature. If I move soon, I can take it apart and move it with me. I’m not in a settled position in life, so buying a finely-crafted bed that I would become attached to and be proud to have throughout my life doesn’t interest me, it just bogs me down.

So, yeah, I bought an Ikea bed. That’s not me thumbing my nose at Cheap either or admission of a problem, just the choice I made in this instance. At least I can say I weighed the pros and cons. Plus, I rather enjoyed learning that the Ikea CEO, a multi-billionaire, still haggles over the cost of produce at the market. Clearly, the thrill of a deal is not just about saving money if someone with more money than he could ever spend falls prey. My challenge going forward is to stop and review my thrifty impulses: Am I being cheap because it’s the smart option or because it’s a compulsive response?