A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000
#70, January 18, 2000
COMMON CENTSby Marylaine Block
I was astonished over Christmas by an ad suggesting that a Game Boy would make a lovely stocking stuffer.
Stocking stuffer? As in, this didn't cost enough to be a REAL gift? Our ideas about money have changed since I was a kid, but that much? I doubted it.
It made me wonder what constitutes inconsequential money these days -- that is, money that:
- You might spend for a joke gift or stocking stuffer
- You don't mind spending on an unexpected lunch or drink with friends
- You're willing to take a flyer with, for something you don't really need, but what the hey, it's only $____.
Now, Bill Gates and I are going to fill in that blank a bit differently, and folks who live in New York and pay New York prices are going to think about money differently than folks in, say, Iowa. But I wondered if there weren't broadly accepted price ranges. After all, TV ads for mail order products fall into three tiers: no more than $9.95, no more than $19.95, and no more than $29.95 (anything that costs more is almost always advertised as monthly installments of $29.95).
I started looking at the stuff by the cash register in stores, the stuff merchandisers think we might buy on impulse or our kids might grab and throw a hissy fit if we don't buy it for them. Again, $9.95 seems to be the outside limit. Mostly there are magazines (up to $5), batteries (up to $7.99), phone cards (up to $9.99), beanie baby knock-offs ($9.95), household essentials like scissors and glue (up to $7.99). Despite a few more expensive items, like a Pokemon lunchbox, retailers seemed pretty sure we weren't likely to spend much more than $10 without thinking about it.
I asked the librarians, teachers and computer techies who subscribe to my e-zine how they defined what-the-heck money. Answers ranged from $5 to $25. They also pointed to the lessened value of small amounts.
One woman said: "when kindergarten students in our area (southern Missouri) are asked to identify coins, they almost all recognize a quarter but the nickel is a great unknown, pennies are usually known (different color and plentiful), dimes are usually only known by a few."
Another was surprised when visiting North Carolina to find "the clerks wouldn't count the change I'd given them. It happened in two different stores in an upscale mall. Amazing. Change isn't money and it doesn't matter."
You'd think there'd be a sliding scale for inconsequential money, depending on income, but there really wasn't. One reader who makes a handsome income said "I still pick up pennies I see in the street. Nothing excites me more than finding that someone has left $20 in the ATM." Mostly my readers said anything over $5 was a serious gift.
Of course what we're willing to spend on unknown items depends entirely on how much we like the product: I'll spend $10 on books I know nothing about but sound interesting, or on used CDs by bands I never heard of, but only $5 on tourist mementos or craft fair items. What we consider outrageously overpriced also depends on how much we want it in the first place. One man who would cheerfully pay whatever it cost for his favorite fish, "just for the halibut," (groan) wouldn't spend a dime more than usual for oranges.
Everyone I asked admitted that their idea of inconsequential money has gone up over the last 10-20 years -- 75 cents for coffee became $3 for a double latte without too much resistance, for instance. But not that much. We're still more likely to stuff stockings with decks of cards, packs of candy, and handheld battery-operated games, than with a GameBoy or even a $29.95 WalkMan.
When you think of all the inducements to spend -- the products by the cash register that we stare at while we're waiting in line, the ads that tell us to pay no attention to cost because "I'm worth it," the pervasive sense that other people are living lots better than we are -- it's amazing that we remain as frugal as we do. For many of us, $30, or even $20 or $10, is still serious money.
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