Had it not been required to graduate, I would never have taken the class titled simply: Philosophy. Abstract thinking makes my head hurt. That’s why I felt a headache coming on when I heard television psychologist Dr. Phil say on his show, “There is no reality, only perception.” In a flash I was back in class wanting to ask this professor to expand on that thought. Did he mean there are no absolutes? That everything is only as we perceive it to be? Of course Dr. Phil went to a commercial and closed the show long before I could let go of the thought.
I’m sure it was that lingering thought that drew my eyes to a big sign announcing the current price of “petrol” in the famed coastal town of Blackpool in Lancaster County, England, on one of my book tours years ago. I could hardly remember gas prices so low — just 78.9 cents. But before I could enjoy even a moment of self-pity, the driver (reading my American mind) pointed out that’s 78.9 pence per liter.
A quick multiply by about four and again by $1.80 (the equivalent in British pounds at the time) gave me a rough number to compare the price tag I’d left behind in California: $5.68. Could that be right? Approaching $6 a gallon? In a flash my perception of $2.21 per gallon had “cheap” written all over it. I could almost hear Dr. Phil saying, “Told you so!”
All of my attempts to not get philosophical can’t stop me from asking the question: What makes something “cheap”? I can tell you for sure there’s no cheap-o-meter at the top of a hill at the Observatory in Greenwich, England, where measurements of time and distance find their standard. Cheap must be about perception — and good marketing. That sign in Blackpool could just come right out with it and post 315.6 pounds. But it’s a number just too large to handle. By comparison, 78.9 pounds reads “cheap.”
Have you checked the prices of floor covering lately? Call me venerable, but I remember when carpet, tile and wood were priced by the square yard. But something happened. Apparently, someone figured that $32 a square yard for carpeting was sending would-be buyers running. Too expensive! But change that price tag to $3.56 a square foot and the store can’t keep the goods in stock. Cheap pricing changes the game. It looks better. That makes a large price easier to swallow or at least keeps a customer’s attention long enough to get hooked on a possibility.
Bringing this home, a favorite fabric retailer of mine has gone to pricing yard goods “per 1/2 yard.” I noticed that when per yard prices threatened double digits. Somehow a $5.19 price tag keeps me in the game when $10.38 would be my signal to get out.
Perception versus reality is an interesting topic of conversation. I’m sure that even Dr. Phil would agree that some things in life are absolute, no matter where we live or the currency we carry. But when it comes to the price of goods and services, reliable perception can only be found in carrying a pocket calculator.
How else will we be able to keep our heads and not fly into a buying frenzy when a clever marketer sells eggs for 39 cents (each) or gasoline for 10 cents … per teaspoon!
Mary invites you to visit her at EverydayCheapskate.com, where this column is archived complete with links and resources for all recommended products and services. Mary invites questions and comments at https://www.everydaycheapskate.com/contact/, ”Ask Mary.” This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of EverydayCheapskate.com, a frugal living blog, and the author of the book “Debt-Proof Living.”