Monday, December 6, 2010


originally published 7 December 2004

One of my big pet peeves is when, in a financial transaction, someone attempts to slime a few extra $$$s out of the deal with an additional fee, and when I call 'em on it they say "but it's only ten dollars". Or five dollars. Or whatever -- the amount doesn't really matter. It's the "only" part that makes me crazy.

I have a variety of colorful responses to this remark, but they tend to boil down to one of the following:

  • "Okay, then give me ten dollars right now." As you might expect, this does not often result in the production of a ten dollar bill. But if nothing else it can be entertaining to push the point: "Oh, so if it's my money it's only ten dollars, but if it's your money, it's a big deal, huh? Why is that?"

  • "Oh, so it won't be difficult to waive this fee, then? Since it's only ten dollars?" Believe it or not, I once got a bank to stand down over an interest rate dispute with this approach (they made a mistake calculating the rate, which would have added "only" an additional $35 to the cost of the loan. No thanks).

If you're reading this thinking "wow, he's a real cheapskate", well, think what you want. But the truth is that I'm not cheap. What I am is an engineer[1]: my goal is to spend money as efficiently as possible, maximizing the bang per buck on everything I buy. If you see me standing in the aisle at the grocery store staring at the ice cream, no, I'm not stoned and admiring the "colors"; I'm doing math in my head figuring out the best deal. Which, if you've shopped for ice cream recently, you may have noticed is not as easy as it used to be, given the creative packaging techniques employed by many manufacturers.

And sliding in lower-cost items after an expensive item has got to be about the oldest sales trick known to man: for whatever reason, fifty dollar cufflinks don't seem like much when you're dropping $2500 on a suit. "They're a real steal at only fifty dollars."

Or sometimes when you buy a car, your perspective shifts even further: "It's only a hundred dollars."

But hey -- if you agree that it's only ten dollars, then do me a favor? Give that ten dollars to the next homeless person you see. 'Cause it's not much money to you -- but even given the lousy state of the dollar on the world market these days, ten dollars will still buy most people a pretty nice lunch with enough left over for a bottle of ripple.

[1] Scott Adams had it right, I think, when he wrote 'Engineers are notoriously frugal. This is not because of cheapness or mean spirit; it is simply because every spending situation is simply a problem in optimization, that is, "How can I escape this situation while retaining the greatest amount of cash?"'

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