I Can't Afford All These Discounts!

February 19, 2011
Jeff Brown, MD

I am happy that our competitive consumer system is working, i.e. allegedly keeping prices down. But there are costs to us other than specie that we need to be aware of as we go through our lives. We are battered from all sides all day about "savings," "discounts," "sales," "only here," "time is limited," etc., which noise degrades the quality of our lives, even if we do occasionally save a buck. And keep in mind that "savings" always requires spending. If you really want to save big, don't buy it!

Aren't we all getting tired of the endless car insurance ads telling us how much we can save if only we call them? Amazingly, even as I write, one is playing in the next room.

I am happy that our competitive consumer system is working, i.e. allegedly keeping prices down. But there are costs to us other than specie that we need to be aware of as we go through our lives. We are battered from all sides all day about "savings," "discounts," "sales," "only here," "time is limited," etc., which noise degrades the quality of our lives, even if we do occasionally save a buck. And keep in mind that "savings" always requires spending. If you really want to save big, don't buy it!

Other than on impulse of the moment, to which all of us are vulnerable upon occasion, few (relatively) affluent doctors have the time, or inclination, if truth be told, to spend much time pursuing these "deals." And strangely enough, when we do, the effort does not seem necessarily proportional to the cost involved. We might obsess over the cost per ounce of some minor grocery item, as I have confessed to in an earlier column, while too often not doing adequate homework before buying a car, a house or a mortgage, either rationalizing it or sometimes even not bothering to care.

I have a friend who is an endowed professor at a prominent med school who offhandedly told me that when he needed a new car, he just walked to the nearest dealer, picked something off the lot and drove home. No thinking involved. I, who have documented my Quixotic and obsessive study of car buying over many months, could only stare in wonder. Yes, I got what I wanted and yes I got my car at the price I wanted, but what was my return on a per-hour basis? Not much. A hobby activity perhaps, but not economically brilliant.

In personal economic matters, as in many others, the old Scottish saw applies: "None so queer as folk."

We do have to be educated in the marketplace to negotiate the minefield and protect ourselves, however. And we all seem to learn about money the way my Dad was taught to swim; he was thrown into the pool. We grow up listening and watching our parents' behavior, but that's a disorganized apprenticeship. No systemized instruction at any stage of our education to cover this essential life skill, unfortunately. And what is the cumulative cost to our society for this accreted educational oversight? To paraphrase Carl Sagan, "Billions and billions...."

Some examples of marketplace hazards include watching out for fraud, such as bait-and-switch. "Oh, we're sold out of the $100 model, but we have a very similar one for $130." Or how about, "You have to buy 3 to get that price, even though we forgot to put it in the ad." Or "Gee, didn't the ad say that the $100 price was for a dented return?" Or "That price expired yesterday. Today it is 30% more." And on and on. How long and how much chagrin and wasted money did it take you to become the wary and shrewd consumer that you are?

Being eternally Panglossian, I still have hope. And I am happy to say that I have seen many retailers and salespeople who will Do the Right Thing. And consumer-protection laws have helped a lot, let us note.

We also would be remiss not to touch on the "loyalty awards" programs which started with the airlines but now extend their tentacles into every facet of our consumer lives. My wallet is stuffed with loyalty cards foisted on me to "buy 10 and get the next one free." As I said at the start, I can hardly afford to save this much money.

The last marketing peeve that I want to discuss is the surprisingly low quality and effectiveness of commercial ads, especially considering their ubiquity and high cost, and the considerable effort that goes into making them. Need I say that it is we the public who tolerate them and, ultimately, pay for them. I recently did a back-of-the-envelope self-survey and realized that I have a very short list of things that I use that are widely advertised and an even shorter list of items whose purchase was stimulated by an ad.

I think that I am trying to be honest and self-aware, and I will certainly admit to purposely avoiding certain products and services that rise above the offense threshold. Medical products are prominent in this category. I don't know about your experience, but I have had almost no patient ever request a drug that they saw advertised, especially on TV. I try to tell this to drug company execs and their surveys, but they must have access to a very different population than I represent because they keep pouring billions, yes billions, into this direct-to-consumer advertising.

Well, I feel better now, having gotten this all off my chest. Sometimes a good rant is just what the doctor ordered. Do you remember Peter Finch in 1976's "Network," where he screams out of his window, "I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore!"? Well, maybe not, but it feels good for the moment. Now we can resume our regular programming.