Phrases That Can Cost You Money

March 4, 2011
Jeff Brown, MD

Contrary to "Sticks and stones...," words can actually hurt you -- and cost you money. They are all around us and some are so common that we rarely think about them. Many not only often end up costing us money, but frequently have the additional virtue of aggravating us -- insult on injury. Here are some of the most egregious examples.

Contrary to "Sticks and stones...," words can hurt you -- and cost you money. They are all around us and some are so common that we rarely think about them. Let me give you some examples.

Here’s a classic phrase, "It's not the money, it's the principle!" If you believe that one, I have some swampland in Florida that I would like to sell you. Money is the only principle behind that phrase. If you hear it, watch your wallet.

Another one people like to laugh about: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." There is a bit of truth to the intent behind that statement, because so many promises have been made by so many in all levels of government to so many people and organizations, for so long, that we are in the deep deficit pickle currently dominating the headlines. The disorganized effort to “help” also is a factor in unsustainable national healthcare costs. Helping is great if you can afford it and if you mange the process rationally. So far, it seems those two details have eluded us, both in government affairs and in the healthcare industry.

A Hall of Famer is, "The check is in the mail." We've all heard it and possibly might have said it. Even when it is true, however, it always means a late payment is involved, and as such has cost someone else some money. The cost might be in late fees, lost interest or something else, but it can be an expensive phrase for both sides.

"Oh what the heck ... it's only money!" is a classic rationalization that we've all heard and used, and it always precedes more spending, about which there is at least some serious question of advisability. Yes, money is fungible, we can usually get more by working harder or longer, but there is an element of sales, or self, delusion always involved. The advice here, if you find yourself uttering that phrase, is to stop, think about what you just said, and then decide if the purchase is truly worth the expense.

Some phrases are more indirect and you might not think money is involved, especially if a service is involved. You would be wrong. Consider "I'll get right on it," "I'll do it later," and "I promise." The latter alone could fill volumes of our personal memoirs where things went expensively awry. How often do we profit when we hear those phrases? Somewhere between slim and seldom.

On the "lost time is money lost" front, another group of phrases rear their ugly heads. These not only often end up costing us money, but frequently have the additional virtue of aggravating us. Insult on injury and all that. The one that got me going on this whole subject falls in this category. My tipping point was the nth time that I heard, "Please hold and stay on the line as your call is very important to us." If my call is very important, couldn't you hire someone to answer the flippin' phone? In making me hold for a junior clerk, you have actually valued my time -- and somehow me -- at minimum wage. Thank you for telling me exactly what my call, and time, is worth to you.

Other expensive, and annoying, circumlocutions are just plain lies. "You can't miss it!" when given directions that end up being vague, inaccurate, or just wrong. Why are so many people unwilling to just say, "I don't know?" True story: I was once in a foreign train station whose signs were indecipherable to me. There were six tracks and I was at a loss upon which one to wait. So I asked someone as best I could. Not trusting the language, I asked another native speaker. Actually, I ended up asking six different people. And yup, you guessed it, each pointed out a different track. In the end, I just positioned myself in the middle and ran for it when the train came in. (For the record, it was track No. 2.)

Here are a varied group of phrases that you can relate to your own experiences. "Hey, I was only kidding," "I'm so glad you called," "I'm sorry," "It's not my fault,” (another phrase worth its own tome), "I understand," and "I didn't mean it." Wow. It's a wonder we can get through even one day filled with this stuff.

The penultimate phrase I just have to say something about is, "Can I help you?" Hey, sometimes people in stores, facilities and on the phone do want to help. The ones that I am talking about are those who rise out of their torpor in their small bailiwicks to assert themselves -- usually to "protect" some superior's time and attention. What they really mean is "Go away!" All they end up doing is stalling your appointed task, while you explain your presence on their turf, and irritating you to boot. Security guards and secretaries come to mind. And being hoist on our own medical office petards, we must admit that some of our staff's function is to be gatekeepers to presumably save us time and therefore money (and aggravation). It just depends upon which side of the gatekeeper that you find yourself.

While we are doing a mea culpa, let's include under the category of "useful," and sometimes expensive, lies, "This won't hurt!" The IRS and, again, doctors come to mind. Have a nice day.