PRICING THE PRICELESS
Living in a free-market economy, we tend to over-value the things that have a price, yet fail to appreciate the things that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.
I thought I had my week-end schedule all in place. Drawing on my primal instincts, I’d planned a ‘hunt-kill-eat’ adventure except in modern-day terms it was to be ‘shop-buy-watch’ undertaking. For weeks I’d been on the prowl for a flat screen TV. I had already applied all the ingrained skills of my prehistoric ancestors. I had identified the best watering holes – big box stores – where I’d find my prey. I had been studying the dynamics around those watering holes – best time when least congested with customers, good end-of-the-month promotional sales. I had cleared my schedule for the weekend, lined up some fellow hunters to help me mount my capture when I got it back to my den, my man-cave. I was all set.
Then my daughter called.
“Dad, I had a crappy week at work I really need to unwind. Can I come over and just hang out with you and Mom this weekend?”
“Well …. yes, of course, I guess.”
“You sound unsure.” She was always good at detecting her father’s moods. “If you and Mom have plans already, I understand. I was just hoping….” Her voice trailed off.
I quickly tried to comfort her. “No. I’ve got nothing going on this weekend that can’t be rescheduled. I had planned to do some shopping. But that can wait.”
“Great, Dad! Let’s order take-out and eat in. My treat. You and Mom have paid too many times. I can afford it now with that I’ve been promoted to that new position in the company. I’ve also got the higher pay grade to pick up the tab. It’s just that my new boss is an @#&! …. well, I’ll explain what’s going on when I see you. That’s why I really want to talk.”
“You’re on. Come on over. I’m sure you’re your mom’s OK with it as well.”
“Thanks.” She gave an audible sigh that signaled she already was feeling better. “Besides, it’s been a while since we’ve had some time together. You two beat me bad at rummy cube the last time we played; I want revenge. I’ll come over Saturday early afternoon. I want to spend the night in my old room. My apartment mate can take care of our cats. See you then. Love You! Bye!”
I put down the phone, somewhat annoyed at myself for not being more candid about all the planning that I had put into my big TV shopping, buying and watching weekend. Now, I’d need to phone my friends and reschedule. Bummer!
As it turned out, I wouldn’t have traded that “TV or Me” weekend with our daughter for anything, certainly not a flatscreen TV. We started off with her mom and I listening as she vented about her insensitive new supervisor and indifferent work colleagues, for which our advice was to think positive, act proactively and constantly keep an eye on the job market ‘cause the world moves on and you need to move with it.
We then progressed to discussions closer to home, my and her mother’s aging and our daughter’s declared commitment and willingness to be available to us when ‘that time’ comes for her to be a parent to her parents. Dinner was congenial and the board game competition contentious, as are friendly but fierce intra-generational rivalries in our household. On balance that time with our daughter, as disruptive as it was to my original shopping plans, made the thought of a new TV fade into insignificance.
That got me to thinking about things of value that are priceless, like family moments together, when contrasted to all the material things that have a price, like flat-screen TVs, but pale in value by comparison.
The American free-market economy cultivates in us a market-price mentality. As youngsters we ask friends who are showing off a new bike or new clothes: “How much did that cost?’ Later in life we can easily recite with a fair degree of accuracy the cost of a smartphone, a new car, or scores of other products that invade our consciousness in the media or at the shopping mall. We know the price of stuff better than the names of foreign countries - let alone their capital cities. We have a propensity toward prices over places and peoples in our world outlook.
It may not come as a surprise that the longest running TV game show on television is not Jeopardy, but the one-hour CBS daytime program The Price is Right! Jeopardy started up in 1974 and came and went with periods of hiatus over the years. The Price is Right! dates back to 1972 and has since run continuously. One year from now in 2022 the program will celebrate its 50th anniversary. And today the franchise is more than a TV gameshow. Like Jeopardy, The Price is Right is now available as a board game, has gone beyond that to become an online smartphone app and even exists in a Las Vegas slot machine version. Many of us have lived much of our lives in a “The Price is Right” culture.
I’m not suggesting that The Price is Right! reflects a darker side of American society. I mention it as an unfortunate and misplaced metric of our outlook on life. Because we tend to obsess over the price of things, we find ourselves a bit adrift when it comes to placing value on things to which a price tag cannot be so easily attached. As a result, I fear, things that have a price tend to flood our minds and swamp those ‘priceless’ things or events that contribute to the quality of our lives.
What, for example, is the price (cost) of running a public library for an hour longer each week? What is the cost of maintaining a public park so that it’s clean and safe? Put a price, if you can, on replacing or remodeling a dilapidated elementary school? Or improving and maintaining safe water and clean air? We have no idea where to begin. Worse, we often think of clean air and water as ‘free goods’ or as entitlements to expect and don’t concern ourselves with their cost or price … until they are not there in the quantity or quality we have come to expect. We do generally have an idea how much of a house we can afford and how much to budget for buying a vehicle. But many things of real value to us are often impossible to assess in monetary terms.
As a result, when local bond issues come up for a vote during election time, or political candidates dare to suggest that we may need to raise taxes to keep open our libraries and keep clean and safe our parks, we often balk at committing the funds. Our excuse is, “Are we really getting value for our money?” We just have no easy way to get an accurate answer. Of course, parents faced with homeschooling their kids during COVID lockdown now swear, “We’ll never ever again vote against another school bond measure!”
It’s taken a viral pandemic to help us appreciate the value of being able to enjoy a stroll in our public spaces or relax browsing at the county library. We need to take our pandemic-induced awareness of the value of things to which we cannot easily attach a price, and act to protect and preserve them by budgeting money to pay for and time to enjoy them. In the realm of public goods, that often means a willingness to pay taxes, even pay more taxes.
The corporate world is quite aware of how price-sensitive we are in considering their products and services. One credit card company has even built the price and pricelessness into its advertising campaigns. Remember those popular prime-time ads during commercial breaks at sporting events over the last few years? Example:
“Two bleacher seat tickets to the baseball game, $60.00; soft drinks and hotdogs, $30.00; a souvenir T-shirt, $15.00; two hours together with your son cheering on your home town team, priceless. For everything else there’s [advertiser’s credit card].”
Yes, even the best Madison Avenue marketing firm wouldn’t attempt to put a price on such a treasured experience.
What all this suggests is that we need to try extra hard to not let the stuff with a price-tag drive out those invaluable priceless moments that we too often fail to appreciate. It’s not easy. We know we have become too overwhelmed by stuff with a price on it when we have to give up some of that priceless quality time with family because we need to clean some of that stuff out of the garage to get the car back into it, or declutter the basement so that we can maneuver around down there.
I’ve been working on developing a crude metric to assess my progress toward experiencing and sharing the priceless things of value, toward increasing the share of my life that I can honestly call “Quality Time.” In whatever way I choose to define that quality time, I just need to make sure that I do NOT consider shopping for stuff as quality time. I know that’s hard because merchants love to portray shopping with family or friends as quality bonding time together. For some of us it indeed may be; just ask my wife and daughter! The same applies to eating. Some households have been successful at making mealtime together a family quality time experience. That’s good.
I’m also reminded of the mother who commented to me that driving her daughter to and from school or soccer games was one of the few moments of quality time they had together. A time so precious they both agreed, that they made a pact to turn off the car radio and stow away her daughter’s smartphone!
When I started logging my personal quality time, I was surprised to find that the ratio of ‘stuff time’ to quality time was around 10-to-1, that is 10 minutes dealing with stuff around me for every 1 minute spent enjoying quality time with family members, friends or private time just reading, meditating and in self-development. I’ve worked to bring down that ratio gradually to 8-to-1 then 4-to-1 but I still have far to go to reach a 1-to-1 ratio when I can say I’m enjoying as much quality time as stuff time in my life.
It’s been a struggle for me, partly because the numbers I use for calculating my “pricelessness metric” don’t fall into easy-to-define categories. For example, on which side of the ratio do I put the time I enjoy just puttering around the house, fixing stuff that’s broken rather than tossing it in the trash and liberating myself from it? Is that ‘stuff time’ or ‘quality time?’ I’m conflicted. As much as I enjoy the challenges of trying to repair something broken, the time I spend doing so is at the cost, say, of time no longer available for reading more books and discussing them with friends and family.
This exercise in attempting to measure trade-offs between stuff time and quality time at least makes me reflect on the benefit from constructing a personal metric to assess what is priceless to me and then orchestrate my life around what I discover scores high on that scale. I invite everyone to try my quality time metric measurement exercise as well.
When I finally buy that flat-screen TV I think I want, I know now that one use I will put it to is setting up regular movie nights with my daughter and wife. And then build into our movie viewing some quality time together before and after when we simply relax and enjoy some priceless moments talking and sharing together. ###
Thanks for reading AFTERTHOUGHTS! Subscribe for free to receive future essay posts from me. Phil Church