It was a frightening moment. I wanted to mail a letter with an actual postage stamp, not leave it for the office meter. But how much does it cost to mail a first class letter today? Sure, it changes every few months, but beyond forty-something, I hadn't a clue.
What about the current cost of a subway ride? I measure subway cost in increments of $20, as I refill my Metro card and then watch the new grand total get depleted by increments I do not tally.
The first thing that crossed my mind was a real concern of being out of touch with day-to-day 'reality'. (What came to mind was President George H Bush at the supermarket, marveling at the 'new' check out scanning system, while the rest of us rolled our eyeballs.) So I began to survey friends, family and co-workers, asking about these small economic measurements, and what was on or off their radar as unconscious or alert consumers.
What is the sales tax rate in NYC? Sally Parham says there is a difference between food tax and clothing tax. Really? A half a dozen other friends had 6 different percentages. I do not know who was right.
Rob Arango was wondering if he remembered the cost of the daily paper. If you get daily home delivery of a newspaper, how much would it be at the newsstand?
How much is the toll on the Triboro Bridge? Or the Henry Hudson Bridge? When was the last increase?
What is the initial drop when a taxi starts its meter? What is the rate of increase? What are the different surcharges? (Not a fair question - I doubt event the TLC commissioner can keep track of that.)
How much is a gallon of gas? Everyone knew that. (Note - an activity that requires interaction - like standing in front of the pump, pumping gas and staring at the gas signs, changes the equation.)
Do you use Fresh Direct? How much is a quart of milk? Tech savvy Jon Levy who just started ordering from them a few weeks ago now thinks of grocery costs is terms of a per order cap, no itemized costs. He orders what he needs until it hits $50.
Dependent on Fandango? How much did you pay for your last movie ticket?
I asked Vincent Cham (our IT guy) about his blind spots, figuring a detail-oriented guy like that would be aware of numbers. He loves to buy new Apps, just taps on the icon and orders more, blissfully unaware of the cost. Same is true of his iTunes habit, just press and play (painless pay). (Upon review of this post, Vincent noted that he does not even check the numbers on his bi-monthly paycheck, directly deposited into his checking account. I guess that is because payroll processing and banks are infallible!)
Has technology come between our money and us, disconnecting us from our pennies, dimes and dollar bills? The ease, with which we can make purchases - by keystroke, swipe, or scan has its own cost. And while millions of Americans are painfully aware of every dollar or even quarter they spend, many of us are not.
But the disconnection has its benefits. I am thinking about the millions of dollars that were raised for Haiti Relief by the millions of cell phone users who just texted their contributions. Would all of them taken the time to log onto a website or write a check? Did it really feel like they were spending money or just responding with an instinct to help.
An article in the Saturday NYT described the bank practice of encouraging customers to get free checking by using other services - most notably overdraft protection on their debit card accounts. What resulted was a lack of attention to checkbook balances, and banks profiting heavily from this new behavior as consumers triggered overdraft charges without much awareness. New proposed regulation of overdraft protection will require that consumers be made aware of these fine print benefits that reap billions of dollars for the banks at the expense of their customers.
Was part of our financial meltdown due to our societal disconnect from financial awareness and in turn, a waiver of oversight and control? This is an enormous oversimplification of events and behavior, but it took a lot of magical thinking to fuel the greedy bankers.
During my mini-survey of unconscious spending, an intelligent and successful attorney (who happens to be my husband) recounted, "I generally try to be unaware of costs--they tend to be impediments." But he also shared another economic-disconnect syndrome with me - externalities, costs that we may be aware of (or not) but the wrong person is paying for them. How society pays the bill for unregulated externalities will be another rude awakening.
Resolved: Bring back allowance and family budgets and real time financial accountability. Balance your checkbook. Reacquaint yourself with cash transactions; shop for your food in person; pay your dry cleaner, or garage bills in person each month; and count your change. Be leery of the bills you can't pay in person - the cable company, the bank, telephone company - maybe they don't want you to look at those bills too closely. One thing I know, local New York State apples range from $1.25 - 2.00/lb depending on which Greenmarket farmer I am buying them from. They don't take credit cards.
I am going to the Post Office tomorrow to buy a book of stamps - and not by swiping at a vending machine. I am going to pay real money to a real person. Radical.