Sunday, September 26, 2010

Stuff Most People Pay Too Much For

First of all, apologies for the two-week delay since my last entry. My new job writing reports for ConsumerSearch has been keeping me so busy that I haven't had time to blog except on weekends—and between Yom Kippur services with my mom on Saturday and a fall-equinox celebration with friends on Sunday, last weekend was crammed full.

By the by, let me take a moment here to insert a plug for ConsumerSearch, an incredibly handy site that I would recommend even if I weren't working for them. Here's an example of how it works. Suppose you're shopping for, say, a TV set. Normally, you might start by consulting Consumer Reports to see which models they recommend. Then you might check a few other publications that have reviews of electronic items, such as Wired, to see if they agree with those recommendations. If you really wanted to be thorough, maybe you'd go to a site like or to see what users have to say about the model you're interested in: do they like it, or have they discovered problems with it that didn't show up in the professionals' tests? And finally, once you'd settled on a TV, you'd visit several sites to compare prices before deciding where to buy it.

Well, ConsumerSearch does all that work for you. We consult the best publications and the user review sites, and then we report on what we find there and make recommendations in several categories; for a TV, these might be different types—LCD, plasma, etc.—or different sizes, or different price ranges. You can click on a link to read more about the particular product that interests you and see price comparisons from around the Web. Having worked on these reports, I can attest that they're very thorough; it takes me about 30 hours of work to research and write one, but it only takes about fifteen minutes to read it and have everything set out neatly for you. And if you have even less time than that to spare, you can read just the front page, where we identify the top products, with a paragraph about each one laying out its pros and cons.

I think this is a really great tool for the ecofrugal, because it helps you spend your money wisely (and protect the environment at the same time by choosing products that will last, rather than needing replacement after a year or so). ConsumerSearch reports don't generally focus specifically on the "green" features of a product, but we do, where appropriate, include "green" products as one of our Best-Reviewed categories (for example, with laundry detergents).

So there's my pitch. We now return you to our regularly scheduled blog entry, the topic of which is: Stuff Most People Pay Too Much For. This idea was inspired the article "6 Outrageously Overpriced Products," which has become the subject of a lively discussion in the Dollar Stretcher forums. The six items in the article are movie theater popcorn, greeting cards, textbooks, bottled water, printer ink, and designer clothing. This struck me as a good list of items to discuss in ecofrugal terms, because one thing that struck me about them was just how many of these overpriced items are also wasteful from an ecological point of view.

Bottled water, for instance, has been the subject of a whole campaign by the Center for a New American Dream, an organization with an ecofrugal focus, which points out how much energy and material is wasted in making, filling, shipping, and disposing of all those plastic bottles and urges people to replace them with reusable bottles they can fill from the tap. When I first applied to work for ConsumerSearch, they asked me to audition, as it were, by writing a sample report on bottled water using sources they provided. This process reinforced what I'd already learned about just how wasteful bottled water really is. The sources revealed that (1) municipal drinking water is actually held to higher safety standards than bottled water, (2) tap water costs about half a cent per gallon, while bottled water can cost anywhere from 79 cents a gallon for a supermarket brand to a whopping $159 a gallon for the fancy French stuff, and (3) in blind taste tests, tap water generally fares as well as or better than bottled water.

Likewise, new printer cartridges are not only expensive but also wasteful. Throwing out a whole cartridge and buying a new one just because it's out of ink is even more of a waste than discarding a bottle because you've finished the water. Refilling the ink cartridges is a much better use of resources—including cash. We bought a big bottle of black ink and a color refill kit for our inkjet printer several years back, and it cost us about as much as a single new cartridge; since then, we have refilled the cartridges many times and had no problems. We did eventually have to replace one of them because the print head got too worn down to work, but that's a much better deal than replacing it every single time it runs out of ink. (Back when we bought the printer, the sales guy tried to dissuade us from refilling the colored ink cartridges, claiming that this would "destroy the print heads." Um, okay, so if it does, we'll have to do what? Buy a new cartridge, right? Which is exactly what we'll have to do if we don't refill it, right? So what do we have to lose by trying it?)

Greeting cards and textbooks? They're not exactly wasteful, but there may be better alternatives. A hand-written note is more thoughtful, and probably more welcome, than what Miss Manners calls the "canned sentiments" of a store-bought greeting card, and if you want it to go on a pretty card, you can get nice blank ones that are suitable for all occasions for a very reasonable cost. (I actually get mine for nothing; I have two partially-used boxes of them that I've received as gifts from family members, and a bunch more that I've been sent as "gifts" from organizations looking for donations.) And I've heard of colleges making their course textbooks available in electronic format, for download to either an e-reader or a personal computer. (One of my own publishing clients reportedly says, "The book is dead" and prophesies that in future all their material will be published in electronic formats. This may be a bit of an overstatement—as I observed back in June, there are still plenty of good reasons to prefer a book rather than an e-reader for curling up with—but for textbooks, I think the advantages of easy-to-update electronic media may well outweigh those of print.)

Designer clothing isn't as green as thrift-shop clothes, but it's not necessarily less green than new clothing from a low-end retailer. But boy, the cost differences sure are shocking. This was brought home to me recently when I got a free trial issue of Real Simple magazine in the mail, and the page on "Trends Worth Trying" featured a big handbag that the editors promised was "destined to be a classic." It's a nice enough bag, if you like that sort of thing—multicolored cotton canvas with leather trim (you can see a picture here)—and it measures a capacious 15 by 23 inches, but the price tag was a jaw-dropping $998. Nearly a thousand dollars. For a handbag. The ironic part was that right before that page, there was a two-page advertising spread devoted to the Merona line of clothes, sold at Target. The model is wearing a classic-yet-modern plaid trench coat with jeans and riding boots, and she's carrying a large black tote priced at $25. I actually like this bag better than the Ralph Lauren one, not just because it's basic black and will go with everything, but also because it's made of faux-leather, with no real leather parts. No animals were harmed in the making of this bag. It's not as big as the Ralph Lauren "weekender," but for one-fortieth the price, I think I'd happily make that compromise.

Movie theater popcorn, by the same token, isn't necessarily more wasteful than home-popped corn; it's just way, way more expensive. But it's an expense we haven't had to deal with in years, because we've pretty much stopped going to movies. It's not just that we balk at paying $10 for a ticket to a movie we know we'll most likely be able to check out of a Redbox in another few months for $1 (or out of the library for nothing); we actually prefer watching them at home. We can sit on our own comfy couch instead of the theater's seats, which may or many not work properly; we don't have pick our way through other people's spilled popcorn and sticky gum; we don't have to sit through a half-hour of annoying advertisements and trailers for movies we would never want to see before getting to the one we came to see; we don't have to listen to children screaming or adults yakking on their cell phones before (and sometimes during) the movie; we can hit the pause button when we have to pee, instead of either pushing past a row of people twice (coming and going) and missing part of the film, or else sitting through half the movie with a full bladder; and we can make our own popcorn for pennies a bowl. (Of course, I won't deny that all the discomforts I just mentioned are only exacerbated by the fact that you have to pay through the nose for the privilege of being subjected to them. But even if the cost were the same, I think we'd still prefer a home movie night to a trip to the theater.)

When I started writing this entry, I was planning to discuss another article as well, sent to me by my mom: "Ten things that aren't free - but should be (and how to get them for free anyway)." But looking at the ten items covered in this article (checking accounts, corkage fees, directory assistance, driving cross country, TV, movie rentals, college tuition, books, toothbrushes, and online games), I find that they don't strike me as wasteful in the same way as the items on the first list. They are, for the most part, items worth having; they're just not necessarily worth paying for. Also, this article seems to be pretty long already. So perhaps I'll save a discussion of those items for another day. Watch this space for "Stuff Most People Pay Too Much For, Part 2."
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