Sunday, March 10, 2013

Consumer Games (or, Us Versus the Man)

Every time Brian and I go to the supermarket, we play a little game: we look at the bottom of the receipt, where it lists our total savings from sales and coupons, and compare this number with the amount we actually spent. If it's higher, that means we "won." I realize, of course, that this rule is actually kind of arbitrary, because the amount we truly "saved" in the transaction isn't the amount that's listed on the receipt. (An article I wrote for the Dollar Stretcher in 2009 talks about how to calculate the real savings, in terms of money in pocket, by comparing the cost of the items bought with what I would pay for the equivalent items by following my normal strategies—buying store brands, cooking from scratch, etc.)

But the thing is, when we play this game, we aren't really trying to compare what we spent to what we saved; we're comparing it to what we could have spent, if we were suckers. In other words, we're not competing against ourselves and trying to beat our own personal best; we're competing against the system itself. The list price of an item is the price "the Man" is trying to get us to pay; if we can get the item for less than half of that, then we've beaten the Man at his own game.

Of course, there are cases in which this isn't true; the Man doesn't actually expect you to pay the list price. The Man is perfectly well aware that this game exists, so sometimes he sets the prices for items at an artificially inflated level only to "slash" them to half that level or less, thereby convincing you that you've won the game by paying the price he expected you to pay all along. The reports I've been reading for work in the past couple of weeks indicate that this is nearly always the case with mattress shopping, for example. But it isn't the case with grocery shopping (yet), so playing this game at the grocery store is still enjoyable for us.

In fact, I think for most of those who play this game, the appeal lies at least as much in the thrill of victory as in the actual savings. Extreme couponers often continue to stockpile stuff long after they have as much as they could possibly use in a year; they can't really be said to be "saving" any more money at this point, since they no longer have a grocery bill to cut, but it's the lure of the game itself that they can't resist. This clip from the "Extreme Couponing" TV show features a 15-year-old boy who calls himself "the Coupon Kid" and admits that he gets "a really big adrenaline rush from saving money" at the store. He even has all his grocery receipts displayed on the wall, like trophies, and he proudly points out the receipt on which he saved $99 on a bill of $112. (We've never won the game by that big a margin, but we've come close once or twice—though we've never saved nearly that large a dollar amount on a single trip.)

The game even maintains its allure for people who have reached a point in life where they no longer have any need to pinch their pennies. My late step-grandfather, for instance, made a tidy little fortune in auto parts, but every time I accompanied him to the grocery store, he would carefully compare the cartons of orange juice in the case to see which one had the best price per gallon. Bernie certainly could have paid whatever price the store was asking for whichever brand he happened to like best, but he never would have done this, because he wouldn't feel satisfied with the purchase if he didn't feel like he was getting his money's worth. If he'd refused to play the game anymore, that would just have been letting the Man win.

Actually, it occurred to me the other day that we don't just play this game at the grocery store; in one way or another, we play it nearly every day. The grocery receipts one of the most obvious examples, because the amount "saved" and amount spent are right there in black and white at the bottom, but it's only one of the many ways in which we try, in our frugal life, to beat the system. In fact, I can think of several examples, just from this weekend alone, of ways in which we've played the savings game. Over the course of my next several blog entries, I'll be giving you a play-by-play on the various rounds of "Us Versus the Man" that we've played over the past few days, and who came out ahead.
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