The High Cost of Convenience

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IS CONVENIENCE OUR SERVANT OR HAS IT BECOME OUR MASTER?

By Kevin M

For most of the 20th Century convenience was pursued as a means to make life easier and to eliminate undesirable chores from daily life. To the World War II generation, the 1950s brought a surge in time saving devices that were a welcome relief to the difficulty they knew well from earlier in life.

Today’s generations however know little of the hardships faced by that generation. Worse, most of us don’t know life before convenience. In our world today, convenience is a given; the only real issues are how much of it we incorporate into our lives and which specific methods we choose among the many options.

More often than not, we’ll pay extra for convenience—anything that will move us along faster, spare us from handling menial tasks or prevent us from being uncomfortable. Though people have always sought ways to avoid drudgery and make life easier, in our own day and time convenience has become an expectation, a norm, and even a right.

What’s different now?

In the 1950s and 1960s the convenience people paid for was mostly in the form of tangibles like washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, and motorized lawn mowers. These were “things”—you bought and paid for them up front and they paid dividends for many years, even decades, in the form of the labor they saved and the ease they provided.

We still buy those tangibles today—and many, many more—but convenience today is radically different. We pay for convenience largely in the form of services. as well. This is fundamentally different in that tangible conveniences are bought up front and provide benefits for many years while the service driven conveniences we purchase today are on a pay-as-you-go basis. There are benefits to buying them, sure, but we pay and pay and pay.

It might be appropriate to say that the convenience producing devices paid for in the years after World War II were assets in the truest sense; owning them provided a constant stream of benefits. By contrast, the service based conveniences we buy today are on-going expenses.

But let’s stop and raise an important question: do we ever do a cost analysis to determine if what we’re paying for convenience is justified by the money we pay out? Paying for convenience today is second nature, and to a generation unaware of any other way of doing things, the question is far from ridiculous.

Necessity, or default choice?

How often do you come to the end of the month and wonder where all of your money went? Most of us are keenly aware of our major recurring expenses, like housing, debt payments, insurance, and even variables like groceries and utilities.

But how much is eaten up by true variables like the money we pay for services that are mostly for the purpose of making life easier? Is ease the Holy Grail of life, or has its pursuit merely become the default choice to a generation that knows no other way?

In a way, what we pay for convenience is sort of where we live, it’s almost who we are, and we often do it without much thought. How many expenses do we have that can actually be traced to nothing more than convenience? Do we even know the difference between necessities and convenience?

Some examples of paying (mostly) for convenience, from right off the top of my head:

  • Paying others to cut our lawns
  • Paying others to clean our homes
  • Paying others to shovel snow
  • Paying others to prepare our meals (restaurants)
  • Paying others to wash and iron our clothes (the cleaners)
  • Using drive through services when going inside might be quicker or easier
  • Driving to places less than a mile away—some times much less
  • Paying fees for the privilege of being able to swipe a card when making purchases
  • Replacing rather than repairing broken or damaged possessions
  • Paying full price for things because we don’t feel like waiting until they go on sale
  • Saving time (but not money) by grocery shopping without coupons

It’s something of a paradox that by incorporating these conveniences into our lives, we then need to take on exercise programs to keep in shape and compensate for sedentary lifestyles. This often involves spending additional money for exercise equipment or gym memberships, but I digress!

Taking a closer look

We can spend a good bit of time analyzing each one of these expenses, and you can probably think of a few more, but let’s take a look at just one, a very common one.

Paying others to prepare our food, a.k.a. restaurants, is my favorite on the list. If you think about it logically, when we eat in restaurants we aren’t paying for food, we’re paying for the preparation. In fact, if we buy food at the grocery store and prepare it at home, we’ll consume the same food. Sure, it could be argued that we’re paying for the way the food is prepared, but how many ways can you cook a hamburger? And McDonalds has sold billions of them—all identical!

When I was a kid, we seldom ate at restaurants. Most meals were prepared and consumed at home, and “going out” usually meant having dinner at someone else’s house. What’s different today? Why do we “need” to eat at restaurants? How much does it cost? What’s the true benefit? How much could we save if we cut doing it down to just special occasions?

Could we do such an analysis of all convenience driven expenses? Could that be where we might find extra money for building up savings and paying down debt–money that we won’t even have to work for?

It’s painful, but it could be instructive, to go through your checkbook and credit card statements for the past several months to itemize where your money is spent. It’s almost a certainty that much of the missing money from your budget will be found here.

There may be benefits to the conveniences we pay for, but would the money be better spent improving our financial positions on a permanent basis? Which will feel better in the long run, more convenience and comfort or less debt and a bigger savings account?

So how much do or should we pay for convenience? Can you think of other areas where the cost of convenience may be out of proportion to the cost to achieve it?

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9 Responses to The High Cost of Convenience

  1. One extreme example that is blatantly flaunted in society is the convenience store. Anything you buy inside incurs a convenience fee.

    This type of convenience penalty is typically incurred due to a lack of planning (“oh, I’m low on milk … I should hop in while I’m pumping my gas and get some.”). Alas, because you didn’t spent a few moments planning ahead, you will now pay a convenience charge. Consequently, you will have to work more to cover this cost differential!

    This highlights a fundamental principle underling the post: How much extra time did you spend working to cover the cost of the item+convenience fee, versus getting the item in a less convenient manner? This is how we answer the question in our family Kevin.

  2. Sailboat Family – That’s an oustanding point! The time saved in pursuing convenience is often offset by the time worked producing the income to pay for the convenience.

    The problem is that in order to even consider this, you’d have to stop what you’re doing and think about it. The essense of convenience is that it’s uninterrupted, we just do it. It really requires a different way of thinking.

  3. As John Taylor Gatto pointed out, our economy relies on citizens paying others to do things for them. Schools have only hastened that process: not only do they not teach Home Ec anymore, they keep children so busy with homework and extracurricular activities that there is no time for them to learn skills like cooking and basic garment and equipment repair from their parents. I guess the thinking is that if the children spend all their time on book larnin’ they’ll grow up to make so much money that they’ll be able to pay others to do those little menial chores for them.

    I talked about this recently in a blogged response to Michael Pollan’s NYT essay about the rise of the cooking show. He talks about how the way we relate to food has changed drastically over the past fifty years or so. Convenience foods (frozen meals, “sauces” that come in packets, etc) were marketed to housewives so that companies who had developed these products to feed soldiers in trenches would continue to profit after the war was over. Then as TV became more popular, we went from chefs like Julia Child actually showing us how to cook, highlighting techniques and recipes, to the Food Network packing its prime-time slots with celebrity chefs eating and talking about how good the food is. How did cooking, of all things, become a spectator sport? It’s a great read, especially if you like to cook.

    One word about shopping with coupons, though: I generally don’t bother, because most of those coupons are for “convenience foods,” like frozen dinners, rice mixes, Hamburger Helper, etc, that are high in sodium and contain lots of preservatives. And generally the meals they produce can be recreated more healthfully and more flavorfully (I think that’s a real word), and for the same (or lower) cost, by stopping in the bulk foods aisle to pick up grains, legumes, and spices.

  4. Christina – “the thinking is that if the children spend all their time on book larnin’ they’ll grow up to make so much money that they’ll be able to pay others to do those little menial chores for them.”

    That’s the generational change! BTW I completely agree with the education establishment’s hand in there. But TV is probably the biggest offender. That’s the prime medium through which convenience is marketed, esp in regard to fast food. What’s shown on TV quickly becomes normal, even if people claim they don’t believe what they see there.

  5. Vacations. We can go overboard on the expense of fun and spend weeks of income just paying for a 4 day getaway. Fun is relative for sure.

  6. When I do public appearances in the Monroe MI and Toledo OH about grocery shopping tricks and other frugal living ideas, I tell the audience: “Yes. These tactics do take time. But a lot of people in Michigan and Ohio have more time than money these days.” And I usually see some heads nodding.

  7. Paula – That’s really the essence of convenience, a trade off of money for time. We’re paying to free up our time for other, hopefully more productive pursuits. But I’m not sure that’s uniformly the case, not any more.

    The issue I see today (much as Christina elaborates above) is that many of us believe we’re maybe better off than we are and tend to pay to relegate work to others. As a generation raised on convenience, we may not be able to tell the difference between productive and non-productive time, and end up paying for services to free up our time just because “that’s the way we do thing”. Maybe so, but it’s also an expensive way to operate, and if we’re looking to cut costs, we may have to invest more time and less money doing things we mostly don’t feel like doing.

  8. we bought some exercise equipment from a local supplier and most of them are made in china. i do not know if those exercise equipment would last long.~;.

  9. Specialists say that loan help people to live their own way, just because they are able to feel free to buy necessary goods. Furthermore, banks give college loan for different classes of people.

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