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Thursday, October 28, 2010

8 Things We Pay For... Even Though They're Free

I think it’s safe to say that America has an international reputation for opulence, even wastefulness.  While this reputation might be overblown or at the very least not universal amongst our populace, it is easy to see how we leave that impression on our foreign visitors.  In many areas, Americans show enormous frugality.  But these areas are easily overshadowed by the fact that we use more fuel than the entire European Union (about 500 million people) and almost three times as much as the billion people in China.

The lavishness of our culture reached pandemic proportions when people started buying things like designer clothes; items that were valuable only because other people knew how much they cost.  We’ve become a culture where many of the people are perfectly content to go broke in an effort to look rich. 

I fear the people who finance rims may be beyond saving, but the more rational among us are hardly immune to absurd consumerism.  We buy Tylenol despite the fact that it is molecularly indistinguishable from a generic substitute.  We buy $100 sunglasses churned out of the same factory that makes the $8 pair.  We buy product that are scientifically proven to be useless.  Heck, sometimes we even pay for things that are free.

 #1) Bottled Water 

This is the first one you thought of, too, isn’t it?  I stare loathingly at a bottle of Aquafina even as I reflect on how stupid a trend this is.  I know that the taste of most tap water is indistinguishable from any name brand.  I know that in blind taste tests people generally rank the tap water above the Evian.  I know that only an idiot would pay for a bottle of water in a store that had a drinking fountain.  And I reflect on how stupid it is as the cashier counts out my change.

Advocates of bottled water will tell you that they can tell the difference (they can’t).  They will tell you that bottled water is healthier (it isn’t).  They’ll tell you that bottled water is safer (they’re wrong).  They’ll tell you that it’s a healthier choice than soda (so is horse urine, but I’m not paying for it).  Meanwhile we happily dole out 500 times the money we would spend by filling a Nalgene bottle at the tap before we leave the house.

 #2) Your Credit Report 

Alright, so I’ve mentioned this one before.  I still see Ben Stein shilling this concept with a bunch of gopher puppets that have been conscripted into this scam without the intellect to know better.  I wish we could say the same about Ben Stein.  Well, if we judge him only by the film “Expelled”, perhaps we can.

Of course, you can easily obtain your credit report at, which is actually free.  It is, after all, personal information about you that companies pass around like a misplaced 7th grade love poem.  The law requires that all 3 credit-scoring services allow you a yearly review of your credit score so that you can verify the accuracy of the information.  If you don’t trust websites, you can even get it via snail mail at no cost to you.  I'd provide the address, but if you don't trust websites, you aren't reading this anyway.

 #3) ATM Fees 

The whole concept of paying for money is innately insane.  Compounding the frustration is the fact that it’s your money to begin.  Just to irk you further, the little screen reminds you every time and shows you exactly how much your lack of foresight will cost you.  You sigh with one palm over your face and the other slowly moving toward the “I accept” button in a slow-motion push of shame.

To make matters worse, unless you’re a drug addict or a New Yorker (two categories that frequently overlap), virtually anything you want to buy can be purchased with the same little card you used to get swindled by that smirking, monochromatic thief of an ATM.  The few dollars seem harmless at the time, but for the average account holder they easily counterbalance the pittance of interest their money earns by being in a bank in the first place.

 #4) Pets 

If there’s one thing better than a dog, it’s a frighteningly inbred dog.  In America, we like our dogs and cats one cousin away from polydactylism.  It is easy to see why an animal lover would be willing to spend $2400 on a purebred dog that’s qualitatively no different than a mutt they could rescue from imminent death at a shelter for about $50.  Wait, I’m sorry, did I say easy to see?

The very concept of buying a pet is foreign to me.  I recall as a child that pets would often create smaller, duplicate versions of themselves and that it would be quite a hassle trying to pawn these pets off on people.  Many of the things we waste money on are understandable because they have the potential to appreciate in value, but it’s hard to imagine this holding true with biological property.

 #5) Consultants 

Sometimes they call themselves “efficiency experts”.  Other times they go by the name “management analysts”.  Other aliases include anything that ends with the word “consultant”.  These people are like motivational speakers in that the only thing that makes what they’re saying valuable is the fact that you’re listening to it.

Studies estimate that companies and governments waste billions of dollars on outside consulting firms that do no more and often much less than they could have done internally.  The notion of wasting money on a person whose job it is to find the places where your wasting money is obviously flawed.  If the first words out of his mouth aren’t “fire me”, you have to start questioning his integrity.

These unscrupulous predators often go after the small, family run operations that can least afford to be swindled by them.  If Donald Trump wants to flush money away on Feng Shui consultants (and he did), I suppose that’s better than using the money to shellac another dozen toupees.  There is no real accreditation for consultants and most of what they offer can be found in a few good books on management.  You don’t even have to pay for the books.

 #6) Books 

It’s easy to forget about them since the advent of the Internet, but there are still libraries.  They still have books and everything.  I know because I still occasionally have to use the restroom in a public area.

But libraries, as great as they are, no longer have the monopoly on free books.  Websites like offer an easy free, unending supply of literary entertainment.  Those who own e-readers are probably already aware of the numerous sites that offer free classics (legally) and original works by struggling authors (trust me, go with the classics).  If you can stand staring at a computer screen while you read (and clearly you can), tens of thousands of books are available (legally) online as well.

 #7) Identity Theft Protection 

It’s easy to imagine how this scam came about.  Seeing the readiness with which people would pay for their free credit reports, companies decided to just go the whole 9 yards and offer identity theft immunity.  Industry leader LifeLock stoked consumer fears with a commercial proudly displaying their CEOs social security number and promising that he could do so with confidence because he was protected by LifeLock.

You probably haven’t seen the commercial recently.  By some strange coincidence, they stopped airing it at about the same time the judicial system demanded that they do so .  They were forced to retract all the promises that LifeLock could guard your social security number or magically thwart all attempts at identity theft.  They weren’t forced to admit that the pittance of a service that they do offer is entirely made of things you could do quickly, easily and without a penny of cost.  To save LifeLock the effort, I admitted it for them.

 #8) Exercise 

Gold’s Gym proudly announces to prospective franchisees that the fitness industry in the US is worth more than $17.6 billion dollars a year.  From diet pills that don’t do anything to diet books that take 120,000 to say “eat less” to a litany of increasingly laughable late night, call-now attempts to get you to pay for push ups, the fitness industry thrives in these United States.  I have to tell you this because you’d never guess it by looking at the American populace.

As a nation, the more we spend on fitness, the fatter and more out of shape we get.  This trend has held true for more than 40 years and shows no sign of abating.  Clearly Americans need more exercise, but just as clearly they need to spend less to get it.  This one has been stuck in my craw ever since I watched my sister-in-law drive to a gym two miles from her house to walk on the treadmill for half an hour.

Do you have a weight set in your home?  If not, do you have anything heavy?  I’m guessing you do.  Do you have arms?  Legs?  That’s pretty much all the exercise equipment you need right there.  All the nautilus machines and resistance bands and Tai-Bo classes in the world won’t get you any more of a workout than rearranging your living room furniture or cleaning your garage.

The equations in exercise are pretty simple.  For losing weight, it is simply “calories consumed minus calories burned”.  Structured aerobics won’t burn off fat any quicker than washing the dishes or taking the stairs.  For building muscle the only two factors that matter are regularity and reaching full muscle exhaustion.

The worst offenders are the gyms.  They sucker you into an annual membership before you lay down your first drop of sweat.  They offer you a sauna because anything that uncomfortable must be healthy.  They offer you a personal trainer that will bark at you like an underachieving drill sergeant.  They will work out a personalized training program by adhering to old wives tales and urban myths.  They will offer you the worst possible types of exercises, ones that are both tedious and limited to only one or two muscle groups. 

To the credit of the personal trainers, most of them actually think that the things they tell you matter.  They will tell you “high weight, low reps” or “keep your elbows locked” or “what are you, a freakin’ cheerleader?” and they honestly think that it helps.  It doesn’t, of course.  The duration or weight or method of breathing or order of exercises effects muscle growth only in the slightest.  In fact, it is arguable that there is no difference whatsoever provided that you reach full muscle exhaustion.

Despite the availability of all of this information online (I don’t exactly kill myself on the research end here), the businesses above continue to thrive.  I’m afraid to calculate how much of my income is actually wasted and my nightmares are tormented by images of Thoreau in a grave somewhere, perpetually rolling over.  I imagine “desire” suddenly listed as America’s chief export. 

In summary, there was a time when I thought that we should fight back against the perception that we are an opulent society.  Now I realize that it’s better than admitting that we’re just stupid.

1 comment:

  1. There was a time when I scoffed at the idea of paying for water but not any more. Just recently I purchased a 24-pack of no-name water for $1.88 - that translates to 8¢ a bottle. The ability to reach into the fridge and have cold water available in its own container is worth the cost- by far! The real issue is the amount of packaging & waste of energy to provide ppl with this convenience.