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The True Cost of Cheap

Price tags don’t tell us enough information. Sure, they tell us how much money we have to pay for something. But that is a microscopic part of the transaction. I might have to replace the item I’m buying if it breaks earlier than expected. Or I might have to pay a lot for insurance. Or I might feel really terrible because I later found out there was a better version I missed out on and also have to replace because I threw that inferior object into the head of the person I was jealous of. Also, I have to pay for a lawyer now.

Everything has a hidden cost. People are growing wise to this, which is why you see things like “lifetime costs” on the sticker prices of cars so you can properly compare maintenance, insurance, and gas mileage. Obviously a gas guzzling-lemon is going to cost more over a couple of years even if it is a thousand or so dollars cheaper to buy, so it’s worth it to pay a little more up-front. Even grocery store items have a price for the item as well as a per-unit cost on the tag. You might pay less for the smaller bag of Oreos, but the cost-per-Oreo is much lower if you get the big bag. But nowhere on the tag for that car is the cost of the air pollution. Nowhere on those Oreos is the cost for diabetes medication. And of course you’ll never see the cost of losing friends on the tag for anything made by Supreme.

In our pursuit of things that are cheap, we’ve enforced a nigh-on slavery-utilizing global supply chain. I don’t mean to shame people. I mean to point out that you’ve been deceived. If we see two products of similar quality and one is cheaper, then that’s the one we buy. But that tag is not giving us sufficient information.

Money is expressed as what we give up. The product is what we get. And the difference between those two things is the definition of value. It is this value we need to focus on, not just the money. Because if you knew that by buying that product you were slowly chipping away at your neighbor’s job, or forcing a tugboat to spend time cleaning up after the trash, or contributing to an asthma condition because of harmful emissions used to make it, the cost of that product changes dramatically. And I don’t mean just the imagined cost. We will have to pay for these things. We have to pay medical bills for the consumption of things that make us fat. We have to raise taxes to pay for environmental pollution cleanup, or suffer less-than-satisfactory lives from seeing Coke bottles littering park trails. Our products are more expensive because companies have to hire workers to inspect products just to be sure no harmful chemicals were used, then document it so regulators can verify this. And we have to pay extra to ship urgently-needed supplies from across the ocean because we wanted ‘cheap’ labor to make it but suddenly in a pandemic there’s no way to get it on time.

Cost is not just the price we pay. Cost is what we give up. And we’ve been giving up far too much lately for all this cheap stuff. So look at that price tag with a bit more skepticism. What are you giving up for that? Maybe there’s an alternative available? You’re gonna give something up, sure. Just make sure you’re aware of everything you’re having to pay for when you make a purchase.