Wednesday, April 22

Convenience tax

The other day, I paid a $1 premium for a gallon of milk.

It's not that I particularly like overpaying. I could have driven to Fred Meyer's and gotten the gallon for 99 cents. Instead, I got it from Albertson's for a much steeper $1.99. I actually paid more than twice the cheapest rate. Not something I'm proud of.

Given the circumstances of that day, though, the premium was worth it.

The closest Fred Meyer to us is just over 3 miles (and copious traffic lights) away. The streets I'd take would all have been heavy with traffic. It would have taken me an absolute minimum of 20 minutes to just get there. Comparatively, Albertson's is just over a mile away, with just three lights in between.

Add to that supreme fatigue that day, as well as the depression that has been reasserting itself lately, and you have an understandable reason for overpaying. I was so worn down that even just going across the street to Grocery Outlet for 50-70 cents savings was simply not an option.

So the extra money was worth it, even though I usually try to avoid paying for an item when I know it's cheaper elsewhere. But sometimes I have to.

You don't even need to have health issues to appreciate the difficulty of all this. You're tired, work was hell, the kids are screaming in the back, and you still have to get home and cook. Who wouldn't be tempted to pay a little bit more -- or even stop by McDonald's?

So when is it acceptable?

The answer to this will vary from person to person. It depends on the value you place on your free time. Or time spent with your family. Or simply not in grocery stores.

I think one of the best ways to avoid this is to change the way we think about price differences. Rather than think of it as a 50 cent difference, which we often can rationalize through gas and time spent getting to multiple stores, think of it as a tax. A convenience tax, if you will.

After all, that's essentially what it is. You ever actually look at prices as you go through a convenience store? They're astronomical. Why? Because the store is banking on your unwillingness to seek out a better price. These stores profit from our desire for instant gratification.

So it's not too much of a stretch to think about grocery store price differences in the same way. When you pay 50 cents more for a can of green beans, to avoid a second store, you're paying for convenience. And if there are multiple instances of this convenience tax, it can quickly make you rethink your process.

Of course, this won't deter everyone in every situation. And it shouldn't. There is something to be said for valuing your free time and energy. You wouldn't expect a sick person to visit several stores looking for the best price on Nyquil. It's a special situation, where we decide to value our physical needs over our frugal ones.

In a less extreme example, we've all orderered delivery food from time to time. It may be to celebrate; more likely, it's because we just can't bring ourselves to cook. We don't do it frequently, because in better times, we prioritize money over our desire for prepared food. But from time to time, it's worthwhile to take it easy on ourselves.

So framing it as a convenience tax won't always stop you from paying more for products. But it does give you a more realistic look at the situation. You can't claim that your real concern is gas. At $2.30 a gallon, the stores would have to be pretty far apart to make that rationalization work. You can, though, decide just how much convenience you're willing to pay for.

Convenience tax of 50 cents? You might or might not bother. It depends if you need it right away, whether you'll be in the other store soon enough anyway, and how valuable your time and energy is to you. But as those "taxes" add up? To $2 or $3... or more? You may just start to rethink your shopping practices.

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Blogger Shtinkykat said...

In your circumstances, the premium you paid was a "convenience tax". When I paid a premium because I wanted to get home in time to watch Dancing With the Stars, I've paid a "laziness tax". As you point out, the difference is on a case-by-case basis, but one is definitely less acceptable than the other.

April 22, 2009 at 6:05 AM

Blogger Abby said...


Once in awhile, I think even a laziness tax is acceptable. Being nice to yourself could be considered priceless... So long as it's not a premium you pay regularly.

April 22, 2009 at 10:16 AM

Blogger Alane said...

Since I started a new parttime job I find myself doing this more and more. Why? I can't get my crap together. I was unemployed for 6 months and completely restructured my life. Since I started my new job I can't seem to get a handle on anything. I find myself more and more justifyiing spending a little extra here and there to lower my stress. To give you an example my DH ( the coward) called me after he left for work and told me he left me a tax bill that was late. Could I write the check and drop it in the mail. I did after I totally freaked out on him for throwing a monkey wrench in my day.
Sunday I bought a jar of jelly at CVS ( the horror) because I unexpectly ran out and my family eats this everyday. Right now DS1 is getting me smokes at 7-11. I will pay an extra 50 cents a pack but decided it was worth it to take one more chore off my list tomorrow since I have my day already planned just about down to the minute.
( One more thing. Next time you are out will you pick me up some milk. It is $3.49 a gallon here.) :)

April 22, 2009 at 4:29 PM

Blogger Meg said...

$1.99 is still less than the $2.29 we pay here, so don't beat yourself up over it!

Hey, you've mentioned several times that one hole in your spending is on takeout when you are too exhausted to cook. I've recently started cooking an old-fashioned Sunday roast, pork or a turkey breast or whatever not-beef is on sale. For two people, this means roast turkey one night, then easy meals of leftover turkey sandwiches, pre-cooked chicken over pasta or salad, stir-fries, etc. Weekday dinners are faster so it's not an insurmountable task at the end of a long day.

I haven't noticed a decrease in our grocery bill doing this BUT there are fewer nights we go out because I'm too beat to fix dinner, so our overall finances are better!

April 23, 2009 at 12:00 PM

Blogger Abby said...


I like that idea. My mom does this from time to time when turkey goes on some ridiculous sale. I suppose that would be relatively easy. Since Tim and I aren't huge fans of stuffing, really all I'd have to do is stick a turkey in the oven for a few hours... Thanks for the idea!

April 23, 2009 at 12:09 PM

Blogger Abby said...


How is it that milk is almost twice as expensive on the East Coast? Usually, things are cheaper there because shipping is less etc.

Perhaps it's the price you pay for access to Tastykakes at any time? The "Tastykake convenience tax."

When you first start a new job, or whenever your schedule gets thrown off, a lot of things fall by the wayside. Give it time. And breathe. A lot.

And, just a thought, why not buy by the carton? Then you could save money? While Tim's smoking again, we stop by Sam's and just get a whole bunch at once. That way, he doesn't pay convenience store mark-up.

For the moment, 50 cents/pack is less important than your sanity. But once things shake down, depending on how quickly you smoke, you may want to figure something out. But only once you're a little more settled.

April 23, 2009 at 12:12 PM

Blogger Lilli said...

seriously, where do you people live? Here in Boston I can sometimes get a gallon of milk (brand name, that stuff grocery stores claim is milk is gross!!) on sale for $3.49, but usually its $4.19. And considering I drink about 2 gallons a week (yes, by myself) trust me I look for the deals!

I find that the convenience or laziness tax mostly manifests itself in my food budget because it's easier to justify....a girl's gotta eat, right?! Sometimes it's a deterrent against bad behavior too...if I'm going to scarf down a pint of Ben & Jerry's cookie dough, I'm not about to let myself feel less guilty by buying it on sale! $5 bucks...that's the price of gluttony in my house lol

April 23, 2009 at 4:34 PM

Blogger Abby said...


I'm here in Seattle. Alane is in NJ. I guess we're lucky to have our milk so cheap. Here it's around $2.39. When milk was crazily expensive, it was closing in on $3.19. The "bottom-shelf" (aka generic) milk that I get is $1.99. In Sam's Club, we generally get it cheaper than that. Usually for around $1.39-1.69.

April 23, 2009 at 6:25 PM

Blogger Shevy said...

I almost always pay a "convenience tax" on fruits and vegetables. My default grocery store is Safeway because of its proximity to my office (and being directly on my way home from work). They have nice produce but it's more expensive than going to an Asian grocery (even the one on the other side of the mall).

But really, when I'm buying an onion, 2 potatoes and a bag of baby carrots, with maybe half a dozen mushrooms tossed in it really doesn't seem to be worth it to drive out of my way at an inconvenient time of day. (My shopping is usually done after 10:30 pm on nights that I'm at the office late and all those specialty produce places close around 6 pm.)

Plus I'm always too tired to make extra work for myself.

April 23, 2009 at 10:46 PM

Blogger Abby said...


I could understand the rationale on that. We're lucky to be centrally located. Albertson's is 1.3 miles away, Safeway is about 2.5, and QFC is about 2 miles away. All in different directions, mind you, but since I tend to hit different stores on different days of the week, in order to pick up special sales, it works out for me.

April 23, 2009 at 11:36 PM

Blogger Miss M said...

You can get milk that cheap? Wow, that is amazing. The cheapest gallons around here are $2.50 and that is a super sale, usually it is $3.50 or more. These little cost differences add up over the years, I love LA, but not the cost.

April 24, 2009 at 6:13 AM

Blogger J. Money said...

oh yeah, i totally don't mind paying that convenience tax sometimes! great post.

April 24, 2009 at 5:47 PM

Blogger Shevy said...

Ah, Seattle! I really love the vast amounts of kosher meat, dairy, deli and bakery items available at the Mercer Island and University District QFCs and Albertsons!

What's really crazy is that Vancouver and Seattle have roughly the same size Jewish populations but we don't have anything like that (and only a couple of kosher specialty places that have the same sort of thing at much more expensive prices).

Oh, and it's totally off-topic but I just have to say that I saw a guy wearing a great Tshirt today.

It said: I don't have ADD. It's just that...Oooh, look! A bunny!

April 24, 2009 at 7:26 PM

Blogger Donna said...

Shevy: I once got an e-mail list of the best book titles never published. It included, "Everything You Need to Know About ADD and...Hey, Let's Go Ride Our Bikes!"
Also on the list:
"Daddy Drinks Because You Cry"
"Strangers Have the BEST Candy"
"George Foreman's Big Book of Baby Names"

April 26, 2009 at 5:11 PM


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