Syrup For $60 And Ink For $1,400: Putting Costs Into Perspective

April 10, 2012

We buy stuff in familiar increments — gas by the gallon, eggs by the dozen, internet service by the month.

Sometimes these conventional units make it hard for us to grasp the value of various goods and services. You might be used to paying $4.50 for a pint of strawberries … but how do you feel about paying a quarter for one strawberry?

It’s an enlightening exercise to examine prices of things outside of their traditional measures. We’re used to seeing this type of analysis for cigarettes ($2,500 per year for a pack-a-day smoker!) or for interest payments over the term of a 30-year mortgage.

I decided to re-frame the costs of other everyday purchases. These are things my family of four in St. Paul routinely buys.

Hamel Maple SyrupPure Maple Syrup
Cost: $7.95 for 16 oz. bottle
Alternate View: $63.60 per gallon
Verdict: Mixed. This is pure maple syrup made by Hamel Maple Syrup Co. in Minnesota, not the stuff made from high-fructose corn syrup. It’s a delicious family favorite. Still, that’s an eye-popping number for a gallon.

Garbage Collection
Cost: $62 every three months
Alternate View: $5.17 per pickup
Verdict: A bargain. I’ll gladly pay a fiver for some guy in a big truck to come by my house every week and haul away all my garbage.

Cost: $2,159 in 2011
Alternate View: $5.92 per day
Verdict: Fair price. When I think about running the refrigerator, the laundry machines, the lights, the computer, etc., I figure $6 a day isn’t too bad.

Printer Ink
Cost: $11.99 for HP 564 Black (1.1 ounces)
Alternate View: $1,395 per gallon
Verdict: A ripoff. I know I’m not the first guy to complain about the cost of printer ink, but this one drives me nuts. It’s the classic “give-’em-the-razor-and-sell-’em-the-blades” business model. I’ve investigated the less expensive third-party ink providers and found the forums full of warnings about compatibility issues.

Water & Sewer Service
Cost: $415 for 2011
Alternate View: $1.14 per day
Verdict: A bargain. Clean running water for a family of four, plus disposal of the waste water, for a buck a day? Seriously, how much longer will this last?

Roxy the standard poodleDog Grooming
Cost: $80 for standard poodle
Alternate View: $4,800 in a lifetime
Verdict: Mind-blowing. Poodles have hair, not fur. So they don’t shed (great!), but they need haircuts (drag!). This estimate is based on five haircuts per year for 12 years, the average life span of a standard poodle. Is not having to vacuum dog hair every day (the advantage of owning a poodle over a breed that sheds) worth nearly $5,000 grand over 12 years? How do you put a dollar value on love?

Cost: $7.50 per bag of Caribou Breakfast Blend
Alternate View: $45 per month (1.5 bags per week) and $540 per year
Verdict: Wow. My wife and I have a coffee habit to the tune of nearly 50 bucks a month. That’s just a pot a day. Seems steep at first blush. But upon further review, it comes out to about 25 cents per cup.

Cost: $3.80 per gallon
Alternate View: 19 cents per mile (20 mpg) or $4.18 for my daily commute
Verdict: I’m not going to get into the geo-political and environmental debates about the true cost of gasoline, but it’s interesting to think about shelling out $4 to drive to work or $10.50 to visit my mom in Maple Grove.