... Or justifying the cost of a new computer.
Yesterday, I bought four items, and came home with a chargecard debit of $284.
Which is not earth-shaking, unless it happens wantonly, frequently, or without some sort of spending plan. The commodities I bought were all related to my computers, which, frankly, are a major part of life in these retirement years.
To put this purchase in perspective, the day before my wife and I went to lunch with friends who date back to school days, almost 50 years ago. It is an annual affair, and we sit and talk for four hours. The problem is, lunch for four came to $90. Our share was $45, which included two inexpensive seven dollar entrees. The rest was wine, coffee, wine, dessert and wine. Almost 40 percent of our foodbill was for wine. Another 20 percent we gave away as gratuity for good service.
And on the previous day - it was a Monday, which is a day for catching up with bills - we mailed out $168 in checks. Phone bill, excise tax on two middle-aging cars, a donation to fight cancer, and $15 for five minutes of snow plowing.
Wham, right between the eyes ?
The scene changes: We are in bed, flicking channels between Letterman and Leno, and suddenly my wife blurts out, "You've got to stop this compulsive spending!"
Wham, right between the eyes. Compulsive spending??? What compulsive spending? Who, me???
All of which set us off again on one of those great philosophical "which hunts" - which partner spends more, you or me? And where does it go? Where are we spending, and more important, where are we overspending?
Which brings up the subject of the cost of computers at home.
Since we retired ten years ago, we have been keeping very close records of our income and outgo - not so much in a pecuniary sense, but with a modern computer, it is fun to record daily activities - including spending. We now can tell you, thanks to this marvelous invention, where all our money goes. Every penny.
Such as the cost of computing, itself. All this bookkeeping, all this luxury machinery for writing, all this electronic gadgetry for games and work, does have a cost factor. In our case, 5.4 percent of what we pay out yearly is spent on computers.
That's rather ambiguous: Let's put it this way: For the past ten years, we spent annually $34,654, on average. Two of us, all expenses, including food, taxes, vacations, health - everything except the purchase of a new car, which comes out of savings.
That much, huh?
Therefore our 5.4 percent for computers amounts to a fairly hefty $1,871 yearly. That includes a new machine every two or three years, gadgets, internet subscription, supplies, a laser and a color printer, repairs. Everything associated with my computers.
And what do we get for our money? Here's a fairly concise rundown:
One, I run our investments portfolio, and now get for free deep research that used to cost up to a couple of thousand a year. And internet brokers have hammered the cost of a trade.
Two, I write. I made a living as a writer, and I find computers increase productivity greatly. Editing is a snap. It is neat. Copy is immediately accessible, transportable and electronically mailable.
Three, e-mail, that fairly new phenomenon that is sweeping the world. It replaces the telephone as a prime source of communication; it permits you to be as brief or wordy as you choose; and (other than your $20 a month internet fee) it is free. (Ironically e-mail uses the very telephone lines that it replaces as a communicator).
Four, access to the internet with all its amazing sources of information. Endless subjects, great depth - if you are tenacious in your search. Universities, libraries, governments, commercial sources, special interests - all available basically at no cost.
Five, the propensity for making accounting relatively easy - household or business accounting, record-keeping, comparatives, inventories, all become as slick as pie.
And six, graphics in the form of pictures. I have scanned family photos, antique photos, pretty pictures, photos for publication - and with e-mail, I can send electronic copies of those photos to any other on-line computer in the world, for free. Including to our kids, our grandchildren, friends, classmates, business associates, even to the government. Once I e-mailed a digital photo of a broken gadget to its manufacturer, to show what shoddy work he was selling. (It did no good, he continues to produce shoddy stuff).
On the other hand ?
I suppose I do spend more than the average on this new medium. In a fast-changing field where a year-old computer is only "half as powerful" as the latest model, people (like me) can get caught up in the game.
On the other hand, lots of friends are operating with older machines, putting up with a little slower speed but saving great chunks of money by doing so. One friend has a four-year old machine in which he has installed two extra harddrives - added storage space - thereby saving hundreds over the cost of a replacement. And he survives with a 14.4 modem, as opposed to the current 56 kilobyte model - I can receive information at a rate four times as fast, but is this really significant compared to the benefit of the knowledge gained - at any speed?
Back to the beginning: The four items I bought yesterday, which drove my wife to go on this crusade of frugality, were a new Iomega Zip drive for $150; an APC surge protector and battery back up for $90; a new mouse that has scroll buttons. And an electronic extension cord. All very productive items, I feel.
Now, I ask, is that being wasteful? After all, I did not purchase that new Grand Prix game, although I was sorely tempted.
April 2, 1999