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Why are so many computer users skinflints?

A couple of days ago I responded to a review of a Twitter application I use with the following observations:


The review I was referring to was one in PC Magazine about a BlackBerry Twitter application I use and love called Tweet Genius. Twitter’s 140 character constraints make it a bit tough for me to be completely clear, but my point is this: why is the $10 cost of a highly useful application considered sufficiently noteworthy to be mentioned several times during an otherwise positive review? And why is it that this “it is great, but a major drawback is that it costs something…” kind of notice is so common in software reviews these days?

I developed a set of usefulness versus cost measures of my own based on common “mundane” items about 30 years ago. I compare software cost to the cost of a cup of coffee, the price of a movie ticket, the price of a reasonable meal, to the expense of a night drinking with my buddies, and to my hourly billable rate. Anything that I like and use even a bit is worth the price of a couple cups of coffee, even if I stop using it after a few days. If it is useful/entertaining for more than a couple of hours, it is worth the price of a movie ticket: if it keeps me entertained for a weekend, it is worth the cost of a night at the movies for two. Something that serves a daily useful purpose over a good span of time is worth the price of a a good meal for two, and if it really makes my life easier and happier I start comparing the time it saves against my billable hourly rate. As my wife Irene will attest, I can quickly scale this up to justify a couple of thousand dollars for something that makes a significant, long term impact to reducing my stress level and making work more efficient, easier, and more enjoyable.

Admittedly, I have a good job and am an adult, so my acceptable cost standards are obviously going to be higher than, say, an unemployed college student. But even that college student will buy a cup of coffee or two a week, or buy a couple of beers on a weekend: and so a $10 to $20 cost for something that is actually useful is a pittance even by their standards. A pittance as in at least as worthwhile as something they can piss away in a couple of hours.

Thus I am perplexed when I see someone repeatedly calling out the “high” cost of something that has a price not much more than a couple cups of coffee. What standards is this type of person using? Is their only basis for comparison the fact that they can get something else not quite as good, or burdened with crapware and advertisements for free? Are the reviewers or their perceived audience really so cheap that they would hesitate to spend $10 on something that works really well? And I should note that Tweet Genius is currently (as noted in the review) on special for half price: $5 freaking bucks.

What does it say about the computer-using culture when paying someone $5 to benefit from the fruits of hundreds of hours of their labour is “expensive”? Just how little do we value not only the time of the person who created this thing, but our own time and happiness?

Note that I have my own foibles about price. I refuse to pay for the same thing over and over again in different formats (e.g.: music, movies): if I pay my money, in my opinion (but not the opinion of the studios or the law) I should be entitled to watch it however I want on whatever device I want without paying for it again. Likewise if I buy a game and it refuses to play on my computer due to draconian DRM, I’ll step out of bounds to get a version that does work. And if there is an honest-to-goodness *better* alternative, by all reasonable measures, that is free, I’ll certainly check it out. But I’m quite willing to click on the “Pay me $10 if you like this” buttons for tools, utilities, and webcomics I use/enjoy, even when there is no mandatory payment.   

I guess, having worked to create intangibles like software, articles, and stories in the past, I respect that it actually *is* work for the creators. Work worthy of being paid for. More than that: I place a high enough value on my own time, stress level, and happiness that I’m quite pleased to pay someone who creates something to give me back/reduce/increase these factors in my life. Not paying, particularly for small developers and “cottage” companies, isn’t “sticking it to the man”: it is fundamentally screwing ourselves over.

A cost of five, ten, or even twenty dollars isn’t “expensive”: it is a couple of coffees, a couple packs of cigarettes, or a couple of beers with your friends. And if your head is screwed on right, it is a realistic cost to pay for the labour involved in virtually any moderately useful application.

3 comments to Why are so many computer users skinflints?

  • It isn’t just the computer users of the world that have this, to me, odd view.

    ( Note: to any that think I’m just the rich friend of a rich dude – no. Last year for the first time in my life, due to lots of overtime and on call pay, my take home pay reached $30k for the year.I am less likely than Kelly to pay for trial or donation ware simply because I have less money to do so.)

    You can see the exact same attitude when reading travel reviews and talking to people about overseas trips. There will be complaints about “okay hotel, but cheaper alternatives”, and one does have to wonder how anyone from the western world who gets a 5 star hotel for under $100 a night can complain about price. Or, when they get a room for $20 a night, they can complain about much of anything as long as the room is clean and the roof doesn’t leak.

    People will scream they they are getting ripped off because they were charged 80 pesos for a beer when some other place charges 60. A philippine peso is less than 2 cents, so I have to ask: is 20 cents that big of a deal when you are getting a beer for $1.60 vs $5+ that you are used too?

    I believe that it comes from people confusing price/cost with value. We value people based on their paycheck rather than how well they do what they do. We look at getting more ‘stuff’ as ‘better’, so the lower price you pay the more junk you can get and the ‘better’ off you are…

    How else to explain the mania among wealthy celebs for 100 room mansions they only live in 12 weeks of the year. They don’t need the room … no it is because a bigger house = better house = better person in common society.

    When travel, or purchase something, I have an idea of what I want. And I know how much I can afford. ( Don’t get me wrong, I’d love have a few millions and not even question the cost of airfare, but until the lottery pays off, I accept reality 😉 )

    If I get what I want for what I can afford, I’m happy. Here, a cab from the airport costs $50. If I get a cab from the airport for $6, even is that is double the going local rate, I’m going to be happy. I’ll pay more to break up a long flight into stages or so I don’t have to rush connections because to me the most important thing is to enjoy my vacation. Only second to I look to find a cheaper vacation – that I enjoy just as much.

    But I do not define value as entirely, or even mostly, based on money. Many, many people do.

  • You touch on some some interesting points, Chris. I have had people tell me I got “ripped off” when I paid the equivalent of $15 in Mexico City for a ride to the airport. A ride that would cost $65 here… and which was no more or less enjoyable. As you say, I measure value, and if I’m overpaying in the local currency, or if there is a cheaper alternative, I don’t really consider that being “ripped off”.

    I suspect that some people perceive minimizing what they pay for something to be as much of a competition as maximizing how much stuff they have. They do this even when the cost drops below a threshold that any reasonable person would consider insignificant. And I guess I never had that drive: I actually feel *good* when I pay someone well for something I enjoy. Paying less purely for the sake of paying less feels to me like I’m diminishing both the person and the item or service.

    And I guess that might be just the point. The process of diminishing the value of someone or something else is the only way for a percentage of the population to feel better about themselves.

  • “The process of diminishing the value of someone or something else is the only way for a percentage of the population to feel better about themselves.”

    And this percentage of the population are called managers! Ba-da-boom. 🙂 ( No, they are not all bad … just run into more than my quota of bad management lately.)

    More seriously, I’d like to think that most of those that can only feel better about themselves by de-valuing others just don’t know any other way. They could, given the right learning and life experiences be enlightened.

    I would like, again, to think that only a few hard core cases really can only derive satisfaction from screwing over others and are true sociopaths… because if all the people that act that way are hardwired for that behaviour, we rally are screwed as a society.

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