Peter Costa: On costs, cartels and rewards cards

Peter Costa

The cost to wash my car at one of those automatic carwashes now equals the price of a haircut – $13.95. A 3-D movie costs $13.95. So does a meal at a family restaurant. A paperback book costs $13.95, and one of those mega-lattes with three espresso shots and a muffin total $13.95. There must be some secret cartel that meets in the basement of Goldman Sachs that sets everything we use daily at $13.95.

I blame plastic. When we used to pay with paper money, we could actually feel our small wad of bills grow smaller after we bought gasoline or got a trim, and that scared us. Now, with our credit, debit and ATM cards, we seldom even look at the total. We simply do as ordered by the usually imperious cashier, and sign on the bottom line

In some cases, you cannot even see the total on the LCD window of the cash register unless you contort your torso and bend around your cart to read the digital numbers that are the size of type in an old Manhattan phone book.

Fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and coffee shops increasingly are handing a receipt back with your change. As much as this is supposed to improve transaction transparency, all it does for me is to cause me to mix the receipt with the two dollar bills I get in change, which I invariably drop to the floor while trying to balance my tray of coffee cups and bagels.

Then it becomes a search-and-rescue mission.

“Sir, a dime has rolled over there under the table. Your receipt is on the bottom of your shoe and there’s a dollar bill hanging from your belt.”

Many stores are printing out coupons and promotional offers that are as long as the Mississippi river and that dwarf the product you actually bought. Not only must you carry that paper trail, but you are given stern orders on how those coupons and rebates should be used.

“Make sure you save the receipt, the rebate slips and the bar codes from the items you have bought. You may have to cut out the bar code from the packaging, so don’t throw out any boxes. You can also do this online if you have the serial numbers, the product codes and the middle name of King Tut’s sister-in-law.”

Then there is something called a “rewards” card. Is that for buying vegetables, dead or alive? I always say no when asked if I have one. Then the cashier tries to sign me up for a card, even though a queue as long as a Depression-era soup line snakes through the aisle behind me.

There is one item that doesn’t cost $13.95. It’s ink jet printer ink. For a duo of black and color cartridges, the cost is just $139.50, just 10 times what I pay for a haircut. Maybe I should get one of those rewards cards after all.

Peter Costa is a senior editor with GateHouse Media New England. His latest humor book is ”Outrageous CostaLiving: Still laughing through life,” and is available at amazon.com.