It’s Hard To Tell What’s A Bargain Is Anymore

by James Wallace Harris, 7/2/22

One value of writing an essay is thinking through an idea. I’ve rewritten this essay several times as I rethink my assumptions and feelings. When is a bargain a great deal or just something cheap I really don’t need? When does something feel expensive when it’s not? When is something cheap but overpriced or a wonderful value? How does inflation warp our sense of value as we age?

In 1962 when I was in the 6th grade I could ride my bike down to the base theater on Homestead Air Force Base and see a movie for 15 cents. That was a kid’s price back then. I could get a candy bar for 5 cents, and a coke in a cup for another nickel. It was a small cup, but also the only size cup. Total expenditure was a quarter. The last time I bought a movie ticket, before the pandemic, it was $12. Candy was around $5 and a drink was around $5, but the comparison isn’t perfect. In 1962 I probably got a 200-calorie sugar high, and today it would probably be a 2,000-calorie sugar overdose.

Magazines in 1962 were 15-25 cents. Today it’s $7.99 – $11.99. Back then I’d read in a magazine all week. Today, I’m lucky if one will divert me for 30-minutes because I have so many others to read. Back then I was happy with Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and Mad Magazine. Today I try to keep up with a couple dozen mags. But is having a quantity a bargain?

A paperback was 35-60 cents. I’m not sure they have mass-market paperbacks anymore. It’s $11.99 for a Kindle book. A science fiction magazine like F&SF was 40 cents in 1962, but $9.99 an issue in 2022. What’s hilarious is I often pay $10-15 for old issues of F&SF today. Last year I paid $35 for Fall 1949 issue (v.1 n.1) of F&SF. It originally cost 35 cents. I believe that tells me its real worth. How many things do I enjoy today that I would I pay 100x their original costs sixty years from now?

In 1962 all TV was free. There were three channels. I can still get ABC, CBS, and NBC for free if I wanted to use an antenna, but I watch them through a $65 package from YouTube TV today and get several dozen channels thrown in. It ruffles my feathers to pay that $65 but my wife Susan considers it a cheap essential and her favorite form of entertainment.

Susan worked out of town from 2008-2018. She loves TV way more than I do, so I encouraged her to have cable TV at her Mon-Fri apartment. I got to cut the cord at our house, which delighted me. I bought a TiVo to record off-the-air shows like Jeopardy and the nightly news but I mostly watched Netflix for fun shows. About $25 a month total. I was thrilled except that I missed Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Cord-cutting felt like a real bargain!

When Susan stopped working out of town I convinced her to try streaming TV. We tried AT&T TV before settling on YouTube TV. YouTube started out at $45 a month and is now $65. Not a bad deal, but with all of our other subscription TV services, we’re now spending $128 a month. That seems like a lot, as painful as having a cable bill. But times have changed. There are so many options for watching TV.

Cord-cutting was never about saving money. I just hated paying the cable bill because out of the hundreds of channels we got, Susan liked about a dozen and I watched two. That just bugged the crap out of me. However, I now subscribe to Apple News+ for $9.99 a month and it gets me over 300 digital magazines to read. I probably look at less than a dozen of them, yet I don’t agonize over the fact I’m paying for almost 300 I’m not reading. I’m not being consistent, am I?

Before Apple News+ it wasn’t uncommon for me to buy a handful of magazines at the bookstore and spend $75. So, I’m thinking: What should a handful of TV channels cost?

I also spend $9.99 a month with Scribd.com for ebooks and audiobooks. I read or listen to one or two a month and consider it a bargain without worrying about the ones I’m not reading. Again, $9.99 versus $40-50 for two books. I only use YouTube TV for TCM, so $65 for one channel seems extreme. Although, if pressed, TCM is worth $65.

Netflix used to be about $9.99 a month, and I considered it a great bargain too. However, now that there are so many subscription services, it’s hard to tell what a bargain is anymore. When we only had Netflix and watched it all the time it was a bargain. Netflix seems much less of a bargain when we have Netflix, AppleTV+, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime, PBS Passport, Peacock, Paramount Plus, Wondrium, etc.

We should go through a new kind of cord-cutting, sub-cutting. With so many premium streaming TV services, we often ignore one or two for months while we binge-watch shows on the others.

I don’t mind paying for something we use. We spend very little money on going out, vacations, clothes, etc. I drive a 22-year-old truck. We’re retired, and spend most of our time home, so we can afford a few TV subscriptions. However, I don’t want to waste money either. And I like a bargain — and I’m a cheap ass. But is Netflix a bargain when I ignore its large buffet of movies and TV shows for several months of the year?

We recently canceled Netflix because neither one of us watched it for months. We even discovered we were paying for two subscriptions because Susan had never canceled her out-of-town sub. We mainly canceled Netflix to protest the newest price hike. Psychologically, a TV subscription should be $4.99 – $9.99. Anything more, and I worry about getting my value.

HBO Max is $14.99. That seems like a Mercedes price when I’m used to driving a Toyota. HBO Max has a cheaper subscription but it’s with commercials. I’m adamantly against paying to watch anything with commercials. If I had to watch commercials I’d go back to over-the-air TV and cancel all my subscriptions.

When we had cable I always wanted to have a la carte channel buying. I thought the perfect payment method would be to subscribe to just the channels we wanted. And I’d be willing to pay extra to not have commercials.

For some reason, Netflix seemed like a wonderful bargain at $9.99 a month, but a terrible deal at $17.99 a month. Oddly, HBO Max at $14.99 a month seems like a better deal than Netflix or Hulu. But now that I’ve canceled Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max hardly seems worth $30+ a month either.

My friend Linda is very disciplined. She subscribes to only one TV service a month. Currently, it’s HBO Max, but she plans to cancel it and go to AppleTV+ again when some of her favorite shows return with new seasons. So she spends from $5 to $15 a month on TV. Now that’s a bargain.

When YouTube TV was $45 a month it was a real bargain. Now that it’s $65 it doesn’t seem like one. And if they raise their price again, it will seem like a rip-off.

But am I being penny wise and pound foolish? Going to a movie is $12. Buying a DVD runs $8-25 and I used to buy a lot of them. Renting a movie on Amazon Prime runs $2-20 and I still do that. Watching just one or two movies I used to go out to see, or once bought on disc turns any premium TV subscription into a bargain.

The other day I bought 8 seasons of The Andy Griffiths Show for $15 each on Amazon Prime for Susan’s birthday. She watches that series over and over while she sews. But I thought it was painful to see her watch Andy on commercial TV that cuts several extra minutes out of each episode that originally ran 28 minutes. Most premium streaming TV channels offer dozens, if not hundreds of complete TV series. Andy isn’t on any of them at the moment.

I really can’t complain about their monthly prices. They are a bargain. But only if we watch something during the month. I’d say one movie or one season of a TV show is breaking even, and anything more makes them a bargain.

Susan doesn’t mind commercials. She sews while watching television, and just ignores those never-ending painful minutes of ads. I sometimes wonder if she could handle over-the-air broadcast TV. I bet she’d be just as happy watching MeTV all day long as she is watching all the old TV shows on TBS every day. But she loves many other channels. She considers YouTube TV a cable TV service. When a tennis tournament is on she has to have ESPN. So YouTube TV is a bargain to her, but a waste of money to me.

Bargains are relative. And it’s harder to budget when two people are involved. Susan said if YouTube TV raised its prices again, we’d cancel something else.

Even though I don’t watch them much, I consider AppleTV+ and PBS Passports to be real bargains because they are only $5 a month. If all the services charged just $5 a month I’d be willing to subscribe to all and not worry if I used them each month. But at $10-15, I figure we have to decide which is worthwhile, and which is a bargain.

Maybe we should cancel any streaming TV service that’s more than $10 a month. But I pay $13 a month for YouTube Premium so I don’t have to watch commercials. All the content is free, I’m just paying to get rid of stuff I don’t want to see. Now, is that a bargain?

Life was simpler when everyone watched the same three broadcast channels. We had a lot more shared culture. But those days are over. Now we have endless choices in endless varieties. Is that a bargain? Again it’s relative. But in 1966 I could go to school and nearly everyone I knew had watched some of the same shows I had watched the night before. That was priceless.

JWH

6 thoughts on “It’s Hard To Tell What’s A Bargain Is Anymore”

  1. I found Jim’s piece very thoughtful, as always. My habits are even cheaper. My wife and I watch most of our movies on DVDs borrowed from the public library. Over the last ten years or so, I’ve discovered old SFF anthology shows such as Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond, and Night Gallery in the public library. (I was born in 1964, so these were before my time.) Much of my huge library consists of books acquired either in second-hand bookstores, or in library sales, thrift stores, etc.

    1. Yeah, I spent many years using the library. I worked in a library for six years. And I loved the video rental era. One time the Blockbuster clerk said we had rented over 750 movies. I guess I just got lazy after the internet.

      1. For me laziness takes the form of not wanting to futz around with Netflix, passwords, etc. Using the library is so much easier, even if I can’t find everything I might find on Netflix.

        1. Well, I’ve always been a computer guy, so it was easy for me. My sister hates computers and until very recently only used the library for movies and TV shows. But I finally got her to try Netflix and she got hooked. After that, she signed up for other streaming services.

          But I do miss libraries. Every week I go to the library bookstore. A lot of things I used to check out are being sold cheap, along with friends of the library donations.

          1. I have nothing against Netflix in principle. I just have an old-fashioned attachment to the library. Alas, the carts with book for sale seem to have disappeared from Vancouver libraries since Covid. (I guess this was due to the idea early in the pandemic that Covid was transmitted on surfaces rather than face-to-face transmission, etc.) However, I’m also ambivalent about these sales. I always like browsing among books that have been donated, but I’m sometimes disheartened to see so many books withdrawn from the library collection, although I guess they have to make room for new books.

  2. I do two streaming services at once, then drop one and add another, but I watch a good bit of TV and it seems I ultimately run out of things I have not seen or want to watch. I like British, so I mostly go back and forth with BritBox and Acorn TV.
    What kills men is the price of WiFi and cable in my area…Spectrum only gives deals to new subscribers. They use to deal with you if you threatened to leave, but no more. Thought I’d try Frontier, but hate to get into going back and forth between the two.
    I have found Crackle has some good stuff and is free…

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