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Invisible Price Tags

Everything costs. Every choice we make comes with a price tag – but often these price tags are invisible, or not written out very clearly.

Choosing to do such-and-such with the next five minutes means I can’t do that-other-thing in these same five minutes – it might mean that I won’t ever get to do that-other-thing, or it might mean that I’ll do that-other-thing a bit later and end up giving up doing something-else-altogether. So when I choose to do such-and-such with the next five minutes, it’s going to cost me in some way – of course it might be worth it, and then that’s fine, it makes perfect sense; but often we don’t stop and think, we don’t weigh these things up properly. We just go ahead and do such-and-such and then, later, we discover what it has cost us.

Choosing to eat that cake or ice cream is going to cost me in extra blubber around my waistline, which is not good my health so it can actually end up costing me in terms of shortening my life span or decreasing my quality of life – imagine if there was a health warning on every cake… but hey, we already have those warnings on cigarette packs, and smokers just get used to ignoring them. It’s not as if we don’t know it in theory – being told it’s bad for you doesn’t really help when you’re addicted to something. You already know it’s bad for you, but you don’t have (or, sometimes, don’t believe you have) the power to stop.

There are big decisions in life which we tend to take time over – like choosing which job to take, choosing what to study, choosing who to marry –  we tend to think about our options, about what it is we want out of life (though looking back at my own life I can see how I made some of these decisions without anywhere near enough thought); but there are lots of decisions we make in our day-to-day lives which don’t seem significant when we’re making them. And so many people these days are living such busy lives that they don’t have the time to pause and think and weigh things up.

Choosing where to buy your groceries – here in the UK there is a certain supermarket chain which attracts custom by offering low prices, but from what I’ve heard about how they are able to do this, I don’t feel comfortable taking advantage of their attractive offers. Going for their two-for-the-price-of-one offers would cost me in terms of being able to look at myself in the mirror, but on the other hand, choosing not to shop there comes with its own price tag: money, because if I’m going to take the moral high ground in this case I’m going to have to be prepared to pay the higher prices elsewhere; and convenience, because there are so few small local shops left now – thanks to the expansion of supermarket chains – that I’d have to go a lot further to get my groceries if I wanted to completely avoid this chain.

How did we get to this situation? I believe we got there through people not stopping to think and weigh up the consequences of their choices. People with cars and with busy lives were offered the choice of driving to an out-of-town supermarket and getting their shopping done more efficiently, with free parking, better prices than the high street shops, and all sorts of extra facilities like toilets and cafés and cash machines – what’s not to like? So most people flocked there, and now, years down the line, we are lamenting the decline of the local high street with its local shops and cafés, local businesses with their own individual character, where relationships were built over time, where you could trust a shopkeeper to give you good advice – but we brought this on ourselves by not thinking, not weighing up the possible consequences, not checking the price tag.

I spent a large chunk of my life allowing my work life to be dictated by inertia rather than thinking about it properly and making well-thought-out choices. For a long time I was moving from one typing/secretarial job to another simply because that was something I knew how to do, and I didn’t know what I really wanted to do with my life.

I was in my thirties when the restlessness hit me – the feeling that there has to be more to life than pushing papers around in an office. (But let me make one thing very clear: this is how it was in my case, how it was for me personally. There are people who have a great gift for doing administrative work, and this is a really crucial role – I am not seeking to belittle it, it’s just that in my case this was not what I was cut out for, it was just something I did out of inertia.)

I was working in an accountants’ office in London, having advanced from the role of a typist to the role of an administrator, dealing with a certain aspect of the firm’s internal accounts. I was good at my job, I had great satisfaction when I got the figures to add up and handed the monthly report to my boss – the adrenaline rush of getting it all done in time for his deadline was great! but once the adrenaline wore off and it was back to the daily grind, I’d get this restless feeling. And I remember my discomfort one year at pay-rise time when I got the letter telling me how much they were going to pay me and I thought: that’s a large pay-rise, what is he going to want in return? I was beginning to learn this principle: everything costs, everything comes with a price tag. I was beginning to learn to look for the hidden price tag.

When I eventually announced I was leaving, the boss said: I would offer you a higher salary but I know that’s not what you want. You’re right, I said, I want more than money.

I was brought up to be careful with money and to check prices on things before you buy them. My mother used to go round different shops comparing the price of tins of tuna. Scrimping and saving was her way of life – but that also costs: it costs time and energy. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to do it – depending on your circumstances, it might be absolutely necessary! I’m just trying to draw attention to the fact that there is a cost involved and we should weigh it up and decide: in my case, in my circumstances, is it worth it? Is it the best use of my time and energy?

Which takes us back to the beginning of this post, and that was the beginning of my train of thought: the use of time. Lying in bed after switching off the alarm clock, very tempted to get just a little bit more sleep, I thought: yes, I want more sleep, but it would cost me. Getting up later means starting my day later – those extra ten minutes will have gone if I sleep them away.

I have always known myself to be a procrastinator, and have had enough fellow procrastinators around me so we can all pat one another on the shoulder and laugh about it together – which is fun, but not really all that helpful, as it means we don’t challenge one another to fight it. But fighting it is what I need to do, otherwise I will continue to fritter time away – and when it’s gone, it’s gone. That’s why I’m going on and on about choices – part of this fight is about learning to make more clearly thought-out choices about what I am going to do with my time. Because this next minute won’t make a second appearance, this day will not be repeated again like in some computer game where you can try Level 2 one more time and see if you can do better this time. The time we have is limited – I think I’m more aware of this now as I’m getting older, that time is very limited. So if something looks attractive but it’s going to cost me time – well, I need to weigh it up, I need to decide if it’s worth it.

Just as we might look at a dress or a pair of shoes or whatever in a shop window, looking at the price tag and thinking: is it worth so many of my pounds/dollars/whatever? How about looking at the computer game/tv programme/whatever it is you’re thinking of doing, and thinking: is it worth so many of my minutes?

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