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David Bouchier: A Few Well Chosen Words

David Bouchier: Value for Money

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The Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde once defined a cynic as “A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” We all know people like this, the most boring of all boring conversationalists, who talk obsessively about prices, values and bargains as if salvation lay in making the best deal.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting value for money. The problem is that we can’t define it. Value and money are such very different things. It’s like saying that we want the right amount of Renaissance art for the right number of fried potatoes – the two things just can’t be compared or balanced against each other. This doesn’t stop us from trying, or from being seduced by commercial promises – good value, better value, best value, unbeatable value. Nobody knows what value is, and for that very reason, it has an almost mystical significance.

Reason and common sense have nothing to do with it. The Antiques Road Show is a good example. The process called “appraisal” is a kind of dark magic by which “value” is created out of thin air. Hideously ugly and useless objects are valued at astonishingly high prices simply because they are rare. Most of them should be rare, or even nonexistent. Other, much more attractive objects are valued at next to nothing, just because they are common. Where’s the sense in that?

If we start thinking seriously about value for money the ambiguities will drive us crazy. What’s the real value of a ticket to the opera, or to a baseball match, or to Australia? It all depends.

One way to calculate value for money is to estimate how much time it takes to earn a particular sum, and to consider what else we might buy for the same sum. For example I find in a holiday gift catalog a child’s Ride on Bentley Continental for just $400, minus five cents, plus delivery. It runs at three miles an hour and has all the bells and whistles including a music player. A person earning the federal minimum wage would have to work 55 hours to afford this lavish gift. On the other hand a real Bentley Continental, a magnificent car capable of over 200 an hour, costs close to $200,000, which would keep our minimum wage worker busy for about 13 years, assuming a 40-hour week and no vacations. Would that be good value for money?

For just the price of the toy car you could buy a dozen excellent books or CDs, a superb dinner for two with an exquisite bottle of wine, 300 cans of best cat food, or a year’s supply of roses for the one you love. In my personal opinion, all these things would be great value, and the Bentleys, big and, small are a complete waste of time and money. But a lot of people disagree. They don’t want wine or roses, but a Bentley Continental would make their lives complete. That’s where personal taste comes in, which brings us to the heart of the matter.

The best value for money is whatever best expresses our personal tastes and interests. We value what we pay for, and we pay for what we value – or at least we should.

Copyright: David Bouchier