Ten Dollars, Twenty Minutes

A few days ago, I was standing in the checkout line at Target behind a woman who was arguing about the price of two stools that she was purchasing. The lady held an old rain check in her hand that claimed the price per stool was $24.99, but the price on the shelf was $29.99. Thus, the argument was about $10 total. The manager of the store was there, along with an assistant manager, and they had just agreed to give her the price on her rain check, mostly in order to get her on her way and out of the store because, frankly, it had become a bit of a scene.

The woman checking me out just rolled her eyes when I asked her about it. She told me, quite simply, that “it’s not worth ten bucks to me to stand around annoying everyone for twenty minutes.”

While I understood the checkout lady’s frustration, I was much more intrigued by the thought process behind the person buying the stools.

When I first considered it, I thought that I would probably do the same thing as the complainer. I’d likely be willing to argue on behalf of saving $10 at the check out line, even if the manager were called over. $10 is $10, after all.

The more I thought about it, though, the less it made sense to me. This person was quite willing to exchange twenty minutes of her time for ten dollars. That means that she values her time to be worth at most $30 per hour.

I thought about my own family. Would I take $30 to lose an hour’s worth of family time one day? No, I wouldn’t. Would I take $10 to lose 20 minutes worth of family time? No, I wouldn’t. To me, the family time is substantially more valuable than that.

If I stood there in the checkout line and argued for that $10, that’s the exact exchange I would be making. By not arguing, I’d get out of the store twenty minutes earlier, get home twenty minutes earlier, and likely get in a bout of wrestling in the living room with my daughter and a quick game of Memory with my son with that twenty minutes. That’s well worth ten dollars to me..

One might think, “Why not call the manager over and see whether or not it can get resolved quickly?” Those types of situations are often dangerous, because once you begin to invest time in these situations, you begin to convince yourself that you’re obligated to see it through. This is the same reason why people remain on hold for half an hour on a technical support line instead of hanging up and trying a different approach – if they’ve already waited some number of minutes, it would be a waste to hang up now, since the result we want might be right around the corner.

I’ve found, time and time again, that you’re better off avoiding those types of situations entirely. Time spent waiting is time lost (unless you can multitask), so I try to avoid situations where I have to wait, especially for a small reward (like a relatively unimportant chat with a customer service representative or $10 saved on price at a department store).

So what would I do in this situation, then? I’d probably request the price change from the cashier, but if the cashier wouldn’t/couldn’t make the change and had to involve more staff, I’d probably tell the cashier not to bother. Then, as I left, I’d put a big mental negative mark against that store’s customer service – just like I would against any service that would ask me to wait a long time for a small benefit.

In other words, thinking the situation out a little bit brings me to a different conclusion about such situations than my snap response would have been.

Now, I don’t believe this is necessarily the right response for everyone. If I were single, for example, I’d likely be willing to protest to get that $10 in exchange for my twenty minutes. If I were a very high wage earner or an entrepreneur with a successful business, I might not find it worth my time even if I were single. Others might believe deeply in the principle of the point and wouldn’t want to “give” Target their $10 in a situation like this.

It really comes down to a handful of factors that are more defined by individual personality than by any hard facts.

Is your free time worth $30 an hour? For some people, it will be. For others, it won’t be.

How about you? Where do you stand on a situation like this? Would you wait around for the price checking and the manager’s decision to save $10, or would you leave? Why?