Money's Worth

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Recently, the notion of "getting your money's worth" has been stuck in my head, mediating business transactions, yard sale consumptions, and recommendations to travelers.

I've moved to Maine: cool. It has been great - save missing most of summer (the fashionably "ideal" time to praise Vacationland) and a healthy amount of autumn ("leaf-peepers'" foliage-induced, copacetic time to stall on highway shoulders waiting in single-file lines to take a picture of a waterfall from the sweet spot). When my housemate's fiancé learned my string of travel from August through October, she asked with a fearful tone "doesn't he know he's missing the times of year that make the winters in Maine worth living here???" - or something to that effect, sorry for butchering, Sammie.

This brief narrative wasn't the conversation that sparked thoughts on truly valuing what you've paid for - but it certainly makes me ponder the true value of flights, rental trucks, gas, and incidental moving costs it took to relocate 400 miles. Actually, it was the conversation had with a  friend Paige, having met five years ago in New Zealand while studying a long way from home.

Paige has been living in Maine, going to school, and finishes this year. Before this year, she stocked up on snow shovels and wisdom about parking in Portland that only residents can accrue and dispense properly. I ask to buy her snow shovel(s) from her, since her new apartment has an attached parking structure.

"Chris, these shovels were $10 each and I have more than gotten my money's worth," she assures me.

Right then, my mind began racing and swimming with phrases of "sharing economy," "find it on craigslist," "five finger discount," and the like. How often do we encounter people who participate in the hand-me-down culture anymore? I encounter it very rarely, and so it was a shock when someone wasn't trying to make a buck off of something used but not needed anymore.

Perhaps it's because I don't have a toddler in need of a Patagonia fleece onesie, or perhaps it's because I just spent three years in NYC where anything "free" (craigslist, the curb) raises eyebrows or receives a haughty chuckle to oneself as you pass it by.

These days, one almost forgets the price of money. Traditions of ye olde community and civic engagement are behind us. 

Affirmation: yes, the world has gotten more expensive. People are trying to "hustle" in ways that are neither related to physical activity, nor cheating you on a "business" deal (read: pimping and gambling?). But what happened to good-nature and feeling like you spent money on something whose value you have expended - and then some, in many cases?

The gig and sharing economies come to mind: making money on something one would normally just "have" to appreciate oneself.

Lucas Calhoun and I sat down for a drink on the Upper East Side two years ago, and he spoke to me about something I'll never forget. He apologized for being late, for which I granted him pardon. Ten minutes? No big deal to me! But it was a big enough issue for him to explain why.

"All we have, when you strip away everything else as human beings on this planet, are our name, our ideas, and our time. What are we without these things?"

Forever I will be changed from this conversation. It is important to think that most people keep their names for their whole life, adding on a surname during marriage, assuming nicknames, or using a given middle name exclusively over their first. And there exists a patent process to protect our ideas. Is there anything to monitor how we spend our time? Besides time clocks at work, we really are the slumlords of our own time. Managing, mismanaging, and now, monetizing it.

As a freelance media producer, the biggest challenge met with every client and business transaction is "am I valuing my talents and time enough to do this job?" and "I hope for dear life that the client and I are on the same wavelength as to getting our money's worth."

It's stressful to sell oneself in an ever-changing economy whose modifiers seem to change with the latest startup.

I want to pay people for the good work that they do. Yet I do not have the money to do so. Many times I have helped out others pro bono because they remain dear friends. Or because the satisfaction from spending time with them/working with them was worth it enough for me. Other times, I have worked for the cost of what it took to transport and accommodate me in a given location, and other times, for barter.

At present, I like to barber mens' hair for free because "you get what you pay for," aka, you get your money's worth. What is your money worth in this case? 26 years of observance of receiving a men's haircut, reverse engineered and critically interpreted into a pleasant experience driven by my belief in the fundamental notion that everyone has hair and thus it is a topic of function.

At the First Friday Art Walk this week in Portland, I paid $10 for a burrito, yet after another hour or two, perused the Art Museum for free (saved $12 on admission), received a glass of wine ($5-7 when dining out maybe?), free coffee and cookies (~$4) and learned two new things. I feel like I entirely received my money's worth for a night out on the town in the buzzing metropolis on the water.

I also think about the valuation of garments these days - one that sticks close to the heart, after working in merchandising and sales at Patagonia in New York. This is a company whom many of you know to "replace for free" your old clothes. Unfortunately, their ethos has been misinterpreted (I think they have since replaced the language to be more fair and accurate to their philosophy) and this is effectively wrong. See below!

We had one woman, once, enter into the store in the afternoon midweek. She had two shopping bags full of funky, smelly, and decrepit, old Patagonia wares. Jackets, pants, shorts, base layers - and the most notorious, long underwear and regular underwear. Most importantly, these items were twenty years old. But she had receipts, so we had to return them for the price on the receipt. There were holes and problems with every garment. But not the type of problem that comes with factory making - the kind of problem that comes with 20 years of regular wear and tear.

Can you believe the gall? The gumption the lady had? Because she wanted to get her "money's worth." Even though this woman lies somewhere on the spectrum of chemical imbalance, it wasn't too different from the 40-something business man who came in after a year of owning the Better Sweater fleece jacket because "it was pilling" and "I just can't believe it" and "I'm disappointed in Patagonia," etc. Your fleece sweater will still keep you warm and light that brand-driven-fire under your seat, even with some pilling, a repair-able tear, and whatever little thing might be wrong.

If you think about it, a company like this spends money and charges a healthy amount to ensure that the product will still live and do it's job as its intended. Form and function dictate the lives of most garments engineered to last a very long time. Fashion has nothing to do with it, right? Right. When did we get so righteous to assume the position of "Taking advantage of someone or something" was okay? 

Well, it happens surely with most artists in the beginnings of their career. I have experienced it, surely. I'm sure many of you have, as well.

Will we stop asking our neighbors in apartment buildings and down the street for sugar or milk because they started charging $.50 for every teaspoon? SugarBnB. Ha!

Parts of me feel guilty when using AirBnB because I champion the concept of CouchSurfing loud and clear. But the catch is: I am cash poor. If I worked in a secure and income-consistent job or career, I think I would think differently. I might feel as though I have gotten my money's worth, or am adequately compensated at the end of the week, insofar that I am able to pay rent, afford the comforts of living, and then give back here and there. It seems this reciprocity only exists within this comfort of having some money and giving back to whomever you deem deserves it.

Sociologist Robert Putnam writes in owling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community:

"Networks of community engagement foster sturdy norms of reciprocity....Even more valuable, however, is a norm of generalized reciprocity: I'll do this for you without expecting anything back from you in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road."

This idea of "generalized reciprocity" is motivation to do everything, but it appears clouded in the present with the expectation that if you have a vacant apartment for a weekend, you can make money. Or if your car is sitting unused in the driveway, someone can pay to use it. Or even the idea that you do something for someone, and the barter is not mutually beneficial, that you haven't gotten your money's worth.

In formulating the beginnings of a business, I am leaning towards Thoreau's vision of economy in Walden when he says, "It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous cause thus to permit your fellowmen to have an interest in your enterprise."

Thus, I encourage the recharging of that internal battery that influences you to consider the value of something you want to re-sell after you've used it to your heart's content. Consider someone you know who might get good use of your wares, or your talents. Participate in the idea that you don't need to make money off of everything, and that something handed-down often has real and valuable meaning to someone on the receiving end. It fosters the interaction among people that (hopefully) more normalizes this generalized reciprocity, but also creates real value in something, so that you truly do feel as though you've gotten your money's worth. Isn't that what it's all about?

*If you still feel as though you haven't gotten your money's worth from this article, please enjoy this song "Monday" by Matt Corby. It is a new release, he is a mid-twenties Australian musician whose voice is captivating. Hopefully I begin sending a new song every Monday to indulge, so this feels fitting to begin here.

Chris BattagliaComment