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Priced to Kill : Don't Bother Asking, 'What's the Damage?' You Can't Afford to Hear the Answer

February 17, 1991|MARGO KAUFMAN

WHERE CAN I get the price gauge in my brain recalibrated? It used to be that I'd see an item, a mystic number would appear before my eyes and I'd know how much the item cost. And usually, I'd be pretty close, unless it was something wildly unpredictable, like auto parts. But lately, my mystic number bears little resemblance to reality.

Maybe it's inflation or just a stab of social conscience. But I'm in a constant state of sticker shock. I make a simple cash transaction, like buying a small Diet Coke at the octoplex, and the cashier says something incredible: "That will be $3.75, plus tax." And all I can do is shake my head and wonder: Is that in American dollars?

Recently, while I was shopping, a pair of canary-yellow silk suspenders patterned with tiny circus strong men caught my eye. How strange, I thought, but I knew my husband, Duke, would love them. I figured they'd set me back $50, tops.

"It's a limited edition," the clerk said, unlocking the glass case. It had never struck me that braces were a collectible, but she quoted me a three-figure sum that I recall as my monthly rent on a one-bedroom apartment not that long ago.

What could I possibly say?--except maybe: Hey, I'll take eight pairs.

I've never been accused of being cheap, or even thrifty, unlike my husband, who views any purchase over two digits as a catastrophe. Still, for the price of those suspenders, I could buy two hand-painted silk ties to hold up Duke's pants, put the ties on a plane to Phoenix and have cash left for dinner. But friends say that it doesn't pay to think that way in these days of the 25-cent gum ball.

"What about vitamins? What about bottled water?" asks Monica, who balks "on moral and ethical grounds" at paying $2 for six ounces of Evian. "In order to be healthy, you've got to be rich. What about doctors' bills?"

Please spare me. Six months ago, I broke my foot. Duke took me to an emergency room. If it had been "The Price Is Right," a Vanna White clone would've gestured through the curtained examining room, while an announcer shrieked the details:

"Twelve exquisite ice cubes for the reusable ice pack, a handsome leg splint, a complete foot X-ray, a precision pair of adjustable aluminum crutches and an authorized signature on a hospital release form by an unseen physician who graduated from God-knows-where in the Caribbean. This showcase package can be yours--if the price is right!"

I bid $250. But when I got the bill, I heard Bob Barker's voice booming in my head, "And the retail value is $762!"

Why was I surprised? Nowadays, the price is never right. Even a high salary can't protect you, though it certainly doesn't hurt. Sticker shock is all relative.

Claire, for example, just bought a house. "I complained to the electrician about having to replace all the wiring," she says, "and he asked, 'Well, what do you expect for a quarter of a million dollars?' "

Actually, with home improvements, it's not sticker shock--it's sticker cardiac arrest. Take the time Duke and I decided to do something about our yard. Enter Fran, a talented landscape architect with whom I spent a delightful hour walking around the neighborhood, pointing out my favorite flowers and trees. Fran used enchanting words such as arboretum and grove until I was willing to fork over everything we had--well, up to $1,000.

"A complete landscape goes for between $15,000 and $75,000," she said. I began to hyperventilate.

"What's she going to plant," Duke asked later, "the Tree of Life?" Normally, with sticker shock, even if I had the money, I couldn't justify spending it. But I'm still dreaming about that grove.

Marjorie suggests I quit thinking about prices. "I don't know what anything is supposed to cost anymore," she says, "because nothing is consistent. And that's how they get away with it.

"A chocolate-chip cookie is now $1.50," Marjorie says. "There's probably a whole generation of people who don't know that it isn't supposed to cost that. To them, it's just what a cookie costs. It's like Weimar Germany. Next year, we'll have a wheelbarrow to go out and buy $26,000 cookies."

But it's not just a matter of prices being high; some prices seem ridiculously low. Durable items such as a toaster oven, a blow dryer or a computer modem are cheaper than a teeny bottle of moisturizer. Of course, try to get these appliances fixed--then acute sticker shock sets in.

Happily, there is a cure. "Once you've lived in New York, it's almost impossible to ever suffer sticker shock again," says my sister, Laurie, who just moved to Chicago from Manhattan. "Once you pay $100 for a haircut, it completely desensitizes you."

Hmmm . . . New York is cheap compared to Tokyo. Maybe I should take a trip. By the time I get home, my grove might seem like a real bargain.

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