The Nickel and Dime Economy by Beth Pride
Business, consumer advocacy

The Nickel and Dime Economy

The four of us kept walking while everyone else stood still. “Go, dad, go…” barked Lewis. We turned left, then right, up a few stairs, down a ramp, around a corner, still moving while everyone else leaned against handrails, looked down at their phones, picked at their nails, or watched with envy as we passed them by. One last left turn, and finally, we found the end of the line, where we stopped, slightly out of breath. Eliza whispered, “I gotta say, I feel a little self-conscious.” Dan responded, “Well, don’t. We paid real money for that.”

He meant the Fast Pass at Universal Studios, Orlando. It is the thing that lets you skip the lines or at least makes you feel like you have. The sheer psychology of lines and the fascinating engineering that goes into tricking the consumer’s mind is a story for another time. The week between Christmas and New Years at amusement parks in Orlando, you still stand in line. With the Fast Pass it’s just 20 minutes rather than 120 for the rest of the folks who bought a regular ticket they thought would suffice.

I am embarrassed to tell you how much we paid for the four of us to ride the rides on this single day at Universal Studios, but for the sake of my argument, I will divulge our dirty, little secret. We paid $1,500, and that doesn’t include a single “Butter Beer.”

Admittedly we waited to buy tickets until the last minute at peak season, which exposed us to surge pricing. The Fast Pass cost more than regular park admission. It more than doubled the price of our day.

Yet we rationalized it when we huddled up just before kick-off and said, “This is it, people. One day for the rest of our lives. We are never coming back, so you’d better make it good. We will not leave before the park closes, and we will not stop until we’ve experienced every single nauseating spectacle here. Your legs and stomach and eyes will hurt, but we will make this worth the cost of admission.”

Let’s face it; we didn’t have to buy the Fast Pass. It was our choice. An A La Carte item you tack on at check out, it is a luxury, not a necessity. You can have fun without the extra cost of a fast pass, right?

Eliza and I tested it the next day. We paid $125 each to go to The Magic Kingdom without a Fast Pass. Dan dropped us off, so we didn’t have to pay the extra $30 in parking. We brought our own backpack with water, so we didn’t have to pay the extra $10 to stay hydrated.

Our goal was to see how long we could enjoy the park without standing in a single line.

It did not include the 30-minute wait for a cup of Starbucks coffee or the splurge on a couple of pairs of mouse ears.

A pair of ears to listen with. The Nickel and Dime Economy by Beth Pride

It did not include the cattle call in The Hall of Presidents while we waited to be seated. Seems humans do not do well without ropes or rails to organize movement. An old lady in a wheelchair ran over my ankle trying to secure a clear view of President Nixon. I tried to remind her that it wasn’t really him.

No lines meant Eliza and I watched the parade and performances at City Hall more than once, saw the Presidents, ate a churro, had a DJ dance party outside Space Mountain, and rode the train from one stop to next. We tried to meet a couple of princesses, but we had to have a special ticket for that, so we kept moving. We walked the entire park twice looking for attractions, bathrooms, or restaurants without hour-long lines. Alas, after a 4-hour human game of stroller and wheelchair “Frogger,” we gave up.

Stroller "Frogger" was free at Disney World. The Nickel and Dime Economy by Beth Pride

On the day, we took in two attractions: the train and audio-animatronic Donald Trump. $250 got us in the door. If you paid me $250 I wouldn’t go back.

It is official: the Nickel and Dime Economy is out of control.

Remember the day when you went to your favorite restaurant, sat down at the table, and they brought you bread and water before you ordered anything? Next, you ordered from the menu and they said, “What sides would you like with that?” or “Feel free to visit the salad bar.” I miss the salad bar, and I miss choosing sides. These days eating out feels like solving a math problem. I could get the steak for $18, but if I want a salad, that’ll be another $6, and gosh some mushrooms would be great with it, but they are $7 and a share size, and no one else at the table likes mushrooms. “I’ll just have the steak, please.”

I miss things that are INCLUDED. INCLUDED makes life so much simpler. INCLUDED makes me feel better.

What is this Nickel and Dime Economy, and why has it become the new, feel bad way of life for the consumer? Similar to the A La Carte economy, it’s the main course with no sides economy, the hidden fees economy, the pick and choose economy, or the tack it on at the end economy. Here are a few examples:

  • Wifi fees at luxury hotels (note: cheap hotels always include wifi).
  • Corkage fees on all-inclusive cruises (I’ll just drink my wine BEFORE dinner, thank you).
  • Tylenol during your overnight stay at the hospital (don’t worry; it’s free to feel pain).
  • Airline baggage fees (it only takes an hour to board now thanks to hundreds of carry-ons).
  • Resort fees (you can stay here, but to use the pool you have to pay an extra $25 a day).
  • New car floor mats (update: I read somewhere that Tesla now includes them).
  • Refills
  • Cable modem fees
  • Technology fees (even when you bring your own device)
  • School books

The way I feel when I open the email link to pay my daughter’s college tuition is complicated. My first reaction is sheer amazement at how many items they are capable of listing on a semester invoice. Takes some ingenuity to find that many ways to charge extra. I picture a B- school adjunct sitting at a desk in a basement boiler room dreaming up as many fee categories as possible, a special stipend for each new idea.

Next, I start to giggle just before I begin to cry. $342 parking fee. $82 mental health and counseling fee. $13 per meal swipe (that means a bowl of Frosted Flakes for my daughter). $200 orientation fee (she’s a sophomore). $78 activity fee. That one is my favorite. What activities per semester cost an extra $78? If it’s for the ellipticals that live next to the indoor tennis courts, then that should be included in our parking fee. She gets most of her exercise walking to her car or to Starbucks. Books? Books aren’t even listed.

One of my favorite nickel and dime stories was when my son’s private school sent us a $9 charge in the middle of the semester. Seems he needed a paperback novel for his AP Language class. We’d just paid his “all-inclusive” tuition so I couldn’t help myself. I emailed the division head and asked why we’d received the $9 invoice. He said, “The teacher didn’t put the book in his budget for the year.” I responded, “Really? How many books did you have to order?” “15,” he answered. “So, the extra expense for the school was $135?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered. To give my reader a frame of reference, this school has an operating budget of $30 million per year. I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll pay for the book, but will you do me a favor? Next year, please ask the board to set tuition at $XX,009.00 so I don’t have to feel this way again.”

I understand free will. I get that it is my choice to stay at a 5-star or 3-star hotel or go on a cruise or visit Disney World or send my kids to private schools. I appreciate the statement “you get what you pay for.” I live by it. If we don’t pay much, I don’t expect much. If we pay a lot, then I expect more.

The nickel and dime economy is most noticeable the more you pay for services or products. The more you pay, the more you pay, and for some reason, businesses that deal with luxury or discretionary services feel they can add and add without repercussion. Their customer can afford it, so why not take as much as possible?

The answer is simple: it isn’t consumer orientated. It is confusing. It leaves customers with bad tastes in their mouths. It sends them packing. It is bad business.

This blog has become a chapter, so stop here if you’ve lost interest, but I need to tell some more stories.

Our kids still remember it. The Disney Cruise. I know I’m hammering Disney, but honestly, they are the Royals of the Nickel and Dime Economy. The A La Carte menu of excursions for families was endless. Swim with the Dolphins, feed the stingrays, take a helicopter ride, paraglide, catch and eat lobsters, go to Atlantis and sit by a giant pool while your kids play on the slides. That’s was the one for us. We wanted a big pool where we knew the chlorine was plentiful enough to kill the human bacteria that swam in it. The number of swim diapers in the Disney Cruise goldfish pond was enough to keep me dry docked for years. I can’t remember exactly how much the big pool with the slides was going to cost, but it was enough of an add-on to motivate Dan to do some anecdotal research and come up with a ruse that was bound to fail.

We rode a taxi from the ship to a Days Inn (or some equivalent) on Paradise Island. We stood in line for over an hour waiting our turn to rent a room for one night. The room came with discounted day passes to Atlantis. Once we finally got our turn, there was a two-night minimum stay stipulation that Dan tried to negotiate his way out of but could not, so after paying for two nights at a hotel we were not going to use, we ended up saving nothing. Our kids watched us attempt to circumnavigate a system, they waited and waited in a Days Inn lobby for the dream day of large pools and slides, and at the end of what Dan likes to call “an adventure,” we lost time and saved nothing. But here’s the thing—we were amongst peers, not alone. There were many checking in to the Days Inn to get around the surge pricing Disney put on the Atlantis excursion. If the Atlantis excursion were priced reasonably, then none of the consumer advocates would have followed each other down this A La Carte rabbit hole.

To this day all four of us feel deep disdain for the Disney Cruise, will not attempt another, not even with grandchildren no matter how cute they are.

Now for the shiny, bright side of the coin: I went to the Downtown Chattanooga YMCA today. I went to the Hamilton Place Chattanooga YMCA yesterday. I don’t live in Chattanooga, but because I am a member of the Central Kentucky YMCA, I can use any YMCA in the country in a reciprocal relationship. All I do is walk in, find the right computer, hand over my membership card, and they say, “Welcome!”

The Y doesn’t charge me for a towel or for water. It doesn’t charge me if I want to visit the steam room or take a shower. I can visit any Y in the country and get on my sweat or my Namaste. I love the Y. It is filled with people of every demographic who are happy and kind, who, during their time at the Y, feel valued as customers regardless of how much they pay to “belong.”

When I leave Chattanooga, I will donate to each Y that I use. I will give them money they didn’t ask for and don’t expect, and it will feel good giving it. It won’t feel like I was tricked or manipulated or overcharged. It will feel like I owe them even more.

As admission director for 13 years, talking to families shopping for schools was always a treat because I could say, “It’s all included.” Tuition, books, materials, technology, food, field trips…all included. No surprises. Total transparency. Yes, the school will ask for a charitable contribution at some point, and that’s voluntary. The stuff you have to pay for—this is the price. I’ll never forget one parent who said, “Lunch is included? And my kid HAS to eat here? No more packing lunches? DONE. Sign me up. It’s worth the $XX,000 for lunch alone!”

The psychology of inclusion is strong. It works. Giving people what they deserve to have as part of their premium is what makes them come back, want more, spread the word, and become raving fans. These days, to add IN anything makes you seem different.

I’m an optimist. I believe adding IN will become the new and improved business model, and we will swing the pendulum back to what’s best for the consumer once again. There are signs of it if you pay attention, and when you experience it, please reward it. Together, we can train our way back to the “It’s INCLUDED Economy.”

I love Mexican restaurants because the chips and salsa are free—guaranteed. An Uber driver who hands me a bottle of water gets better tips. I linger at bars where they set out little silver bowls of salty snacks. Two beers rather than just one. The Hampton Inn in Wheeling, WV hands out brown snack bags twice a day. I stay there every single time. Adding things IN is good business.

One more random case study: Need a place to live for a month? Residence Inn has nothing on National Corporate Housing. It’s not cheap, but for what you pay, you get a two bedroom, two baths, fully furnished, fully equipped, full-amenities, move-in ready, luxury apartment. It’s all-inclusive—wifi, electricity, water, cable, washer/dryer, swimming pool, fitness center, car wash, trash valet, even really nice people in the leasing center who beg you to drink the free coffee and eat the free cookies. You pay, you stay, and you feel good about it because you know exactly what you are getting into, and it feels handled.

Why do businesses nickel and dime their customers? I do not understand it. The psychology is counter-intuitive. Whatever happened to under promise and over deliver? Charge what it costs to cover your costs and make your profit. Go ahead and pass it along to us. Please. If you add it all in, then you always know what is coming your way, and so does your customer. There are no budget estimates, no surprises, no feel-bad moments. You don’t have to rely on up-selling the extras, and we don’t have to say no or feel nickel and dimed on something we feel we’ve already paid for. Don’t be lazy. Take the time; crunch the numbers. It can work for all of us.

Let’s go Fixe Prix over a La Carte.
Or let’s bring back the salad bar, the one you get when you order the steak.

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