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“It pays for itself” (not as often as we’ve been told)

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We might think that people never have to pay for anything, with all the things we hear are paying for themselves. Most times, when someone says, “It pays for itself,” the proper response is, “No, it doesn’t.”

I know someone who buys annual memberships at several aquariums and zoos because doing so only costs a little more than the one-day pass. He once told me that if you go to the Baltimore Aquarium just twice in a year, the yearly pass “pays for itself,” which is why he has bought the yearly pass. Baltimore is a four-hour drive from where he lives, but no matter. He is determined to have his pass pay for itself, so he loads the kids into the car and takes a second trip to Baltimore within the year. Not to do so is to have paid for a yearly membership when only a one-day pass was needed. Driving to Baltimore costs money for gas and tolls, but if you add it all up, as I’m sure he has, it still costs less than paying for two separate day passes to the aquarium. This math convinces him that the yearly pass pays for itself. If he goes to the aquarium a third time in the year, it will pay for itself even more. If he goes ten times, the yearly pass pays for itself so much it’s practically free.

Let’s be clear — if you spend any money you were not going to spend already, then the “yearly pass” or “buy-one-get-one-half-price” does not pay for itself unless you were bound to buy that additional item in any case. It might be an excellent value, you might judge it to be money well-spent, but you don’t come out with the same amount of money at the end that you had before you bought the extra item or extended pass — you don’t save money compared to another option that you were considering. That is what it means for something to “pay for itself.” You could simply not drive to the aquarium a second time that year and spend less money. (All of this is not even considering that aquariums and the like offer these inexpensive season passes in part because they know some people will not come back a second time in a season after paying extra for the season pass, and also because the real money is in the soda and theme park crap they sell people when they do come back — getting you through the gates is what they’re after.)

So what does pay for itself? My lawnmower. I spent about $250 to buy it. I am willing and able to do the work and put in the time (yes, time is money), and my initial cost of $250 paid for itself the first season. Lawn-cutting services charge $35 a week to mow my yard. Owning the mower and mowing my own lawn paid for itself after about 7 weeks. I spend around $35-$50 a year for gas, and maintenance and repair is averaging $50 a year, but it still would cost me a lot more to hire someone to mow. Just letting the grass grow wild is not an option, so I am bound to spend some money. The mower paid for itself compared to the option of having someone do it for me.

Of course, if we want to be literal about it, the mower didn’t pay a damn penny for itself. It doesn’t even have a bank account. I paid for it. (If I used the mower on neighbors’ lawns and got paid for it, it might pay for itself, but I’d still be doing the work.) But we’re not being literal about it. So the mower paid for itself in one season. Sadly, the aquarium membership, that cheap bastard, never does.

Scott Stein is editor of When Falls the Coliseum and author of the novels Lost and Mean Martin Manning. His short comedic fiction, book reviews, and essays have been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Oxford University Press Humor Reader, The G.W. Review, Liberty, National Review,, Art Times, and Reason. He is a professor of English at Drexel University. Scott tweets @sstein. His author site is

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4 Responses to ““It pays for itself” (not as often as we’ve been told)”

  1. Your cost model assumes zero value for your time…which is perfectly valid if you already planned for weekly walks back and forth across your lawn.

  2. Cousin Brucey,

    Of course, as I said parenthetically, time is money. We could attribute an hourly cost for my time. However, unless I were actually going to be earning money during the time I mow, and unless I sacrificed the money-making opportunity to mow, it doesn’t really cost me any money to walk back and forth across my lawn.

    Even if I did not plan for weekly walks across my lawn, if I were only going to spend that same hour each week (and it is only less than an hour) doing something as productive as watching Dr. Phil, I save money by mowing my own lawn. Plus, it’s an hour of walking, which is supposed to be good for my health.

    If my schedule were so busy that I would have to sacrifice the little time I had to spend with my family in order to mow the lawn, then paying for someone to mow my lawn might make sense. But my post is about when and whether something “pays for itself,” not whether or not your time is best spent mowing your lawn or playing with your kids.

  3. It seems to me that you have neglected to mention your lawnmower was not operational for the latter part of the last mowing season and possibly the early part of this one. How does using a neighbor’s mower (a very selfless and generous gesture on their part) fit into the “paying for itself” equation? You should consider that your machine, while not operational was also not getting the ABnormal abuse you put it through so you have added to the lifespan of your lawnmower as well as reducing you personal gas and oil consumption. Could we assume that the lawnmower has not only “paid for itself” but is now paying you? I guess it all depends on the cost of repairing your mower. On the flip side your generous neighbor has lost equity in his mower due to the additional wear, and abuse and the consumption of his gas and oil. Will he still be able to shout from the rooftops “my lawnmower paid for itself”? I think not….

    Maybe your next article should be “Does it PAY or COST to be a good neighbor”?

  4. Not exactly anonymous,

    Good points. The math could get complicated in my case. As for cost, I thought I had you — and your various tools and implements — on a Captain Morgan retainer.

    (But I did use my own gas.)

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