Charging the Pretzel

The opportunities abound to teach about personal finance and yesterday’s trip to pick up the family pictures provided yet another one.  Youngest had joined me for a trip to the mall to pick up the photos, as well as to purchase a new pair of good shoes to replace the ones that he’d frankly outgrown to the point of pain; as we waited in the checkout line for the shoes, he glanced at me and playfully commented that he’d hoped that we could maaaaayyybe split a pretzel or even better, each have one.  When I responded that we’d be passing on that since I had no cash, he noted cursorily that I did have a credit card instead.  He was nonplussed at my curt response and the reminder that we had plenty upon which to snack at our own house, so he could simply suck it up.

We live in a society of immediate gratification and that affects almost everybody, me included.  There’s a constant underlying drumbeat of consumption from mass media and while it’s easy to understand that you can’t constantly consume new cars and other large ticket items, it’s not so easy to understand that you shouldn’t constant consume the small ticket items like pretzels and Starbucks coffee.  It’s the cumulative effect – the coffee-like drip, drip, drip if you will – of this small consumption that nickels and dimes us to death and leads our kids to think that they really can just have it all now. 

After a moment of tense silence between the two of us, we began talking about how credit cards actually work and how the cardholder is actually paying the bank handsomely for the privilege of using the bank’s money.  If many aren’t paying off their balance each month, does it make sense that they should put a $2 pretzel on their card, only to finally pay it off in two months at a final cost greater than the original $2?  Expand that across more than just pretzels and that additional money can add up to something that can be used more productively elsewhere, for something of greater value.  Youngest is a kid with considerable sense, frankly far more sense than some adults that I know – I’ve actually witnessed him facepalm when he’s watched adults do something stupid – and he nodded in understanding.  He still wanted the pretzel, but he agreed that paying with a credit card wouldn’t be the best move around.

Figure out what your own rules are for these kinds of things, such as using a credit card or giving to charity.  Then be sure that you take the opportunity to apply those rules when the kids are around and if you remember, comment on them accordingly.  As for the aftermath with Youngest, I made sure that when we got home from the mall, that a snack was pulled out and consumed with Youngest to prove that we did, indeed, have something in the house to eat.

Kids and Language:  The Cussin’ Code

It’s clear that society has coarsened over the past four decades and that’s especially the case with language.  What was once utterly unacceptable now hits the airwaves and across the texting media, both in terms of sheer language and also sexual imagery.  While I’m a father and supposed to serve as a role model for the kids, my own language has always been "earthy" and my ex-army DI father could curse as unconsciously as others breathe.  As the author Jean Shepherd once commented about the father in A Christmas Story:  "He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay.  It was his true medium; a master."  That has rubbed off and I’ve had to work to control it over the years, sometimes more successfully than others.  But if I’m not Ned Flanders, is there a language compromise – an ethics of cussin’ – that I should adopt?  To thine own self be true (dammit).

Being a member of the ’70s generational cohort that popularized the term you suck – and knowing that it was originally referring to male genitalia – it’s jarring to hear the phrase used simultaneously in a grocery store by a grandparent and her early elementary school granddaughter in the local grocery store.

Granddaughter:  Ewww, I don’t like that cereal ‘cuz it sucks.

Grandmother:  Oh, I’m sorry sweetie.  I didn’t know that it sucked.

Listen to the conversation and mentally complete the comments with a parenthetical slang term for male genitalia and you too, can experience the cognitive dissonance.  I almost had an ear-bleed when I heard my own mother use the word suck in a conversation.  Well, that meal sucks.  (pause)  Honey, what’s wrong?  

While the mental picture of childhood is puppy dog tails and Little Golden Books, the reality is that they’re going to hear the language far sooner than later.  The term m*****f***** first came off the kids’ lips when Middle asked me – then in preschool – what it meant.  I actually pulled the car over and asked where he heard it and he responded that a classmate blurted it out when her block tower toppled over that morning.  While I tried to monitor my own language and be an example through the years, the influx of other words and phrases crept into the household from outside sources, typically the school but even church. Being asked by a middle-school kid at my church whether I was familiar with the term donkey show – a slang phrase so foul that I won’t even link it to a definition – was literally jaw-dropping.  So how do I respond to all of this?  How do I walk a line that allows me to be, as Saint Paul once wrote, in the world yet not of it? 

There are several parameters to my handling of the cursing issue. 

The first parameter pertains to the kids understanding that Dad is the go-to guy for practical, factual information on what these various terms mean.  Because the kids hear some profanity cross my lips, they’re more comfortable in bringing unfamiliar terms and phrases to me than to their mother and it’s that willingness that I encourage.  I’ve told each of my three kids, early in their puberty, that I’ll give them an honest definition of a particular phrase or term brought to me; they’ll likewise also hear any synonyms for the phrase so that they can then put it context wherever they hear it next.  They also hear some guidance on appropriateness.  The reality is that they’re going to certainly hear the terminology around their peers and it wouldn’t surprise me – disappoint perhaps, but not surprise – if they also used the language to at least some extent.  But all three also gain a perspective on whether something is just cussing or whether there’s something truly objectionable about a particular term.  They hear what terms I simply refuse to say and they hear the reasons why I choose not to say them, either because they’re simply too profane or because of the second parameter, political correctness. 

Let me be frank in that I don’t like political correctness.  Let me also be frank in acknowledging that the issue has run amok in the school system and there is a form of language/thought police activity occurring in the school system, a process that actively roots out any commentary regarding gender, race or sexual orientation.  I do understand the rationale behind it even if I believe that it gets carried to an extreme and in the heat of the moment, one wrong remark can land a kid in the principal’s office; calling someone a dummy is sticks-and-stones material but referring to someone in an ethnic or gender format will land a kid in the doghouse, at least at the lower levels.  Using language based upon a person’s appearance or gender also lessens the ability to learn to judge a person based upon their behavior and the content of their character, a crucial skill that many never master but important as a person navigates life.

The third parameter is admittedly odd, but it’s that there are so many perfectly useful words that already exist and that simply slipping into profanity is simple laziness.  This came up in a conversation with Youngest some months ago when I heard him use a profane term to describe a person that didn’t go to the stupidity of that kid’s actions.  He could have used terms such as idiot, stupid, dumb, cretin or moron but he opted for the other instead and this was pointed out to him vigorously.

The fourth parameter is that there is a time and a place for profanity, although there are some who will certainly disagree.  On multiple occasions, I’ve used profanity in order to drive a point home, making it a verbal and audible exclamation mark for the kid in question.  If my entire vocabulary consists solely of profanity, then using it to make a definitive point is lost as it simply becomes another expletive-laced tirade and the message’s import is lost.

PracticalDad Price Index, December 2013:  Stealth Inflation Strikes Again…

The results for the December 2013 PracticalDad Price Index are in and after a several month period in the doldrums, the total index for all 47 grocery items rose to 109.35 (November 2010 = 100).  This 1.5 point rise – from November’s 107.83 – is due in large part to the half point increase in the 10 non-food items in the grocery basket; the non-food components rose significantly based upon the increases in trash bags and more significantly, the stealth inflation rise in infant formula.  The 37 item Food-Only Component Index likewise rose slightly more than a half point, from 112.81 in November to 113.41 in December (11/10 = 100).

Month          Total Index          Food-Only Index          Spread

9/13             108.39                113.76                            5.37

10/13           107.83                112.98                            4.63

11/13           107.83                112.81                            4.98

12/13           109.35                113.41                            4.06

Remember this about stealth inflation:  the nominal price on the item remains the same so the consumer might not realize until later that the package size has actually decreased.  In the case of the infant formula that’s part of the PracticalDad basket, the manufacturer – Mead Johnson – decreased the size of Enfamil Premium formula from a 23.4 ounce package to 22.2 ounces, a decline of 5.1%.  The nominal price at the stores remained unchanged over the course of the two months, yet the impact of the stealth decrease meant that a real increase of 5.4% in the cost of the previous amount of the formula for the consumer.  There are several other notable items that I’ve learned about stealth inflation from monitoring the PracticalDad Index basket for the past three years.

  • The change is not instantaneous but occurs over time such that the increase’s impact is diffused instead of an in-your-face event.  In the case of a national manufacturer, the change can be affected across different grocery stores by the amount of inventory held by that grocer in stock.  One of the grocery chains was selling the 23.4 ounce formula packages but the shelf sticker had already been changed to account for the new 22.2 packages; when the old inventory is depleted, it will be replaced by the smaller packages so that the product matches the sticker.  This situation also occurred with Poise Women’s Pads, manufactured by Kimberly Clark, as one of the grocerys continued to sell the 42 pad package – with the revised 39 pad package sticker – until that inventory was sold out. 
  • The effect of stealth inflation is also diffused by the fact that the different manufacturers are doing it at different rates and at different times.  Stealth inflation hit the generic label cans of coffee about two years ago and it took several months for the three different grocers to all move out of the original 13 ounce cans to their lesser sized cans. 
  • Having said that it occurs over a period of time, understand that once a single manufacturer engages in stealth inflation by decreasing the package size, others will follow suit.  This is demonstrated by Kimberly-Clark, the manufacturer of personal care products such as Poise Women’s Pads, Cottonelle toilet paper and Huggies diapers.  An article in Zerohedge highlighted that Kimberly-Clark would be decreasing the size of diaper packaging in Q1 of 2014.  Given that manufacturers follow suit over time, I anticipate that stealth inflation will further hit young families as other diaper manufacturers follow suit to also maintain their profit margins. 
  • Stealth inflation doesn’t just occur because of the rise in the input commodities, such as sugar and coffee.  These are also purely business decisions to pad corporate profits with no thought as to the situation of the consumer.  The language used by Kimberly-Clark in their Q3 2013 Recap – highlighted in the Zerohedge article – makes no reference to the increases in input prices.  It refers to these different products as high margin businesses; decreasing packaging sizes is purely a business decision that benefits the corporation bottom-line. So the cost of Huggies diapers will rise – following the practice of other diaper manufacturers – which further crimps the budgets of young families who are already whacked with declining family incomes.  Since Kimberly-Clark has also decreased the package size of it’s Poise Women’s Pads (from 42 pads per package to 39), I wouldn’t be surprised to see a profit-driven decrease in package sizing for Depends Undergarments, which also impacts an income-afflicted marketing cohort.

So what’s the takeaway from all of this for the family?  It’s the lesson to be passed along to the kids that they are going to have to pay attention to the world around them, a difficult thing to do when wrapped in an electronic cocoon graciously provided by Apple and furnished by Google.  They exist for the benefit of the corporate bottom line, regardless of their own circumstance.

As my own father once told me decades ago:  Nobody’s looking out for you, kid.