On being ... worth it

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ve written before about the fact that everyone’s got their own sense of whether -- and how much -- they’re willing to open their wallets for things like lattes, flowers, “gourmet greens” (in other words, pre-washed lettuce), etc. Though marketing types might disagree, I don’t think there’s a science to how those of us with a limited amount of disposable income make buying decisions when it comes to life’s little luxuries.

When it comes to spending on “big ticket” items, however, I suspect most people go through a more conscious decision-making process. In other words, for major outlays, whim doesn’t play quite as prominent a role as it does when you’re indulging in a small luxury.

In the business world, the process of gathering information on which to make decisions regarding big expenditures is often called “due diligence”. In a business context, a primary aim of due diligence is to look for objective evidence on which to rationalize a price. The idea of doing due diligence has gained popularity in non-business contexts as well.

Though people often talk about doing their “due diligence” as though it’s a scientific endeavor -- or as though there’s some master checklist of things to consider -- the reality is that the information sought or considered very much depends on the buyer’s particular interests and concerns. For example, before buying a refrigerator you might compare features of different makes or models, you might consider differences in warranties, you might read reports regarding reliability, etc. Eventually, armed with information about all the factors you’ve considered, you’ll make what you believe is a reasoned decision.

Whether you call it due diligence, comparison shopping, or just weighing your options, I’m all for trying to make reasoned decisions when spending large amounts of money. But there are some spending decisions that involve an evaluation of something that’s much harder, if not impossible, to quantify: worth. This fact came into focus for me recently when a total stranger came to me for information in what started as a due diligence exercise, but that quickly turned into a philosophic discussion.

I’m part of the Alumni Admission Council at my alma mater. One of the things we’re asked to do each spring is to make congratulatory calls to local high schoolers who were admitted. The calls are fun because the students are excited about the acceptance. Another reason for calling is to offer to answer any final questions they (or their parents) may have as they make their decision on whether to enroll.

This year, after the initial contact, one of the students e-mailed me some specific questions about financial aid. I responded by giving her the number of someone at the university who could answer her questions and, in closing, I added the perfunctory: “feel free to contact me if you have any other questions”. To my surprise, a few days later I got another e-mail from her asking for more help. She appreciated the information I already provided, but she was wrestling with the decision, as she had been accepted to another fine university that was much less expensive.

Though clearly the cost difference was an issue (to give you some idea of the order of magnitude of the cost difference, we’re talking the price of a case of beer versus the price of a bottle of Dom Pérignon), she said her parents could probably manage it. She said her dilemma stemmed from the fact that her teachers and counselors were all of the view that at the undergraduate level all programs are similar so, in their opinion, it would be a waste of money to go to such an expensive school. She admitted that she really wanted to go to my alma mater because she liked the program she applied to, she liked the university’s location, and she liked the “vibe”. In short, she said, “everything makes it my ultimate ideal university”.

Despite this clear preference, she was struggling with the decision because, in her words, she felt she needed to consider the “practical aspects”. So, she asked me for insights into my experience as an undergrad and she wondered how I thought it might compare to being an undergrad at the other university. She closed her e-mail with this question: “was all the extra money that went into (your) education worth it in the end?”

Clearly, such a soul-searching e-mail deserved a thoughtful response. After suggesting a few other due diligence-type facts she might consider (things like the placement rate for graduates from her program and job opportunities for graduates on her return to Canada), and after stating the obvious, which is that I have no basis for comparing the two, I told her the only thing I could say about the worth of my undergraduate experience was that it enriched me as a person in ways that can’t be measured in dollars.

I felt bad that I wasn’t able to answer her question more directly, so I went out on a limb and offered a bit of unsolicited advice about making difficult decisions. I commended her for the time, effort and thoughtfulness she’s putting into making the decision and I tried to reassure her that by going through the process and coming to a decision, whatever she ultimately chooses will be right. As I explained to her, my experience has always been that once you’ve made a decision you focus your energy on moving forward and you free yourself to find contentment that can help you get the most out of the experience.

I don’t know what decision she made; she never wrote again to let me know and it didn’t seem appropriate for me to contact her to ask. I’ll never know whether my comments made any sense to her, but I suspect they might not have because she’s probably too young to realize that evaluating the worth of something is completely subjective and is best measured only after the passage of time.

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


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