A coupon saying "Was 149.00... now 148.99"

There’s a story my fiancée likes to hold against me from when we were first dating. We went into a Blockbuster (which might date this story right off the bat) to pick out a movie. She badly needed to use the bathroom, but figured we’d be in and out of there in a second, and my apartment was right around the corner, so she didn’t say anything. I wandered into the “4 for $20” section, and started browsing for the next half hour. I found three movies I wanted, but for the fourth, I could only find movies I’d pay money to not have to see. Meanwhile, the woman I’d later decide to spend the rest of my life with was doing her best to be patient with my indecisiveness. She said, “Look, just get the three you want and throw away the fourth. It’s still a deal!” But I still kept hunting for a worthy fourth. Finding nothing, I eventually gave up, leaving empty-handed. My poor girlfriend’s bladder was put through that ordeal for nothing.

Did I need those movies? No. Did I really want to see them? Maybe a little. But I wasn’t considering buying 4 for $20 because those were the movies I most wanted to see. I was attracted to it just because it was a deal. On the simplest level, that was it. Four for the price of one, more or less. The idea of saving money appealed to me first. The idea of what the entertainment was appealed second.

That’s something I tend to notice more and more, especially with digital access to books, movies, and games. The easier (and therefore cheaper) it is to get something, the more likely I’ll buy it. There’s less and less entertainment I’ll really go out of my way for. The more I pay attention to where to get the best deals, the more likely I am to just choose something based on whether or not it’s a good deal.

For example, Amazon offers 100 albums for a $5 each, and rotates which albums are available every month. Every month I find myself checking it out. Steam routinely offers huge discounts on downloadable computer games, sometimes as much as 50 or 75 percent. In both cases, I’m not going to buy something I’m not interested in, but I’m more likely to look closely at something that’s discounted, and more likely to make an impulse buy before the sale ends.

Companies like Groupon or LivingSocial work on the same idea. Nobody goes to those sites with a specific purchase in mind. They go so that those sites can suggest some sort of restaurant, activity, or outing. While browsing their deals, people usually aren’t thinking, “I sure hope I find a coupon for Ethiopian food.” People are thinking, “Wow! 50% off lunch at that Ethiopian place. Maybe I should get around to trying that out.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach to entertainment, but sometimes I wonder if I am bogging myself down in the cheap and convenient, at the expense of the stuff I really want to read, watch, play, or do. My list of books I own and still need to read is massive and it tends to grow faster than I can shrink it. But it would be much smaller, and probably of a much higher quality, if I had to pay more for each book I bought. For example, I picked up Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr., the other day because, first, it was on sale for 99 cents, and second, because it was the basis for one of my favorite horror movies, The Thing. I honestly don’t have any overwhelming desire to read it, but it seemed like something I’d enjoy having if I ever needed a new book in a pinch. I didn’t buy it because I wanted to read it immediately. I bought it to take advantage of some time down the road (kind of like a Groupon).

I’m still willing to drop everything when something I really want comes along. I didn’t skip out on The Avengers just because I had unwatched movies on my DVR, for example. When the latest George R. R. Martin book came out last year, I had no problem putting aside my current book to read that.

But every once in awhile, convenience starts to feel like a chore. I’ve got an unused Living Social coupon for wine tasting burning a hole in my pocket as I try to figure out some way to work it into my schedule. I’ve got a couple indie games that I picked up on Steam that I still haven’t gotten around to playing for more than an hour. And books? Definitely my biggest weakness in terms of both impulse buys and not knowing when I’m going to work it into my schedule.

Anyways, I’ve got to wrap this post up before it sounds like I’m really complaining about a world full of cheap and accessible entertainment. It’s just that sometimes I need to check myself before I get too caught up in a low price. It’s got to be rough for the truly impulsive.