America has bad gas

I write for a humor blog with two friends, James Malins and Cherie Michiko, called Misusing Big Words. This post was originally published here:
http://misusingbigwords.blogspot.com/2008/01/america-has-bad-gas.html
War for oil? High gas prices? Who cares! What really ticks me off is not the amount of gas prices, it’s the format.

Why do gas prices end in 9/10? How do they suppose they can charge 9/10 of a cent? I went to fill up my tank the other day, and got 13 gallons at 3 dollars and 13 and 9/10 cents a gallon. What’s the deal here? It looks like it’s $3.13, but it’s not really. It’s practically $3.14. So why don’t they just write $3.14?

Now don’t get me wrong here. I understand capitalism and marketing and how the human mind is more likely to buy something for $9.99 than for $10 even, despite the fact that it’s only a penny difference. While that is pretty silly, it doesn’t really concern me, because it is, after all, a penny—some tangible piece of money that I can actually use (though there will be more spoken about that in a future post).

In the case of gas, though, we don’t have tenths of a cent. There is no such thing. So how can they get away with charging something we don’t have? It’s just an easy way of skimming just a little bit more off the top. When your total adds up to $41.50 and 5/10 of a cent, it automatically rounds up to 41.51. How is that fair? I should be getting that last 5/10 of a cent back, but I can’t, because it doesn’t exist anywhere except in the gas station owner’s head.

That’s not even the worst part, though. Because of supply and demand, if two gas stations charge $3.13 and 9/10 for a gallon of gas, and one decides to be decent and logical and drop that 9/10 crap off and just sell his for $3.13, the other guy would simply drop his down to $3.12 and 9/10. It’s the most vicious of cycles, and nobody seems to care because "it’s just tenths of a cent."

Well, I, for one, think this is both unreasonable and ridiculous. Do the quick math: let’s say the average person takes about 5 minutes to fill up one’s car, and puts about 12 gallons of gas in there. Then let’s say there are about 4 people filling up at any given time at a given gas station—for the sake of argument, let’s have them all begin and end at the same time. So, every 5 minutes, 4 people fill their cars with 12 gallons of gas each. That’s 48 gallons per 5-minute increment. That means every hour 576 gallons are being bought and paid for from one gas station. Just for a conservative estimate, let’s say this gas station isn’t 24 hours—it opens at 6 a.m. and closes at midnight. That gives it 18 hours of operating time, and at 576 gallons an hour, we’re looking at 10,368 gallons per day.

Now let’s say that there are two gas stations that sell the same amount of gas per day. One charges $2 per gallon, the other $2 and 9/10 of a cent. (Yes, $2 per gallon; this is my fantasy, I'm going to make it a good one.) For an average tank of gas—12 gallons—the first station charges $24, while the second charges $24.10 and 8/10 of a cent. And, of course, they round up to $24.11. That means that, on average, the second station skims 2/10 of a cent off of each person’s bill, which equals $1.728 per day and $630.72 per year. That makes petty criminals out of every single gas station owner, and accomplices out of every attendant. And those stations in the middle of nowhere that do loads of business? Well, they might even be charged for grand theft—that is, if anybody cared. But since nobody does, I guess I’ll just go on with my life, getting ripped off day in and day out. After all, it’s just a couple tenths of a cent. No big deal.

What happens when other industries start charging 9/10 of a cent? How would you feel about paying 9/10 of a cent on your orange mocha frappucinos at Starbucks? An avid frapper (frappucino-drinker) might buy one for $3.50 every weekday, effectively buying roughly 260 every year (365 days a year minus 104 weekend days) for $910 per year. If Starbucks started charging $3.50 and 9/10 of a cent per drink, they're skimming a tenth of a cent off this avid frapper every time she buys a frappucino, 26 cents every year. If she continues this habit her entire working life, from 20 years old to 65 years old, she will have lost $11.70 for her lifetime. That is enough to write a check for $11.70 to give to her grandson for a birthday present.

Luckily, Starbucks hasn't resorted to stealing from the elderly yet. Which is more than I can say for gas stations.

Let’s say that the average driver, beginning at age 20 and not driving after turning 60 (because let's face it: we probably don't want them on the road after 60 anyway) fills up his tank one time every two weeks with 12 gallons of gas. That means the average driver fills up his car 26 times a year with a total of 312 gallons annually. Over the 40 year span of his life behind the wheel, the average driver buys 12,480 gallons of gas, filling his 1,040 times. Now, no matter how much gas fluctuates, let’s assume that gas stations will always set the price at some dollar and cent amount plus 9/10 of a cent per gallon. For 12 gallons of gas, one will automatically lose 2/10 of a cent each time one fills the tank. That’s $2.08 each person is getting ripped off during their life.

That may not seem like much, but I could buy a cheeseburger with that, and I’m hungry. Screw you, gas stations.
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