The two annual fees I pay to shop for stuff

Thursday’s news that the cost of Amazon Prime will go up from $119 to $139 reminded me that, yes, I do pay this annual fee just to be able to spend more money buying stuff. And then Friday I went on this month’s Costco run, which reminded me of the other annual fee I pay to be able to spend more money buying stuff.

We’ve been paying for these memberships for so long that I had to look it up–we added a Prime subscription in 2012 after free introduction to Prime via the old Amazon Mom promotion ended, while my wife’s Costco membership dates to 2001. Over that time, the cost of Prime has risen from $79 to $99 to $119. The cost of Costco membership, meanwhile, has gone from $45 to $50 to $55 to the current $60 during our tenure, and this pattern of a $5 increase every five years means it will probably hit $65 later this year.

The Costco membership is easier to justify. While not everything in its warehouses will save you money compared to shopping at a grocery store, we easily save enough in purchases like 25-pound bags of King Arthur flour, two-pound bags of yeast, three-liter bottles of Kirkland-brand olive oil and the absurdly-cheap booze at the D.C. Costco to recoup that fee within six months.

The math is more complex at Amazon, since Prime now folds in so many different services and features. Free two-day shipping is supposed to represent Prime’s core value, but most of our purchases don’t require that; meanwhile, I do save enough in Amazon Prime discounts at Whole Foods (as in, the closest full-size grocery store to our house) to offset a large chunk of Prime’s cost. Amazon Music now factors heavily into our household value calculation by virtue of the use it gets on our Echo (as in, our kid asking Alexa to play the Encanto soundtrack), but even as Amazon has invested heavily in creating original movies and series for Prime Video, our viewing hasn’t kept up.

These value equations get even woolier when you factor in the conduct of these companies. By which I mean, Costco is an easy company to like–it’s paid its store employees so well that some Wall Street analysts have whined that it’s too generous–while Amazon is not. The Seattle tech giant has real problems with fake products, fake reviews, occupational safety, and its treatment of third-party sellers and third-party delivery drivers. It collects vast amounts of data about its customers yet barely documents how it responds to government requests for that information.

(You may have noticed that all but the last of those links about Amazon’s issues point to stories in the Washington Post–which Amazon founder Jeff Bezos spent $250 million to buy. That speaks to the character of my old shop and that of Bezos. The other local angle with Amazon is its HQ2 rising in Arlington a few miles from our house and already helping to elevate its value, meaning my wife and I are both personally wealthier and pay higher property taxes.)

But Amazon’s wage increases for warehouse employees, combined with its massive size, have resulted in the firm doing what Washington apparently can’t–elevating the minimum wage across a large swath of the country. And in his last letter to shareholders as CEO, Bezos wrote that his new mission for his company was to make it “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.”

Realistically, we’ll almost certainly keep paying what I’ve called the “Amazon citizenship tax.” But I want to know that some of this extra $20 a year will go towards making those goals happen.

How I got Amazon Prime almost for free

Last summer, my appetite for quantifying my finances intersected with my food-procurement habits to yield a math exercise: How much of my Amazon Prime membership was I chipping away with these discounts at Whole Foods?

The Seattle retail leviathan’s 2017 purchase of the Austin-based grocery chain consolidated a large portion of my annual consumer spend at one company. It also gave me a new set of benefits for the Amazon Prime membership my wife and I have had since 2011: an extra 10% off sale items except beer and wine, plus some Prime-only deals.

(Personal-finance FYI: Amazon also touts getting 5% cash back at Whole Foods on its credit card, but the American Express Blue Cash Preferred offers 6% back on all grocery stores. That higher rate combined with Amex Offers for rebates at designated merchants easily erases the card’s $95 annual fee and returns more money than I’d get from Amazon’s card.)

So on my way out of Whole Foods, I created a new Google Docs spreadsheet on my phone and jotted down the Prime savings called out on my receipt. Then I did the same thing after subsequent visits. If Whole Foods and Amazon were going to track my shopping habits (which I assume they could from seeing the same credit card even if I didn’t scan in the QR code in the Amazon app at the checkout), I ought to do likewise.

Aside from $10-and-change savings during last July’s Prime Day promotion and again on roses for Valentine’s Day, most of these 41 transactions yielded $4 or less in Prime discounts. But after a year, they added up to $118.14, just 86 cents less than the $119 Prime annual fee.

To answer the obvious question: No, I did not step up my Whole Foods visits because of this tie-in. That place does happen to be the closest almost-full-spectrum grocery store to my home, but there’s a Trader Joe’s barely further away that trades a smaller selection for cheaper pricing on staples like milk and flour. And thanks to this dorky habit of mine, I can tell that I’ve shifted more of my business from WF to TJ’s the past few months.

Christmas calendar compression

I can now click a button on a Web page and have almost any product delivered to almost anywhere in the United States within two days at no additional cost. That’s a respectable alternative to Star Trek’s transporter, but it has somehow not freed me from hitting this point in December with this much Christmas shopping undone.

Christmas wrapping

Arguably, the existence of Amazon Prime (like every other new parents, we signed up for the retailer’s free “Amazon Mom” option and then couldn’t wean ourselves of the convenience of prepaid two-day shipping) has only enabled my holiday procrastination. As in, right now, I’m comforting myself by thinking about how many more days I have to wait to place orders for family members and have them still arrive before they depart to their respective Christmas destinations.

Meanwhile, I’m also still figuring out my CES schedule–if I haven’t replied to your PR pitch about meeting at the show, just assume you’ll see me at your booth eventually, or at least don’t call to bug me about it–and lining up some other early-2014 events.

At least my wife takes care of the Christmas cards these days (otherwise, they’d be New Year’s cards). And I’m not on the hook to write any enormous gift-guide packages.

The good news is, in a few weeks both the holidays and CES will be behind me, and I’ll have a good 10 months to decompress and forget most of the lessons I’ve learned about why I should try to knock out more of these holiday chores before Thanksgiving.