The Pizza Metaphor

When I was a small child, my parents measured large purchases in pizza dinners. My sister and I both had an allowance, and of course we would often try using it to purchase candy or corner store toys. And of course we would beg our parents to buy us larger things like dolls or action figures or movies.

A big standby treat, however, was the pizza dinners. At least a couple times a month, we’d get a huge pepperoni and olive pizza with chicken wings (one order hot, one mild) and french fries from the little neighborhood pizzeria with its Italian-immigrant-by-way-of-New-York owners. (A rarity in Las Vegas, let me tell you!) Healthy? No. Financially sound? Not really. Delicious? Of course.

That tradition was so ingrained into us that my parents used it to teach us finance. The value of a dollar doesn’t mean much to a kid, after all. And why should it? It’s a system we’ve agreed upon to make the exchange of time and goods workable amongst a large number of people, with no inherent or intuitive value. It’s bewildering to an outsider, which a child ultimately is. Besides, if your allowance is $1.50/week, $20 seems like vast wealth.

I like that it worked both ways, for things bigger and smaller than a pizza. If we wanted to get two pizzas in a week, for example, my mom would say “If we get an extra pizza dinner this week, that’s a movie ticket for everyone. (Back in the early 90s a matinee was $5). You could go to a movie four times yourself.” Or “that boom box would be four pizza dinners. Is that worth it?”

What really stuck in my mind, and recently had me thinking “how many pizza dinners is this computer?” even though, when I want pizza, I just order one, was the flexibility that my parents gave us. They’d have us go through the exercise of calculating

y = x pizza dinners

and sometimes, not always, they’d let us say, “Yes. This is worth it. I want this instead of that.” I believe that made the metaphor effective, instead of just a boring math problem — that partial self-determination that paved the way for real self-determination later. Whether or not they let us choose probably depended mostly on what they felt like doing, but that didn’t occur to me at the time!

I love that, and I still do it, though not often with pizza. I think money can be hard to think about in concrete terms. Maybe it’s just me. But the visceral memory of a greasy pizza, weighed against the joy that I will get out of whatever I want to purchase, is pretty real to a kid. As an adult (debatable),  I tend to use travel. I know that a camping trip near my city will cost about $20 when all is said and done. Do I really want to eat at Denny’s? What about that fantastic local organic burger joint? Choices, choices. If I get this computer, I can’t afford a plane ticket to Hawaii in the future. Weigh carefully!

What do you think about when you’re making a big purchase? How do you decide what to spend your money on?

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