School Pictures

The economics of school portraits are entirely nonsensical.

When I was a student I’d bring home a sample portrait (stamped “SAMPLE” to ruin its usability) and an order form for procuring prints in various sizes. Now what comes home is a complete portrait package with five sheets of fully finished prints. Parents send back any they don’t want along with payment for the ones they’ve kept and an order form for any more they still need.

So parents already have the product in hand and are just paying to keep it. And since there’s no resale value for a specific child’s prints, parents are really paying to not destroy the prints they already have.

Most of the apparent illogic here is surely the result of phenomenal economies of scale. Once the photographer is on site and has setup all his equipment, taking one more child’s picture adds almost no expense. Once the expensive photo printers are up and running, printing five more sheets is similarly inexpensive. The possibility that having all those pictures of their children in hand will incentivize some parents to pay justifies the small up-front expense.

What’s less easy to explain is this: I own a scanner. So when a beautiful, glossy 8×10 photograph comes home in my daughter’s backpack, I am not motivated to pay for it. I’m motivated to scan it in high resolution, and then return it for free.

That would probably violate either an implicit contract with the photographer or copyright law, but the very nature of the product makes its duplication impossible to police. I’m never going to be caught selling illegal copies of my daughter’s school picture on eBay, for example. Virtually the entire worldwide market for this particular item lives in my house.

Is this business model founded on trust in parents not to just make copies? Or on an assumption nobody’s smart enough to try it? Or are there just so many new parents buying prints now that losing a few to scanning technology is justifiable?

Whatever the reason, I’m not sure I want to discourage the practice. It looks like I may be able to get twelve years of free portraits out of it.

The Myth of Pay as You Go

I’ve found myself with little need for a cell phone now that I’m working from home — I just use it for occasional solo errand runs and as security against freak roadside emergencies. So I’ve switched to Boost Mobile’s “pay as you go” plan.

The plan is designed for this situation. There’s no monthly fee or contract; I just bought the phone outright (paying all of $30 for a basic “makes calls, sends texts” phone) and I pay 10¢ a minute any time I make or take a call.

Here’s what’s not in their marketing: credit on your account expires in just 90 days. The actual policy reads:

Note: You must add money to your account at least once every 90 days.If not, any unused credits in your Boost™ Prepaid Account Balance will expire and your account will go to zero, but don’t worry because your account will be automatically recharged with Auto Re-Boost.

“Don’t worry” — it’s okay that we’ll throw away your money if you haven’t paid us in a while, ’cause then we’ll immediately come take more money automatically! Since the smallest automated payment they’ll take is $15, that’s a guaranteed minimum expense of $5 / month, even if the phone was turned off the entire time.

That’s called a monthly fee. Let’s not kid ourselves.

Yes, I could turn off “Auto Re-Boost” (their automatic payment plan), but that doesn’t stop credit from expiring; it only stops it getting replenished automatically. I’d still have to pay them every three months, but with the added risk that I might forget and render my phone unusable. On the other hand, manual payments can go as low as $10, making the monthly cost a lower $3.33.

I’ve had the phone for three weeks now, and in that time I’ve rung up $1.90 in calls, with 90¢ of that on initial setup (e.g., validating Google Voice and trying to disable voicemail).

(For the record, the “pay as you go” plan does not support conditional call forwarding, but you can disable voicemail entirely. You just have to call Boost until you get someone who knows what you’re talking about.)

It’s a lot better than $50 / month, but we’ve got a long way to go before this is quite the service it’s made out to be.