The Fribble
Tuesday, November 23, 1999

The Peril of Round Numbers

By lkutner

Oh how we love round numbers. A round number, of course, is one that ends in zero -- the ultimate round number. The more zeroes there are at the end, the rounder the number and the more we like it. We even use round numbers to telegraph descriptions of people: "She's a millionaire." "He's a total zero." "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" (Peter Schickele, a.k.a. P.D.Q. Bach, once defined a MilliHelen as the amount of beauty it takes to launch a single ship.)

When the Dow hit 10,000, the pundits endlessly explored the wide implications of this achievement, as if that particular number were more important than, for example, 9,847. This New Year's Eve, the simple fact that all four of the digits in our accounting of years will change is bringing about special celebrations -- with much higher prices -- to mark our passage into the "New Millennium." (I long ago stopped trying to explain to people that, since there was no year 0, the new millennium really starts in the year 2001!)

We can, perhaps, trace our love of round numbers to the accidental shape of our hands and feet. Had the digits on our hands been different, the digits of our financial accountings would likely be different as well. After all, during the heyday of FORTRAN, COBOL, and mainframe computers, programmers routinely worked in hexadecimal, thereby adding a few virtual fingers to each of their hands. Those extra fingers came in handy when we had to clear jammed punchcards from the reader.

Our love of round numbers sometimes gets us into trouble. When we buy something, we tend to round the price down by truncating the number. A car that sells for $19,998 somehow feels closer to $19,000 than to $20,000 because of their common digits, even though simple arithmetic tells us otherwise. Retailers have long taken advantage of this type of self-delusion. The most extreme example, perhaps, is something so common that we no longer notice it. Most service stations in America price their gasoline at a number that ends in 9/10ths of a penny.

I respectfully suggest that all Fools consciously and vocally challenge this self-deluding love of round numbers. Perhaps there's even a social movement here. Make salespeople visibly uncomfortable by saying that an item priced at $49.95 costs "fifty bucks." Better still, add in the sales tax before going to the register, and refer to it as costing "about 54 dollars and change."

Give your spouse some flowers to celebrate the 173rd day after your wedding anniversary. Throw an unbirthday party. Instead of giving $100.00 to a charity, donate $104.68.

And if you'd really like to celebrate the millennium, do it Foolishly. Wait another year for the "real" millennium when the prices will be much lower. Or better still, get together with a bunch of friends and choose your own millennium to celebrate. The date you choose will be just as valid as January 1, 2000, even if it isn't a nice, round number.

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