FOOL ON THE HILL
Putting a Price on "Priceless"

Those "Priceless" MasterCard commercials, while still entertaining, are venturing into dangerous territory with their message. Slapping the entire cost of a 30-ballpark tour on your credit card may wind up costing you millions of dollars above the actual price of the vacation.

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By Rex Moore (TMF Orangeblood)
December 13, 2001

Perhaps you saw the commercials during the baseball season. Two guys, probably in their early 20s, are touring North America in an attempt to catch a game in all 30 Major League ballparks before the season ends. We follow their exploits from Boston to Cincinnati, from San Francisco to Seattle.

The commercials are sponsored by MasterCard, and continue the successful "Priceless" campaign that has graced our television sets since 1998. Here's a non-baseball classic:

Camera shot: cute-as-a-button preschooler eats her morning cereal
New sneakers to help her play basketball and win a college scholarship: $26
Books to help her learn her ABCs and become a best-selling author: $30
Globe, so she can learn her continents, which will come in handy when she's president: $18
Camera shot: cute-as-a-button preschooler attempts to drink the milk from her bowl, but spills most of it down her shirt
Remembering to take it one day at a time: priceless. There are some things money can't buy, for everything else there's MasterCard

That commercial, like most in the Priceless campaign, is not so bad. Sure, you'd be better off writing a check for the $74, but that's a manageable amount to pay back. With the summer-long baseball series, however, MasterCard entered into irresponsible territory.

The concept plays on every fan's ultimate fantasy: One summer, 30 ballparks. Of course, there are two reasons it's mostly just a fantasy. Most of us don't have the time, and it would cost a small fortune.

And therein lies the problem with the baseball guys. Though the trip was a blast, this may have been the single worst mistake they could have made, financially speaking, at this time of their lives. In fact, the only "priceless" moment would be to see the look on their faces when they get back home and see their credit card bill.

Let's try to estimate what they spent on the trip, and what it's really going to cost them for the rest of their lives.

Tickets - An average of $25 each for 29 parks (for some reason these guys didn't buy tickets ahead of time, and missed the game in San Francisco because it was sold out... though they still managed to blow a lot of dough by renting a boat and a net, hoping to scoop up a home run ball in "McCovey's Cove" just past the right-field wall): $1,450

Concessions - A minimum of $15 each per game, and that's being conservative: $900

Souvenirs - It seems they couldn't contain themselves, buying $25 hats and $140 jerseys and $5 scorecards and whatnot all along the way. Let's estimate $50 apiece at each park: $3,000

Lodging - Chalk one up for our warriors. They made the trip in a Volkswagen van, apparently sleeping in it along the way: $0

Deodorant - Can you imagine what they smelled like bathing with wet wipes every day? $50

Occasional hotel room - Okay, so they couldn't stand the smell after all: $1,200

Gas and maintenance - That van doesn't get great mileage. The commercial showed some minor repairs along the way, but we'll just average this category out at the standard $0.31 a mile. Gads, how many miles? Let's say 17,875 (trust me on this one): $5,541.25

Food and drink - These guys didn't exactly hold back in this department. In Seattle, for instance, they had sushi delivered to their van ($16), and bought two expensive lattes ($8). Let's estimate $50 a day over 70 days: $3,500

Miscellaneous - Film, breath mints (did they brush their teeth every day?), newspapers, parking meters, whatever: $100.75

So what we have, conservatively speaking, is a $15,742 road trip. Let's round it up to an even $16,000 (hopefully they spent a few quarters at Laundromats along the way).

At this point, when the bill arrives, that warm and fuzzy MasterCard feeling abandons our heroes. They're now on the hook for eight grand apiece, and the worst-case scenario is more frightening than the daily lunch special in the Fool cafeteria.

As they begin their search for employment, they realize they'll have to pay the minimum amount due each month, and it could take more than four decades for each of these guys to pay off their share of the debt. Each could pay over $40,000 in interest along the way. Yes, $40,000.

Taken to this extreme, you can see the real cost of using a credit card irresponsibly. That sushi actually cost them $80, and the two lattes were $20 each. With each hot dog, they were actually swallowing 20 bucks instead of 4.

It's even worse if we look at what would have happened if they'd been investing that money over the years instead of paying off the trip. Plopping $125 into an IRA each month for 44 years, earning a slightly-below-market-average 10% a year, would net each of our friends well over $1 million. Yikes!

Bottom line: Credit cards are not evil, and we've got all you'll ever need to learn how to use them responsibly in our Get Out of Debt/Credit Card area. But if you use them the way the MasterCard baseball commercials suggest, and can only pay the minimum, the result could be the difference between eating dog food during your retirement and eating steak.

By the way, two real-life fans, Chris Franchino and Chris Corbellini, actually made such a trip this summer. But these two did it the right way, getting sponsors to pay for their transportation, food and lodging. Very Foolish. I think you'll find their account of the 17,875-mile trip fascinating.

Rex Moore has seen games in the following now-defunct (for baseball, or forever) parks: Memorial Stadium (Baltimore), old Comisky Park (Chicago), Tiger Stadium (Detroit), Arlington Stadium (Arlington/Dallas), Exhibition Stadium (Toronto), Astrodome (Houston), and Candlestick Park (San Francisco). Da Fool is not defunct, and its disclosure policy is da greatest.