I like surprises. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you do too, or at least your brain does.
Neuroscientists from Emory University and Baylor University conducted research that proves it. Since they had nothing better to do one summer, they developed a test to measure the brain’s reaction to expected and unexpected surprises.
Their conclusion: People are “turned on” by unexpected surprises. I know I am.
It explains how my wife was able to slip the cost of new wood floors under my feet last week. It was a most unexpected surprise.
There is a five-year history of laying wood floors in our home, which I suspect is about the national average time for home improvement projects. They all begin with the best of intentions — hard work, pride in your home, saving money — but end up costing about $33.2 billion. That’s how much the U.S. Census Bureau estimates Americans spend annually on flooring.
The Census also shows 63 percent of U.S. homeowners hire pros to do the job. I’m not sure how they compiled that data, but I bet all but 1 percent of them started the job as do-it-yourselfers and quit when they realized they were in way over their heads.
That’s how the Frugal Fay Family Flooring Saga began.
We bought the wood for this project in 2008 at a closeout store going out of business. That’s what I call a double discount. We paid $2.25 per square foot for enough Brazilian walnut wood (1,800 square feet) to cover all eight rooms in our house. A friend who does woodworking called it “a steal” when I showed him the invoice.
Mrs. Fay and her handyman dad, who just finished installing wood floors in his home, swore they could handle the installation free of charge. That sealed it for me.
Double-discounted wood + free installation = Frugal Man’s Dream Project!
And that’s exactly what it was for the last five years: A dream.
In 2008, my father-in-law and wife laid the wood down in three rooms, but it took about a month and they left gaps. They didn’t install any of the crown molding, which they decided could be postponed until the summer of 2009.
I offered to hire tradesmen to come in and finish the other five rooms, something Frugal Man had to sweat over for many nights. That offer was rejected, loudly rejected, if I remember correctly.
A year later, the excitement of new hardwood floors waned. They covered one more room and tacked on a small amount of crown molding. Their desire to finish the project vanished altogether. That left about 1,000 square feet of wood flooring languishing in boxes in my garage.
No amount of grumbling would coax that wood out of the box or persuade the free labor to finish what they started. Over the next three years, “I don’t have enough time,” was the answer to every flooring question.
Then last week, Mrs. Fay unplugged the project from life support. She hired a team of tradesmen who knocked out the last four rooms in two days. Soft, amber-colored wood floors replaced the worn out beige carpeting. The place looked spectacular.
“You said you wanted it done, and it’s done,” Mrs. Fay proclaimed after giving a tour of the finished project.
She’s right. I did say I wanted it done — five years ago and with free labor.
The “free” part is now out of the equation. I haven’t seen the final invoice yet, but there is reason for concern. The Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies estimates that Americans will spend $551 billion upgrading their homes this year. Harvard says the average project will cost $4,000.
Those numbers scare me so much that when I do get the final bill, I’m thinking about inviting those neuroscientists from Emory and Baylor over to measure my brain’s response.
I’ll definitely be surprised. I doubt I will still be “turned on.”
Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it seven years ago, helping birth Debt.org into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering college and professional sports, which are the fantasy worlds of finance. His work has been published by the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Sports Illustrated and Sporting News, among others. His interest in sports has waned some, but his interest in never reaching for his wallet is as passionate as ever. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.