My Philosophy of Accumulating Miles and Saving Money Comes from an Obscure 1984 Film

The way that I think about negotiation, arbitrage, and frequent flyer miles all tie back to one scene in an obscure 1984 file, Over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Elliott Gould plays a man with a dream to open a restaurant in Manhattan who finds the perfect opportunity. He asks his uncle, played by Sid Caesar, for funding and Caesar agrees — on the condition he leave his Catholic girlfriend (Margaux Hemingway) and marry a “nice Jewish girl.” Seven year old Sarah Michelle Gellar has an uncredited role.

I haven’t watched this movie in almost 30 years but I still recall a scene where Sid Caesar takes Elliott Gould to meet with the men they’re making a deal with.

  • Gould has already agreed on a price. Caesar goes back and shaves $5000 off the price.

  • To Elliott Gould’s character this was pointless, it antagonized their deal partners over a rounding error in price.

  • But Caesar asks where else in your life will you be able to make $5000 with one hour’s work?

Here are the key lessons:

  • In any deal you make both parties are coming out ahead (or else the deal wouldn’t be made). Almost every time both sides are leaving some value on the table.

  • Don’t be lazy and leave value on the table. Make one last run at lowering the price or gaining some modest concession even when you’ve reached the point you’re happy with an agreement. You can especially find something that’s low cost for the other party to provide but that you still value, easy to give and might as well ask for.

  • But effort has a price (there’s an opportunity cost to time and energy) so the juice has to be worth the squeeze.

I thought about this when I read Miles Per Day discussing his retention call with Comcast. He called up threatening to cancel service ‘because he wanted to save money’. He was transferred to the retention specialist who offered him a better price. He did the same thing last year.

While I haaaate making these calls, twenty minutes to save $22 x 12 = $264 is a no-brainer if you ask me. Now I’m kicking myself for not doing this 4 months ago when my old offer ended.

That works out to $792 per hour. How many of us make $792 an hour?

And in fact your hourly rate at work (if you’re salaried, as a rough approximation divide by 2080) that doesn’t mean that each incremental hour at the margin is ‘worth’ your hourly rate.

Some hours are worth more (when you’re burning the candle at both ends, at the margin an additional hour should be more expensive, in some sense the theory behind overtime) but there are plenty of unproductive hours you can trade off too. Is playing video games or watching sports worth hundreds of dollars an hour to you, i.e. would you be willing to pay hundreds of dollars to play video games for an hour?

Do the math. Most opportunities to maximize are worth your time, but don’t drive 30 minutes to the lowest-cost place to buy money orders and save $10 on ten if it costs you a few dollars in gas and an extra total hour of your time.

Over the Brooklyn Bridge cost just $4 million to make but box office receipts totaled less than $1 million. It appears to be available on Netflix and I should probably re-watch it, just for that scene. A big chunk of the value created by that movie wasn’t captured by the production company. It was captured by me.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. In reverse this is why I don’t waste time with offers like save $10 off $1,000 in gift cards (that are not scaleable). Too much time to go get gift cards, then they don’t have them, etc. Not that small wins don’t add up but I’m tracking so many $100-500 opportunities that I have to draw the line somewhere. Working on 80,000 Ink Preferred bonus now. 🙂

  2. Great lesson everyone should learn. Setting a threshold for what your time is worth is the key to efficiency gains and rising income. Anytime I have questioned whether an endeavor is worth my time, I end it and almost always replace the time with something pumping out more juice. Don’t underestimate what time is worth.

  3. The key is that the concession has to be minor, both tangibly and psychologically, for the other side. If not, it can be ill-advised. This is especially true for deals with partners you’ll need later. If you aggravate them by re-negotiating at the last minute you may be getting a little and losing a lot.

  4. “Gould has already agreed on a price. Caesar goes back and shaves $5000 off the price.”

    Wow. I never saw the movie, so maybe I’m missing something in the context. But, based only on your post, that really is a strong statement about your integrity – and the way I see it anyone who admires such behavior should be ashamed of themselves, and my get a lot more than they bargained for in the most negative and humiliating sense. I can assure you – if anyone pulled that crap on me, the deal would be off, and I would never return their calls/emails again. I don’t do business with ( or have time for) people who have such a low regard for their own word – because they are not trustworthy.

    As the poet said: “Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.”

  5. I also value simplicity. I’ve become much more selective opening new credit cards and chasing bonuses, both because of the value of my time, and the value of keeping life simpler. (Example: I’ve using the Chase Freedom Unlimited to get a consistent 1.5x; decided not to “chase” the 5x Chase Freedom bonuses.)

  6. That used to be an annual call to Comcast for me. This year, however, they refused to offer me any deal that didn’t bundle TV (something of no value to me) which would raise the cost of bundle to what the internet alone would be, so it’s off to AT&T until they get unreasonable. Funny thing was, we had a hard time contacting the retention department because they won’t transfer you unless you say, “I want to cancel,” anymore.

  7. @SE_Rob I think I failed to do the scene justice, Gould had been GIVEN a price which he was inclined to just accept. I haven’t watched the movie in 25+ years. I do not counsel going back on actual agreements.

  8. Gary, think about your advice on time when you are messing around with returns on Amazon, say for some clothes or shoes that don’t fit. Some retailer in Austin could have hooked you up correctly the first time….

  9. Many great lessons there. But it is also important to remember the value of your time. 20 minutes to save $700 is a good use of time. But similarly I get upset when the car shop kept me waiting 30-45 minutes this morning. They don’t value my time and that is a mistake that I will use either to extract concession down the road or as a sign to send my business elsewhere.
    Travel providers waste huge amounts of time and it is one reason I pick the service providers that I do and pay extra for services like Clear, GE, etc. And if service is not fast I am not shy about calling out a manager.
    Always remember the value of your time and seek to minimize time wasted. And businesses that respect customer time will be paid back in spades.

  10. I have been trying to convince many friends they should start a checking account to get the $300 bonus and have said ” That’s $300 dollars for an hour .” Nope , too complicated . Got to be a catch .
    Nobody believes . ” OK , friends , but , I ‘m gonna buy a lot of cheeseburgers with my $300 ”
    My best day at work I did not previously manage $300 an hour .
    To quote Mulder ” I want to believe. “

  11. @Dalo, Your calculations are not correct. $300 for say an hour to go to the bank, set up the account, worry if it will do a soft or hard credit pull, another 30 minutes and few months of monitoring the account, looking at statements then another hour to go close the account. Iffy already even if you don’t need to change your direct deposit and/or move money around to fund the account. Compare to applying for the Chase Reserve last year. Took me 30 minutes, got $1,800 net value. Don’t get out of bed for less than $750.

  12. What , me worry ? I do disagree with your assessment . I spent less than an hour at the Wells Fargo branch which is right next door to a coffee shop I frequent every day . I was unconcerned about credit pulls . Five days later I checked the account online and the bonus was already credited .
    I funded the account with a money order that was already in my wallet .
    Perhaps your intention is to announce what a great deal you had made . Good for you !
    However you will not convince me that I was wrong .

  13. Time is money, but not everyone’s time is worth the same.

    Curiously, at the peak of my career, I assigned a hour of my time a value, based on what I earned and how much non-working time I had. Now I’m semi-retired and I realized I hadn’t updated my math to reflect I have more leisure time and less income.

    Always keep your cost/benefit analysis current.

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