How Much Does It Cost To Bum A Cigarette?

A Neo-Marxist Cost-Benefit Analysis Of Bumming Cigarettes

Hint: it’s not worth it.

Image: Jose Roco

It is a truth universally whatever that someone talking to a stranger smoking outside a bar must be in want of a cigarette (or of the touch of another human on their cold, neglected genitals, but I can’t help you with that).

No doubt you, like me, have resolved once or twice to quit smoking…your own cigarettes. If you’re only smoking socially, buying a pack of smokes seems like a temptation to relapse and a sure waste of money, not only because packs are expensive, but because you’re inevitably going to give out half of its contents to people who’ve quit smoking their own cigarettes.

Given these conditions, bumming cigarettes seems like the only fiscally responsible option. You can ask your friends, but they might be off the nicotine for real, or tired enough of your mooching to cut you off because they “thought you were quitting.” On to the kindness of strangers. How much time should you spend conversing with them because you feel it’d be rude to take their cigarette and jet off? At what point does does your politeness become foolishness?

Conversing with someone you don’t actually want to talk to in exchange for a cigarette is a kind of compensated labor, just like everything in our neoliberal world. Let’s assume the minimum wage is a decent approximation of a fair wage — that’s a joke, people. But it is the minimum value of your labor in capitalist society. You’re being compensated in the form of cigarettes, so we can quantify that wage using the value (in this case the price) of a cigarette.

Thus, a ballpark for how much effort you should make to acquire a cigarette can be the maximum length of time you can spend on this endeavor and still make minimum wage. Let’s call that unknown number B, for “bum” or “broke-ass” or whatever other description seems fitting. B (in minutes) is equal to the price of a cigarette divided by the minimum wage per minute. This is just one way to calculate B. If you’re a woman, you probably spend enough time doing emotional labor that to you, B = 0. If you’re up for just a little more emotional labor, read on.

Cigarette prices and the minimum wage vary by and within states, so I’m just going to use New York City as an example because I live there and I want to know what the cost-benefit on my cigarette-bumming habit is. According to The Awl’s most recent cigarette price roundup, the price of a pack of cigarettes in New York State averages $12.60. There are 20 cigarettes per pack, so you’re paying 63 cents per cigarette. Maybe when you see it that way, saving a measly $0.63 isn’t worth wasting any time at all, but this stuff adds up (like Pringles, you never stop at one), so let’s press on.

What a Pack of Cigarettes Costs, in Every State

In New York City, minimum wage is $10.50 to $11 (in the rest of the state, it’s $9.70), but let’s take $10.50 as the bare minimum. That’s 17.5 cents per minute. Yes, when you look at it like that it IS practically nothing.

Thus, B(New York City) in minutes = price of one cigarette ÷ minimum wage per minute= 63 ÷ 17.5 = 3.6 minutes, or 3 minutes and 36 seconds. This seems like a good window for a brisk New York exchange: ask for a cigarette, light up, banter about the Second Avenue line, shit-talk de Blasio, take your leave. It’s like making a subway friend. Rudimentary math and common sense both tell us this is the most we owe someone for a passing courtesy.

I also calculated B for every state where the Awl was able to obtain cigarette prices, since I love to take things too far. From Hawaii, clearly an affordable, pro-worker paradise, to bleak Montana, B can range from 1 minute and 44 seconds to 5 minutes and 2 seconds — all very short times in the scheme of things. Expensive though cigarettes may be, one more or less isn’t actually worth that much.

But this is more than just an age-inappropriate fifth grade math problem. First, the elephant in the room here is that “smoking socially” usually means smoking while drinking. Forget about bumming a cigarette, having a brisk exchange, and exiting gracefully: drunk you is not going to take 3.6 minutes to do anything. Do you really want to gather your things, weave through people make your way outside (possibly stopping along the way for a couple of forced chatty conversations), find the smokers, choose which one to walk up to…I’m getting tired, sobered-up and hell-bent on a slice of pizza just thinking about it.

In all seriousness, though, this particular solution to the problem of figuring out how much your time is worth assumes that time is money, or that it’s equivalent to money. Saving money might indeed allow you not to waste your life on earning a living, but let’s not pretend cutting back on tiny purchases (i.e., forgoing a $2.75 coffee on the advice of an article by a “financial advisor” titled “How I Saved $10,000 In A Year”) bumps anyone up into the next tax bracket. The idea that anyone who’s not rich is irresponsible for wanting small comforts is a puritan scam.

Even without considering that, time can also be defined as moments of your life that you’re never getting back. Why spend even 30 seconds on a fool’s errand? Just skip the nicotine, have another drink, and leave the overthinking for the morning.