Stefan Vilcins: Get pumped? Or is this too good to be true?

Stefan Vilcins
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Growing up through the years, it was always nice to have a few pearls of wisdom that managed to guide me throughout the unpredictable ups and downs of life.

An old tried and true favorite: “If something’s too good to be true, it probably is.” A bit cynical, sure, but how could anyone argue with this timeless classic?

When I was 8 years old, for example, I learned that, despite my red-hot start selling lemonade for the very first time (raking in $12 in a single Saturday afternoon!), I would not, in fact, be allowed to drop out of second grade and start a professional, full-time lemonade-selling business.

Or as a teenager, seeing a late-night infomercial for a product that promised to get rid of acne in two weeks – guaranteed! (It ended up taking closer to two years.)


Or my junior year in college, getting an e-mail from a mysterious Nigerian Prince who claimed he could unlock millions of dollars in family fortune and share it with me. But I’d need to first wire him $4,000 to “release the funds.”

This basic foundation that I grew up with – a skepticism of things that appeared too good to be true – was unexpectedly disrupted one day in April, thanks to an unlikely culprit: my local Kwik Trip.

Since last spring, Kwik Trip has been promoting a new 88 octane gasoline. What’s disruptive about this? It somehow was costing less than 87 unleaded – by about 20 cents per gallon. For weeks, this strange contradiction tormented me. How was this possible? Higher octane gas costing less than regular gas? How is this not something that’s too good to be true?

I soon noticed though, based on the stickers at the pump, that this 88 gas was made up of 15% ethanol, rather than 10% ethanol, like regular unleaded 87.

Aha! Is this what made it cheaper? Less gas and more ethanol? And can’t that mess up my engine? So it is too good to be true, after all!

But then I googled it. According to : “This fuel has a higher octane rating than regular 87 octane fuel, offering your engine a boost, and it burns cleaner than regular unleaded, improving our air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

So, not bad for my car? And better for the environment?

I asked my mechanic: “I mean, I know it’s tempting, but you should probably check your owner’s manual to make sure it’s OK first,” Jerry said, wiping his hands from my oil change.


I went ahead and checked – page 364, to be exact — and it only said this: “Unleaded gasoline, pump octane number 87 or higher.” That was it.

But how can cheaper gas be better? If “too good to be true” was now in doubt, which homespun axiom would fall next? “Practice makes perfect?” “Better late than never?”

With this new, disoriented worldview, I found myself recently filling my tank on a Sunday afternoon, feeling vaguely lost, as though in a deep haze. I mindlessly pulled the “87” lever at the pump, as usual, knowing that I was quite possibly about to waste money – again. While other, more sensible, people these days are thinking of ways to save money.

The world around me was changing. Would it ever change back to how it used to be? What would the cost be of preserving the old ways, the way things were when I was young, selling lemonade at the corner? For now, that would be about an extra $3 per fill-up.

Stefan Vilcins lives in Rochester with his 9-year-old son and is a former freelance writer. 

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Highlights of news reported in 1998, 1973, 1948 and 1923.
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