The Cost Of A Letter

Discovering the exact cost of a letter is by no means an easy affair. However, approximate figures may always be had and they are extremely useful. The cost of writing an ordinary letter is quite surprising. Very few letters can be dictated, transcribed, and mailed at a cost of much less than twelve cents each. The factors which govern costs are variable and it is to be borne in mind that the methods for ascertaining costs as here given represent the least cost and not the real cost&mda

h;they simply tell you "Your letter costs at least this sum." They do not say "Your letter costs exactly this sum." The cost of a form letter, mailed in quantities, can be gotten at with considerable accuracy. The cost of letters dictated by correspondents or by credit departments or other routine departments is also capable of approximation with fair accuracy, but the cost of a letter written by an executive can really hardly be more than guessed at. But in any case a "not-less-than" cost can be had.

In recent years industrial engineers have done a great deal of work in ascertaining office costs and have devised many useful plans for lowering them. These plans mostly go to the saving of stenographers' time through suitable equipment, better arrangement of supplies, and specialization of duties. For instance, light, the kind or height of chair or desk, the tension of the typewriter, the location of the paper and carbon paper, all tend to make or break the efficiency of the typist and are cost factors. In offices where a great deal of routine mail is handled, the writing of the envelopes and the mailing is in the hands of a separate department of specialists with sealing and stamp affixing machines. The proper planning of a correspondence department is a science in itself, and several good books exist on the subject. But all of this has to do with the routine letter.

When an executive drawing a high salary must write a letter, it is his time and not the time of the stenographer that counts. He cannot be kept waiting for a stenographer, and hence it is economy for him to have a personal secretary even if he does not write enough letters to keep a single machine busy through more than a fraction of a day. Many busy men do not dictate letters at all; they have secretaries skilled in letter writing. In fact, a man whose salary exceeds thirty thousand dollars a year cannot afford to write a letter excepting on a very important subject. He will commonly have a secretary who can write the letter after only a word or two indicating the subject matter. Part of the qualification of a good secretary is an ability to compose letters which are characteristic of the principal.

Take first the cost of a circular letter—one that is sent out in quantities without any effort to secure a personal effect. The items of cost are:

(1) The postage.

(2) The paper and printing.

(3) The cost of addressing, sealing, stamping, and mailing.

The third item is the only one that offers any difficulty. Included in it are first the direct labor—the wages of the human beings employed; and, second, the overhead expense. The second item includes the value of the space occupied by the letter force, the depreciation on the equipment, and finally the supervision and the executive expense properly chargeable to the department. Unless an accurate cost system is in force the third item cannot be accurately calculated. The best that can be done is to take the salaries of the people actually employed on the work and guess at the proper charge for the space. The sum of the three items divided by the number of letters is the cost per letter. It is not an accurate cost. It will be low rather than high, for probably the full share of overhead expense will not be charged.

It will be obvious, however, that the place to send out circular letters is not a room in a high-priced office building, unless the sending is an occasional rather than a steady practice. Costs in this work are cut by better planning of the work and facilities, setting work standards, paying a bonus in excess of the standards, and by the introduction of automatic machinery. The Post Office now permits, under certain conditions, the use of a machine which prints a stamp that is really a frank. This is now being used very generally by concerns which have a heavy outgoing mail. Then there are sealing machines, work conveyors, and numerous other mechanical and physical arrangements which operate to reduce the costs. They are useful, however, only if the output be very large indeed.

The personally dictated letter has these costs:

(1) The postage.

(2) The stationery.

(3) The dictator's time—both in dictating and signing.

(4) The stenographer's time.

(5) The direct overhead expense, which includes the space occupied, the supervision, the executive overhead, and like items.

The troublesome items here are numbers three and five. If the dictator is a correspondent then the calculation of how much it costs him to dictate a letter is his salary plus the overhead on the space that he occupies, divided by the number of letters that he writes in an average month. It takes him longer to write a long than a short letter, but routine letters will average fairly over a period of a month. But an executive who writes only letters that cannot be written by correspondents or lower salaried men commonly does so many other things in the course of a day that although his average time of dictation per letter may be ascertained and a cost gotten at, the figure will not be a true cost, for the dictation of an important letter comes only after a consideration of the subject matter which commonly takes much longer than the actual dictation. And then, again, the higher executive is usually an erratic letter writer—he may take two minutes or twenty minutes over an ordinary ten-line letter. Some men read their letters very carefully after transcription. The cost of this must also be reckoned in.

The cost of any letter is therefore a matter of the particular office. It will vary from six or seven cents for a letter made up of form paragraphs to three or four dollars for a letter written by a high-salaried president of a large corporation. A fair average cost for a personally dictated letter written on good paper is computed by one of the leading paper manufacturers, after a considerable survey to be:

Postage .0200

Printing letterheads and envelopes .0062

Stenographic wages (50 letters per day, $20.00 per week) .0727

Office overhead .0727

Paper and envelopes .0054



The above does not include the expense of dictation.

It will pay any man who writes a considerable number of letters to discover what his costs are—and then make his letters so effective that there will be fewer of them.