American Consumers Are Short on Discipline When it Comes to Parting With Their Income

Copyright © 2007 Ed Bagley

Like a 4-year-old child at the checkout counter in a supermarket, American consumers want just one more impulse buy to make their buying day complete, and apparently the more expensive it is, the better.

Here is an example: A 68-year-old, semi-retired businessman shells out $600,000 for a recreational vehicle which costs about $550 to top off at the pump. He and his wife are tooling around the country in an effort to have fun while they can.

His comment on the decision is that “This isn’t a dress rehearsal for life-this is it. We’re curtailing nothing.” Those big tears you see following his comment might well come from any children who see their inheritance fading away into the sunset with dad and mom.

Like a dog in heat, if we have it we tend to spend it in America.

All of this impulse buying is detailed in a recent USA Today article with this headline: “Spending is hotter than the 4th of July”. And indeed it apparently is.

Although the median amount of credit-card debt carried by the typical American is about $6,600 (this is not a typo), 13% of respondents in a recent online poll reported balances higher than $25,000, according to CardTrack.com.

“Never have Americans, who have always liked their toys, been faced with a situation where their impulses are so hard to control,” says Stuart Vyse, a professor of psychology and author of the upcoming book Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold on to Their Money.

The fact is that we as consumers can buy almost anything we want anytime we want on the easiest terms we want. Sellers and lenders have no compunctions about selling us what we do not need at a price we cannot afford and at a rate of payment that can eventually drive us into bankruptcy.

Sellers and lenders, especially credit card lenders, have raised this willingness to line their pockets at our expense to an art form. And yes, I understand and agree with the observation that we all need to be responsible for our actions.

What I do disagree with is this: How can doing the right thing with right thinking and right motives justify lending consumers money and credit when they do not deserve it, and then leaving them no smarter but broker and deeper in debt in the process?

All of this unmerited lending is creating and concentrating wealth among America’s very rich, and the rich club in America is growing faster and farther away from America’s poor and middle classes.

“For the first time in history, more than half of all earned income, specifically 50.4%, is going to 20% of the U. S. population, which amounts to $3.5 trillion in the hands of 23 million households,” says Peter Francese, a demographic trends analyst for ad and marketing giant Ogilvy & Mather.

So more than half of the earned income in America is going to 20% of the population, leaving the other half to 80% of the working stiffs that are left to continue buying things they do not need at prices they cannot afford on credit.

A key component of this impulse spending happens because too many Americans think they can afford it when they cannot.

Families are less frugal today, in part because only 25% of households have married couples with children, a significant drop from 50% in 1960 and the lowest percentage in census history. We have a census procedure in this country to learn these kinds of sociological shifts.

There are more working couples without children who have more disposable income and keep spending rather than realizing their good fortune and saving. Leading the spending spree are the seniors mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Seniors have so much spendable income that a Luxury Marketing Council has been created to advise top brands on consumer trends for a growing group of seniors that have at least $1 million in liquid assets. They do not need to sell their home to buy a $125,000 Maserati, they simply write a check out of one of their accounts.

I personally would not encourage this kind of spending among any consumers, and especially on an automobile which is a decreasing asset. If you cannot control your impulse to buy, at least buy land or developed properties that might well appreciate over time.

The USA Today article carried information by Pitney Bowes MapInfo which identified the Top 20 Counties nationwide with the highest average expenditures annually per household. Here are the Top 7:

1) Marin, CA – $68,782

2) Fairfield, CT – $65,263

3) Fairfax, VA – $63,569

4) San Mateo, CA – $63,229

5) Morris, NJ – $62,995

6) Somerset, NJ – $62,345

7) Westchester, NY – $61,425

I identify these counties as “high rent districts” which are too expensive for most people to buy a home. One thing is for sure, if you do not make some major money, you are not going to be able to keep up with those earners who can.

Not all of us suffer from this apparent impulse to buy.

The answer to impulse control just might be in yoga. Yoga taught me “impulse control”, the ability to feel an urge and delay acting on it. Yoga also taught me that when stability becomes a habit, maturity and clarity follow.

While earning money has a way of increasing financial intelligence quickly, I learned a long time ago that a fool and his money are some parted.

I will keep the $125,000 and you can have the Maserati. I will keep the $600,000 and you can have the recreational vehicle. Eventually, cash is king; the car and the recreational vehicle will eventually end up in the junkyard with a lot of other impulse purchases.