We’re Stuffed

Richard Quinn

THERE’S A RETAIL CHAIN called The Container Store. As the name implies, it sells all types of containers, storage units and custom closets to help people organize their stuff, much of which they likely don’t need.

Let’s say you want a separate plastic box for each pair of shoes. You can have it. Did you know men own an average 12 pairs of shoes and women an average 27 pairs? Amazingly, 85% of women own shoes they purchased but have never worn.

We own too much stuff. I was speaking with a cable installer recently. He told me he had just finished hooking up 11 televisions in one home. The average home has 2.3 televisions, which is actually declining, as younger people instead stream on other devices.

Don’t think you have too much stuff? Try moving out of your home of many years and cleaning out your closets—which we just did. My wife found five boxes of shoes she didn’t recall she had and which she had never worn. Even I found two boxes of unworn shoes—but I’m innocent, because my wife bought them for me.

The problem with all the stuff we have is that somewhere along the line we likely spent good money on it. That means we couldn’t use that money for something else—like savings or paying down debt.

In an Experian survey, 68% of respondents said a key reason they carry credit cards is to buy the things they need. It’s the “need” part that is debatable. The majority of respondents (62%) reported having one to five credit cards, with three being the average. Their credit card debt averaged $2,326.71, with an average monthly charge of $779.83.

Americans paid banks some $104 billion in credit-card interest and fees in the last year, up 11% from a year ago and 35% over the past five years. Apparently, the frugality brought on by the Great Recession has waned. Being somewhat of a nerd, I calculated that if just one year of interest payments were instead invested, after 40 years, Americans could have $1,069,714,665,461 in the bank, assuming a 6% return. The last time I heard that kind of number it was the federal deficit.

How do we use our credit cards? Up to 27 million U.S. adults report putting medical expenses on their credit cards, according to a NerdWallet analysis, costing them an average of $471 in interest for a year’s worth of out-of-pocket medical spending. That’s more than $12 billion total. Paying for personal emergency medical expenses ranked sixth among the reasons folks cited for ending up with credit card debit.

What was the top reason? Survey respondents put the blame on themselves, saying they spent more than they could afford on unnecessary purchases. Once you live that way, maybe it’s no great surprise you also end up charging those out-of-pocket health care costs.

And then, of course, there are the shoes. I tried looking up the price of an average pair of women’s shoes. Good luck with that. Let’s just say the cost of 27 pairs of shoes likely exceeds average out-of-pocket health care expenses.

Our penchant for accumulating stuff may be our undoing down the road—and I haven’t even included the cost of those containers we buy to store what we don’t need and don’t recall owning. Except for the chronically poor, everyone can afford to save if they simply decide what stuff they can live without—provided they decide before they actually buy it.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Clueless, Hard Earned and Time to Choose. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

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