Crying Poverty

Richard Quinn

I HAVE BEEN ACCUSED of being too critical of America’s spending habits. I’m not in touch with families who live paycheck to paycheck, or so I’m told. I was roundly attacked by folks on Facebook, who claimed I lacked sympathy for the federal workers who ran out of money during the government shutdown—even before they missed a payday.

We all know there are Americans who struggle to get by on very low incomes. But that’s the minority. Let’s talk about the great majority of households—those that spend money unnecessarily. Consider three statistics pulled together by

  • 3.1% of the world’s children live in the U.S. and yet our kids own 40% of the toys purchased worldwide.
  • Americans devote more dollars to shoes, jewelry and watches than they do to higher education.
  • The average U.S. home has almost tripled in size over the past half-century. Yup, walk-in closets and bathrooms the size of small apartments are, it seems, essential. But all the while, the size of the average American family has been declining.

I have eaten in homes in more than 15 European countries. Their homes are very nice, comfortable and, by American standards, quite small. The average size of a new home in the U.S. is 2,204 square feet, while in France it’s 1,228.

I was window shopping in Germany a few years ago and noticed the steep price of men’s shoes. I asked how people could afford the prices, which include a 20% or so sales tax. The reply: Germans don’t own many pairs of shoes.

By contrast, the average American owns 19 pairs, many of them never used. Given that many Americans prefer to sit in their car when ordering fast food or doing their banking, what are all the shoes for? Apparently, those boots aren’t made for walking.

Visit Rome or Amsterdam and your traffic risk is being run over by a scooter or bicycle. Meanwhile, the three top-selling vehicles in the U.S. in 2018 were pickup trucks. “Americans bought over 17 million vehicles for the fourth year in a row in 2018, and 68% of them were trucks and SUVs, continuing a years-long trend away from cars that’s been driven by increasing choice, low gas prices and improving fuel economy,” says Fox News. Unless you need a big vehicle to generate income, that’s not transportation. Instead, those are luxury items—and they often cost $40,000 and up.

In 2014, there were 48,500 self-storage facilities in the U.S., almost double the number of McDonald’s and Starbucks combined. We’re talking about places to store stuff that’s largely unnecessary or even forgotten about. Keep in mind that this is in addition to basements, attics and garages. One survey showed that roughly a quarter of homeowners can’t use their garage for their car because it’s so cluttered. I’m guessing another hefty percentage simply can’t get that pickup to fit in the garage.

Public policy is set using survey data and lots of assumptions. I have trouble reconciling much of that research with the reality of America’s spending habits. How can you claim to be living paycheck to paycheck, and yet have more stuff than you can store in your house or afford a vehicle way beyond what you need to get from here to there?

And one final cantankerous thought: Wouldn’t our financial future be a tad brighter if, instead of spending $73 billion each year on state lotteries, we invested the money?

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include ShortsightedFarewell Money and One Last Thing. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

Do you enjoy HumbleDollar? Please support our work with a donation. Want to receive daily email alerts about new articles? Click here. How about getting our twice-weekly newsletter? Sign up now.

Browse Articles

Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Free Newsletter