Thursday, July 22, 2010

Should We Stop Buying Clothes?

My friend James likes to send me (and a circle of his friends and relatives) whatever NY Times articles strike his fancy. We keep telling James to launch his own blog, but he dithers. This is the blog post that James should have written.

Apparently, there is a movement afoot to get people—mostly women—to swear off unnecessary clothing purchases. This Times article details just how small the movement is at the moment—under two hundred people have signed the pledge—which ought to tell us something about how unpopular saying no to buying more clothes really is.

My friend James virtuously says:

I have a simple rule for clothing, and most other stuff: I have a set number of items and if anything new comes in something has to go out. As for the number of items, I just decided one day that, “That's enough.” I don't need anything more.

I am haunted by the Fredrick Pohl story "The Midas Plague."

I haven’t read that story, but I have my own story to relate, about how noxious it is to be in close quarters with men who save money on shirt laundering or uniform cleaning by re-wearing clothes they have sweated in. My god, these men stank. If this is you, stop immediately. Want a date or a promotion? Wash yourself, and wash your clothes, too.

My vote therefore is for people to own enough clothing to have more than a week’s supply, if they leave their homes to go to work. If they work at home and have access to daily laundry, they can have three days’ supply, although this hardly gives much leeway; they’d have to do laundry three times a week. If they live alone, it would be more efficient of resources to own more clothes and do one big batch of laundry once a week.

Who does laundry, you laugh. Okay, so you send all your clothes to the dry cleaners, who mostly still imbue them with poisonous chemicals. I have personally seen people picking up hundreds of dollars worth of dry cleaning. If that’s you, you might want to think about the deleterious effect of the chemicals on the planet and your health, and the deleterious effect of the cleaning costs on your wallet.

Still, I do recommend that if you refuse to learn to iron (it’s easy enough), or if you are in an image-sensitive profession, or if you simply do not have time to do laundry properly, you have professionals clean and iron your clothing. An ambassador I once worked with wore an impressively ironed silk shirt, even though his embassy was basically decrepit. Now he’s the president of his country.

Most of us are pretty good at keeping clean and pressed. What too many Americans do is shop for excess clothing. It’s not necessary, except if you work in the fashion or movie industry—in which case, you should be getting designer duds at super insider discounts, not buying retail. In New York City, you’re considered a sucker if you buy at retail. The city is filled with suckers buying 5th Avenue merchandise. Only some of those shoppers are rich. For most of us, it’s not a good idea to buy on 5th Avenue—or its mall equivalent. That’s the heart of the problem, of course. A preponderance of Americans tries to spend as if they are rich.

That’s what this movement is all about, reining in people who have no business wasting their discretionary income on clothes, more clothes, and still more clothes. By now, those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know that I am totally anti-cluttering. Owning too many clothes is just another form of cluttering.

Somewhere in between the complete insanity of people who own closet after closet of clothing, and the insensitivity of people who always show up in the same shirt, sanity lies. As I have said before, it is especially important that women, who for the first time in history have substantial discretionary income and plenty of ability to use it to influence our culture and our institutions directly, stop wasting their money on trivial crap. We can be so much bigger than this, if we only let ourselves. The endless search for the next “perfect pair of black pants” is a tragic waste on all counts.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It's Not Small Change

The latest AARP Bulletin--my vote for Most Depressing Magazine in America because it's always full of bad news about helpless and naive elderly people being ripped off and pushed around--the latest AARP Bulletin claims that the average American family today has over $15,788 in credit card debt.

Huh? Last time I checked, it was around $9,000, and rising about $1,000 per year. Not good, and the trend was terrible, but way different from 15k. Since then, we've entered the Great Recession, which in theory would have made the trend lower. Except for people who lost jobs and then had to live on their credit cards. Something must have changed to get the whopping 15k figure.

I Googled the concept. quotes Federal Reserve stats of $5,100, but says stats are hard to come by as there is no official national way of measuring.

Credit has the same $15,788 as the AARP. Here's how they got that figure:

"Calculated by dividing the total revolving debt in the U.S. ($852.6 billion as of March 2010 data, as listed in the Federal Reserve's May 2010 report on consumer credit) by the estimated number of households carrying credit card debt (54 million)."

I'm not feeling the believability factor here, especially since in the last two years we've gone from a nation of spenders to a nation of savers, in a big way. Our savings rate is over 3%, up from levels variously calculated at zero or even less. You can see from the spike that the savings rate went way, way up in early 2009, after the market tanked and while we were still receiving bad economic news on a seemingly daily basis. People socked away 5% then. Unfortunately, we appear to be saving less now. Still, where does the $15,788 come from?

I checked out my old pal, Suze Orman, who doesn't serve up the current estimate for household credit card debt but does say the total we now owe is over $900 billion. Yikes. That's over $16,666 in debt per household. Unless more households are in debt.

Sometimes these numbers are like the total fifths of whiskey I supposedly consume per year. Since I don't drink, somebody else must be doing more than their share. I'm guessing that some households are deeply in credit card debt (that's an easy guess, isn't it?), while others are happily without any.

The big question is, which are you? The statistical person with about $5,100 in credit card debt--enough to make you a bit uncomfortable but not terribly alarmed, or the construct household with $15,788--which after all is $7,894 per adult in a two-person family, not exactly chump change--who is beginning to feel seriously pinched?

And what can you do about it today? Because you know this debt thing is a big, ugly weight that's only likely to get bigger, unless you change something about how you spend money. That's all. You make a change, and the situation changes. As we can see from that teeny tiny chart from the Department of Commerce, when there's a will, the financial picture can change quite dramatically in a hurry. I wonder if today is the day you make a change?