As I read the daily news, I can’t help but wonder about the causes of our current economic downturn. I know the reasons that are propounded by economists and business leaders and I understand, generally, the current credit crunch. That said, I also wonder whether our economic problems might not boil down to a bad case of “the Emperors’ New Clothes.”
By the late 1990’s my wife and I would listen to our colleagues discuss their purchases. Some of you may recall that a decade ago, it seemed that a better, faster computer with greater memory seemed to hit the market every six months. We knew many people who were buying new computers at least once per year. That amazed us because most of the people we knew were using their computers only for word processing. Indeed, our employers at the time were upgrading their computers even more frequently, even though many of the employees still did not even use their computers. We knew that practice of upgrading had to end eventually, and it did.
We have similarly all witnessed the evolution of coffee from a commodity beverage to a luxury beverage. Gone are the days of the ten cent cup of coffee that I remember from my childhood. By the late 1990s, people – most of whom did not even understand the difference between coffees – were spending crazy sums of money to buy expensive Jamaican, Hawaiian and Yemeni beans by the pound and specialty coffee drinks by the cup. Maxwell House, a dominant brand in the 1970’s (and still my current brand) became a dinosaur.
So it seemed to my wife and I, even a decade ago, that our economy was due for an eventual collapse, or at least an adjustment, because so much of our economy was based on purchases that people did not really need to make. Even now, as I look around in my community, at a time when nationally thousands of people each week are laid off from their jobs, we still see so much spending that does not make any sense. For example, forty years ago, I do not believe you would have encountered anyone spending money on the following:
Yard Maintenance: If you were born before 1970, and you lived in the suburbs, chances are good that you have done yard work in your life. I grew up mowing our lawn, manually edging it, using manual hedge trimmers, weeding and doing any of a number of yard maintenance tasks that needed to be done. My parents worked in the yard after work. We did not hire people to do it for us.
Home Security: In my youth, home security was limited to a dog. Some families also had guns. Today, everyone I know has a home security system. The systems cost a significant monthly fee – I think ours is about $100 – but still people I know with systems have been burglarized because criminals usually know how to get around triggering the systems. Nevertheless, they are still “must haves” when buying a new home.
Swimming Pool Service: A swimming pool is expensive to own and operate, but at least where I live, having one is also essential if a homeowner wants to be able to sell his or her home some day. That does not explain, however, why so many homeowners rely on swimming pool maintenance services to maintain their water quality and to keep their pools clean. Especially here in Florida, where most pools are enclosed in screened areas, there is not a lot of effort involved in maintaining a pool. Despite the relative simplicity of maintaining a pool, homeowners still pay to have “the pool guy” come to their home once a week to measure the water quality and to make sure that nothing is floating on the top of the pool (and their never is).
Lawn and Shrub Service: Just as with yard maintenance, suburban Americans do not seem to want to learn how to take care of their plants. Lawn and shrub services are only too happy to come to private homes to spray chemicals once a month. Such services rarely consider the specific needs of a particular yard. Rather, they spray whatever is recommended for the current month. If a customer is not satisfied, they might come out to spray more, but they do not bring any personalized attention to the care of the property.
Basic Automotive Maintenance: It is not difficult to change the oil in a car. It takes just a little bit of knowledge. There are any of a host of other automotive services that car-owners can and should be able to undertake for themselves. Do you really need to pay someone to change a tire or to replace a burned out tail light?
What other household services can you identify that people use but should not need? Are there any services that you use that you feel that you can and should do without?