Slowing to the speed of life
Just by redefining what we personally value as “wealth,” we can reclaim much of the disposable time, and income, we’ve lost in recent years.Posted Feb 11, 2010
I love it when economists call our hard-earned money disposable income, because in many cases, that’s exactly what it ends up being! An unnoticed but sizable chunk of our household income typically goes straight down the drain for poorly designed, wily widgets with their own agendas; appliances that crunch kilowatts like Cracker Jack; and prescription drugs that mask one set of symptoms with another.
Surely, the most perplexing commercials in recent memory are the prescription drug “gallery of miracles” announcing that once we’ve secured prescriptions for anti-depressants, allergy inhibitors, hair growth stimulants and sleep inducers, our troubles will be over. That is, if we learn to accept extreme nausea and elevated risk of stroke as part of the miracle.
It’s the same with many other products that flow through our household economy in search of the drain – they contain stowaway side effects. But we can eliminate many of those side effects by directly providing more of our own health, entertainment, food and transportation. If we make our households more productive and less consumptive, we can also write much lighter checks to Visa.
“Yeah, right,” you say. “How? Where will the extra time and human energy come from?” Quite a bit of it can come from letting the Joneses go their own way, as fast as they want. Just by redefining what we personally value as “wealth,” we can reclaim much of the disposable time, and income, we’ve lost in recent years.
We’re not talking about sacrifices here, but quality of life improvements that employ greater precision and smarter design; fascination with other cultures and new ideas; a desire to connect and cooperate with friends and neighbors; and an interest in becoming more active politically. These are basic tools to shape a household income with fewer side effects.
It won’t be easy. In a recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that tracks consumer spending patterns, an average Milwaukee family is identified as a “consumer unit.”
Is that what we’ve come down to? What if that family’s annual expenditures of roughly $37,000 were redistributed? What if their purchases (and decisions not to purchase) brought more durability, greater vitality, more satisfying entertainment, greater intellectual growth and more laughter into their houses? Their choices might result in significant attitude adjustments that would make discretionary time seem more valuable and a huge income seem less necessary.
Let’s look at how the average family in the labor report spends its income. In rough terms, 67 percent is spent for housing, transportation and food. Each of these categories represents huge opportunities for reducing waste, stress and “disposable” income.
About 35 percent is spent for housing (that’s the house, utilities, furniture and supplies). The family could win back time, money and vitality by living in a smaller, better-designed house with efficient appliances and good natural daylight; buying well-built furniture that doesn’t need constant replacing; and having a different attitude about what a house is for.
If they consider it as a “display unit,” they’ll spend hours a week decorating and redecorating it; cleaning it or paying someone else to clean it. If their house becomes more of a healthy verb rather than a tired noun, there may be a great garden out back and a convenient place to store bicycles. The house will be comfortable, and so will its residents.
If their house becomes more of a healthy verb rather than a tired noun, there may be a great garden out back and a convenient place to store bicycles. The house will be comfortable, and so will its residents.
About 20 percent is spent for transportation. If the house is located near the things the family needs – work, friends, groceries, bank – the Milwaukee family can reduce transportation costs by at least a tenth, or about $750. Getting rid of the second car would yield even greater benefits.
About 12 percent is spent on food, down from the 30 percent their grandparents spent in the 1930s. Since 43 percent of that is for food eaten away from home, the family could save $500 a year by eating out less. More important, if the food they eat delivers energy rather than lethargy, they’ll exercise more, walking to the library or bank, and playing sports rather than buying them. Health care costs will be lower and weight-loss programs won’t be necessary. With better food in their lives, they’ll go to the doctor less, and require less insurance. They’ll spend more social time eating, reducing their entertainment costs. Almost certainly, they’ll feel a greater sense of contentment and wellness.
By slowing to the speed of life, the Milwaukee family can become more than just an “average” family. They can be an exceptional family. Instead of disposing of their income, they can save it, eat it, and live it.
David Wann is co-author of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic and author of The Zen of Gardening. He lives and gardens in a co-housing community in Golden, Colorado that he helped design.