Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Don't make a peep: the high volume cost of quiet consumerism

I was listening to the radio this past Sunday, and I heard an Easter fact that was a bit hard to swallow.

According to the National Retail Federation, the average consumer spent 131.04 on Easter items this year, up from $118 last year. That translates into $14.6 billion in Easter merch.

That's a lot of peeps.

And bunny-shaped chocolate. And cards. And plastic grass.

All of this Easter spending got me thinking.

What does the average American spend on other discretionary items?

To be fair, discretionary spending is subjective. For instance, there are many people who (for some reason I can't fathom) don't drink coffee, or simply have an occasional cup after dinner. For those people, coffee is discretionary.

Taking coffee off the table isn't an option for me. So in my world, coffee is a must-have. But going to Starbucks is discretionary.

It's not discretionary for a whole lot of people, though. Starbucks reported a record $3 billion in net revenue for the first quarter of 2011.

After all that coffee, who doesn't enjoy a refreshing breath mint? And what's better than the curiously strong Altoid? The sparkly zing of an Altoid is resonant in the mouths - and wallets - of consumers, racking up $48.1 million in sales last year.

Starbucks and Altoids aren't the only companies seeing market share increases and healthy bottom lines despite this tenuous economy.

Domino's Pizza is raking in the dough. A whopping $1.6 billion last year, in fact. That's an 11.9% increase in sales from 2009.

What better beverage to wash down this Domino's news than a Diet Coke? Just yesterday, the folks at Coke released their first quarter information, and I suppose it's no surprise that Coke products experienced a 6% growth in sales in North America during the first quarter of this year.

We're hooked on Coke. The average American drinks 412 Cokes a year, and that number doesn't even factor in the Diet Coke consumption

Hershey's first quarter net income is up 9%.
Yum Brands, Inc., which has Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell and other eateries under its umbrella, announced record first quarter earnings earlier this month.

I'm not cherry-picking companies here. I've just thought about what items we buy that we don't necessarily need, and I've done a bit of digging.

I could go on and on with my findings, but it's safe to say that a trend has been identified. Cheap, discretionary products seem to be faring quite well despite what's happening with the economy. Maybe we buy all of this stuff as some kind of self-soothing reward.

The reality is that we quietly, habitually, willingly spend billions and billions of dollars every year on items that we could easily live without.

If word gets out to Domino's, Coke, Starbucks and the others that we know we don't need what they're selling, things could get ugly.

But I doubt that's going to happen (she wrote as she cracked open a Diet Coke).

And those companies are banking on it.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Taking a peek at happy.

I've been happy lately. Content. And I have no idea why.

April will spin into May, which will twist into summer.

The next few months will prove to be interesting, on so many levels.

Connor turns 18.

That's just crazy.

There's no freaking way he's going to be 18 in May! In my mind's eye, it was a heartbeat ago when he rounded the corner from the living room into the kitchen on those early mornings that started way too early. He'd toddle close to me, he'd stretch out his arms, simply wanting to be held while I watched the news and drank my coffee.

He's graduating from high school next month.

He's going to Tennessee at the end of May; a Bonus Round after his Destination ImagiNation team won its state competition.

After that, he's going to college.

Logan's getting his driving permit.

He's going to the Summer Enrichment Program at UNC again this year.

Where do I fit into these big plans?

Primarily, I get to revel in their accomplishments; I get to be several shades of Proud.

Then, I open my wallet.

I could completely freak out about how I'll make this next few months happen.

But for some reason, I'm completely at ease.

I'm beginning to understand that worry has no place in my life. Everything always seems to work.

Am I being delusional? Overly optimistic?


Sure, I could worry about how I'll leap through these daunting hoops that are eagerly awaiting my awkward jumping.

I simply have no room for worry right now.

In fact, I'm happy. I'm content.

So I'm riding the wave of this strata of happy. Maybe my calm comes from knowing that Cents and Sensibility is just around the corner (

Despite the smoothness I'm feeling when it comes to brushing up against the ruddy complexion of these next few months, my happy place is rivaled by that of the Danes.

According to, who partnered with a bunch of other smarty-pants happiogrophers, the Danes win, hands-down, when it comes to happy.

After the Danes, there are the Swedes. And the Canadians. Then there's Australia. And Finland. Then there's Venezuela, despite Chavez. Then Israel. Regardless of its crappy conflicts. Then New Zealand. Those folks are apparently happier than we are. As are the folks in the Netherlands. And Ireland. Then there's Panama.

And then there we are. The United States, according to Gallup, the Legatum Institute and, we're 12th when it comes to happy.

If you access this Forbes article, you'll read that we scored 62nd when it comes to feeling "well rested".


And, interestingly, the happiest countries are "borderline socialist states, with generous welfare benefits and lots of redistribution of wealth. Yet they don't let that socialism cross the line into autocracy."

That's talking. Not me.

I'm just saying...

We can learn from people who live far away. How to be happy. How to prioritize.

We see our worlds, our spinning, like we're the only people who are trying to keep the pace.

We can learn from the rhythm of people who don't dance like we do, all flailing and fast.

I have no idea why I'm so calm lately. I should be spinning.

Reference my "To Do" list.

But it always gets done. All of it.

I feel Danish lately.



Monday, April 18, 2011

You can take the girl out of Manhattan, but you can't take Manhattan out of the girl.

After years of going to the post office that's located in the Ace Hardware store by my house, I've developed a lovely friendship with my post office lady, Wanda.

I'm not sure how or why we broke the customer/post office gal wall. Maybe it's Wanda's warmth, her openness, her willingness to turn a customer into a friend. Maybe she reminds me of my mom just a little bit. It's comforting to be around Wanda.

As I've mentioned in previous entries, I'm prepping for the Cents and Sensibility project my family and I are starting in June (you can get up to speed on the concept by clicking on this helpful link:

I wanted to talk with someone who had already read the map when it comes to living in troubled times. I thought maybe I could understand where we're heading if I got a better understanding of where we've been.

Although you'd never guess it, Wanda's old enough to have lived through many of the difficulties we're going through now.

Economic crisis.
Home foreclosures.
High unemployment.
Bank failures.

I knew a lot about Wanda's present-day life, but I had no idea what the topography of her past looked like. So we sat down last week for a bit of a chat.

Wanda spent the first part of her life in Manhattan, Montana. Unlike its big-city counterpart, Manhattan, Montana is a small town surrounded by bucolic farm fields.  She lived with her parents and sister, and she could walk to visit both sets of her grandparents.

Her dad worked at the local Trident cement plant. Her mom was a cook and waitress at a Manhattan restaurant.

They were poor, but Wanda didn't realize it. She has very fond memories of her childhood; roller skating around Manhattan, climbing trees. She churned cream into butter with her grandmother when she lived on their farm. She made home made ice cream with her cousins. "Our source of creativity was our minds," Wanda said.

Her clan was self-sustaining. Wanda's dad would hunt in the winter and fish in the summer, and they'd feast on what he caught. Her family had a huge garden. They canned whatever yield they didn't consume.

She remembers spending time with her grandmother, cutting flour sacks into dishcloths. There was no phone, no television. When they needed to go somewhere, they walked.

Wanda recalled the Dutch settlement that lived on the fringe of Manhattan. She said the Dutch kept mostly to themselves, and they were hard-working farmers.

I had no idea that groups of Dutch farmers came to Montana in the early 1900s! But the New York Times made note, back in 1913.

There was also a Japanese contingent in Manhattan. Wanda noticed their absence one day, and she asked her grandmother where they went. Wanda didn't get a good answer, and in hindsight, she assumes it's because her grandmother didn't want to have to explain that they'd been interred in Missoula.

Present day life during wartime and an economic downturn bears little resemblance to the landscape of the past.

I asked Wanda what she's brought from her past into her present. She was quick to mention that knowing how to be frugal, how to appreciate life with less, has been instrumental.

Fast forward a decade or two. Wanda's in her mid-20s. After five years of an unhappy marriage, she and her two little boys left. They moved away. She started over, with nothing. "I couldn't have done it if I hadn't already learned how to make do with what I have. It makes you creative. It makes you stronger."

Wanda's map has lead her on some circuitous paths over the years, but she's found a place to land in Colorado that's much less hard-scrabble than where she started in Montana. She still considers herself frugal, but she doesn't consider living modestly a hardship.

I want to remind myself of Wanda's early years in Manhattan when we start the Cents and Sensibility project. Because it's my firm belief that living with less can be a fulfilling, creative, joyous endeavor.

Wanda proves it's possible every day.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cents and Sensibility: exploring depression as it relates to the economy, the movies and Real Life. Discuss.

I've been in a bit of a funk lately. So what better time to divert my attention than by watching a movie?

I thought I'd work on the Cents and Sensibility project and watch a movie at the same time. So I did what any self-respecting depressed person would do; I looked for a movie to watch that was made during the Depression.

The Depression started with the market crash of 1929 and officially ended when World War II began.

Which wasn't at all depressing, apparently.

As we're vociferously attempting to replay, a good war tends to liven up the audience.

And there are folks who say this recession we're in might be a sequel to what our parents caught wind of, if you're as old as me.

I'm no economist, but a bit of googly research shows that the national debt was 19.5 billion smackaroos in 1932. That's a lot of ching, especially considering the cost of a new house was $6,510 and the average income was $1,650 a year. A gallon of gas cost .10 back in 1932.

Fast forward to now. Stephen Dinan reported just two months ago in the Washington Times that the national debt will exceed the size of the total U.S. economy this year, topping out at $15.476 trillion. Other articles by Dinan are nothing less than depressing.

Mortgage scam after-parties have been hard on the housing market. A mere four years ago, the average price of a house was $205,000. That average price dipped to $156,000 this February, just two months ago.

We all know how painful it is to fill up the tank. I did just that, today. Perhaps the 3.49 a gallon I spent requires a bit of perspective.

One 1932 dollar is equivalent to $14.79 in 2010.

All of these facts make the head spin like Linda Blair's noggin in the Exorcist.

I honestly don't understand the entire economic picture that lets us know we've gone Full Monty Depression. It has to do with the GDP over time, lots of charts and graphs and smarty-pants calculations. Then add a sprinkle of the big lie Alan Greenspan was spewing when he was in charge of the Fed, and you don't know who to believe.

All I know is what I know. I know I made the same amount of money in 2010 as I did before I had my kid who's about to graduate from high school.

I've completed my 2010 taxes. And yes, it's been verified. I officially make the same amount of money now that I made 18 years ago.

Welcome to my financial underpants drawer. My fiscal medicine cabinet.

But let's be clear. That's not why I'm depressed. I live very nicely, because I've figured out how.

My depression springs from a completely divergent well of ennui. So I just wanted to watch a movie. From the Depression.

There were a whole bunch of movies that were made in the '30s that were very depressing. Of Mice and Men. The Grapes of Wrath. The Human Comedy. Which really isn't that funny.

There were comedians who oxymoronically lightened the mood during the Depression. The Three Stooges. The Marx Brothers. Laurel and Hardy.

There were the musicals. The Broadway Melody of 1938 springs to mind.

So much tap dancing.

Like a sad person who desperately wants to convince you that they're happy, the Broadway Melody series took a jolly, bouncy spin on the Depression.

I became filled with a sense of aloneness trying to find something to watch from the Depression during my depression.

So I did what any depressed person does.

I reached out to the familiar.

A documentary.

And I found a Front Line doc titled The Warning, from a couple of years ago. As you can see, it's titled, "PBS releases documentary exposing the manufactured depression".

Maybe we should un-fund that damned PBS.

Or maybe we should see the writing on the wall.

Depression can come in many forms.

All I wanted was some clarity. Some relief from the sad.

Some black and white to lift me from my depressive torpor.

Sometimes reality seems way too colorful.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Cents and Sensibility: laying the groundwork, raccoon style.

The sun was bright in my eyes early Sunday morning as I was headed east, driving to work. I'd reached that point in the morning when my windshield's filth was most apparent. Like visiting a harshly lit bathroom after having spent a robust evening in a dimly lit bar, every flaw was accentuated.

In addition to the colorful patterns thrown off from the crack in my windshield, I noticed distinct paw prints that were definitely not there the day before.

I'm assuming the prints were from a raccoon. I've had run-ins with raccoons in my garage before, and after doing a bit of googly research, the prints seemed to match.

How does a raccoon get into my garage, you ask?

I have a tendency to forget to close the garage door once I'm inside the house. It's just that simple.


As I was driving to work, I was hit first with the idea of the raccoon climbing onto my car, leaving a series of tiny dirty pawprinty calling cards.

Then I remembered that I'd left my car windows open the night before. It was in the mid-80s on Saturday - who wouldn't drive around with their windows open on a beautiful spring day in Colorado?

But Sunday was chilly. No open windows.

As I was accelerating to 65 on Sunday morning, I considered that the varmint may have climbed into my car the night before. With nowhere to stop or even slow down, I realized it was possible that Mr. Raccoon could be quietly napping in the back seat.

After turning my radio down to listen for raccoon sounds and taking a few cursory glances in the back seat, it became apparent that I was all by myself.

Ah, the beauty of the imagination; seeing a few paw prints and imagining so much more.

Which brings me to my Cents and Sensibility project.

Yes, it's a seemingly incongruous segue.

But I've been doing some planning.

My 4' x 6' chalkboard is rife with ideas that will ripen this summer.

Backstory. Inventory. Conversations with folks who lived through times like this before. Planting the garden. Movies to watch. Stats to gather.

And there are entries I want to write between now and then that have nothing to do with the Cents and Sensibility project. 

(If you're new to my blog and I'm making no sense with the Cents and Sensibility references, please visit

Too many ideas, not enough time.

Time is a fickle bitch.

So how does all of this raccoon talk come back to planning for the project?

What I'm doing seems to come down to vague, interesting outlines that I'm attempting to gradually define between now and the first of June.

Kind of like a footprint created by a creature I can't capture.

Like the amorphous raccoon.

What will happen with the project will be created out of the dusty footprints I'm currently trying to identify.

I'm assuming the colors that emerge will be as unpredictable as what I've found on my windshield lately during the early mornings of my commute.