$1.2 trillion: How much Americans spend annually on goods and services they don’t absolutely need.
This Easter weekend, Americans will spend a lot of money on items such as marshmallow peeps, plush bunnies and fake hay, begging a question: How much does the U.S. economy depend on purchases of goods and services people don’t absolutely need?
As it turns out, quite a lot. A non-scientific study of Commerce Department data suggests that in February, U.S. consumers spent an annualized $1.2 trillion on non-essential stuff including pleasure boats, jewelry, booze, gambling and candy. That’s 11.2% of total consumer spending, up from 9.3% a decade earlier and only 4% in 1959, adjusted for inflation. In February, spending on non-essential stuff was up an inflation-adjusted 3.3% from a year earlier, compared to 2.4% for essential stuff such as food, housing and medicine.
I've been wondering that myself. Especially since Tuesday, when I got this phone call:
“Could you come down here, to the office?” the man asked. “We need to take another imprint of your credit card.”
For years – maybe a decade – I’ve rented a small storage space a kilometer or two from my house. Everything I don’t need but can’t part with – old manuscripts, financial records, a couple of sofas, a large collection of vinyl records – got tossed into the back of the car, driven to the storage facility, and stacked tightly in a small square of windowless concrete. I’d shove it all in, drag down the rolling metal door, and secure it all with a padlock. The privilege of storing a lot of meaningless junk in an inaccessible place didn’t come cheap: I was billed, monthly, on my credit card, about two hundred dollars a month.
I know, I know. And I agree with you: I’m a fool.
On an intellectual level, of course, I know that every single item in that storage cell is utterly valueless, to me or anyone. And I’m aware that federal tax regulations only require paper receipts for the past three years; that my entire music collection now fits snugly on a hard drive the size of a paperback book; that the posters and prints I enjoyed in college, twenty years ago, are so yellowed and frayed that unrolling them would turn them into dust; that, finally, I no longer need the futon because I’m in my forties, and my friends are in their forties, and futons are incompatible with forty year-old backs and necks.
But for some reason, my default behavior was, send it to storage.
I’m not alone. The self-storage industry in America is booming. One in ten American families, according to a recent survey, rent some kind of extra storage space. Odd statistic that, because for the past thirty years, the average American home has gotten larger and more spacious while the average American family has been shrinking. Apparently, we’ve been living in larger houses with fewer people, but we still don’t have enough room for our junk.
The appeal of the storage facility is that it allows you to put off making the tough decisions – do I need this “Dexy’s Midnight Runners” record? Am I ever going to ride this stationary bike again? Where did I pick up this ridiculous halogen lamp? – and instead, send everything to the limbo of the storage facility, where it waits in lonely, dusty silence to be useful again, to be remembered and needed.
But nobody needs 1996’s tax records, and certainly not for two hundred dollars a month, so when the manager of the storage facility called me about my credit card – apparently they needed to photocopy the new version of the card, with the new expiry date, because that’s how long I’d been renting from them – a halogen-bright light went off in my head. I knew what I needed to do.
Dump it all.
“So what happens,” I asked the manager, “if I just stop paying?”
There was a pause on the other side of the line.
“Well,” he said, “then we take possession of what’s in there and we auction it off.”
I actually knew this. There is, in fact, a reality television show about this very phenomenon – proof that there’s a reality television show about everything – and it’s a pretty interesting show. Storage facilities like the one I rent from often have renters simply stop paying – the credit card expires or is denied, phone calls go unanswered, and so the contents are auctioned off to a bunch of professional scavengers, who bid on the entire bundle after being given a short, no-touching-allowed glimpse of the concrete box.
It’s called “Auction Hunters,” and occasionally a lucky bidder will find rare art or gold coins buried in the mound of personal junk, but mostly it’s stuff like mine: exercycles and a copy of “Come On Eileen.”
“You don’t want to do that,” the manager said. “You don’t want strangers pawing through your special things.”
“If they were special I wouldn’t let them hang out in a small concrete box,” I said, but I knew he was right. The proper thing to do is to drive over there, load up the back of the car, and take the stuff to some kind of charity, or, failing that, some kind of junk heap. The thing to avoid, of course, is any kind of detour back to the house, where I’ll be tempted to sort through the pile, looking for odds and ends to save.
“Do not go shopping through your own junk,” a friend of mine warned me when I told him the plan. “My wife does that and it drives me crazy. We still have the charger for a Sonicare toothbrush they haven’t made since 2003. Do yourself a favor: take it straight to the dump.”
So I’ve prepared myself for the complete emptying of my storage unit, the de-accessioning of a lifetime’s worth of vinyl, bad art, free weights, and multi-purpose furniture. It’s happening Saturday morning. I’ve made up my mind.
“Okay,” the manager said when I told him I’d be by to empty out my box. “I’ll be here.”
And I detected the slight, smug tone of a man who’s heard this before, from folks who suddenly realized that they’re throwing away good money to keep bad stuff, and who make a plan to rid themselves, once and for all, of the things they don’t need. Still, somehow businesses like his keep making money. Somehow, despite larger houses with fewer inhabitants, there’s something compelling about the idea of keeping everything, just in case.
I did actually love that old song, “Come On Eileen.” And maybe I’ll start using that exercise bike. You never know.