The Saving Graces of Spending
If I Skip My Latte, Everybody Pays
By Kevin Adler
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page B02
I was sitting in my local Starbucks several weeks ago, reading a magazine article about saving for retirement. The article suggested that I identify and eliminate a frivolous expense that I regularly incur, and that I dedicate the savings to the nest egg I'll need for my children's education and my retirement. It even helpfully provided a calculation showing that eliminating my daily latte would be worth more than $26,000 by the time I retired 20 years hence, given reasonable assumptions about the cost of gourmet coffee, historical returns in the stock market and the magic of compounding.
I've heard that message many times -- and I bet you have, too. Start saving money today. Save 10 percent of your income, or better yet, 20 percent. Put that money away and don't touch it for decades, unless you have an emergency.
It's sage advice. As I finished the article and the latte, I began to consider for the first time really following it. Starting today, I decided, right this minute in fact, I would become a saver. I would watch my pennies, nickels and dimes, and soon they would become dollars. I would build up my savings, set long-term goals and achieve them. A secure future was in my grasp!
But then I looked around the cafe, and I noticed the server behind the counter, with her cup nearly full of tips. What would happen to her, I wondered, and to the guy making the Frappuccinos™, if I, and a lot of other people, suddenly returned to brewing coffee exclusively at home? And what if our new frugality extended beyond coffee to many other frivolous or optional expenses?
The impact on our economy would be devastating. This is an economy, after all, that's built on the assumption that spending will increase continuously. The proper functioning of our system of mass production and mega-marketing is predicated on us all digging into our pockets steadily to buy whatever is new and different. Never mind whether we need the items we purchase.
Economists estimate that slightly more than two-thirds (68 percent) of the American economy is built on consumer spending -- that's you and me buying everything in sight. President Bush clarified spending's lofty position in the American pantheon when, just days after 9/11, he urged us to "return to normal" by, yes, going shopping . We didn't heed the advice at first, but after a few tax cuts and rounds of home refinancing, we did what Americans do best: We spent our way out of a recession.
Product developers and marketers depend on our desire to spend, not save. They tell us that we can't live without all sorts of items that are "newer," "bigger," "faster" and so on. We buy new computers, even though we know we'll never fully tap the capabilities of the computers we already own. We buy all 350 channels on the cable system, even though we don't speak the languages on a third of them. We own more cars than we have drivers. Our houses, which are bigger than ever, are filled with items that we never really use (treadmills, pianos and double ovens come to mind). The food industry is pitiless in its pursuit of our pocketbooks, creating useless product variations to entice kids (purple ketchup) and bizarre comestible juxtapositions aimed at adults trying to diet (low-carb spaghetti?).
In the face of these signals, it would be difficult for us to stop spending on daily lunch specials, weekly manicures, monthly cable-TV bills or annual car leases. Yet we all know that we should carefully weigh our expenditures and consider if we are buying for need, desire or merely out of habit.
Finishing my coffee, I thought some more about the economic implications of newly conservative spending habits. The same frugality that might guarantee me a cushy retirement could lead to some negative consequences society-wide.
Widespread spending reductions could turn America into Japan. Japanese citizens save, on average, 26 percent of their income, and their economy's going nowhere. The Japanese government has tried for more than a decade to stimulate it by encouraging some of the world's best-paid people to spend. But they won't do it. There are many cultural reasons America isn't like Japan, but we certainly wouldn't want to become a nation of savers if that's the result we would get.
I'd guess that the first to feel the effects of reduced spending would be the small businesses that bring us life's pleasurable, but hardly essential, products and services: our video stores, flower shops, cafes and greeting-card stores. They're important parts of our urban and suburban landscape, and a critical rung on the economic ladder for immigrants, teenagers and others.
I know from experience that it wouldn't take much to put one of these businesses over the edge. Why, I realized, I could even inadvertently be that negative catalyst. What if I stopped buying that daily latte, and a worker at my favorite Starbucks got laid off as a consequence? My decision could start a chain reaction, along the lines of the "butterfly effect." A sudden vision flashed before my eyes:
The distraught, distracted Starbucks worker steps into the street as he leaves the store and gets hit by a car. His family, dependent on his income, falls down the economic ladder, and his teenager drops out of school to take a waitressing job at a restaurant that in turn lays her off because its regulars have also decided to stop eating out so much. She joins the legions of unemployed, chain-smoking former restaurant workers, whose smoking cumulatively exacerbates global warming, destroying coffee plantations worldwide. A global recession ensues. . . .
I shook myself back to reality. But I was still left with this paradox: The act that makes perfect sense for me and everyone else individually (saving money) would not be good for all of us if everybody did it (economic downturn). Even if the economy would benefit from a greater savings rate in the long run, since such savings would supply funds for investment and spur productivity, it seemed to me that the dislocation that would occur in the years it would take to get there could be terrible.
Economists don't have any easy answers, either. Even Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan has encouraged both a higher personal savings rate as baby boomers near retirement age and strong consumer spending to spur the economy.
I sat at Starbucks and thought about all the people who were counting on me to keep the economy going. I thought about the local restaurant owner who needs my family to come for our weekly dinner. I thought about my daughter's ballet teacher, and the MBA who is conducting a focus group to figure out what I want in an automobile. I thought about our president's exhortation to maintain a strong economy.
And I bought another latte. Plus a muffin.
Kevin Adler is a freelance journalist who lives in Takoma Park.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company