In an age when anything that feels good is potentially addictive, shopping has emerged as something of a laughable dependency.
Last week, Black Entertainment Television news aired a report on a young "shopaholic" who spent $600 a month -- nearly enough for a house note -- on record albums. He was so badly hooked on shopping that he needed a fix of 35 credit cards.
Some of us may laugh: It's his money, his credit rating, his albums. But it's also ignorance of economics. When it comes to the financial woes of black people in America, there is nothing funny.
A year ago, Money magazine noted that because many black Americans do not know how to handle money, they generally tend not to have any. We don't patronize black businesses the way we should, thus depriving ourselves of better job and investment opportunites. Too few of our purchases appreciate in value and, most important, we don't save.
This year, the old adage remains grimly true: A fool and his money soon part company.
Black Americans who make $24,000 to $48,000 year have an average net worth of about $17,000, says Money, while whites who make the same amount have an average net worth of roughly $54,000.
The recent troubles of Latin Investment Corp., as tragic a story as it is for its Salvadoran customers, nevertheless reveal how far black America must go to to realize its financial power.
Here were families, some with three and four infant children, managing to save $5,000, $10,000 -- even $50,000 -- over several years. Some of them worked jobs that paid as little as $90 a week.
But they sacrificed. They budgeted. They delayed the gratification of always shopping for something new.
They laughed when passing store windows where sneakers costing $120 were on display. Sixty-five bucks for a pair a jeans that are worth no more than $4? They knew, as Joshua I. Smith, chairman of the federal minority business development commission said in a recently televised speech, "Just because it's on your ass doesn't make it an asset."
The Salvadorans were saving money to buy houses, land and businesses. They were setting aside money to send their children to college. Without scholarships set aside for their children, they were too busy working to worry about what cuts the Bush administration is contemplating.
The result was that a group of about 2,000 Spanish-speaking customers had accumulated $6 million to $13 million. It is unlikely you could find 2,000 black people in this town with that kind of money set aside.
If this critique of black America's spending habits seems overly harsh, it is only because the economic times cry out for drastic change in the way we handle our money. All of us, regardless of how well some of us have prospered, could do better.
According to Money magazine, blacks are 2 1/2 times less likely to put their money in the stock market or Individual Retirement Accounts. Only 9 percent of blacks, compared with 24 percent of whites in the same income group, are likely to own stock or invest in mutual funds.
Only 4 percent of blacks, compared with 11 percent of whites, own equity in a business.
But that's what happens when you put more money into clothes and cars and stereos and bar-hopping than savings. There is a joke among financial analysts: Blacks buy things that move; whites buy things that grow. And even then, we don't spend our money wisely.
According to a recent study published in the Harvard Law Review, blacks and women pay nearly $900 more for cars than white men. The reason is that automobile dealers assume that blacks and women don't know what they are doing when they enter the showroom. Like any garden variety dope dealer, these car dealers look for financial ignorance among their black customers and exploit it.
That is not funny.
Unless, of course, you're a car dealer. Those guys are laughing all the way to the bank.