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Hard Times, Hard Choices

Posted Mar 18 2009 3:54pm

It seems that every economic benchmark we have goes south each month, but according to the National Retail Federation, retail sales have increased for two months in a row. They are up .6 percent for February although that figure is still down .5 percent from a year ago.

Considering the number of stores that have closed in my area and what friends are telling me about many boarded-up shops in New York City, I find the numbers surprisingly low, but let's go with them anyway.

Back in early February, the same Federation reported on a survey conducted by BIGresearch about what consumers will and will not live without during our dark economic moment. Here's a list of the top items respondents found expendable:

  • Luxury handbags: 92.2%
  • Satellite radio: 90.9%
  • Specialty apparel: 90.7%
  • High-end cosmetics: 90.7%
  • Maid service: 90%
  • Facials: 89.8%

No kidding. In the best of times, the only one of those I occasionally indulged in was specialty (read: expensive) clothing.

The more interesting list is what the respondents said they cannot live without even in hard times - the “untouchables”:

  • Internet: 80.9%
  • Cell phone: 64.1%
  • Cable TV: 60.5%
  • Discount shopping for apparel: 43.0%
  • Hair cut and color: 40%
  • Fast food: 36.6%
  • New pair of shoes: 24%

One odd finding (to me) is that 57.8 percent of men report fine dining to be untouchable while only 12.3 percent of women feel so. It is no surprise, however, that 69.9 percent of young people 18-34 say they can do without a haircut and color, but only 57.8 percent of the 35-54 age group agree.

Hard times mean hard choices and when you're laid off work, the untouchables become luxuries to dispense with. For those of us who are retired and mostly on fixed (and in many cases now, due to the market crash, reduced) incomes, the biggest threat is inflation which, fortunately, has so far remained under control. But the future feels so unstable to me, that I'm becoming a penny pincher. I'd like to save as much as possible for whatever surprises the fates lay on us next.

With the exception of magazine subscriptions, of which I've let half a dozen of the most expensive expire, there are not whole swaths of expenses, as in the survey, I can cut entirely. I eat out no more than a couple of times of month. I have plenty of clothes and shoes, and never go to a hair salon.

Somehow I've cut my grocery bill almost in half although I'm not eating less or less well. I don't know how I've done that except that I choose the weekly supply of fruit and vegetables depending on sales and I've cut out all sweets (my gigantic sweet tooth is aching like a son of bitch).

I'm pretty sure I'll not renew my VoIP service when it comes due in June and live just with the cell phone. Several friends have been nagging me to get up to speed on Skype, so I'll use that too.

If times get worse, I can cut cable television, although I would miss the news channels a lot. But I'll give up eating before letting my broadband internet connection go.

So the question today is, as in the survey, what is untouchable for you, what is or has become expendable and how hard has it been to give them up?

[ At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Frank M. Calibria has discovered that he is Becoming a Klutz. ]

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