In this post I continue my statistical critique of the ordinary life of the everyday worker-consumer. This is done through comparing a hypothetical 35 year old who earns the median salary and has average expenditure to a hypothetical construction I call the frugal-consumer who spends as little as possible without completely cutting themselves off from society. The expenditure levels of the former effectively tie them into working for a further 33 years until the current projected standard retirement age of 67-8, while the later, assuming they maintain their frugal levels of consumption, will be able to retire when they are 52-3, or 14 years earlier, or in half as much time as the average-consumer on the average wage.
Here I consider spending on Consumer Frivolities (see previous posts for other categories of expenditure).
The average-consumer spends £216.71 a month on what I call consumer frivolities, which includes unnecessary expenditure on restaurants and hotels (£73.15), furniture and furnishings (£51.48), ‘miscellaneous goods’ (£69.33), which in the ONS family spending survey mainly consists of beauty products and jewellery, and finally recreation and culture (£111.06), which for most people means the cost of purchasing audio-visual equipment and subscriptions to various services, and also includes the cost of entrance to things such as cinemas, concerts and festivals.
Over the course of one year this amounts to £3,933 and maintaining this for another 33 years will cost £129, 798, which represents 6.0 years working earning the median salary.
So what does the average person get for this £129, 798, or 6 years of toil? Most people would say it’s hard to generalise, because the consumer gets what ever they want for the money they’ve got, assuming the market can provide it. Some people will choose a house full of antiques, others a house full of gadgets, and stilll others closets full of clothes and boxes full of jewellery. Increasingly likely, though is that money will be spent not on stuff, but on experiences, such as playing the dating game, or weekends away and longer holidays, supplemented by such products as fake tan and sun cream to prevent an actual sun tan.
To many people, such consumerist experiences are the very purpose of life: the products we buy define us, mark us out, and the events we purchase play a crucial part in our weekly, monthly and yearly life-course – they are things we look forward to, and back on, the events which help to maintain and define our relationships with our friends and family and give us something to talk about at work, other than work.
I’ve managed to resist the urge to be utterly cynical about the role which consumption plays in most people’s lives, because just recently I’ve come to perceive most ordinary consumption as tragic, and in this context cynicism seems innapropriate. Those people who define themselves through their stuff become tied to it (and possibly require a bigger house in which to stuff their stuff), and for those who define themselves through their experiences, it seems to me that the way in which many people consume such events involves them not really being present because they’re too concerned with acting for the sake of sharing the experience via social media, and for me if you’re not actually present, then you’re not really even alive.
Ultimately such unnecessary consumption costs the average-consumer on the median salary 6 years of their working life. In contrast to this the frugal-consumer rejects the trivial, shallow and short-lived fake-joys of consumerism and instead engages in meaningful, productive and either free or very cheap activities when not working.
The frugal-consumer is not, however, an anti-consumer, and maintains an expenditure level on ‘consumer frivoloties’ which allow them to avoid being completely cut off from ordinary society. This is mainly because I could not, hand on heart, say that I am ever likely to cut out consuming frivoloties all together myself, cut down radically yes, cutting out altogether, highly unlikely.
The frugal-consumer spends just £60 a month on such frivolities, allowing for £20 a month on restaurants and hotels (so basically no hotel stays and one trip to a restaurant a month), £20 a month on furniture and furnishings, given that this category includes spending on basic household items such as hoovers, a further £20 for ‘miscellaneous goods’ because everyone needs a little something extra, and a whopping £30 a month for recreation and culture. This amounts to an annual expenditure of £1080 a year, a total of £35 640 over 33 years, representing a saving of £94 158 or 4.33 working years of working at the median salary compared to the average-consumer.
NB If this looks unrealistic, or even unbearable, something like the bottom fifth of the U.K. in terms of income live such a life out of necessity rather than as part of an early-retirement strategy, so it is possible.