All living things are programmed to react to sudden changes. If you live in sub-zero temperatures like I do, walking outside after having been in warm home produces instant, uncontrollable shivers. When you’re cooking, that sudden splatter of boiling hot greases prompts you to jump back immediately from the stove. A sudden yank on your dog’s leash, (as opposed to a subtle ”reeling in” prompts him to instantly obey).
We are programmed to react to sudden changes.
There’s an oft-used illustration to this end involving a frog, a pot of water, and rising temperatures. If you place the frog in a pot of boiling water, its reaction is immediate—it would jump out. If you place the frog in a pot of cool-to-tepid water, and slowly raise the temperature little by little, the frog’s body wouldn’t notice the subtle changes as much until it’s too late.
My husband and I are currently in the process of buying our first home. We’re getting closer and closer each day to that glorious moment where the key is passed from owner to realtor to us, and we’ll walk over the threshold of our very first, “this is the real deal,” brand spankin’ new (well, to us, anyway!) home.
But what happens when that key opens far less for us, than it would have for our parents, or their parents before them?
In preparing for home ownership, we have been working with financial professionals whose job it is to take our heads out of the clouds and plant our feet in “Realville”, where reality reigns supreme. In other words, we’ve had to go through our budget line by line, and decide just how much we can really spend on Home Sweet Home. As we always are when we go through our monthly budget, we’ve been intrigued at just how much less our money buys us today than it did just 5 years ago when we first got married, and how much less we truly have to spend on a home than we always imagined. One of those times, we decided to do the math. We decided to compare just how much the two of us spend now on expenditures like gas, groceries, health insurance, taxes, and so on, as compared to 2008—when we first said “I do!” That time, incidentally, just happens to coincide with the election of a president who remains in office to this day.
It was pretty painful to look at it. In sum—we’d be able to do quite a bit more had we not be saddled with an economy which now requires so much more of us.
We’re not alone– we are among millions who are living with less, living with a LOT less, or worse. If is really the case, where is the outcry from the public? Where was the rejection of a president who didn’t keep his word to turn the economy around?
Recall, human beings (as are all living things) are programmed to react to sudden change.
Remember our unfortunate friend the frog? He didn’t shift from his surroundings until it was too late, because the deathly changes to the water were so slight and subtle that it didn’t cause him to be alarmed.
America’s Boiling Water
For just a moment, replace the frog with the citizens of America; the pot with our country; and the water’s rising temperature with our economic predicament. If someone from the state and federal governments walked up to your door each year and demanded the annual difference in rising costs in one lump sum, would you notice? Of course. In fact, your reaction would be tantamount to that of the frog’s in boiling water. BUT, distribute those rising costs across a plethora of expenditures and suddenly the pain doesn’t seem as bad. To be certain, you’re left with less money at the end of the month, but it doesn’t seem hurt as much as you’d think it would. This is like the frog swimming comfortably in what started out as tepid water, noticing only slightly when the temperature rises . . . until it’s too late.
America’s young people didn’t have a Great Depression “Black Tuesday” moment per se. That is, unlike older Americans, we aren’t really old enough to watch our 401ks disappear or to experience the value of our homes as they took a sky dive. In other words, rising commodity costs—because they are spread out—didn’t exact a reaction from America’s younger generation because it hasn’t been shocking . . . at least, it hasn’t always felt as shocking as losing $15,000 of your retirement savings in one week.
So, just how much have costs really risen? Let’s just look at three things: gas, food, and health care, among many other commodities.
In the first two years of his presidency, Barack Obama oversaw a gas price increase of over 55%. To date, gas prices have risen 100% since he took office in 2008. For us, this means that a fill-up that used to cost roughly $29 now costs us nearly $60. Thankfully, the car isn’t a gas guzzler, and its commute is short. Regardless, this represents a yearly gas expenditure increase of $720. Did I mention we have 2 cars of approximately the same size? So, make that an increase of roughly $1,440 a year.
In the fall of 2008, we went to the store every other week, and spent (on average) $150 for the both of us. Today, we maintain the same routine and we’re quite lucky to get out of the store for under $250. That’s a monthly increase of $200, or roughly $2,400 a year. (Image a family of four–$4,800 more a year!!) Interestingly, one of the reasons for the gas price increase—environmental mandates—also stands resolute behind the rising cost in food staples like meat, wheat, and dairy. Because so much of our nation’s corn supply no longer goes to feeding animals that produce meat and dairy products, and because so many farmers would rather take the ethanol subsidy to plant corn instead of other products, voila— the availability of those commodities drops, while their prices rise. Big time. And, because gas prices are so choking, this puts a dent in the profit margin of the farmers, suppliers, and stores (think- your local grocer) . . . therefore they must raise the price of the food they sell.
In the midst of the debate over what is now colloquially known as Obamacare, we were all told that rather than rise, our yearly health care costs would plummet. In fact, he promised they’d plummet by an average of $2,500 a year. Instead, they rose over $3,000 year. Now, we don’t have children . . . but I can tell you, that’s just about exactly what they rose for us. Imagine a family of four or more!
But salaries went up correspondingly, right?
Sadly, while prices rise, salaries have fallen. In fact, the New York Times recently put out an article entitled, “Median Household Income Down 7.3% Since Start of Recession,” which means median income is sitting at roughly $51,404 a year. And, as a Human Events piece notes, 5.6 % of that drop occurred under Barack Obama.
Getting Down to Brass Tax
Let’s add up the yearly increase in just those 3 categories. That’s approximately $6,840 a year that we’d still have . . . if commodities weren’t so pricey. Spread out over 360 days a year, it comes to around $19 a day. That’s less than the average American tends to spend on their morning coffee and lunch out with coworkers. Broken out over 12 months though, it comes to around $570 a month of expenditure increases . . . which in the world of home prices and mortgage payments, is a massive difference in quality, location, and size of a home. Consider also that in this discussion we haven’t even talked about the rise in taxes, utility costs, education costs, etc. This is, in fact, only a fraction of the increases we’ve seen. If we were to look at this figure in conjunction with some of the tax increases that hit Americans this year alone, the amount of unnecessary extra expenditures is closer to $800 a month. Add in the medical device tax (which affects all of us—even our pets—regardless of whether or not we’ve got insurance!), utility increases, and so on, and we’re forfeiting well over $10,000 a year; money that we could otherwise use to build our lives and to help others.
So, as the president pivots to the economy once again, ready to outline yet another plan, pull out your family budget and ask IT if anything has changed. Chances are if your ledger could talk, it’d say it has . . . for the worse.
Keep a thorough budget. Not only will your bank account thank you, but you will be far more in tune to the realities of an economy we’re told daily to believe is improving. Train yourself out of reacting only to sudden changes. Hold yourself accountable to your financial priorities so that in doing so, you’ll be able to hold Washington accountable to theirs.