Super debt: That’s just about the size of it

This article is by staff writer Jeffrey Steele.

Personal finance gurus have long warned that we Americans have a nasty problem. We spend too much and save too little. Not only do we not look for the best savings accounts, or check on savings account rates, or seek high interest savings accounts, many of us don’t save at all.

But these big thinkers have struggled to come up with a one-word explanation for that miserable mismatch.

Pittsburgh-based Gene Natale, co-author with Matt Kabala of “The Missing Semester, ” a book aimed at giving teens and young adults lessons in money management, has managed to put his finger on the one buzzword that explains why a nation once comprised of good little savers now turns out lots of debtors.

Before I divulge that one word, however, let me ask this: Is it sheer coincidence that during the same period that saw Americans junk the notion of saving, we as a nation became junkies of fast food?

Is there more than a serendipitous link between the assumption of debt and the consumption of burgers, onion rings, chicken nuggets, chalupas and sandwiches filled with paper-thin slices of faux roast beef?

And is it just a fluke that the only thing ballooning faster over the last few years than our pile of bills has been our waistlines, inflated by the unshakeable habit of grabbing our fast food fixes at the nearest drive-up window?

I don’t think any of these phenomena are mere happenstance. Inexpensive as fast food comparatively may be, what’s followed on the heels of “Would you like fries with that?” has been a nationwide gorging on heaping helpings of credit card debt, payday loans,  student debt and bum mortgages.

Secret revealed

As Natale says, the catalyst for the whole heavy-spending, nonexistent-saving binge has been the popularity of the word “super-size.” At first, we were asked if we wanted to super-size our meals at the nearest fast-food emporium.

Having answered “Yes!” and grown to like that feeling, we were then encouraged to super-size everything from our homes and vehicles to our TVs, closets, boats, student loan packages, barbecue grills, vacations and more. Being obedient pawns of the Marketing Machine, we promptly did.

That love affair with super-sizing has led, over the years, to super-sized debt loads and super-slender bank accounts, 401(k) plans and retirement nest eggs. In the next few paragraphs, let’s itemize some of the super-sizing going on, and ponder who might want to downsize the super-sized.

Super-sized homes

According to the Census Bureau, the size of new construction homes in 2012 shot up to a near-record 2, 505 square feet, a substantial increase from 2, 480 square feet in 2011. In early 2013, the new homes being sold were 7 percent larger than those in the same period a year earlier.

The 2012 “American Dream” survey, conducted by Trulia, indicated those interested in the “super-sized” home category of 3, 200 square feet or more climbed from 6 to 11 percent between 2011 and 2012.

As this trend continues, I suggest we identify by name a new category of super-sized edifices bigger than the McMansion, and in fact large enough to house most residents of a small city. I’m suggesting “Castle, ” “Palace” or, my personal favorite, “Acropolis.”

Super-sized closets

At one time, new construction homes offered a concept called the closet. You opened a door to a tiny room, and either reached in for an item of clothing hung on a hanger or placed one back in the closet. Then came the notion of the walk-in closet, so large you could step inside and closely examine your togs.

Now, I’m increasingly writing about new homes with “walk-though closets, ” big enough to take a leisurely stroll and contemplate your super-sized wardrobe. Next may be the park-like closet, complete with benches, fountains and statuary, where you will go for a long walk, feed the squirrels or maybe lace up the shoes and do some jogging.

Super-sized vehicles

Giant homes will look out of scale if an economy car is parked in the driveway. The TIME article cited Reuters as reporting the Ford F-Series, Chevy Silverado and Dodge Ram pickup lines tallied sales increases of 20 percent in May. This makes sense, because those fast-food meals Americans have been consuming lead to larger bodies, which need to be supported by more substantial vehicle chassis, heavy-duty tires and much sturdier suspension systems.

Super-sized TV

Forget those puny little 85-inch TVs, proclaimed as largest ever, launched earlier this year. They will be dwarfed by a 110-inch TV one manufacturer has unveiled. While merely a prototype right now, it’s only a matter of time before showroom buyers are being wowed by the model, and its super-sized price tag.

Buy this unit, and it will be easy to pay if off. You can install it outside your house, open your own drive-in theater and charge admission.

Super-sizing for all — not

I don’t begrudge anyone the notion of buying the biggest of everything if they have the money. If you’ve got the bucks, buy a ZIP-code-sized home, a three-story TV and an SUV that hogs all four lanes of asphalt. But if your budget isn’t super, and you haven’t been able to place much in a high-yield savings account, consider replacing super-sizing with downsizing. That could eventually put a smile on your face at the drive-through.

The drive-through teller lane at your bank, that is.

7 Responses to “Super debt: That’s just about the size of it”

  1. Anonymous

    We don’t have supersize everything, but our home is 3100 s.f., we have four cars, a medium tv, several computers, but everything is paid off! Our kids are more than half way through college and there is no debt for them, we go on vacations (modestly) and purchase electronics etc. We are cautious with money and have been on one income for over twenty years. We will downsize at some point, but for now I enjoy a larger home. It gives my kids space and if in-laws need to, they can live here as well. We have twenty years til retirement, I think we’ll do ok. Unless you’re a multi-millionaire, you never know what’s enough to retire on, medical bills etc could lay waste to savings.

  2. Anonymous

    Why does other people’s purchases bother you so much?

    Do what you think is best and forget about what everybody else thinks — that goes for the savers and spenders. But here is the catch: if you choose to live in a tiny house and retain a massive savings then that is your choice and you can’t knock others for buying their dream house.

    And vice-versa: if you decide to purchase a massive house and not have savings — don’t come crying to the ‘savers’ if you wind up in foreclosure.

  3. Anonymous

    I remember when I was younger going to a sleepover at a friend’s house. We were all amazed at the size of the house – practically a mansion! Even into high school people would comment on the size of the house.

    Now, barely more than 10 years later, I find myself driving by this house on my way to work. What’s interesting is that every home my co-workers have bought is bigger than this mansion from my childhood. And that’s how far we’ve come. What was previously extraordinary is now ordinary – and we all feel entitled to it all.

  4. Anonymous

    I have no desire to be either fat or broke, so it has been straightforward to control my eating and exercise and limit my spending. I can see that it is harder for some people to do that. I would have thought that the recent crisis would have woken more people up, but it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression. I shudder to think what it would take to get people to really change their behavior.

  5. Anonymous

    A highly tuned PR and advertising industry preys on those who havent or cant think life through.
    It isnt a good thing to be a consumer in a consumer society – you just get sucked up, rinsed of your cash, and spat out the other side by uncaring, corporate monsters.

  6. Anonymous

    It is all needs vs. wants, keeping up with the jones’s and people not knowing the true value of what they want to purchase. This I feel is the biggest failure of our education system in this country.

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