Personal Finance Lessons From Wired Magazine

On page 52 of the August 2007 issue of Wired, a one-page article entitled “The Price of Technolust” appears. It displays a nifty graphic showing average consumer spending broken down by percentage and displayed with different colors in a grid of 10 by 10 squares, with each small square representing 1% of the annual income of an average American. Here are the percentages:

Transportation – 18%
Shelter – 16%
Food – 13%
Apparel – 4%
Health Insurance – 3%
Entertainment – 3%
Prescription Drugs – 1%
Tech Products – 5%
Other – 37% (this includes personal care products, education, taxes, and gifts)

Note that this is merely spending – it doesn’t include any savings or investments.

Now, even more interesting, the magazine goes on to break down that bolded 5% of “tech product” spending above in great detail, dividing just that slice of the pie into 1,000 equal pieces (0.1%). It reveals several interesting things about our spending.

First of all, the two largest blocks are residential phone service (26%) and cellular phone service (20.7%). Many people have both of these, yet the services often overlap. For us, I know, we have both, but only because the residential phone service is bundled in with our internet and cable and the three are cheaper as a package than internet and cable would be by themselves. If that were not the case, we would likely ditch our residential phone service.

Second, the five largest technology expenditures are cellular and landline phone service, cable and satellite television, internet access, computers, and televisions. Those five pieces alone eat up almost 90% of the technology spending of an average person.

What does that mean? If the average American is looking to trim the fat, the best technology places to look are at phone service, internet and computer use, and television usage. If you can significantly trim one of those three areas, you’re doing good. Look at trimming any of them back to the basics, or perhaps put off that new television or computer purchase for another year.

Of course, if you step back even further, the places to look for making large cuts are in transportation, shelter, and food. Since it’s difficult to reduce transportation costs in a rural area (buy a more efficient car basically is the best option), I often look at options to reduce shelter and food costs.

It’s amazing how often little personal finance lessons show up in the most interesting of places.

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  1. WylieMoney says:

    I saw this in wired too! I have an extra cell phone I need to cancel, but it comes in handy every now and then!

    You mention “If the average American is looking to trim the fat, the best technology places to look are at phone service, internet and computer use, and television usage. If you can significantly trim one of those three areas, you’re doing good.”

    I would actually put this another way- you should look at the various options for configuring how all these things can now work together and change them all in concert for nice savings.

    For example, I actually added the most basic cable for $10 and high speed cable internet and canceled my phone service and signed up for Vonage and wound up breaking even- actually saving a few dollars a month. But I added Internet access and better reception than rabbit ears. I had Dialup which is why my phone bill was high enough for me to break even. This was a few years back.

    So even aside from bundling offers: switching to VOIP or using Netflix instead of HBO/Cable etc if you look at the big picture and adjust all your services to provide just what you want, you can often find some nice savings.

  2. You said, “buy a more efficient car basically is the best option.”

    How about:

    1) Combining trips
    2) Sharing rides with neighbors
    3) Telecommuting
    4) Bicycling

    On that last, I’ve used a bicycle for a significant part of my transportation in houses that were as much as 18 miles from town. Short of a bicycle: a moped, scooter, or motorcycle would all be much cheaper than any new car, and much more efficient

  3. Imelda says:

    It’s difficult to reduce transportation costs in urban areas, too.

  4. Vincent says:

    Forgive me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t 1% broken into 1,000 pieces be made up of 0.01%, not 0.1? As in, thousandths, not hundredths.

  5. Alton says:

    My family used to hang on to a land-line primarily because long distance prices are cheaper (not cheaper than VOIP though).

    However, the wireless companies have been very aggressive in offering more options and services that the traditional co’s. If you don’t see a plan that fits your needs, ask around, and you may be surprised to find what isn’t advertized.

    We’ve moved to a cell-only system and are very happy with the additional savings and convenience.

    The only drawback is the initial time you may have to invest in searching for the right service. But if you’re like most of the readers of this site, you’ve already allotted time into shopping intelligently.

  6. Kate says:

    If you are looking to get an apartment, consider getting one inside a house. I learned this lesson living overseas after years of living in a big urban city, and when I came back home to the big urban city, I looked for an apartment inside a house. I have my own space, but I get to share in some of the household amenities such as a common laundry facility, free internet (she put up a wireless router so everyone in the house can share one connection) and free cable (same thing, she already had it and just put in an extra jack). I am living in a cheap area and have ready access to the subway. I do pay $100 a month for a bus pass and I pay for a cell phone too, but other than that, my only fixed expenses are rent and student loans. If you live in a managed high rise, you will pay extra for utilities, cable and internet. I have those for free because I am dealing with a person and not a corporation.

  7. Bill says:

    I switched my internet from cable ($45/month) to AT&T’s unadvertised $10/month 768K DSL (price fixed until at least 12/2009)

    (note: available only w/ a voice line to new DSL customers in the 22 states where AT&T owns the local lines)

    That left me with basic cable (channels 2-16) for $8/month.

    Unfortunately, the cheapest landline here is still
    $30/month after fees/taxes.

    Still, that’s just under $50/month, versus “triple play” which runs about double that.

  8. Matt says:

    With a little careful planning you could probably take a large chunk out of that Transportation section. The car is as much a status symbol as the cell phone… they have their uses but there are a great many times when they’re not nearly necessary.

  9. m360 says:

    I went with a cell phone for several years, but I there were times where I would go over my minutes when I had to spend a lot of time calling places to straighten out errors in a bill and such. Instead of increasing my plan, I took advantage of a $10 lifeline program because I am on medicaid. Although I could do without the cell phone now, I use it for my long distance calls. It’s also good for travel, I feel a lot safer with it. I don’t care about all the extra features, most of them are ways for the companies to make money off people anyway. I recently found out that many cell phone co’s have life line programs too. I just switched my service to one that does and I will be saving about $20 a month on my cell phone bill and I’ll get more minutes. I also switched to DSL from cable internet and will save $15 more a month. So, within the course of a few days I trimmed $35 off my budget. My exspenses for cell/land line and internet went from $100 + to $65. There are people who are too proud to take advantage of things they are eligible for but I don’t care. I might as well. Whenever I find out about ways to save $$ I jump on it.

  10. icup says:

    do people really spend more on transportation than shelter? I find that hard to believe. especially if you count costs associated with shelter such as utilities, maintenance, etc.

  11. lisa says:

    I saw this article too. But as a librarian I was leery of the article since it didn’t say where the information came from. Also, my husband, who works in urban planning, through some of the numbers for housing sounded off.

  12. Shannon says:

    I also do not understand the % assigned to shelter. Unless, the investment exclusion covers mortgage payment. The average lender allows 30-40% for your mortgage payment and most people I know are paying that+utilities.

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