Consumer Comeback Blog

23 things Americans willingly spend too much money on

The U.S. is a place of over indulgence.  Our waste is only overshadowed by our consumption.  That’s capitalism for you…

But now that we’re in the middle of a huge recession, there’s not a whole lot of money left for the “extras” anymore.  Frugality has become a necessity for many families and individuals and they’re looking for any possible way to save some much needed cash.  We thought it would be helpful to put a bit of perspective on the purchasing habits of Americans and create a list of the most common items we tend to spend too much on without thinking twice about it.

Cars

Cars are one of the more obvious “status symbols” in the U.S. from a consumer demand perspective. But in a recession, price and practicality has become an increasing necessity as the cost savings are significant. It isn’t just about the price of the car(s) you drive, either. Can you make ends meet with one car? Better yet, none at all? Can you drive less and take public transportation more? Being honest and answering “yes” to any and all of these questions can end up saving you a lot of money.

Housing

Another “status symbol” in this country tends to be the home you live in. The mortgage crisis is proof positive that we Americans spend too much on housing and should look to simplify our dwellings. The most damning statistic is the rise in income/home price ratio which nearly doubled from the late 90′s to the peak of the housing bubble nationwide. It’s probably the most common purchase people buy what they can afford to, instead of what they need.

Energy

Energy consumption is something nearly everyone in the U.S. takes for granted. But the harmless act of leaving a light on overnight isn’t such a debilitating cost. It’s when you add up all the potential inefficiencies in heating or cooling a living space along with the growing number of electronics passively consuming energy when left plugged in, you get waste. There are a number of simple home improvements that can pay for themselves through energy efficiency and there are just as many that aren’t so simple. Either way, the first step is to realize that caring about your energy consumption is as important for your wallet as it is for the environment.

Food

Eating out every day can be tremendously expensive. But even if you cook three meals a day at home, you probably spend too much money on food. It isn’t exclusively an American trait, but we tend to overcook, which leads to either overeating or waste. So unless you are a leftover champion who is diligent about portion control, you can probably save some cash on food. Even then, my guess is there are a few ways you can save even more on your grocery bill like bulk/generic purchases.

Drinks

Americans are obsessed with beverages, but apparently 2/3 of us don’t drink enough water. That’s probably because we’re too full on sugary drinks like soda and juices. But not only are these high sugar drinks less healthy, but they cost a lot more too. There’s nothing wrong with having a glass of milk, OJ, or other natural juices, but replacing those other drinks with water is probably the simplest way to improve your health, cut calories, and save some cash in the process. So do it for your physical and financial health.

Drugs

Prescription drugs are outrageously expensive, but if you have decent health insurance, you probably don’t even notice. Over the counter drugs, on the other hand, are not covered which leaves us to our own devices. Name brands are usually a decent amount more than generic medicine despite having the exact same ingredients and yet people still buy them. Another common oversight is repackaged drugs containing identical active ingredients that serve two different purposes. Example: Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is a common OTC allergy/cold medication but the same active ingredient is often repackaged as a sleep aid where it costs as much as 5X more per pill…ouch.

Wine/Alcohol

Most people would be surprised how little palpable difference there is between a $3 bottle of wine and those that cost $100 or more, especially for the casual wine “connoisseur”. This doesn’t just go for wines, however. If you keep an open mind to less expensive brands of alcohol you might just be surprised how good they are… and how much money you can save.

Shoes & Clothing

There’s nothing wrong with looking good, but do you really need a pair of shoes for each outfit? Chances are you can probably stand to simplify your wardrobe without sacrificing much on fashion and save a few bucks in the process.

Purses, bags, and other accessories

As a man, I’ll never understand paying $5,000 for a purse that does nothing more than hold a few small items. It’s a consumer phenomenon that whenever I ask women ‘why?’ the answer is always: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re a man.” To me, that’s code for: “Women don’t know either…”

Jewelry

Precious stones and metals have a specific value to them, but once they’re placed in jewelry, the markup is unreal. There’s nothing wrong with having or buying nice jewelry or a decent watch, but in most cases when we make these purchases, we are getting ripped off. The strange thing is, we are well aware of this fact, yet we do it anyways…

Home Theater Systems

Having a top of the line television or stereo is a luxury expense. And like wine, its one that most consumers can’t tell the difference between discount models and the top of the line ones. Unlike wine, however, in 5 years, that top of the line model will cost about what the discount model costs. When one 40” FULL HD television costs $400 and another over $2k and the only true difference is a higher refresh rate and deeper contrast ratio, ask yourself if those minor differences in picture quality is truly worth a 500%+ markup… Being an audiophile or videophile will always cost you.

Television Programming

Cable TV is expensive and the costs are rising. More importantly, most consumers don’t realize that they’re paying for television programming they’ll never watch. This is usually due to lack of choice (communications companies call it “packaging”) more than anything else. But lately, as a result, more and more consumers are canceling their cable bills and turning to the internet and internet based services like Hulu and Netflix to watch their favorite shows at a minimal cost. While this isn’t an option for everyone, it’s something I highly recommend looking into.

Movies

Going to the movies can be fun every once in a while or for the right movie, but the cost of a ticket has quickly become out of touch with consumer demand. The movie industry blames piracy for their diminishing returns, but when a single movie ticket costs more than it would to own the film (if you can wait a few months for the DVD/Blu Ray release) you can see why the industry is struggling. Add services like Netflix & Blockbuster and the increasing quality and accessibility of a decent home theater, you don’t have to be a pirate to avoid paying a premium to watch your favorite movies. Further, what seems inevitable, as home delivery/internet movie services grow, even owning or collecting movies may soon start to seem like a waste of money…if not already.

Cellphones

Smartphones are fantastic. They can do more than most people who own them probably even realize. Unfortunately, they’re also tremendously expensive and usually dramatically increase your monthly bills when the required data plan is added to your statements. And while there are a few people who actually need the added power of a smartphone, most owners simply find them to be a convenience or (to a lesser extent) a status symbol. If you can go without owning one, you’ll save yourself a bundle and you can probably live without the 24-7 access to Facebook updates.

The savings doesn’t end at smartphones either. If all you need a cellphone for is to make occasional phone calls, you might even consider a pay-as-you-go plan instead of the more expensive monthly contracts. Most people take for granted how much money can be saved here…

Computers

Buying more than you need is the American way, it seems. And there’s few products that people do this for more than computers. Having the fastest/best of something is great for bragging rights, but if you’re only using a computer for basic word processing and web browsing bragging rights is all that power is good for. A brand that serves as a prime example of this phenomenon is Apple. Sure their computers are great, but for most of their customers, the price simply doesn’t make sense for the intended uses.

But even if you argue that having the extra computing power is good for when you need it, too many computer users don’t know how to properly take care of their machines. Once a computer starts to run slow, many consumers will up and buy a new one instead of taking simpler (and cheaper) steps to get more from their current (probably adequate) computer.

Books

I love to read. Something I may never understand, however, is why people spend so much money buying books. The internet has replaced most general reference books and if you love to read like me, you probably spend a lot of time at the library. But the book publishing industry still has a stronghold over us and charges a premium for first edition hard covers, and even owning a kindle gets expensive when you start buying the book licenses. But beyond rushing to get the next installment of my favorite fiction series’ I go out of my way to spend as little as possible on books. Unfortunately, for many who love to read, this attitude is a bit rare.

Don’t even get me started on the scam that is education text books!

Education

Recent graduates are having a really tough time finding jobs right now. It’s gotten them questioning whether the price of their higher education was really worth it. But even if you argue having a degree is still better than not having one, the answer may still be “no”. Going for a higher degree will almost always open more doors than not getting the degree, but not enough students fully understand the potential debt they will be in by the time they graduate. So as the costs continue to rise, cost should be deciding factor in where, when, or if they go to school. This doesn’t mean going to a more expensive school can’t be worth the extra investment, but paying $45,000 per year to take classes for an undeclared degree probably isn’t the best financial decision regardless of what school it is.

Vacations

There’s nothing wrong with taking a vacation every now and then. And I see nothing wrong with treating yourself to a little splurging or luxury. But problems start to arise when that attitude leads you to stop caring about what the costs are. It doesn’t take much effort to take a vacation on the cheap that doesn’t sacrifice on amenities. But unfortunately, it takes less effort to not care.

Exercise

The amount of money that is spent on exercise equipment, memberships and training in the U.S. is outrageous. Especially when you consider how out of shape we are as a country. It seems at least once per year a new “miracle product” comes out that promises a super effective workout guaranteed to help you lose weight. I can’t tell if it’s lack of motivation, imagination or just that some people are looking for a shortcut to shredding pounds, but as a whole we seem to be trying to buy our way to a better health. Here’s a tip: before you spend money on a home gym, workout tapes, or gym membership, try running, biking, or playing a sport first. Exercise should be an attitude, not an expense.

Banking

Most people really don’t think too much about the costs associated with their banking accounts. But that’s probably why we spend too much on it. Annual fees, minimum balance fees, ATM fees, checking card fees, check printing, and the list goes on… With banks looking for additional ways to make money from its customers, they raise and add new fees all the time. That’s probably why many people have started to move their accounts to local credit unions. Make sure you know how much your bank accounts are really costing you, there might just be a more cost effective solution.

Cords & Cables

As an audiophile might suggest: there’s no point in paying for great speakers if you don’t have high quality speaker cable. But even if that’s true, it leads to the largely flawed thinking that because a cord costs more, it must do more. This very logic allows most consumers to be taken advantage of by retail electronics stores. My biggest pet peeve: “premium” HDMI cables. Either through ignorance, vulnerability, laziness, or some combination of the three, consumers willingly pay $60 (or more) for a cable that does nothing more than one you can find for $1 online. The same phenomenon applies to power strips. Most people who buy the top of the line power strips don’t actually need all the protections and features they offer, but worse yet: they’re even willing to overpay for those features simply because they believe cost=quality.

Printer Ink

Printer ink is outrageously expensive. It is so outrageous that sometimes a printer (with included ink) actually costs less than buying a replacement ink. The reason this happens is because retailers know that when you need ink, you can’t be bothered to do comparison shopping. Buying ink online and/or in bulk can save you up to 80% or more, so stop waiting until your current cartridge runs out. Not to mention, if you are printing a lot, perhaps you can stand to do it less?

Toiletries

This may date me a bit, but didn’t soap used to be a much simpler and cheaper? Not just for women, but for men as well. When did it become socially acceptable for a man to spend $10+ for “shower gel” or $30+ on hair products? Did I miss something? And yes, I do it too: one day I woke up and my bathroom had what’s probably $200 worth of hygienic products. Surely that’s not totally necessary.

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