Sensible advice for a sensibly priced holiday

Thanksgiving in Connecticut went off as expected with mounds of food, talk about the recently married couple in the family and new jobs, all within the context of the gathering of generations.

But as the plates cleared, the conversation went to my father-in-law’s forte, changing technology, its effect on America’s economy and the need for Americans to live frugally.

Living frugally is a concept America doesn’t hear very often. After all, my father-in-law’s words were uttered just hours before the gaggle of Black Friday shoppers attacked stores at midnight to acquire even more credit card debt. But the idea of living within your means is more important than those “doorbuster” deals, video game systems or flat panel televisions.

It doesn’t take much to look around and see how fast the economy is changing. The housing boom is slowing to a bust in some locales, manufacturing is giving way to more volatile service sector jobs, and forecasts for slower economic growth into next year abound. The effects of outsourcing, globalization and the growing U.S. trade deficit are all commonly mentioned as descriptions of the increasingly interconnected world.

While some people may believe this is just the “dismal science” of economists, this uncertainty would seem to urge caution. The practical result, however, is that Americans seem likely to ignore these headlines and go straight for the advertisements in their Sunday newspaper.

Of course, encouragement to save money and delay consumption for the future doesn’t have that same soothing feeling as the thrill of the successful hunt for that hot item today. Saving money is downright difficult after being bombarded with images of finely dressed celebrities, online shopping advertisements and mailboxes full of catalogs. It’s nearly impossible to get students – including many students over the age of 40 – to think about the importance of retirement income adequacy or how they’re going to pay for health care costs 40 years from now.

Perhaps there is even a fiscal illusion that causes many Americans to ignore these realities at their own peril. This generation’s parents were more likely to be covered by well-defined retirement plans that promised to pay a percentage of pre-retirement earnings as long as they live. These plans are increasingly being replaced by ones that shift the risk of funding a retirement account onto the employee, who is much more likely to make the choice to underfund his or her plan. Likewise older generations were more likely to receive health care benefits. This generation will likely need to use higher percentages of incomes just to pay these costs.

But even despite these realities, college students will be full participants in a culture that seems to herald the estimated $800 per consumer that will be spent this year on holiday merchandise. After all, everyone is told that consumption drives the economy – and everyone wants a strong economy, right?

The reality is that increasing numbers of college students are participating in the much larger societal problem of confusing wants and needs. Human capital investment, in terms of obtaining a college education, can be seen as a need in society with returns well into the future but a Playstation 3 – and many other material possessions – are definitely wants with essentially no possibility of any sort of return aside from short-lived entertainment.

The side effect of sacrificing future needs for immediate wants is a dilution of student’s rabid anger over higher tuition and fees. After all, if you are able to spend money for a trip over spring break, the latest iPod or the daily Starbuck’s caffeine fix, then college must still be affordable. Being frugal with your funds today might deprive you of that new video game, but it might ensure you are able to pay future college costs, which are likely to rise as the demand for college outpaces the supply of desks in the classroom. And the cost of graduate school isn’t exactly cheap, either.

It is unlikely the commercialization of the holidays or a presumed need to “keep up with the Joneses” will go away anytime soon, but a little dose of reality about spending habits is important. Paying off student loans, buying that first house and setting other long-term financial goals is a lot more vital to future financial success than anything you can buy at a store.

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.