Thursday, August 19, 2021

Spending, Debt, Sharing

This morning on Twitter I saw this pie chart, via CNBC, representing the monthly spending of a 25-year-old man with a $100,000/year income:

The comments in response were outraged about how it was unrealistic in various ways. Most importantly, why doesn't this guy have any student debt? Well, we can guess: his well-off parents paid for his education, giving him a major leg up on the other members of his generation.

But most of the comments were about how his rent is too cheap for a major city (some suspecting he must have three roommates), his internet is too cheap for reality, and how does he find a house-cleaner for $30/month? They scoffed at his $130 in transportation costs. (What kind of car was that!?) I personally wondered how he got a cell phone for $40/month.

Well, it didn't take much research to find the original story, which is not awfully current, having been published in 2018.

His cell phone, it turns out, is his share of his parents' plan, so yeah... subsidized through the friends-and-family-forever deal. Not realistic for someone completely on their own.

Student debt is not mentioned in the story, so I guess I'm right about mom and dad paying for this guy's college, too, at least to some extent (since there are just about no colleges that are cheap enough to be paid for through wages these days). 

And his car, as some suspected, was not a car... it was mass transit. He takes the T, Boston's subway system. See how cheap that can be?

The roommate guess that some of the Twitter commenters made is what I want to focus on, though. The commenters made it sound as though having several roommates was anathema. But that's where this guy made it possible to have not only cheap rent, but also cheap internet and house-cleaning. Internet service at $20/month is one fifth of his house's internet cost: $100/month is a lot more like the cost of internet service in 2018, right? And $150/month for cleaning. And $825 for a fifth of a five-bedroom house in the Boston area.

Sharing single-family housing among multiple people is something more of us should be doing. We have a lot of that kind of housing stock already built in this country, at the same time that we have decreasing family sizes, and it will be hard and expensive to change that built infrastructure. But it's not so hard to share it. It just takes some cooperation.

Meanwhile, we have a new book called The Debt Project: 99 Portraits Across America, written up recently in the New Yorker. In it, photographer Brittany Powell shows some of the reality of the many people who didn't have mom and dad paying for college, or who had medical debt, a bad divorce, or one of the many other reasons our country squeezes people into debt.

Cody John Laplante, freelance writer and teacher, twenty-six years old.
More than sixteen thousand dollars in debt.

“I feel privileged to be allowed such things on the promise to pay. When you’re indentured, you know someone somewhere wants you to succeed. My debts are heavy but motivate me. I acquired them for my degree, laptop, and automobile. I esteem them to have been good investments. I will pay them slow ‘n’ steady, like a perseverant tortoise,” Laplante writes.

It's notable that Laplante's debt level is low compared to almost anyone else mentioned in the New Yorker article.

We all make choices. Many of them are unlucky, and some of them are bad, but as Barbara Ehrenreich has said, this country provides only a greased chute down instead of a ladder back up. Meanwhile, we have some people congratulating the luckiest few for their hard work, instead of recognizing how much luck had to do with it.

But at the same time, it wouldn't hurt to aspire to share our spaces and our stuff instead of everyone thinking they have to have their own version of everything. It sure would be a better way to run a planet with limited resources.

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