Yesterday I began a series of posts which attempts to explain why the working poor tend to make terrible financial decisions and how they think about money differently than other economic classes. In my initial post I wrote,
Imagine that instead of having to deal with consumption smoothing decisions, at most, several times a year, you had to deal with them several times a month, or even several times a week. Now also imagine there is no workable solution that will actually smooth the short-term consumption problem and the best that you can hoped for is a temporary fix that delays having to deal with the issue.
That is what it’s like to be the working poor.
Several people have asked me to explain more what I meant, so before moving on I wanted to provide a more in depth example.
Let’s again begin by looking at the decision-making process of the middle-class. Imagine that you want to buy a home. Your household income is $51,404 a year (the median household income in the U.S.) and the house you’re interested in is on the market for $152,000 (the avg. home price in the U.S.). At what point do you buy the house?
There are several ways the average American may answer, but the one response you will almost never hear is, “You should buy the house only after you’ve saved the $152,000 needed to pay for it.”
While most people would agree that it would be prudent to apply a down payment, the idea that you’d pay the entire amount at once – even if you had $152,000 in cash – would strike most people as peculiar if not absurd. Instead, we borrow money for a mortgage that will allow us to pay a set amount each month for 15 to 30 years. Because we are willing to spread our payments out into the future we will pay a lot more than the $152,000 (at 5% for 30 years, the total would be $293,748.79). But we consider that a reasonable accommodation for getting what we want right now.
That is an example of how most of us take the concept of consumption smoothing for granted.