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Looking at Spending Compared with US Averages

July 31st, 2006 at 05:13 pm

Compared to US Averages (info from BLS, based on CPI)

US averages: 40% on housing & utilities, 18% on transportation, 16% on food & drink, 6% each on medical care, recretion, education & communication, & other, 4% on clothing.

Mine: 30% on housing & utilities, 13% on transportation, 18% on food & drink, 5% on medical, 3% on recreation, 6% on education & communication, 1% on clothing, and 24% on other (my biggest "other" categories are pet expenses and unreimbursed business expenses, which are books and films I use in teaching).

Barely present in mine in the current year (but to change with the resumption of paychecks in September) and absent in the US averages are SAVINGS (where the U.S. average is now in negative territory...can you believe that on average, people now spend more than they earn? Not just the occasional spendthrift, but on average!!!!

Today's Project

July 28th, 2006 at 01:28 am

Ever since I got the dog in March, I've worked downstairs because the dog cannot go upstairs (he gets up but cannot get down by himself, and it's quite the project to carry a squirming 70 pound Basset Hound down the stairs, so I simply gated them off). I've been sitting on either the sofa or at the dining room table, but neither option is really good for long working hours: the sofa is awkward and hot when I have the laptop actually on my lap, and the dining room chairs are fine to sit in for for a meal, but not for hours at a time. So I decided that creating a small downstairs study was an essential task before the new academic year begins. I found the desk at a thrift store for $25, brought my office chair downstairs, and the only thing I bought new was the rug ($39 at a local discount outlet). So for $59 I'm set up to work much more functionally than I have been!

Is it worth it to live where you live?

July 21st, 2006 at 07:11 pm

I discovered a nifty site,, that allows you do comparisons of the cost of living in different cities and towns. They have data by zip code, and the average index value for the United States is set to 100, so that you can compare whether your locale is cheaper or more expensive. They also provide separate indices for housing, utilities, food, transportation, healthcare, and "miscellaneous."

I currently live in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. There's some variation in the cities and towns here; the index value for my town is 94.4. We're relatively low (74) in terms of housing costs (not for long...the area is being invaded by people moving in from New York and New Jersey, so we have the hottest housing market in the state, one of the hottest in the nation, and above-average inflation to boot.

However, it's still pretty good compared to where I came from: the west side of Los Angeles, with an overall index of 193.2 (339.6 for housing).

Actually, looking at all the places I've lived, I'm ending up staying in the cheapest: Ann Arbor MI comes in at 114, and even the little town, population 3000, that I lived in in Vermont for 3 years has an index of 98. But things could be even worse than L.A.: I was at Stanford for a year and lived a mile from campus. The index there is 387, with housing at 860!

You can find the comparisons for your locales by going to

Text is and Link is, typing in your city or zip code, and then clicking on the tiny link in blue letters that says "Cost of Living."

To compare the cost of living in two cities, you can calculate cost in city1 x (city2 index/city1 index), which will give you the cost in city2. For example, a $50,000 salary where I currently live would need to be $50,000 x (193.2/94.4) = $102,330 in Los Angeles to buy me the same menu of goods and services. (!!!)

The REAL cost of things

July 14th, 2006 at 04:08 pm

It's always hard to keep in mind the "real cost" of anything you purchase. By the "real cost," I don't mean the PRICE, but all the money that you need (a) to earn in order to be able to afford the purchase price, and (b) to be able to use, store, maintain, and ultimately get rid of the product.

It's often the price, however, that lures us to buy a product in the first place. For example: last Sunday's paper had an ad from Linens 'N Things advertising a sale on several Black & Decker appliances which one could get for $9.99 after rebate. One of the products listed was a toaster oven--something that has been on my "someday/maybe to buy" list for a while. Since I'm trying to cut down on my food expenses by eating out less and cooking more at home, and it's oppresive cooking in the summer heat (and I don't own an outdoor grill), I allowed myself to persuade myself to buy the grill.

Initial outlay $31.79 ($29.99 + 6% PA sales tax). However, I am in the 25% tax bracket, so in order to be able to lay out that initial expenditure of $31.79, I had to actually *earn* $42.39. I should also count the cost of getting to and from the mall--one simple way would be to estimate that the 16-mile round-trip on the highway would require half a gallon of gas, about $1.80 (or 2.40 if I again count the amount of money I had to earn in order to be able to spend $1.80). Another way would be to include not only gas but the presumed depreciation as well, and use the IRS mileage reimbursement rate, currently 44.5 cents per mile for 2006. Google maps indicates that it is 8.15 miles each way for me to drive to the mall, so by that calculation, it cost $7.25 for my trip to the mall (or $9.67 if I again apply the tax rate rule). Since this exercise is a demonstration of how much things cost beyond the price, I'll use the higher rate.

So: the amount of money that I needed to earn in order to afford my $9.99 toaster oven was actually 52.06 ($42.39 + $9.67). Presuming that I do in fact receive the rebate, the "real price" of the toaster was actually, $32.06!

This doesn't even count in the "opportunity cost" of what I could have earned if I'd been working rather than taking the afternoon off and shopping. I could technically include that in the analysis too--IF I would in fact have been working. But it's summer vacation and I wouldn't have been, so I won't extend the analysis that way.

However, I WILL extend it to look at the cost of OWNING and USING this new toaster oven. When I looked at it in the store, I realized that almost none of my existing cookware would fit inside it, other than my loaf pan. Linen's 'N Things doesn't sell special toaster oven bakeware, but Bed, Bath, & Beyond does. In order to be able to use my toaster oven, I ended up spending $17.99 at BBB for a casserole pan and a broiler pan, and another $10.59 at Michael's for a set of a dozen silicone muffin cups, since my oven is small enough that even the standard "toaster oven size" muffin tins wouldn't work. That's another $28.58 price/$38.11 after taking into account the money that I need to earn to afford the price.

Since I bought this on the same trip as the toasteroven, I won't add in any more gasoline price. Other things that I could add in but won't include the cost of having a place to have the toaster oven stand. Back when I moved, I bought a $35 (price) microwave cart at Target that fortunately has room for the toasteroven as well. Theoretically, I could add in any maintenance costs or getting rid of costs to the price as well, but I won't at this point.

So, in sum, my "$9.99" toaster oven REALLY requires me to earn $70.07 to pay for it.

Perhaps I wouldn't have been so quick to jump at the sale if I'd thought of that beforehand. But now I'll keep in mind that I need to save at least $70 by eating at home when I'd otherwise go out to eat in order to justify this expense!

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