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Waste not, spend not or spend a lot

A walk through a suburban neighborhood on trash pickup day reveals an awful lot about American culture. We discard a lot of stuff -- TVs and radios, ironing boards, paintings, computers, doors, cell phones.

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Has ours become a throwaway society? Maybe we should be conserving our resources. On the other hand, a big part of the U.S. economy is driven by consumer spending. Every new cell phone, plasma TV, car or upgraded computer means jobs for somebody ... somewhere.

Ranjit S. Dighe, associate professor of economics at the State University of New York, says, "I know that consumer spending is 65 or 70 percent of the gross domestic product, so clearly spending is extremely important for the economy."

So have times changed? Have our attitudes, about spending versus saving and fixing old versus buying new, changed? During World War II, Americans were encouraged to conserve, save and economize. After the events of Sept. 11, President George W. Bush encouraged people to go out and spend money. Have our values turned 180 degrees? And how does that affect how we spend and save?

"In World War II," says Dighe, "it was a patriotic duty to save. During the Great Depression, spending definitely would have been welcomed. ... In World War II the emphasis on savings and thrift was necessary because the entire economy was geared toward the war effort, so we had to shift from consumer goods to war production. Whereas what happened with Sept. 11 -- yes, we have been at war. But it's not quite the same full-scale war as World War II. The war isn't consuming so much of our resources that we can't afford to go out and consume."

Technology saves money
Over the years, several forces have influenced Americans' attitudes about money. One is technology, which we have come to take for granted. For instance, it's downright unusual not to see someone talking on a cell phone today, no matter where you go.

Dorothy Holden, 81, of Nashua, N.H., says, "I think we had a very different view of spending when I was younger. One of the things I remember was, on the very rare occasions when anybody made a long-distance telephone call, which was quite expensive in those days, you had a three-minute egg timer that you turned up as soon as you started the call, and at the end of that three minutes you just said goodbye."

Long-distance calls have become a necessity, not a luxury, and technology has made it easier, more convenient and cheaper.

Mo' flow
Two-income households are the norm now. Whether that's by necessity or choice, the result is an overall increase in family income.

"I think there are more two-income families, and perhaps that generates more of a reserve," says Julie Burns, 44, of Harrisburg, Pa. "Perhaps it's just as the baby boomers age, there's a large group of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are beyond the family financial obligations and have money to spend."

 
 

Next: People need to make $40,000 a year to be happy.

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