As far as I understand, wooden ships are never completely water tight. Especially older ships develop leaks and water gets in between the cracks when the boat is straining and working as it moves through the water. This water ends up at the bottom of the ship, under the floor boards of the lower deck (or the only deck) in a place called the bilge. To compensate for this, and keep the ship from sinking or at least the deck from overflowing, bilge pumps must be run on a regular basis to pump this water out. As long as the bilge pump is not overwhelmed, i.e. having to run all the time, the ship will not sink.

The average US family, also known, charmingly, as a consumer unit, spends $49,638 each year.

DW and I (since we don’t have 0.5 children, we are slightly smaller than a unit) spend about a quarter of this amount, so I have never been able to fully appreciate what made up the difference. If we subsided on a diet of ramen noodles and junk food, our clothes were falling apart, and our teeth were falling out, the difference would be obvious. However, if it weren’t for the RV (which costs more to live in here that it would cost to live in a house in many other places of the country), the difference would be subtle indeed and you would not be able to tell the difference.

To understand the average $49,638 budget, a ship makes an excellent example. There are almost no holes in our ship. Consequently, I don’t have to spend a lot of time working the pumps. Conversely, the average “consumer unit ship” seems to be full of cracks and thus they need to be very “productive” at the pumps to keep themselves afloat. This is also known as “struggling” when things go bad and “having a career” when things go well.

It is interesting to look at the cracks. For instance, if we look at the graph again, $1797 are spent on household furnishing each year. WOW! So it actually must be true that consumer units do replace their “old” furniture each year so that the family won’t have to sit in “last years” furniture when visiting for Thanksgiving. (I heard this on a radio spot. Seriously! I am not making this up.)

For apparel and services, $1,881 is spent. That will buy you a life time of jackets (about 6 at $300 each, the price point or quality level where you can expect 10 years of good use out of them). Do that for shoes the next year, and pants the third, etc. and you should be set for a lifetime. Otherwise, $1,881 times 80 years of life comes to $150,000+, just on clothes.

Isn’t this just slightly insane?

(If I may fill you in on my pants situation. For the last two years, I have been wearing two pairs of 501’s in the winter on rotation, total cost about $70. In the summer I wear a pair of dockers shorts, cost $20. When sailing I wear a pair of hightech pants, cost $150, almost ten years ago. I get underwear on sale: Usually $5 for a $15 pair.)

At least, I can finally see that eating out is really a national pastime—it has its very own budget category. $2688 a year or a lifetime cost of more than $200,000 simply to have other people prepare your food. If the average income is, let’s say 40000 after tax, would you really want to work 5 years of your life just so you can eat a meal you didn’t make yourself a couple of times a week for the rest of your life? I don’t know about you, but I can cook and eat a meal much faster than I can get to a restaurant, wait for the waiter, wait for the cook, eat, wait to pay, and then get home again.

Transportation is also up there; almost the equivalent of having run the ship aground. At $8758 per year or a life time cost of nearly half a million, the cost of not living in the right place next to where one actually wants to be, is very high.

The biggest problem is probably the sheer size of the ship. In general, the bigger they are, the more work they require. Size puts a natural limit on maintenance, insurance, cost, as well as the amount of junk one can stuff in there. The average consumer unit spends $16,920 on housing each year.

And so, now I am really and perhaps finally beginning to understand why retirement goals of $1000000 or $2000000 are so common to replace $40,000 or $80,000 in income respectively. It is simply needed to compensate for the money that is leaking everywhere. House keeping supplies at $639?! I bet that includes the famous $800 toilet seat.

The reason the difference has escaped me is that when I have visited other people’s homes, I have never really been able to spot why they were seemingly spending four times as much as we are. But it must be the leaks in the wallet, so to speak. The closets must be full and purged regularly; I must have not noticed how large pieces of furniture was replaced every year; how they spent several hours each week just driving around in multiple cars; that the reason that it was so warm (80F in the winter) or so cold (65F in the summer) was that the HVAC was running at full blast making it necessary to bring a sweater in the summer and shorts in the winter.

Every activity must be bleeding money. Perhaps this explains the common misconception that spending less means “not really living” or “living deprived” or “having a lower standard”. Most of the waste is, however, on leaks and quantity; not quality. From a quality perspective, not caring about leaks and simply running the pumps is not living well. How can anyone enjoy the journey when having to deal with the problem of running the bilge pump all the time? Why not take care of the leaks?

Originally posted 2010-02-23 13:00:25.