Mark Dolliver’s Takes: Perfumes, Etc.

It’s one of the almost-universal experiences of modern life: paying bills. There’s much variation, though, in the sorts of bills different people get and the success they have in paying them all. A report from the Pew Research Center gives a detailed look at the topic.

Housing is among the classic necessities of life, and 76 percent of adults have regular expenses in this category (whether mortgage payments, rent or condo fees). They’re slightly outnumbered, though, by those with bills for cable/satellite TV (78 percent)—an expense largely unheard of a generation ago. Nearly as many (74 percent) have a regular cell-phone bill to pay, and 65 percent get a bill for Internet service. Among other sorts of routine bills people get are those for credit-card payments (58 percent), car loans (42 percent), school tuition (25 percent) and health club/sports facility (21 percent). In a telling sign of the degree to which we now inhabit a service economy, 19 percent have regular expenses for landscaping/lawn maintenance, 16 percent for housecleaning and 13 percent for child care. We find another sort of social indicator in the fact that 7 percent of adults must make payments for alimony or child support.

The survey also asked respondents whether some varieties of spending constitute a “major expense” for them. Forty-five percent said that medical/dental bills rise to this level. Clothing is a major expense for 34 percent, matching the number who put restaurant meals in that class. Vacation travel is a major expense for 29 percent, while entertaining family and friends is one for 23 percent. Seventeen percent said that home furnishings are a major expense for them. And wouldn’t you like to get a load of the 7 percent for whom jewelry is a major expense?

For a significant number of people, bills eat up all their income and then some. Fourteen percent of adults confessed to having had a debt problem at some point in their lives—17 percent of women and 11 percent of men. Nineteen percent of 30-49-year-olds have been in that leaky boat. There’s negligible difference in the proportion of married and unmarried people who’ve had debt problems, but those with no children are less likely to have had such difficulties than those with offspring under age 18 at home (10 percent vs. 16 percent). People who routinely pay their credit-card bills in full are just a bit less likely to have avoided debt problems than people who have no credit card at all (10 percent vs. 13 percent). Predictably, the figure is higher (20 percent) for those who make only partial payments on their monthly credit-card statements.