On the Road Again, How We Spend, Etc.

If the terror-threat level stays high in this country, Americans may decide it’s a propitious year to summer in Outer Mongolia. For the moment, though, polls indicate folks are inclined to take their summer vacations closer to home (and sans airplanes). That portends a boom for the traditional family road trip. A survey by Rand McNally and CoolSavings finds a car trip is the top choice of 70 percent of prospective vacationers. Fear of exotic places isn’t the only factor, as nine in 10 intend to spend no more this year than they did last year on their getaways. These findings dovetail with those of a Harris Poll, in which 59 percent of respondents said the risks for Americans vacationing abroad are worse now than they were two or three years ago. Naturally, this includes many folks who’d never go overseas anyway. But Harris finds frequent travelers “more likely than others to have decided to cut their international travel.” While this bodes ill for airlines, other sectors could benefit from a road-trip revival. In the Rand McNally/CoolSavings analysis, “Many parents reported gearing up for the trip by recently purchasing or intending to purchase electronics,” with music CDs and electronic games atop the shopping list.

Where does all my money go? That’s the mournful question many adults ask as their bank balances refuse to increase. In its latest Consumer Expenditure Survey, the Bureau of Labor Statistics gives an answer. The biggest chunk of the average household’s spending (32.9 percent) goes for housing. Transportation, including everything from vehicle purchases to bus fare, takes the next-biggest share (19.3 percent). Food comes in third (13.5 percent), once you combine “food at home” (7.8 percent) and “food away from home” (5.7 percent). Healthcare gets just a slightly larger share of spending (5.5 percent) than entertainment (4.9 percent). Among other info-tidbits: The average household spent more on tobacco products and supplies ($308) than on reading matter ($141), but less than it did on alcoholic beverages ($349). Speaking of such beverages, drink appears not to be the curse of the working class. Households with income in the top 20 percent spent $700 on alcohol in 2001, vs. $220 for households in the bottom 20 percent. Finally, for those of you who are ill-paid but considering marriage, we must report that two cannot live as cheaply as one. Or it doesn’t happen often, given that one-person households spent an average of $23,507 and two-person households spent $40,359.

Are you buying less and enjoying it more? Despite lackluster consumer spending, the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index “surged” during the first quarter of this year. The rise in satisfaction extended to sectors that have had financial difficulties of late, such as airlines. And there’s a good reason why that’s so, even if it seems counterintuitive: When companies’ financial woes put job security in peril, employees try harder to please. Moreover, companies are better able to serve their customers when there are fewer of them to serve.

Here’s a further sign that the Internet didn’t roll over and die: The proportion of at-home Internet users with broadband service rose from 21 percent in March 2002 to 31 percent in March 2003, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The rate of growth is likely to slow, but “about 13 percent of the dial-up Internet population seems ripe to migrate to broadband service.”

Perhaps scarcity will make prime-time sex more appealing to TV advertisers. In the recent past, when the networks were stuck in a rut of rutting, savvy advertisers might have figured that the glut of TV sex made it a poor environment in which to deliver a brand-differentiating sales pitch. Now, however, a report from the Parents Television Council documents a significant decline in the incidence of sexual content on network prime-time shows. On ABC, for example, instances of sexual content fell 19 percent between 1998 and 2000 and by 56 percent between 2000 and 2002. Every network but the WB showed a decrease in sexual content during the 8-9 p.m. “family hour,” and all but the WB and UPN showed such a decrease during the second hour of prime time. Under the circumstances, an advertiser might decide it could distinguish itself by sponsoring the dwindling amount of sexual material that still appears in the prime-time lineup.

Let’s sue the makers of couches, not the makers of fast food. A study by a University of North Carolina researcher blames the rise in teenage obesity on inactivity rather than on overeating. As summarized in an Associated Press item, the study found just a 1 percent rise in intake of calories among teens between 1980 and 2000. During the same period, though, physical activity fell by 13 percent. Other scientists quoted in the article agreed that teenagers are getting less exercise. But they refused to believe that caloric intake has been flat—in the words of one of them, “no matter what the data say.”

Amid the gloomy economic news, you’d think every man, woman and child must know someone who’s lost a job lately. Instead, while the number of people who fit that description has risen—to a level last seen in 1994—it’s far short of 100 percent. Asked in a Gallup poll if they know someone who’s been laid off or fired recently, 60 percent of adults said they do, vs. 43 percent in August 2001. As you can see from the chart, relatively few people have enough money salted away to handle a long spell of joblessness with ease.