Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Needs vs want - 2

I have dribbled on from time to time about the middle class disease of "buy at all costs". It surfaces from time to time in the form of my desire (at some stage after I retire) to teach money related topics at a school down the road (where-ever that might be...).

It is a theme that the Herald has picked up with a series of articles starting yesterday with this -

Matt Standing and Jenna Clark might be in their own house today if they hadn't bought a car on credit four years ago.

They were both 17 at the time and both had good jobs in Whangarei. They didn't have the $9000 they needed for a Mazda 323, but Oxford Finance was happy to lend them the money with repayments of $90 a week for three years - meaning that they ended up paying just over $14,000 for the vehicle.

It was the start of what became a pattern. Standing, a trained mechanic, borrowed another $6500 from Five Star Finance and others to transform the car with new mag wheels and a body kit.

He can't recall the interest rates but they were "very high". He agreed to repay $55 a week for three years.

Shortly afterwards, the young couple moved back to their home town of Auckland and had to borrow $2000 from the Money Shop to put down a bond for a flat.

They spent another $6000 on furnishing the flat with a bed and a fridge from Harvey Norman, a washing machine and drier from Hill and Stewart and other items. They used a Q card, a credit card run by Fisher and Paykel Finance that can be used at more than 100 retail chains, offering no interest for the first three months.

After those first three months, the card charges interest on the unpaid balance on a daily basis, but allows customers to set their own repayment rates.

Clark was given a $4500 limit on her card and Standing $1500.
"We both used all the money on our cards," Standing says.

They got a flatmate in to help pay the rent, but found the flat too small so moved to a bigger one. They couldn't get their bond back because of "pet problems" and had to borrow another $2000 for the new bond.

They moved back to Whangarei where Standing got a job in a quarry and borrowed $5000 from Geneva Finance to buy a Mini for Clark, paying back $60 a week.
The new job earned him $1000 a week in the hand and they started to plan an engagement. He took a Visa card to buy a ring, but instead used it to spend $1500 on new brakes and shock absorbers for the Mazda. He let his overdraft at the ASB run up to another $1500.

Then he lost his job. The income stopped. But they owed a total of $47,000, including student loans for Standing's mechanics course and a flight attendant's course for Clark. Their repayment obligations carried on.

"When the crunch came I was paying out about $400 a week if not more," Standing says.

That is the thread that runs through a very large part of NZ society. It is the illustration of the "want, not need" driver that I referred to in my earlier post. It is the reason why we have a "foot spa" that was a birthday present from me to my wife sitting in the spare bathroom, used once, never again I suspect. Why did I buy it? Well, debate but my excuse is that it was written down three times on the "birthday request list" I was given that year. It is why we must replace the car every four or five years; at least before the old one has its tenth birthday.
On average, all of New Zealand is in much the same position. We have slid in a single lifetime from saving 14.6 per cent of our household incomes in 1960 to last year spending 14 per cent more than we earned.

Our profligacy has been offset by the Government, which has switched from regular deficits to mounting surpluses, and by business, which banked ever-increasing retained profits for investment from the early 1990s through to 2004, although these have fallen in the past two years.

The result is that our total national savings have fluctuated mostly between zero and 5 per cent of our national income without any clear trend.

But this has been consistently less than the average saving in rich countries and has not been enough to fund investment, so as a nation we have also been net borrowers in every year since 1974.

Our household debts have ballooned from 50 per cent of our after-tax annual incomes in the early 1980s to 140 per cent in 2004.

Most of us have our debts under control. But in a 2000 survey, between 8 and 12 per cent of people said they had been unable to keep up payments for their mortgage or rent, power, gas or phone bill or payments for goods such as cars and appliances.

That last para combines a series of unfortunate, tragic events involving the death of a lady from a Samoan family some short hours after their electricity had been disconnected for non-payment of their account with today's article in this series. Some of the causes of financial hardship, especially within but not limited to the Pacific Island communities as the above quote testifies, are well set out including the pressure to tithe to the church and the availability of credit at a cost.

...this is a world where people borrow simply because they have to.

Most have children. In 2000, 27 per cent of Pacific people, 23 per cent of Maori and just 8 per cent of Pakeha were unable to keep up payments for goods on credit in the previous year. Similarly, 24 per cent of Pacific people, 16 per cent of Maori and 5 per cent of Pakeha had got into arrears on their mortgages or rent, and 28 per cent of Pacific people, 23 per cent of Maori and 8 per cent of Pakeha had got behind on power, gas or water bills.

In the past five years, debts owed on goods such as cars, furniture and appliances have displaced rent and power bills as the biggest amounts owed, accounting for 38 per cent of all arrears owed by clients of the Federation of Family Budgeting Services last year. Rent and mortgage arrears were next with 32 per cent.

"The top two used to be accommodation and utilities. Four or five years ago they were by far the top categories," says the federation's executive officer Raewyn Fox.

"For the last two years the greatest percentage of debt has been in the category of retail goods providers including hire purchase and credit cards. We believe that is a direct result of the aggressive marketing of retailers, such as low deposits and six months before you have to start payments on a hire purchase."

Moneylenders have multiplied to meet the demand. South Auckland budget advisers report interest rates commonly around 30 per cent, plus fees, on items such as cars and appliances.

For shorter-term loans, corner shops such as Lelei Finance in the Mangere Town Centre lend money on the security of chattels such as a TV set or tapa cloth at interest rates of 20 to 25 per cent a month. For a six-month loan, Lelei owner Lelei Ufi says the interest would total 120 to 150 per cent.

"That is the rate that most of the pawnbroking business charges to the clients," he says.

An extreme case which bills itself as "New Zealand's largest payday advance company", online lender cantwait.com, charges 10 per cent every seven days for money lent until your next pay day - the equivalent of at least 520 per cent on an annual basis.

This is very much a cultural thing, but it is cultural at two levels.

The first is the want vs need aspect that formed the previous post on the topic.

The second is the pressure applied to an individual; by peers, by church, by society itelf. That pressure, to buy this, to have that, to own two cars, to have the Playstation... comes from every direction. It is all pervading. Visit friends - "Oh! You don't have a widescreen digital tv!!" Watch tv and the "you must have..." message is never ending. As suggested in today's Herald article it is now accompanied by "Here is the money...".

Now, to be honest, we have recently dipped our toe into the murky waters of financed buying. Most recently was when we decided to replace the single bed and truckle with a double bed for visiting offspring. Total bill for the bed? About $900 all up. OK, so we signed up for "six months interest free" finance. Yep, it got paid off in the six months. But there were interesting things that happened along the way; like the statement of account which recorded the payments we had made but instead of having a balance owing, ended up with a "Balance Available". Say what? It is the difference between the original advance and the current amount owing. The obvious implication, that I could go out and spend that amount on something else, is not "misleading" but totally immoral in my view.

But the universal availability of credit - at whatever cost - does nothing to alleviate the problem.

So, it is sad to read of the problems that others have - others far less fortunate than I because they also have no concept of "value" or of need vs want. They are in the polar opposite camp to those I have been writing about for reasons that will become apparent.

Thanks to Arts and Letters for the link to -
At 7.30am at the University of California–Irvine campus, a stream of Land Rovers, BMWs and Mercedes pulls into a car park. A collection of tired-looking twentysomethings shuffle out of their cars, file into a class-room and introduce themselves over Diet Cokes and doughnuts...

Television is filled with images of young wealth gone wild, with pouty heiresses demanding new Mercedes and $200,000 birthday parties. Paris Hilton kicked off the trend with The Simple Life, a reality show where the doe-eyed sex symbol slums it on an Arkansas farm. MTV’s Rich Girls chronicled the shopping expeditions of Tommy Hilfiger’s teenage daughter Ally and her friend Jaime Gleicher, while the channel’s other teen-spend-ing fantasy My Super Sweet 16 shows the sons and daughters (mostly daughters) of the newly rich vying for the title of most profligate birthday party.

All that extravagance has created new parenting problems – and new industries to solve them. A spate of recent research studies is shedding more light on how wealth, in addition to giving kids advantages, can become a family curse. Without the need to work, children develop little sense of motivation or drive. They have trouble developing basic life skills – cleaning up, managing money, working with other people – since they’re used to relying on house staff and parents.

“You don’t learn basic skills that are fundamental building blocks for the rest of your life,” says Ellen Perry, founder of Wealthbridge Partners, a training organisation that caters to families worth $100m or more. “The privilege gets in the way of healthy maturation.

“Money gives people the ability to buy their way out of life experiences. The parents may think they’re helping their child, but they’re actually robbing them.”

Mmm, about says it all...


Anonymous said...

Hi, Nice stuff. I found a cool news widget for our blogs at www.widgetmate.com. Now I can show the latest news on my blog. Worked like a breeze.

The probligo said...

What happens when you mention people with the initials "PH"...

Link not recommended.

T. F. Stern said...


The spam never ends; I've had the widget guy sending automated email to me also.

There are so many folks who've been saddled with long term debt and interest payments as to be prisoners to it. If they ever have to take off from work due to health or get fired they lose everything. They have already lost peace of mind because they are always worrying about being able to pay the monthly notes.

About the only thing to go into debt for is a house or maybe a car; the other "stuff" is excess bagage. Nice articles, long but nice.