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Best of 2016: Why We Live Beyond Our Means

This week we are revisiting some of the best Daily Economy blogs of 2016. This piece first ran in April. Our January research brief, also by Max, will deal with the same topic.

Americans are living beyond their means more than ever before. In a recent series of articles, The Atlantic Monthly documents “the secret shame of middle class Americans”: spending more, saving less and often unable to come up with even a few hundred extra dollars in the face of a financial emergency.

Experts often chalk this trend up to government policy or culture, but ignore a very basic explanation: We simply have more opportunities to make bad financial decisions than in the past. While this explanation sounds simplistic, it actually places financial health in the context of many other problems we humans create for ourselves.

Take, for example, the fact that people in the developed world are increasingly overweight. One commonly accepted explanation is that fatty and high-carb foods were scarce when humans evolved, so we developed cravings to help get what we needed. But in an age of microwaves and convenience stores, such instant gratification is at our fingertips, and we end up consuming too much.

From food to electronics, cars to homes, we’ve witnessed an explosion in the amount and variety of consumer products available. At the same time, shopping is faster and easier than ever before due to the Internet and ease of transportation.

Finally, our financial system has made borrowing and credit easier for consumers across the socioeconomic spectrum. Buying the next new toy used to require planning, saving and perhaps most importantly, waiting. Now, we can get the rewards of a new purchase almost instantly while pushing the cost and financial risk to the future. In effect, we can run a Ponzi scheme on our future selves, seeking short-term benefit for future costs that, though less tangible, can pile up to the point of disaster.

So should the government step in and restrict our opportunities to make bad choices? Not so fast. It’s instructive to look at our efforts to fight the ultimate source of short-term pleasure in exchange for future disaster, illegal drugs. The consensus view is that prohibition, aggressive policing and prosecution have done little to solve the problem.

The best solution available may be a combination of education and steps to make it easier to make the right financial decisions. Here at AIER, we hope to contribute to the solution with our upcoming economic wellness initiative.

From consumer goods to junk food to narcotics, we have trouble making decisions when instant gratification is available for costs that only come down the road. These problems increase when society and technology make the quick payoff more available. There may be no easy fix to people living beyond their means, but understanding the problem in the broader context of how we make decisions is the first step down the road to better solutions.

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