I’m always wary of drawing conclusions about the American economy from what I see in everyday life for reasons that should be obvious. All such anecdotes should be viewed suspiciously because individual observations or incidents are much more likely to result from randomness or unique circumstances than to reflect a genuine trend. And I’d be the last to claim that my own experiences have ever been representative of anything larger.
Still, it’s undeniably, and understandably, gratifying when some actual data seems to bear out something that’s had me (figuratively) scratching my head for some time. It’s the seeming tendency of folks who at least appear to be well into the lower depths of the “99 percent” of non-uber-wealthy Americans owning what look (to my admittedly non-expert eye) like state-of-the-art smartphones. Although all sorts of reasonable explanations are possible, a recent survey of consumer finances at least has supported my suspicion that something genuinely peculiar – and not so encouraging – really is going on here.
First, let’s examine some of the extenuating circumstances. Prices for smartphone services have been falling steadily – and steeply over the last few months, thanks largely to the spread of unlimited data plans. Just check out this chart:
Younger consumers in particular also have shown some tendency to value buying experiences (like the extraordinary connectivity provided by modern personal communications) over goods. Some of these millennials and others in the post-baby-boom categories (especially students) may be getting help from their families – and that doesn’t necessarily raise red flags. More disturbing, however, are the odds that many of the young are avoiding or deferring goods purchases (especially big ones they used to make in the twenties and thirties, like cars and homes) because they simply can’t afford them, and are therefore substituting relatively cheap indulgences like phones with every conceivable bell and whistle.
Nonetheless, that consumer finance survey – from the Credit Sesame website – sadly suggests that many low-income earners who use smartphones of some kind (it’s not possible to say that they’re the latest and greatest) literally can’t afford them. Instead, they’ve bought them with seriously over-extended credit.
According to Marketwatch.com reporter Maria LaMagna, Credit Sesame examined the finances of 5,000 consumers and found that those whose cell phone accounts are considered delinquent were carrying an average balance of $887. I couldn’t find any information about what percentage of the 5,000 consumers analyzed were carrying such cell phone debt, but here’s a reason to think that the share carrying significant amounts is pretty big: phone service companies don’t usually report customers’ payments histories to credit bureaus until the collections process formally begins. I also wish that the article indicated how credit card-related debt has changed over time.
But it’s hard to believe that a reputable site like Marketwatch would have reported these numbers had they been more the exception than the rule. And the amounts of cell phone-related debt are especially striking given how services are now cratering in price.
It’s entirely possible that cell phone debtors will take advantage of these price plunges to pay up and stay fully paid up. In principle, the companies could start cracking down, too. But there’s also a real chance that the debtors will simply start paying their minimums on time, and that the service companies – currently engaged in price wars determined to get and keep customers practically at all costs – will keep treating them leniently (and milking them as cash cows for as long as they can). Raise your hands if you think this is any way to run an economy for any serious length of time.