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The 'USA Today' Infographic on 'Nonessentials' Misses the Whole Damn Point

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | May 8, 2019 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | May 8, 2019 |


Yesterday, The Motley Fool released this infographic via USA Today, and all hell broke loose, and rightfully so:

Here’s how Twitter reacted to the characterization of take-out, subscriptions, restaurants, online shopping, and rideshares as “non-essential” items:

These are all fair criticisms of the infographic, but I will say this in slight defense of how Motley Fool categorizes some things as “nonessential.” At the beginning of this year, I realized that my family’s spending was a little high, and I thought, “Well, we don’t buy a lot of frivolous things. We don’t have fancy cars or go on expensive vacations. Everything we have seems pretty essential, so I don’t even know how we can cut our budget.” But then I looked at where our money was being spent, and I noticed that, Whoa, there’s a lot of money going into take-out dinners (and breakfasts), restaurants, lunches, and online shopping. Those things are great!, but do we need to do it so much? I mean, if you get takeout from Chipotle for a family of five, that’s $45. You can stay at home and make burritos for $20. Indian food is amazing, but it’s like $80, and I can approximate it at home for less than $20. Is it as good or as convenient? Well, no! But it’s cheaper. I was also in the habit of going out to bagel shops and bakeries on the weekends to get the kids breakfast, and when I looked at how much I was spending on that compared to spending $4 for Trader Joes cinnamon rolls or $5 to make the entire family bacon and eggs, I was like, “Holy shit!” And then I cut Blue Apron because that was way more than it cost to buy the same thing at the grocery store. And then I got rid of some apps I didn’t use all the time, and then I decided to not go out to lunch as often and to limit restaurants to special occasions, like dates or when friends are in town, and I don’t buy coffee as much out because I can make it at home for like 10 percent of the cost, and we cut concessions at movie theaters and limited the family to only seeing the good movies in theaters (instead of all the crappy animated films we could watch at home for $3.99 three months later). I didn’t cut the “nonessentials.” I just limited them, and it was surprisingly easy to shave a lot of money off the old budget.

So, I saved a few bucks a month, and I have hardly felt the difference, and ultimately, that’s nice! But that’s also not the point! What the infographic and the attached article don’t address is why we need to save money on “nonessential” items like a haircut or a ride home from the bar after a night of drinking or a necessary lunch because those lunches are an unofficial social requirement for work. The reason we had to save a few bucks is because of the outrageous expense of student debt, or because we had to pay a deductible on a high deductible health plan on the 29th of December because my daughter was hospitalized overnight for a tonsil infection, and then we had to pay the same high deductible again on the 6th of January because she had her tonsils removed in the next “calendar year.” And because of the insane cost of childcare in a country that does not provide it. Our health, our student debt, and the ability to take care of our children while we work is essential, which has required that we limit the “nonessential items” from which we derive joy and happiness and convenience and, uh, proper grooming.

And that’s what’s so f**ked up. As a society, we work longer hours than we ever have before, and yet we’re being shamed for finding the occasional sliver of happiness. Meanwhile, the wealthy ruling class gets massive tax breaks or has so much inherited wealth that they don’t have to worry about the cost of college tuition or they work a corporate job that provides adequate health insurance or can afford a second nanny to take care of the kids. “Nonessentials” are their f**king life, while we’re being asked not to go to Starbucks twice a week so that we can afford to put our kids in college or not to starve to death in our retirement after the Boomers have depleted the Social Security system.

You know what this whole thing reminds me of? My all-time favorite segment of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, where Fox News was bemoaning how well off the “poors” are because they had extravagances like “microwaves” and “cable” and “air conditioning” and “refrigerators, you food-shilling motherf**kers. How dare you!”

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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