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Companies, Cupid and Cost of being average

A bulk of my email every day is from PR agencies trying to market a new product, service or a book. Sometimes, I get emails quoting a survey statistic and an expert offering to comment on that (provided I let the expert advertise his product to you, my readers, in the byline). Normally, those emails go straight to Trash.

Last week though, I received several emails with a similar theme – Valentine’s day; out of the 20 or so emails I received, 2 stood out. Why? Because the message they conveyed was the exact opposite of each other.

The first email read –

According to the 2013 Valentine’s Day spending survey conducted by National Retail Federation (NRF) this year the average person is planning to spend $130.97 on candy, cards, gifts and more, up from $126.03 last year. Total spending will reach $18.6 billion.

[Our product] will help your readers make Valentine’s Day affordable. [Blah Blah Blah features of the product]. Personal finance industry guru and [Product CEO] [Name], is available to discuss ways to enjoy Valentine’s Day without the fear of looking at your account balance the next day. [More blah].

The second email read –

Romance scarce on Valentine’s day a survey finds. A new survey finds that 53% of U.S. adults do not plan to or are unsure if they will buy Valentine’s Day gifts this year. 58% of single U.S. adults believe there is less romance in the digital age. Nearly Six-in-Ten Single U.S. Adults Agree There is Less Romance in the Digital Age.

 [More text on the expertise of the guru who can offer my readers advice on how to keep romance alive in this fast, digital age]

So what is it? Is romance dead? Or is love still in the air with an expensive price tag? The surveys are real and the numbers are both real.

Valentines day is dead

Photo Credit: qthomasbower.

How can those two messages be true?

Welcome to the world of manipulation and marketing

It is always interesting to work with statistics. Anything can be proved to be true if you work the appropriate samples. Companies know this and market their product with skewed statistics. If you are a candy/flowers/gifts company, driving home the fact that an “average” American is spending $130 will evoke  one of these emotions in the reader:

1)    You might be someone who spends $500 for Valentine’s day and feel – I am better than an average American, I am good at expressing my love.

2)    You might be someone who ignores these “holidays” and feels – I am better than an average American who wastes a ton of money.

3)    You might be someone who doesn’t spend $130, but are planning a simple home cooked dinner with your partner, ignores these type of statistics and moves on with what you feel is right.

4)    You might be someone who doesn’t spend $130, but are planning a simple home cooked dinner with your partner and feel obligated to change your plans because well, an average American does spend a lot, so to prove your love you have to as well.

The companies are mainly going for the #1 and #4 types. They want people to feel good about spending money and hence, spend more.

Averages lie – as simple as that.

How these averages are causing everyone to spend more?

Marketers play the averages quite nicely to make us spend more.

When I got married, I read a lot of wedding planning articles. Most of them quoted the average wedding cost of $25,000-$30,000 and either fell under #1 or #4 above. They would tout their $20,000 as a very frugal wedding because they came $5,000-$10,000 below average or they would worry they are not going to have the best day of their life because they cannot afford to spend more. If only everyone ignored the averages and went with what their heart felt like, they are most likely to have the best experience of their lives.

This is not limited to the wedding industry.

If a toy company surveys high rollers and comes up with this statistic – an “average” parent spends $100 on their kids every month on toys, I am pretty sure there will be a few parents who will feel guilty for being too cheap and start buying more toys.

If a clothing company markets a statistic that most successful executives spend $250 a month on clothing, among people who are aspiring to climb the corporate ladder, some of them will invariably start spending more on their clothing.

If we see a news article on how an average American spends $500 on food, if we spend $400, we get a smug accomplished feeling and won’t do anything to curb unnecessary spending because, well, we are way below average.

How an average person is encouraged to save less?

As I said, anything can be proved using averages. It is not limited to spending more, it breaches into saving less as well.

I recently read a blog post touting a very low average balance in 401k. Now, everyone should save as much as possible for their retirement but again, here, the averages make people who have more than the miniscule averages feel all warm and fuzzy about their future when in fact even the amount they have is not enough.

401k balances will mostly be low because people change jobs several times over during their career and rollover the 401k to an IRA making their 401k balance reset every single time. My 401k balance right now is $0. I am part of the statistic that is bringing down the average but it is only part of the picture. We have a decent amount in an IRA which is not counted in this figure. Lot of people look at the low 401k average and look at their slightly higher 401k balance and feel content without any effort to increase the balance.

Same deal with net worth. We are mostly content with others underperforming rather than trying to outperform others.

I am not average – Live like no one else

I don’t agree with Dave Ramsey on everything, but I love his quote – “If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.” It is very true. We have to break free from the average and strive for exceptional. How many people wish they could be average in sports? Or average in our work place? We want to prove we are way above average and therefore deserve recognition/a pay raise/any other benefits. Then why do we settle for being average when it comes to spending and saving?

Why not be extra ordinary and save a LOT more than what your average peers do? Why not spend a lot less than what your neighbors do? Why not give a lot more of your time and money to worthy charitable organizations and make a difference in other people’s lives instead of fading away as an average person?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

TB at BlueCollarWorkman

Averages are funny things. My sister told me once that 98.6F is the average temperature of people. She said that most people, hwoever, are not 98.6F. They are above or below, or way above or way below. Either way, most people aren’t 98.6, but all of our temperatures average to 98.6. I always remember that when media things or people talk about averags. I remember that the average doesnt’ mean that that’s what most people do necessarily; it just falls in the middle of what people do. Which tells me to not let averages change me at all. Screw ‘em. It’s only meaningful if you want it to be. For Valentine’s, I let my wife tell me if she wants to do anything or not. Usually I’ll give her a backrub too, or somethign special like that. Becuase I don’t see how $75 flowers that will die in 2 days are more special than a backrub. *shrug *

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krantcents

I avoid averages and other influences when I make decisions. The object of Valentine’s Day is to please each other. My wife and I do things to please each other. About 15 years ago, I started to have Valentine’s Dy on home. We exchange token gifts and bring dinner in. I fire up the fireplace and light candles and have a very romantic dinner. The total cost is less than $40.

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My Financial Independence Journey

One thing about interpreting studies that anyone can do is to look at the sponsor. If a toy company is sponsoring a study about how much people spend on toys, consider the study suspect from the outset. Same for a mutual fund company talking about 401k balances, or an online dating company talking about unhappy singles.

Just scan to the bottom and take a look for who funded it.

Same thing goes for blog posts. I’ve noticed many of my favorite blogs creepingly becoming more commercial with quasi-sponsored posts hocking affiliate crap. Before reading, scan posts for affiliate links, if you see links related to the post topic, consider it an ad and turn on your critical thinking cap. Doesn’t mean the post is bad, just means that it’s suspect.

“Influence” by Chaldini should be required reading.

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Jules@Faithful With a Few

Wow..talk about conflicting info! My husband and I always go out to dinner for Valentine’s Day, but it’s never on the actual day. We have kids! LOL But, this year we are going to a cabin for a night in a few weeks. We usually go on our anniversary, but the past 2 years of anniversary I was pregnant, so we skipped. To us, Valentine’s day is just another day, but we tend to be romantic many days:)

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John S @ Frugal Rules

I think I got the first email as well. :) I like to avoid averages as well and do not use them for the basis of decision making. I am with you on Ramsey, I do not agree with everything he touts but he hits the nail on the head with that quote. I don’t want out saving/spending to be average, but what works for us and what will help us accomplish the goals we have.

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Julie @ Freedom 48

Interesting numbers! I imagine a lot of people would fall on extreme ends of the spectrum. Some spend hundreds of dollars on a weekend getaway or theater tickets… while others spend $40 on a dinner out, or flowers & chocolate. We spent about $25 this year – for fruit and chocolate for our chocolate fondue. That’s it!

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Chris @ StockMonkeys.com

Nice post on the manipulation of consumers. Averages are a waste of time especially when it comes to holiday or special event spending. Gifts or treating someone is a personal decision and often impacted by limited financial resources. So someone telling me what the averages are means absolutely nothing.

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