The cost of excessive living

ONE of my workmates, one of the millions of Australians who groan about the cost of living, tells me it costs her $60 a week to feed her three cats. Plus $10 a week for treats for a neighbour’s dog. That was a few days ago, and I made a note on my iPhone, which costs me $50 a month, to ask my wife how much we spend feeding her two cats. But I realise now that I made a mistake, telling my wife that my friend spent $60 a month (not a week) feeding her cats and asking how much her two bloody cats cost us each month?

About that, she replied.

What! Sixty dollars a month feeding cats!

Oh no, my wife said, and after staring at the ceiling and stabbing a finger at imaginary numbers she revised that to about $10 a month. Relief, or it was until just now that my workmate explained my error, that she spends $60 a week, and that a cat cannot be fed for $10 a week let alone a month.

I’ve addressed the cost of keeping cats because I’ve just read a study by Canberra University’s National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling and AMP that shows that while we grizzle about the increasing cost of living we’ve actually been increasingly better off over the past 28 years. The report, titled Prices these days! The cost of living in Australia, found that the average family is $224 a week better off since 1984.

The researchers found that about 40 per cent of household spending is discretionary, that it is entirely optional, with the remaining 60 per cent divided between basic necessities, such as mortgage payments, electricity and cook-at-home food, and relative necessities, which cover such as computers, child care and mobile phones. Discretionary covers alcohol and tobacco, prepared and restaurant meals, and holidays, and I would say cat food. I would say, too, that a significant proportion of mortgage payments is discretionary too, given that we don’t have to buy a monster house with pool and three-car parking close to the beach, but the researchers did not make such a division. Households with a low income spend one in three dollars on these things, and those with a high income about one in two dollars.

So maybe, the report says, it is not the cost of living that is making life tough, maybe it is the living we aspire to. No maybe about it, I say.

In the 1980s I wouldn’t have dreamt of spending the equivalent then of $140 a month on sports fees for a child, and not even at my most magnanimous would I have committed to monthly fees for a phone or any gadget for the same child, even though in relative terms my salary was the same as it is now. Anything less than a car each for my wife and I would be deprivation now, and neither of us would want to drive the cars that kept us mobile, mostly, until the turn of the century and which are most kindly described as bargains.

Do we really need two stoves, and did they have to be Italian stoves? Two kitchen fridges? Two big televisions?

Computers and the internet are probably not so discretionary now but the number of computers and the size of the internet service to my home is. The number of power tools in my shed is certainly discretionary, and while tools cost just a fraction of what they did until a decade ago I spend more buying more because they are cheap. Last weekend I bought an electric impact chisel when a hand-held chisel and hammer would do the job I have in mind.

We extend houses that are too big already, we hire handymen to do the jobs we did ourselves once, we no longer paint our own home, many pay to have the lawn mown and the house cleaned. Many householders have lost the skills to fit a tap washer, replace a mower’s blades, fix a broken gate.

Cats eat gourmet tins and dogs have treats. But I’m going to see how my wife’s cats like cheap mince.

Are you better or worse off than you were in the 1980s? Are your aspirations to blame?

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