10 Things We Can't Live Without

These new American essentials reflect the tension between thrift and materialism.

By SHARE

Nearly everything had to go. A few months after losing her administrative job in the summer of 2008, 23-year-old Brianna Karp got rid of her furniture, a beloved piano, and most of her books so she could move back in with her parents. When that didn’t work out, she moved into an old trailer a relative had left her, settling into an informal homeless community in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Brea, Calif. By the summer of 2009, she was living without electricity, regular showers, home-cooked food, and most basic conveniences.

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Karp held tight to one appurtenance, however: her laptop computer. She spent hours at a nearby Starbucks, using the wireless network to surf for jobs. A friend suggested she start a blog about her life on the edge, which she called the Girl’s Guide to Homelessness. It generated attention that helped land a part-time magazine internship. Then came an offer to write a book about her ordeal, which is due out in 2011—and might get turned into a movie. With some money from a book advance, Karp has upgraded to a better trailer, on a friend’s property, and she’s eyeing a Victorian fixer-upper she’d like to make her permanent home. Yet she craves few of the material things she’s given up, while cherishing the friends and opportunities she’s discovered online. “When you’re in survival mode, you slash everything,” Karp says. “That makes the online community that much more important. Online, somebody will always be there for me.”

The grueling recession that began in 2007 has upended American priorities, with frugality now considered a virtue for the first time in decades. Despite recent upticks in spending, retail sales remain lower than they were three years ago. Sales of homes, cars, and appliances have plunged. Shoppers have cut back on toilet paper and cigarettes, once thought recession-proof. Even porn sales are down. Thrift, it seems, has no boundaries. 

Yet Americans have clung dearly to a few surprising necessities, reflecting changes in American society that go far beyond penny-pinching. Food, clothing and shelter have long been the most obvious staples. But data that’s finally rolling in as the recession winds down shows that we also require a bit of entertainment and a tasty beverage or two. Companionship is as important as ever—even if it’s not human. And you can’t even look for a job these days if you don’t have Internet access. As we redefine what’s really important, here are 10 new American essentials:

Portable computers. The iPad might be the latest must-have gizmo, but the power of computers transcends trendiness. Brianna Karp, for instance, discovered lots of homeless people online, many logging in through their own laptops, like her. Shipments of notebooks have skyrocketed over the last three years, with sales in 2010 likely to be double what they were in 2007, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Part of the jump comes from cheap netbooks, but portable computers of all sizes are becoming ubiquitous as we socialize, communicate, shop, get our news and increasingly live our lives online. Desktop sales, meanwhile, have been on a steady decline, as mobility trumps stability.

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High-speed Internet access. Lots of people have cut back on cable TV, telephone service, and even gas and electricity usage. But once you’ve got high-speed Internet access, you don’t go back. In a Pew Research Center survey from last year, high-speed Internet was one of only three things people said was more of a necessity in 2009 than in 2006. Appliances like microwaves, clothes dryers and dishwashers, by contrast, were considered less essential in 2009 than they used to be. And data from the Telecommunications Industry Association shows that the rapid increase in broadband Internet subscribers barely slowed in 2008 or 2009. By 2013, more than 90 percent of all Internet connections in the United States will be high-speed.

Smart phones. Overall sales of cell phones dipped for the first time ever in 2009. But sales of smart phones—which can handle email, browse the Internet and do a variety of other things—rose by 7 percent, according to TIA. And sales could surge by 25 percent this year, as people who have been putting off mobile upgrades finally nab the iPhone or Blackberry of their dreams. Like portable computers, smart phones have become a lifeline for the harried multitaskers we pretend we’re not.

Education. As Kevin and Deanna Daum were spiraling toward bankruptcy in 2009, they decided they could live without their two cars, their two residences, and most niceties. But they insisted on keeping up tuition payments for their son, then a senior at a private high school. Many Americans seems to feel likewise. While data doesn’t readily show how much families spend on schooling, many families say they’ve given up other things in order to protect their kids’ education, whether it’s private school or college, tutoring, enrichment programs or school-related activities. Private school enrollments fell by less than one percent from 2008 to 2010, and college enrollments have gone up over the last couple of years. That’s partly because jobs are scarce, but also because Americans simply value education. “This is an investment that pays off very well,” says Sandy Baum, an economist at the College Board. “People are willing to borrow for it and they know that it’s shortsighted to forego it.”

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Movies. Ticket sales dipped in 2008 but bounced back in 2009, hitting a five-year high. One big reason was Avatar and other 3-D films, which accounted for 11 percent of the box office take in 2009, up from 2 percent the year before. Any box-office increase is a victory for movie theaters, which until last year had been losing viewers to home theater systems and an expanding lineup of movies on cable and the Internet.

TV. Amercians are spending less on entertainment—but watching more TV. A recent survey by consulting firm Deloitte found that they typical American watches nearly 18 hours’ worth of shows on a home TV each week, two hours more than a year earlier. One reason might be that more unemployed people are killing time at home. But TV might also seem like a cheap alternative to sports events, concerts and DVD purchases. And hard-core TV watchers can’t be all that strapped, since sales of high-definition TV sets have risen steadily right through the recession.

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Music downloads. The need for mobility applies to music, too. CD sales fell by 21 percent in 2009, but downloads of singles and entire albums rose by nearly as much. The Pew Survey comparing luxuries and necessities helps explain why: More people considered an iPod a necessity in 2009 than in 2006, despite the recession.

Pets. Fido sits at the table these days. Maybe even at the head of the table. While Americans have cut spending on themselves, spending on pet food, supplies, grooming, vet care and clothing (clothing?) has been rising uninterrupted by about 5 percent per year. Industry officials attribute this to the “humanization” of pets, which in turn has led many pet owners to close the “quality of life gap” between their animals and themselves. The iWoof can’t be far behind.

Booze. Smoking less doesn’t make us entirely virtuous. Americans have backed off the high-end booze, but we’re drinking enough cheap stuff to make up for it, which is the usual trend during recessions. Beer and wine sales have inched up as well over the last few years. With bar and restaurant sales down, that suggests more people are drinking at home—while they watch TV, probably.

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Coffee. Americans have actually followed that penny-pinching advice, and cut back on the $5 daily lattes. But they’re compensating by brewing more of their own coffee. About 56 percent of American adults drink coffee, a proportion that hasn’t changed over the last few years. But a recent survey by the National Coffee Association found that 86 percent of coffee drinkers make their own at home, up from 82 percent a year earlier. And those drinking coffee made someplace else (think Starbucks) fell from 31 percent in 2009 to 26 percent in 2010. Of course, if people are drinking more booze at home, then it makes sense that they’d be dosing themselves with more coffee, too. If the economy improves, maybe we'll need less of each.