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Luxury vs. necessity: Are Americans confused?

by Karen on August 23, 2010

Over the weekend, I found this interesting study from Pew Research on a blog I read. Survey respondents were asked to rate how necessary different household devices are to their lives and whether or not they consider them to be luxuries.

Respondents answered the question “Do you pretty much think of this as a necessity or pretty much think of it as a luxury you could do without” for the items on the right. I find the results shocking.

I wasn’t surprised to see that 86 percent of people consider their car to be a necessity. Depending on where you live, it can be pretty difficult to get around without a car. It’s sad to me that more communities haven’t embraced public transportation, but since I now live in one of them, I have to admit that our (one) car is pretty much a necessity for us. Without it, my husband wouldn’t be able to get to and from his job, which pays the rent and buys us groceries.

I was surprised, however, to see that more than half of respondents rated their home air conditioning and clothes dryer as a necessity. Really? Don’t get me wrong, I love air conditioning as much as the next person (especially now that I’m pregnant), but I also recognize that it’s one of the most decadent luxuries we enjoy in this country.

I’d say the same for my clothes dryer. Is line drying convenient? Not always. But it is something that everyone can do. And if you’re not willing to line dry, chances are you live near a laundromat.

I’m equally shocked that 47 percent of people think their cell phone is a necessity, 45 percent of people don’t think they couldn’t live without a microwave, 42 percent think their television is a necessity, and 21 percent even consider their dishwasher a necessity. And don’t even get me started on the 23 percent who think cable TV is a necessity or the 10 percent of people who can’t live without a flat screen TV. That is insanity.

These numbers show just how confused a lot of people in this country are when it comes to what they really need. I’d consider pretty much everything on this list a luxury. Do these things make life easier for us? Yes. By definition, that’s what luxuries do. They make life easier and more comfortable. But we don’t need them to survive.

It’s scary to think that so many people are confused about the difference between what’s necessary and what’s convenient. For necessities, we have no choice but to find a way to afford them. Things like food, clean drinking water, shelter, and medical care. But when you believe that things like air conditioning and clothes dryers and cable television are necessities, it’s harder to give up these luxuries when money is tight.

What do you think? Do you find this poll as shocking as I do?

Chart courtesy of Pew Research

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