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Indulging middle-class desires inflates economic struggles

It's 40 miles from New Tampa's Freedom High School to the Clearwater dance studio where Tish Lewis's daughter trains three afternoons a week.

To get her there, Lewis pays a driver $55 weekly to take her child to Westchase, where another mother drives the girls the remaining 13.5 miles.

Later, Lewis sometimes drives the full 27 miles from her job in north Tampa to the Clearwater studio, then another 38 back to their home in Lutz.

All of this — the gas, the two hours in traffic — is on top of $275 for six weeks' tuition.

"You want to do so much for your kids, and sometimes you do dumb things like this,'' said Lewis, a former stay-at-home mom now working to help her family weather the recession.

Multiply the Lewis family by tens of millions and you have middle-class America at the close of 2008: extravagant consumers who want to cut back, but are trapped by social convention, children's expectations, technology, even laws and institutions.

For more than a decade we reveled in paper wealth from stock market gains and ballooning real estate values, empowering us to buy the big home, hire the personal trainer, or bid online for that $500 Christmas Wii.

While tragedy strikes at families in foreclosure and charities confront the holidays with bare cupboards, those more fortunate are pondering their own ill-considered spending habits that give new meaning to the term "disposable income."

Notes Eckerd College economics professor Tom Oberhofer, Americans "are completely living up to their income and beyond."

R-r-r-r-r-ring

There are an estimated 240-million cellular phones in the United States — enough for every adult American, while leaving plenty for the 95 percent of St. Petersburg High School students who own one.

"I used to say, my kid is not going to have a cell phone, blah blah blah," said Toni Wasp, an Odessa Realtor. Then her son wanted to hit baseballs with a friend, and she wanted to be able to call him. "It gives me a comfort level," she said.

Robert Rosenberg, who studies the industry for New Jersey-based Insight Research, suggests these parents are indulging themselves, not their children.

"They're doing it for the same reason parents have to go to after-school sporting events," he said. "We have taken our own insecurities and laid them on our children's backs."

But the financial burden rests on the parents' shoulders.

Even the most careful consumer winds up with a rogue $100 texting bill. Ring tones, a product that comedian Chris Rock jokes used to be free, are now a multibillion-dollar industry. And children always want a newer, better model. "It's like a pair of sneakers,'' Wasp said.

"We've all allowed, in the middle class, whatever that is, a kind of excess and over-reaching, especially with our kids," said Ronald Kuntze, a University of Tampa marketing professor.

Kuntze has seen students spend $400 on a pair of Prada sunglasses. They describe $500 "setups" at night clubs, a table and several bottles of alcohol. He welcomes them back from spring break trips to Rio de Janeiro.

"That whole direction is going to change," he predicted. "Where it used to be a mother shaking her head and a father rolling its eyes, but a kid saying 'wow,' these things will now be looked upon almost as bad behavior."

The way we're spending, that could take a while.

Of lawns and laws

While some purchases are voluntary, others stem from agreements that are irrevocable. Suburbanites can find one example without leaving home: The lawn.

Required by most modern subdivisions, a front lawn costs more than $2,000 to resod and at least that much each year to feed, water and groom. Add it up: $50 a month for a chemical service, $100 for mowing, then annual plants and replacement shrubs.

"You've got to be pretty right?" said Pat Rey of the Green Thumb nursery near Westchase.

Landscaping might be the purest form of social spending. "Not a lot of people want to look better than their neighbors," Rey said. "They just want to fit in."

In New Tampa's Cory Lake Isles, every home must have a Canary Island date palm ($500 easy), said taxing district supervisor Dan Morford. Three-quarters of shrubs and decorative plants must have flowers.

"It can be a real hardship when you live in an upscale community," said Morford, who has come to realize that builders and developers designed these landscapes to attract buyers. "The country club lifestyle is, let's face it, the American dream."

Waking up is not easy. With real estate prices depressed and financing scarce, homeowners feel trapped.

"I would sell my house in a minute if I could, and buy land in the country,'' said Bill Sparklin of Apollo Beach, whose homeowner association has chided him about weeds.

But his house has lost 40 percent of its value, and he has made costly improvements. "I would eventually lose money,'' he said.

The road to ruin

When the price of gas spiked during the summer, drivers searched for alternatives — and found few. Today's landscape — scattered job sites, super-sized malls, schools, churches and hospitals — does not lend itself to public transportation.

Steven Polzin, a program director for the University of South Florida's National Center for Transit Research, describes a steady increase in vehicle miles that far outpaced population growth between 1977 and 2001.

We drive; and service workers drive to us as we spend less time at home. "There are small households where people virtually never cook a meal,'' he said.

"You used to go to the doctor. Now you go to the doctor, who sends you to a specialist, who sends you to get a scan and blood work."

Forget about the proverbial walk to the store for bread. "You're not even talking about the loaf of bread, but the bagel from Panera, the one with the cinnamon crunch topping."

They play, we pay

You're also talking about sports practice, a ritual that has replaced neighborhood play.

"I grew up playing Wiffle ball and baseball with my friends,'' said Jim Workman, president of the Oldsmar Soccer Club. Today it's hard to find a pickup game. His organization charges $600 for a season of competitive play, not including the cost of travel for out-of-area tournaments.

A season at Hillsborough County United can cost close to $900, including a surcharge to maintain the county-owned fields. Even at these prices, the league has about 2,000 players.

"You spend a lot of money," said Workman, whose son also plays the clarinet at Countryside High School. "I'm paying $500 for him to be in the band."

"There are several levels of competitiveness among parents," Workman said. "Some parents say they will spend thousands 'so I can somehow get him on a high school team.' ''

At Tampa's Jewish Community Center preschool, children as young as 2 take afternoon enrichment classes in dance, gymnastics, sports fun, cooking, tae kwon do, science and art. Sessions cost $35 to $40 a month on top of tuition.

"We still have a good number doing the classes, although less doing multiple classes," said Kim Barry, the preschool director. "They are choosing one or two rather than four or five."

Making hard choices

Tish Lewis still gets her daughter to the Clearwater dance classes. "Now it's worse,'' she said recently. "She's in a show."

But no matter how time-consuming or expensive, she will not ask her daughter to quit, or move to a closer school that would not meet her needs. "It's her passion,'' Lewis said.

So she shaves other expenses. She does her own nails (savings: $75 for each manicure and pedicure). She cleans her own house ($150).

"We had to sit our kids down and tell them, "we can no longer do this, this and this," she said.

She has scaled way back on cable ($167 a month). The children have grown more responsible, as Lewis can no longer fetch forgotten homework.

"I think that what is happening to us is very, very sad,'' she said. "But as a society, in a way, we needed this. We need to get back to basics.''

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or sokol@sptimes.com.

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Indulging middle-class desires inflates economic struggles 11/28/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 7:46pm]

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