The grand scheme of things: digital spending as part of the overall mix

The grand scheme of things: digital spending as part of the overall mix


In tech, it is always tempting to focus on the micro, but we forget the influence of the macro at our peril. For instance, while countless words continue to be written on reassuringly easy subjects like iOS versus Android, less time is dedicated to understanding which innovations have the potential to alter long-term behaviour and categories of spending.

This led me to choose a chart for my Friday inspiration, showing how Americans have been spending their money for the last 75 years (from this article, which uses data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

How Americans spend their money in the last 75 years (source: Howmuch.net and Bureau of Labor Statistics

It’s worth taking the time to zoom in and explore.

Inflation adjusted housing costs, for instance, have risen from a little under $8,000 a year in 1941 to just shy of $18,000 in 2014 – more than double. Transportation costs rose steadily from 1941 to a peak in 1984, but actually fell in the decade from 2004 to 2014. Transport remains Americans second largest expenditure after housing, at about $9,000 a year.

So, where might we isolate ‘digital’ spend within this chart? If I buy a new smartphone tomorrow, would it be recorded as ‘miscellaneous’, ‘recreation and entertainment’, ‘education’ or ‘reading’? To what degree should we attribute multi-functional digital tools with the potential to influence all of these to a single, discrete category?

It quickly becomes apparent how small purely ‘digital’ spend remains in the grand scheme of things. Yet, at the same time, just how pervasive it is becoming and how significant the disruptive potential across all these categories.

Consider the intersection of food, transportation and housing: about $33,000 a year average spend. With an annual budget like that, what products and services might meet the needs of a digital nomad able to work from anywhere, once you factor in autonomous vehicles and sharing economy principles around food and housing? I have a feeling it might be a rather more significant lifestyle change than whether one chooses Samsung or Apple for one’s next phone…

Part of MEX Inspirations, an ongoing series exploring tangents and their relationship to better experience design.

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