Monday, April 22, 2013

Who Are You?

Caterpillar: Who... are... you?
Alice: Why, I hardly know, sir. I've changed so much since this morning, you see...
Caterpillar: No, I do not C, explain yourself.
Alice: I'm afraid I can't explain myself, you see, because I'm not myself, you know.
Caterpillar: I do not know.
Alice: I can't put it any more clearly, sir, because it isn't clear to me.

Where you live, where you shop, how much money you make is who you are, at least to Acxiom, a company collecting your personal data. You have been slotted into one of 70 categories. Here are a couple of examples from an article entitled “What Type of Consumer Are You?”

Married Sophisticates: You're in your late 20s or early 30s, recently married and likely have a household income between $50,000 and $100,000. You probably own a home, most likely in an upscale suburban neighborhood. You're a fan of "green and trendy cars," shop at Banana Republic and The Gap and are a loyal Netflix Inc. subscriber.

Apple Pie Families: You're part of an upper-middle class family, likely living in a smaller city or nearby suburb. You probably drive a minivan. You shop at stores like Home Depot, Target and Best Buy, read Sports Illustrated and listen to NPR.

Retailers pay big bucks for this information. By studying how and where different categories of consumers cluster companies can decide where to place new stores and how to advertise their products.

People resent being slotted by big businesses. Many claim using this kind of demographic data can effectively lead to a lack of choice, essentially discrimination based on race or income. That would be correct. It is unlikely that Walmart will build a store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills 90210 or that Tiffany & Company will open a jewelry store in South Central LA.

Really though it isn’t the statisticians at Acxiom who are putting us into slots. We do that to ourselves. Recently we bought our retirement home near another city that is warmer and less expensive than suburban Washington, DC. Construction should be complete in the July August time frame. I would have picked a smaller, less expensive house, but my wife needs space to properly display the antique furniture we have inherited from our parents. The decision to live in one of those “Apple Pie Families” neighborhoods will deepen our demographic slot whether we like it or not. The community has covenants that discourage keeping farm animals as pets or storing a collection of 1948 Dodge pickup trucks in your front yard. This house will require a certain level of upkeep, as well as property taxes that will have to be paid. The people who buy these houses have typically locked themselves into a 30 year mortgage. Some of them have decided to have children. They will raise their children in apple pie American way. That will cost about $200,000 per child excluding college. I have seen them out walking their purebred dogs with their nicely dressed children or coming home from work in some pretty nice new cars.

Most of us don’t consciously answer the caterpillar’s question, “Who are you?” until it is too late. One day we wake up bound by a chain of our own making. We choose a life style. Then we have to find and keep a job that can support that life style. Usually that entails a lot of compromise and some regrets, usually tempered by our love for our family. Then, after many years have passed, we take the time to read personal finance literature in the hopes that we can learn to use our money to find our freedom. Ultimately that is what money means to me, freedom.

Before you bite the hook, ask the question, “Who am I?” Does marrying this man really make sense given who I am? Will leasing this $35,000 car really bring me enough happiness and fulfillment to justify postponing retirement for a year? Do I really want to spend the next 30 years in this cubicle? The earlier you ask yourself these questions the more likely it will be that you can live a conscious, awake, free, fulfilling life.

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