One of the great things about being The Ultimate Cheapskate and writing about smart spending for a living is that you get all kinds of interesting press releases and stumble across other fascinating frugal factoids almost every day. I keep a running list of what I consider to be the most shocking spending facts I come across, then annually I write up my Top 10 list for that year.
Here's my 2012 edition, not in any particular order — you can decide for yourself which you find most surprising, or perhaps most disturbing.
1. The average allowance an American child now receives is about $780 per year, or $65 per month, according to a recent study by the American Institute of CPAs. At that pay rate, I'm thinking seriously about giving up this writing stuff and becoming a kid again. What's more — just like with most American adults' paychecks — hardly any of that $780 ends up unspent and in the bank.
2. Speaking of young people and money, the website Creditloan.com says the typical American now first takes on debt(s) — usually a credit card and/or car loan — while still in high school. Heck, when I was in high school, my parents didn't even have a credit card! But nowadays, the average American adult has 13 outstanding credit obligations at any one time.
3. There are signs that "McMansion Mania" — the trend toward Americans wanting ever larger, more expensive homes — may be slowing or even reversing itself, according to data from the real estate website Trulia.com and the National Association of Home Builders. In the 1950s, the average American home was just under 1,000 square feet; by the 2000s it had ballooned to 2,300 square feet, despite steadily decreasing family size during the same period. But since 2010 our appetite for supersized housing has been waning, with most Americans now saying they prefer 2,100 square feet or less, and a third wanting to keep it under 2,000 square feet.
4. We may be slightly less intent on supersizing our homes, but our hunger for fast food — and spending on it — continues to grow. Americans now spend more than $110 billion annually on fast food. And a study by BankRate.com found that when people use a charge card to pay, they spend on average of about 50 percent more than when they pay with cash. That's hard on both our wallets and our waistlines.
5. Ever wonder which type of sales offers are the biggest turn-ons for consumers? According to a survey conducted this holiday season by the Omnibus Company, consumers are most tempted by buy one, get one free (45 percent) deals, followed by specific dollar amount discounts or percentage off deals (17 percent each) and free shipping (16 percent).
6. In 2012, the total amount of outstanding student loan debt hit the $1 trillion mark for the first time in U.S. history, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The average student amasses more than $20,000 in student loan debt to earn the first degree, and an additional $17,000 to earn a master's degree. That's a lot, but not compared with medical school students, who leave school owing roughly $113,000.
7. The average amount of a new car loan is now more than $30,000 — a 40 percent increase over the past 10 years — and about 45 percent of those loans are now longer than six years. Americans own 439 cars per every 1,000 people, which is actually fewer cars per capita than many European countries. Despite that fact, Americans use roughly twice as much energy as most Europeans.
8. Paying $199 to buy a new iPhone 5 (basic, 16 GB model) doesn't seem too outlandish if you really have your heart set on owning one. But your appetite for all the latest apps may not be so great when you take a look at this data compiled by the firm Avalaunch Media. When you factor in monthly service plans and other costs, the true cost of owning that iPhone 5 is likely to run between $1,000 and $2,500 per year.
9. According to a 2012 Employee Benefit Research Institute survey, only 14 percent of American workers say that they are "very confident" that they will have enough money to live comfortably in retirement and 30 percent of workers said they have less than $1,000 in savings and investments. Maybe ignorance is bliss, since the institute also found that 56 percent of workers have never even attempted to calculate how much they will need to save for a comfortable retirement.
10. And finally, prepare for shock and awe. According to the website CreditLoan.com, the average American will now pay more than $600,000 in interest over the course of a lifetime! Think about how much of that interest you could avoid by adopting the old-school philosophy many of our grandparents lived by: If you can't afford to pay for it now, you really can't afford it.
Jeff Yeager is the author of Don't Throw That Away!, The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches and The Cheapskate Next Door. His website is www.UltimateCheapskate.com; you can follow him on Twitter.