Even the rich feel the pinch of an economy in recession
Approaching his home in the elegant Point Loma district of San Diego, Bob Faucett presses a button on a small box. The steel gate at the foot of the driveway rolls back. A button on a second box opens the garage door, and Bob eases the company-owned Cadillac in beside his wife's 1979 Toyota Celica. Behind us, both barriers close again--shutting out the world beyond this small, well-planted lot and its $700,000 glass-and-redwood house.
From the world's point of view, Bob and his wife, Penny, and their children (daughter Leslie, in the ninth grade, and son Erik, in the seventh) have it made. Since 1958, Bob has been an executive with Coldwell Banker Real Estate Services, a nationwide firm that recently merged with Sears. Promoted in January to first vice-president and regional manager, he is paid comfortably over $100, 000 a year.
Yet like thousands of other American families, the Faucetts are finding that a high income does not necessarily mean money in the bank.
As they speak candidly about family finances across their modern glass coffee-table, it is apparent that even here the surges and buffetings of the national economy are making themselves felt. With no backlog of independent wealth, Bob earns what he has. And like most Americans, he is not immune to increasing costs.
In fact, there is enough drain on the family income to cause concern. Taxes alone run about $50,000 a year--and every year, says Bob somewhat ruefully, ''I have to borrow to pay my taxes.'' His decision to do so, he admits, is a matter of choice. He prefers to invest whatever he can by exercising his options to buy Sears stock, building for his retirement (his company has no formal pension plan) and for his children's education. And, as a widely respected member of the community, he recently joined 55 others as a charter member of a newly formed bank--and borrowed the money to do so.
But in words that could have come from many an American family at many different income levels, he acknowledges that ''in the last year or so, I guess we spent more than we made.''
''Which,'' adds Penny, ''is scary.''
It is also scary for the nation. The average family in the United States, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Lester Thurow, saves only 5 percent of its income--compared with 14 percent for a West German family and 22 percent for a Japanese family. He sees danger signals in the relation of personal savings to federal deficits--noting that if the deficit next year should rise to $130 billion, it would in one year absorb the nation's entire personal savings. Even economists who disagree with his figures agree that high deficits (requiring substantial government borrowing) put the government into strong competition with the private sector for available money.
Can the Faucetts--and the 0.46 percent of the population which, says the IRS, are in the $100,000--to $200,000-a-year tax bracket--trim expenditures enough to bring things into balance and allow some savings?
Both of them are trying. Penny, a blonde North Dakotan, still retains her Midwestern thrift. A seamstress, she has a sewing machine built into a custom-designed desk in an alcove of their bedroom--and uses it. The cost of clothing, she feels, has gotten entirely out of hand. How does she cope?
''I discovered the garment district in Los Angeles a few years ago,'' she says, adding, ''I call myself a bargain shopper.'' She admits that she enjoys shopping at off-price merchandise stores. ''I love good buys,'' she says. ''I find it challenging.''
While Bob and Penny keep no overall budget (''it's more in our head,'' he says), Penny runs their home on $1,500 per month. Of that, she says, about $150 a week goes for food. Another $75 a month goes for gasoline for her car--which, since the local bus schedule changed, gets plenty of use ferrying the children around to school and sports. She pays $30 a day to her cleaning lady for about one-and-a-half days a week. And she buys clothes, pays for dry cleaning, and purchases the rest of the household necessities from that budget as well.
She also belongs to an investment club, through which she studies and participates in the stock market by buying and selling a small number of securities. The club costs members $35 per month--which she and her friends say is the most money they have ever saved on their own. And when she entertains, which she and her friends do less and less frequently because of cost, she figures that a dinner for eight costs her about $150. What happens when she runs over budget? ''When it's gone, it's gone,'' she says simply, ''and it's always gone.''
The other household bills fall into Bob's account. One that greatly disturbs him (and many San Diegans) is from the San Diego Gas and Electric Company. With the nation's third highest electricity rates (behind New York and Jacksonville, Fla.), the utility recently handed the Faucetts a monthly bill for $350. Now the family tries to conserve energy by being careful in their use of appliances and by keeping the heat (rarely needed in this moderate climate) at 63 degrees. But it is frustrating. ''We're using less (electricity) than we used last year,'' says Bob, ''and our bill is $100 more.''
As with most families, however, the major drain on the paycheck is housing. The Faucett's recently built home--the plans for which, Penny recalls with some chagrin, cost them more than they paid for the first house they bought together 17 years ago--gobbles up $1,800 a month in mortgage payments, not including taxes and insurance.
Out of his paycheck, too, comes money for flying. Bob, a qualified flight instructor, belongs to two different flying clubs and gives lessons to friends. Family vacations involve flying to beaches in Baja California or ski resorts in Colorado. A frequent flier, Bob says that in the last 45 days he has flown 35 hours - much of it on company time, traveling to and from meetings. He doesn't charge for his lessons, although the going rate is $15 per hour. ''What's the point,'' he says, ''when the government is going to take $10 of that away?''
From now on, though, the government will take only $7.50 - the result of the Economic Recovery Act of 1981, which lowered his income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent. For Bob, that is a very significant change. Now, he says, it is worth investing in stocks rather than in tax-free bonds or other tax shelters. That is just what the White House hoped the new tax laws would encourage him to do: put his money not into luxuries, nor into consumer goods, nor even into treasury notes, but directly back into the productive capacity of the nation.
He thinks further tax cuts (like the one planned for July) are ''a good signal,'' but he is not wedded to them. ''To me personally, it doesn't mean that many dollars.''
But the dollars absorbed by taxes are clearly a concern in this family--as they are throughout this strongly conservative corner of the nation. As we talked, Bob was awaiting April 15 ''on pins and needles.'' Some years, he says, the tax forms come back from the accountants ''and they say, 'You need to send the IRS $10,000 more.' ''
For him, as for most people, that is no small figure. And to emphasize the normalcy of his family's spending patterns--which, despite the value of their home, are not sumptuous--he brings the figures down to a day-to-day basis.
''My checkbook has $400 in it right now,'' he says, ''and I have about $150 in savings.''