As America's mania with cell phones as an aspirational status fad hits new records every day, this borderline addiction to "thinner, longer" mobility and a sub-1 year upgrade cycle, is starting to extract its pound of flesh: average cell phone bills that have risen by over 10% in one year (from $1,110 to $1,226), even as total household spending rose by half, or $67. In a word: iNflation. It gets worse. As the WSJ reports, "spending on food away from home fell by $48, apparel spending declined by $141, and entertainment spending dropped by $126." Like a true faux status/gadget junkie, Americans don't care what other discretionary items are cut, even such "American staples" as eating out and watching movies, just so they can keep up with all the other Joneses sporting a brand new iPhone X+1, while everyone's credit card bill just gets larger and larger, and the collective wealth evaporates.
More than half of all U.S. cellphone owners carry a device like the iPhone, a shift that has unsettled household budgets across the country. Government data show people have spent more on phone bills over the past four years, even as they have dialed back on dining out, clothes and entertainment—cutbacks that have been keenly felt in the restaurant, apparel and film industries.
The tug of war is only going to get more intense. Wireless carriers are betting they can pull bills even higher by offering faster speeds on expensive new networks and new usage-based data plans. The effort will test the limits of consumer spending as the draw of new technology competes with cellphone owners' more rudimentary needs and desires.
So far, telecom is winning. Labor Department data released Tuesday show spending on phone services rose more than 4% last year, the fastest rate since 2005. During and after the recession, consumers cut back broadly on their spending.
Families with more than one smartphone are already paying much more than the average—sometimes more than $4,000 a year—easily eclipsing what they pay for cable TV and home Internet.
None of this is surprising. The real question is how much more discretionary spending can the US cell phone junkie forego before there is a collectivist yell of revulsion, and the mobile PDA fad is as dad as, well, all those other fads that came before it?
Melinda Tuers, an accounting clerk at a high school in Redlands, Calif., said she already pays close to $300 a month for her family's four smartphones. She and her husband have cut back on dining out, special events and concerts to make room for the bigger phone bill.
Her household may soon have an even bigger hole to fill. Two of the Tuers's smartphones are on unlimited data plans, meaning she pays the same price no matter how much she surfs the Web. She has taken advantage of that freedom to watch TV shows such as "Covert Affairs" and "Grey's Anatomy" on her phone almost every day.
Ms. Tuers figures that she and her husband would need to scrape together more than $1,000 to pay full price for two new high-end phones or settle for one of Verizon's tiered-data plans, which she fears would cost a lot more given her video habit.
For those who look for iNflation and can't find it, perhaps they should look deeper:
Carriers fully expect people to use more data and pay more for it. "Speed entices more usage," Verizon Chief Financial Officer Fran Shammo said at an investor conference last week, according to a transcript. "The more data they consume, the more they will have to buy."
Some question where the money for that data will come from. Americans spent $116 more a year on telephone services in 2011 than they did in 2007, according to the Labor Department, even as total household expenditures increased by just $67.
Meanwhile, spending on food away from home fell by $48, apparel spending declined by $141, and entertainment spending dropped by $126. The figures aren't adjusted for inflation.
The increase in telephone-services spending masks an even higher rise in cellphone bills, because people have been paying less for landline service.
Some people are very confused:
That trend is evident in the home of 40-year-old Scott Boedy, a neighborhood service representative for a cable company.
Mr. Boedy said he and his wife now pay $200 a month for cellphone service, up by about $50 from early last year, even as they have managed to cut spending on groceries by shopping at discount chain Aldi and on "fun stuff" by going out to dinner and movies less often.
Looking over the family budget on Sunday night, Mr. Boedy said, his wife marveled at how much of it was going to the phone company.
"It stinks," Mr. Boedy said. "I guess it's the cost of modern-day America now."
No Scott, it isn't. It's the consequence of your choices. But as long as one has the ability to do what every other borderline insolvent entity in the world does, namely to "charge it", sweep it under the rug, and hope to never have to repay it, this confusion will continue.
And now excuse us while we swipe our corporate credit card to buy that gold Vertu phone we have had our eyes on for so long: surely it will make everyone else think so highly of us...