When times are good, people become complacent. Riding in gas guzzling land-yachts and dwelling in cavernous McMansions tends to dull the senses and lulls people into a false sense of security. The scale that was once used to measure the distance between wants and needs became dangerously off-kilter.

For many people, 1,400-square-foot homes are now considered starters. They aren’t really homes to be lived in and cherished, perhaps even added-on-to as the family grows larger but rather simply a figure on a financial sheet that will grow over a number of months or years, just enough to trade-up to the next level. Some people don’t even have time to unpack all of the boxes before moving up the next rung on the housing ladder.

“Flipping” became a national phenomenon and a large portion of the nation became enamored with the idea of moving on up. Although everyone knew this housing bubble would eventually burst, many people were short sighted and joined this conspicuous consumption. Now, faced with an unprecedented rate of foreclosure, triple digit mortgages, an uncertain job market, and $4 per gallon gas, many families are faced with some hard decisions on how they are going to hold on to their home or worse still, where they are going to live when their home goes into foreclosure.

Hindsight 20/20

If these people could have seen into the future, many of these mistakes could have been avoided. However, here we are. My dad always told me smart people learn from their mistakes. When the economy starts to climb out of the dumper, what can we personally do to limit our exposure to the next financial downturn? First of all, we need to be content with what we have. Most of us grew up with brothers and sisters in a home half the size of the average home now being built. The average family home in 1970 was 1,400 square feet compared to 2,330 square feet in 2004. Does this mean we are all having way more kids so we need more room? The opposite is true. Even if you count the dog, the U.S. census reports that the average American family is smaller in count.

So what is driving this “bigger is better” trend? In a past column, I discussed the topic that I want a better life for my kids. I think this has a lot to do with it. People have been judging success by the amount of stuff (and how big this stuff is) that they have. In order to be considered a success, you must have more stuff than your parents had. Is having all of this stuff making people happier now? The argument can be made that they are not, simply by the number of ads for mood altering drugs that run every couple of minutes on the television.

A lot of us remember the recession in the early ’80s. Back then I was still finishing drywall, or should say, I was looking for drywall to finish. My partner and I took any work we could find and were lucky to make $400 to $500 a week. Somehow we made it through. There was little money for anything other than the bare necessities. But as soon as the economy turned around and we started making money again, we started spending more. Sad to say, I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to spending. If we could have kept to the same budget that was forced upon us during the hard times and saved that money, we would have more in the bank today.

A lesson that has been lost is, just because you can buy something does not mean you need to buy it. The financial experts recommend having enough savings to last for six months in case of emergency. I have to wonder how many people would be able to ride out this current downturn if they would have heeded this counsel. 

Hard decisions have to be made daily on how to make ends meet as the cost of everything continues to rise. One thing that needs to happen is our depiction of success needs to change. We also need to ignore the constant bombardment from advertising companies making millions of dollars trying (and succeeding) to convince us we need a 52-inch TV or a Lincoln Navigator to be truly happy. 

Not Long Ago

We all have short memories. In the ’70s when the price of gas spiked off the chart, people traded in gas-guzzlers for more economical vehicles. I still remember how embarrassed I was the first time I had to drive my brother-in-law’s Ford Courier. He always drove full size pick-ups, and it felt good to cruise in style, but when he considered how many times he had to fill up his GMC 454, the economics of that time forced him to choose economy over comfort. We clocked many miles in that Courier, and as uncomfortable as it was, it was the right thing to do. Of course, as time went by and everyone got used to the new threshold price for fuel, the Couriers, Chevy Luvs and Datsuns were slowly traded back in for Silverados, Rams and F-150s. And Detroit took notice.

The reason the Big Three sell more SUVs and full size pick-ups than any other models is because consumers buy them. One has to wonder what vehicles of today would look like and what the fuel economy of these vehicles would be if the public would have kept on buying smaller, more economical vehicles.

Today it cost me $79 to fill up my Silverado. Once again, I am facing the same decision, comfort or economy. I doubt the price of gas will ever be south of $3 again. Will we all once again get used to this new threshold and continue to buy ridiculously overpriced gas guzzlers or will we finally wake up and decide once and for all, consuming less fossil fuel is the only choice that is acceptable for the economy and the planet?

Another monthly expense that is spiraling out of control is the cost of utilities. Whether you use heating oil, natural gas or electricity, monthly utility bills are rising at a staggering rate. You might think there is not much you can do to combat this, but there are some rather simple steps that can be taken to help you write smaller checks.

The first thing we can all do is to replace every incandescent light bulb in our home with compact florescent bulbs. CFL’s use between one-fifth to one-quarter of the power of an equivalent incandescent bulb. Lighting accounts for approximately 9 percent of the household electricity used in the United States. Additionally, the average lifespan of a CFL is eight to 15 times that of an incandescent light. While the cost of these bulbs is three to 10 times greater than that of an incandescent bulb, an average home that replaces all of their lights with CFL’s can expect to save an average of $440 to $1,500 over the life of the bulbs. Some local electric utilities recognizing the reduction on electric demand (thus delaying additional investment in new generating stations) have offered CFL’s free of cost to their customers. Why wait until 2012 when incandescent bulbs are phased off the market in the U.S.? Take advantage of the savings now.

The next thing we can do is to make sure that all of our appliances are plugged into a power strip that has an “on/off” button. You would be surprised to know how many appliances, even though they are turned off at their power switch, are still consuming electricity. I watched a program the other night where the host demonstrated using a power meter and how much “ghost electricity” was being used even though the dedicated power switch was in the off position.

Then there is the common sense stuff. Doing laundry at night instead of during peak hours, turning down thermostats, not taking 45 minute showers, turning off the lights when they aren’t needed; we all know this stuff, sometimes we just need a reminder. None of these things when taken separately seem to amount to much but the cumulative savings can be great. These days a savings of $10 or $20 can mean the difference between having enough gas in the tank to go to work or not.

Look for me to continue to address this topic in the months to come. I have plans to write about alternative energy, green products and maybe even something about drywall: yeah, this column is supposed to be about drywall, but it is personally very challenging for me to write about a trade that is hurting from attacks on every front.

Remember: anything that does not kill you makes you stronger! W&C

Sidebar: Let's Go Green

Adventures in Drywall, in an effort to truly live up to its name for the December Drywall issue in Walls & Ceilings, is inviting manufacturers to step up and show us their truly green products. I will review the Top Green Products in Drywall in the last issue of the year for those products that I truly believe make a difference in sustainable building. 

Folks, we are all facing a paradigm shift in everything that we do. Today, for the most part, the changes taking place are economically driven. Nevertheless, many of these changes will be for the better. I am totally driven to do as much to forward this cause as possible. Your participation in this challenge offers you an open forum to have your products/ideas/methods showcased for the entire construction community to view. I thank you in advance for your submissions, as I am sure there are many like-minded individuals who are as driven as yours-truly.  

I sign off with a heartfelt promise to you all. I am serious about this cause and your submissions will be addressed in like manner. This is one of the most important issues we face today, but more importantly, for the future of our planet.

Please send these product samples by September 26 to:

Kevin Bush
51 Borick Drive
Boyertown, Pa. 19512