Economic woes have many of us wondering how much further our house values will plunge, how low the stock market will dive, and how high gas and food prices will continue to soar. Yet there is an optimistic refrain spiraling around—maybe this financial comeuppance will teach Americans a valuable lesson about living healthier, smarter, and within our means.
Americans live fast—we eat in restaurants, we use microwaves, and we purchase prepared food. We don’t have meals together as a family as often as we used to. We drive cars in order to get to our destinations as quickly as possible, and we cheat ourselves in the sleep department so that we can squeeze in extra television, work, and house chores.
The good news is this: we can change. Take a look at some of the trends in America and ways we can reverse them for a healthier, happier, and cheaper lifestyle.
Photo source: VirtualErn  on flickr (cc)
Take these statistics. According to a 2005 CBS Poll , 63 percent of American households with children under eighteen reported that they have dinner together five or more days each week. Compare that with 67 percent of Americans in 1990. Sixty-eight percent of American families making more than $50,000 ate at least one meal out during the week, and 17 percent of all families reported having fast food for dinner two to three nights during the week.
Eating out is far more expensive than eating in. See this article on The Simple Dollar  that details why it is still cheaper to buy groceries and cook, even when considering a $1 cheeseburger from McDonalds.
On a health note (and lord knows America’s scale-tipping is startling: 31 percent of us are obese, and 63 percent of us are overweight, according to the National Center for Health Statistics), it is widely accepted that home-cooked meals are healthier than restaurant-prepared meals. In general, Americans use higher quality ingredients and fewer fatty ingredients when in their own kitchens. A restaurant’s grilled chicken sandwich with a side of pasta salad might seem reasonably healthy, but you never know what hidden oils, mayonnaise, butter and other artery-clogging—albeit scrumptious—ingredients are added.
Solution: Think about the reasons you like to eat out and see if you can incorporate some of those elements into home-cooked meals. If it’s ambience, adorn your table with some candles and cut a few fresh flowers from your yard (even weeds can be beautiful). If it’s time constraints, stop to think about how long it really takes you to drive to the restaurant, order and eat, and then find recipes that take only fifteen or thirty minutes of preparation time. If it’s taste, there are loads of yummy, easy recipes you can find online—for free. You’ll spend more quality time with your family, eat healthier, and save money.
Photo source: johannesfreund  on flickr (cc)
Have we forgotten about libraries? Board games? Staycations? Creative outlets that don’t require a credit card? According to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spends $2,376 annually on entertainment. That breaks down to almost $100 per month.
I’m personally guilty of spending too much on entertainment and not being sufficiently creative or resourceful. I frequent the bookstore every time I want a new book, instead of heading over to the very convenient—and free—public library in my neighborhood. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans spent $55.5 billion purchasing books in 2007.)
I pay $70 for cable each month despite the fact that my family collectively watches only a few hours of TV a week (and sometimes even less). I drive my gas-guzzling car (and pay the high price) to go see movies instead of watching the ones that are already on my TV, thanks to cable, for no extra cost. I think of going on vacation as flying to an appropriately exotic destination and paying for a hotel, when I’m missing inexpensive and fun activities right here in my own city.
Solution: Don’t buy that Plasma TV. Instead, invest in a game of Scrabble and Monopoly, for a grand total of $14.99.
Join the library! Check out this Web site  for a listing of every public library in the United States—you won’t believe how many things you can do for free at the public library. If you have kids, public libraries are a goldmine for time squandering (in a good way) with activities like storytime, puppet shows, and arts and crafts.
On the weekends, you can discover the free treasures your city has to offer. Many cities have museums, botanical gardens, parks, and festivals you can spend hours exploring.
Photo source: Mayr  on flickr (cc)
According to a USA Today  story, Americans average 6.5 hours of sleep each night—down from 7.5 in the 1950s, and lower than the seven to eight hours needed by most adults. When we’re not sleeping, we’re surfing the Internet, checking work emails, and watching TV. We’re also spending more money.
Of course, if you look back at the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder and before (she did, after all, use a lantern to complete her homework after sundown), people were much more likely to go to bed when the sun set and wake up when the sun rose—which is almost ten hours of sleep during June in many places in the U.S.
Solution: Try going to bed earlier and letting yourself wake up naturally, without the jarring ring of the alarm clock. Even though you’ll feel like you haven’t squeezed enough relaxation time between the end of your workday and when you go to bed, you’ll start waking up earlier, feeling better, and ready to tackle the next day more efficiently. If you reset your internal clock to get more sleep on an earlier cycle, you’ll even be less likely to binge on fatty foods. Check out this MSNBC  article detailing the links between sleep deprivation and weight gain.
Let’s challenge the theory that you have to spend money to have fun and live a meaningful life. Take the next month and try to prepare your own foods, eat with your family, devise fun and cheap ways to entertain yourself, and actually go to sleep when you get tired. If we can destroy the connection between spending money and spending time, life could get a heck of a lot more interesting.