The Step-Down Phenomenon: Foresaking Vanity

Some months ago I heard a report on NPR that described what I have come to call the “step-down phenomenon.” The phenomenon addresses what people do when times get tough, family budgets become leaner, and belts are tightened. In effect, people “step down” from more expensive items to less expensive items, rather than cutting out an item entirely. Since I’ve heard that report, I’ve noticed a number of examples of the phenomenon, which I’ll write about in the next few days.

A recent report on the sale of vanity license plates in Ohio is a good example. In Ohio, any special license plate costs an additional $35. In 2008, when the recession was just beginning to be felt, the number of “vanity” plates fell by 277, and my guess is that the numbers will fall even farther in 2009. Nobody “needs” a vanity plate, and it is easy to “step down” to a regular license plate and save that $35. Families make these kinds of judgments all the time, when they decide what is really important and might cut out some activities, or scrimp on others, in order to save up to pay for a child’s education or take a special trip. If only Congress had that same kind of decision-making ability!

The extra $35 is a painless way for Ohio to raise additional funds; last year vanity plate fees produced an extra $20 million in revenue.  Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing fewer of them on the road. Vanity is not an attractive quality, and vanity plates often seem to live up to their name by being annoyingly egotistical and narcissistic. Is it really necessary for the Prius driver to have a plate that says “GR8 MPG,” or the BMW driver to have one that reads “MY BEEMER”? And I’m sorry, but I doubt the plates that read “1 BUX FAN” or “TOP DOG” are accurate. This is an instance where the recession may be having some positive consequences by eliminating some of the irritations found on the morning drive.

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