By BRETT ARENDS
Fistfights in aisles. Gunfights in the parking lot.
Ah, yes. It must be Christmas! Jesus would be so proud. Nothing says "Rejoice, a Savior is born!" quite like gas masks and a cloud of mace in the kitchen appliances department.
Or consider the case of Emily Findley, 24. Even though she was three months' pregnant, she was camping out last week in the parking lot of the Best Buy in Greensboro, N.C.
No room at the inn? Nah. She wanted to be first in line to get a deal on a new flat screen TV.
The "Christmas" shopping season got off to a flying start last week. We spent a record $52 billion on Black Friday deals this year, according to the National Retail Federation. That's about $400 per shopper, a rise of nearly 10% from a year ago. For the entire season, it says, we're on track to spend about $700 per adult.
That's down from the $755 peak in 2007, but it's in line with recent years.
But here's the really lucky thing: Hardly anyone realizes just how much they're really spending.
They don't know. They don't do the math. They don't think. And the retailers, of course, aren't going to tell them.
Ignorance is bliss. Thank heavens. Can you imagine where our economy would be if people could count?
For those of you who want the shocking truth, here are three things to munch on with your gingerbread.
1. Your money, your labor.
The first time I got a job, as a teenager, my spending rate collapsed. That's when I realized how many hours I had to put in to earn something. I was on minimum wage back then, so it was a lot.
These days the average private-sector worker gets around $23 an hour. And of course that's taxed. Factor in payroll taxes, federal and state income taxes and a worker may be taking home about $17 of that.
At that rate, someone who spent $400 on Black Friday had to work 23 hours to earn it. If they worked an average eight-hour day, that's three days.
Someone who spends $700 over Christmas is spending forty hours of their labor. A week's work.
2. Retire? You?
It's a lucky thing everyone in America is all set up for a prosperous retirement. The villa in Tuscany. The Rolls. Ah, good times.
At least, that's what I have to assume, after watching all this spending.
After all, every dollar you spend today takes multiple dollars, plural, from that retirement nest egg.
Let's say stocks earn about 4% plus inflation over the long haul. That's below historic averages, but let's take it as a baseline.
At that rate, a dollar saved today would be worth $1.50 in ten years, $2 in twenty and so on. That's in today's money, too -- after accounting for inflation.
Let's say you're going to need your nest-egg when you're about 70. At that rate, a 60-year old who spends $700 this Christmas is really taking $1,000 and change out of his nest egg.
For a 50-year old, the real cost is about $1,500.
Yikes! For someone in their thirties, it's about $3,000 and for a 20-year old, the real cost of that $700 is $5,000.
3. The real cost.
But you want to look at the real cost? Try this.
For just $50 you could save the life of a starving child instead.
That's how much it costs Edesia, a non-profit in Rhode Island, to produce one box of Plumpy'nut -- a miracle food for starving children. Plumpy'nut was invented by a French doctor in the 1990s. It is made of peanuts and other natural ingredients, and is high in all needed nutrients. It's incredibly efficient to deliver in poor countries, because it lets the parents treat the child at home. Organizations like Doctors Without Borders are fans.
The best way to envisage Plumpy'nut is to imagine a soft packet of peanut butter paste. Each packet costs 33 cents to make -- about a third the cost of a chocolate bar in your local store. A box contains 150 packets -- enough for three portions a day for seven weeks. That's enough to take a starving child from death's door back to normal health.
Tens of millions are desperately undernourished around the world. That includes those suffering in the terrible crisis in east Africa. Estimates by the United Nations have suggested six million children die of malnutrition every year: 17,000 a day.
You're skeptical of U.N. statistics? Okay. Let's halve it. So only 8,500 are dying of starvation every day.
A donation to Edesia is tax deductible, so one life-saving box would really only cost you about $40 or so.
Once you realize that, the math for Christmas shopping gets really awkward. That $200 Tiffany's voucher? That could've saved the lives of five children. That $500 iPad? Twelve to thirteen children. And so it goes. Lucky thing, as I said, no one thinks.