Any Printed Number is Believable

Many years ago (19 to be exact) an otherwise unknown research firm put out a report on the average amount of time spent during an American’s life doing various mundane tasks.  It was presented in terms of years, so many years spent watching TV, so many washing dishes, and so on.  The media loved it Lipstick -Riley and widely reported the numbers along with the obvious commentary that we Americans were wasting our lives with trivia and drudgery.

Except that to anybody who thought to do some simple math in their head, the numbers were hilariously implausible. I wish I could find a copy of the report now, but this was in the pre-internet dark ages. My possibly faulty recollection is that they said we spend an average of 6 years in the bathroom.

If you don’t think about it, and want to write about how we spend too much time alone in a tiny room, 6 years sounds just believable enough to use.  But if you do some quick calculations, you realize something is very wrong.  Assume the average life expectancy is 72.  (About right and it makes the math easy.) Then each year of your life is 20 minutes per day.  Two hours a day in the bathroom?  Every day? Average?

I did manage to find two citations of this data in on-line archives, at Time magazine and The New York Times.  The Time article mentions that we spend six months (10 minutes a day) waiting for red lights to change.  Not stuck in traffic, just waiting for red lights.  And only as drivers, not passengers.  The NYT tells us we spend 1 year (20 minutes) looking for misplaced objects, eight months (13 minutes) opening junk mail, two years (40 minutes) trying to return phone calls, and five years (1 hour 40 minutes) waiting in lines.

I don’t know if the report was a hoax or just sloppy research.  But I was reminded of this episode from my youth last weekend when I was preparing to write my recent guest post on Consumerism Commentary.  My new BFF and hero Flexo had graciously invited me to contribute something, so I decided to look carefully at his site to get a feel for what his readers might like to read.

I’m sure I saw his post on how women spend too much on cosmetics when it came out but didn’t read it. Not really my area of interest.  And before I go any further, I should say that, having now read it, I agree with his thesis that cosmetics and beauty treatments are a huge money sink that should be considered carefully in light of how much pleasure and, potentially, career success it brings you.

But Flexo was inspired to write based on numbers, which he quoted and linked to, created by Newsweek, that showed that women spend $449,127 on being beautiful over their lifetimes.

To be fair to everybody involved, neither Flexo nor Newsweek quite said that this number was average.  In the editor’s note on how they got their numbers Newsweek tells us:

Tracking the spending habits of the ‘average’ American woman is no easy feat. In order to arrive at an estimate of what a modern, looks-conscious diva might spend on her appearance during her lifetime, we compiled a list of the most popular beauty procedures based on a reveiw [sic!] of recent beauty industry reports and conversations with experts.

So are the numbers they give for the average woman or for a looks-conscious diva?  I think any reasonable reader would assume Newsweek was trying to construct an average, because, well, otherwise the article would be sort of stupid.

And yet if you take the time to look at the pdf of the detailed breakdown you realize that Newsweek’s diva has a serious problem for which she should seek psychiatric help. Examples that caught my eye are $441 Botox injections every four months for 46 years and a lifetime of bimonthly $41 "Waxing (bikini or Brazilian)" starting at age 13.  This isn’t a list of what the typical woman might spend, it’s a list of the most you could possibly spend before the salon stopped serving you because you were creeping out the staff.

Flexo can be forgiven because (I’m assuming) Botox and waxing are well outside his area of expertise.  The same cannot be said for the mega-blog Jezebel, which subtitles itself "Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women", has more traffic than all the PF blogs you’ve ever heard of combined, and returns 200 hits for the search term "Botox".  They also bought into the Newsweek numbers, hook, line, and sinker.

As did Cosmetic Surgery Today, which bills itself as a source of "insider news" about the nip and tuck biz.  You might think that somebody involved in the beauty business would smell a rat.  The Newsweek numbers work out to around $860 billion a year spent on beauty nationwide.  That’s about 6% of GDP. Americans (men included) spent a total of $374 billion on clothing and $412 billion on energy last year. Revlon’s gross revenue was $1.34 billion.

There are several lessons here, most of them clichés. People believe what they want to. Americans are innumerate.  And there’s that one about lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I’ll add another: trust no one and check the math.

[Photo: Riley]


  • By Jen, June 4, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    On the issue of the high estimate by Newsweek, this statement says it all:

    “we compiled a list of the most popular beauty procedures based on a reveiw [sic!] of recent beauty industry reports and conversations with experts”

    The first thing I thought when I saw that was: of course these numbers are going to be high, they consulted reports from the industry to determine how often and how much a woman should spend on beauty. Naturally the industry has a vested interest in convincing us that we NEED lots of expensive beauty regimens and treatments and that we need to do it often. That’s like asking the car industry how often you should buy a new car and how much you should pay for it: the answer will naturally be biased higher.

  • By Rob Bennett, June 4, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

    We’re numbers mad. We put more faith in numbers than in anything else.

    But we have close to zero interest in checking the numbers. So we invite abuse of the numbers by those presenting them to us.

    What a compulblifablicuting situation!


  • By GPR, June 4, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    Slightly over 83% of all these numbers are just made up.

  • By GPR, June 4, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    Hey Frank – How about those numbers cited for how much money an event brings to the economy?
    (“if we move the basketball team to Oklahoma it will put $76 million a year into the local economy”). I see those all the time and they always seem suspicious.

    But I’m whatever the mathematics version of being tone deaf is.

  • By SJ, June 4, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    Hrm.. there was this guy in nytimes awhile back that tracked his time in life to the minute. That sounds like it’d be fun to do…

    Also, I don’t think the bathroom one is THAT off … maybe a factor of two/three at worse.
    Showering, brushing teeth, #1 & 2, shaving, makeup, mirrors, blah blah.

    More problematic would be if addition resulted in people living 200+ yrs.

    I love the cosmetics numbers =)

  • By bex, June 4, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

    Two hours per day IN the bathroom certainly is plausible… although maybe not average. As SJ says, that includes a shower, getting dressed, shaving, applying make-up, etc…

    One hour per day is probably closer to average… but I’d be surprised if it was much less.

  • By Rick Francis, June 4, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

    Actually, the real problem is that any printed number is believed by some people even if it isn’t really believable! Using bad numbers can lead to bad decisions; of course the people that just accept the bad number probably aren’t really going to use it anyway… unless it is to justify what they are already doing, like spending too much on cosmetics.
    An even worse problem is that using a correct number could be a very bad guideline for your decisions. If people are broke on average in retirement then do you really want to be average?
    There isn’t any substitute for working out the math, ideally yourself. GPR- even if you can’t do detailed mathematics yourself, it’s very useful to be able to recognize the blatantly bogus… using the music analogy – even though I can’t play a song I can still recognize if it is being mangled! Usually a bit of simple arithmetic is enough for example take that cosmetic number of $449,127 over a lifetime. If you divide by 100 years and round to $4,500- then ask- Dear do you really spend $4,500 on cosmetics a year?

    -Rick Francis

  • By Jim, June 4, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    Maybe we should put Journalists in charge of the world? We’d all live to be 1000 years old and the GDP would be $10 Quadrillion dollars. (At least on paper)

  • By abdpbt personal finance, June 4, 2009 @ 4:31 pm

    While I agree with your general premise, I have to say that the examples used here are, if you’ll forgive me, spoken like a man. The claim that too much money is spent on cosmetics and perception that cosmetics aren’t needed to be successful are, in my experience, incorrect. Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t people who overdo it. But saying that makeup is a money sink with little return on investment is not something that I think men are particularly qualified to speak on, no offense.

    But yeah, you’re right, any old number will do. LOL

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, June 4, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

    ABDPBT: I didn’t say that I thought too much money was spent on cosmetics, only that it is an expense to be considered carefully. On the other hand, at 6% of GDP….

  • By Roger, June 4, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    Hum, it is interesting to see just how easily numbers can be believed, without doing much consideration of just what they really mean. Still, without knowing the methodology used to reach to their conclusion, it’s hard to just write off the conclusions of the report. Even converted into minutes and/or hours per day, many of the activities do sound plausible. (Ten minutes a day spent waiting at red lights, for example? Seems a bit high, but not impossibly so.)

    Of course, as Benjamin Disraeli is said to have noted, ‘There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.’ Why we seemed so eager to believe the third type is a question for another day.

  • By Dave C., June 4, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

    “And there’s that one about lies, damned lies, and statistics.” – Which is one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes.

  • By GPR, June 4, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

    Dave C: I may be tone deaf about math, and you might be able to sneak statistics past me. But I’m pretty good with quotes. And that one is from Benj. Disraeli.

    (hah! and my mom said a liberal arts major was a waste).

  • By GPR, June 4, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

    (and an even better Liberal Arts major might have read the 2nd Paragraph of Roger’s comment prior to posting.)

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, June 5, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    It’s not just numbers, it’s ANYTHING that looks official. There’s a reason why exists. A lot of people are gullible, unfortunately.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, June 5, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

    Roger, Dave C. and GPR: You’re all correct. Apparently, the earliest known instance of that phrase is from Mark Twain, but he attributed it to Disraeli. Nobody has found an instance of Disraeli saying it, though. See

    Kosmo: I love But it’s not (just) that people are guilible, they are unquestioning about data that confirms what they already think or would like to think to be true.

  • By ryan, June 8, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    The two that drive me mad that are trotted out every year are the one about “How much it costs to raise a child today” and “If a mother was paid for all she does, she would earn $150,000 yearly.”

    The child one assumes that with each kid you’ll be buying a bigger house, a new car, and it basically costs a whole bunch of just basic living expenses directly onto the child.

    The mother one is even worse, because it assumes that all the “jobs” a mother does would be compensated at the highest pay rate in the field, like psychiatrist, chef, artist, blah blah blah.

  • By coco, June 25, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

    OK! Statistic are not true numbers in the sense of actual accuracy because it is impossible to seat and count how much were spent on cosmetics… These numbers are an inteligent guess based on a factor of things.
    For example take that cosmetic number of $449,127 over a lifetime. If you divide by 100 years and round to $4,500- then ask- Dear do you really spend $4,500 on cosmetics? YES! many women spend that or more and others less. one La Prairie Caviar serum at $1,700 I need 3 jar for the year, pedicure and manicure at $75 per week, two massages at $125 per week, eyebrow threading $30, facial $200 a week, 3x pilate classes at £70 each per week, waxing, other beauty treatment, hair wash & set per week with a treatment $110, 2x yoga classes per week at $50 each. Granted that my classes are private classes but my point is both men and women spend alot of time to look good, feel well. I have friend and co-workers who choses to spend less on their lunch by bring something from home to have extra cash to treat themself to a facial, or a new perfume.

    My PA has a rule that she does not spend more than $10 on a single cosmetic/toiletery items, but at least once a week the girls and guys go to lunch together, usually on thursdays, she always come back with 2-3 items averaging $20-30 a week that works about 100 a months, that would already account for $1200 a year now adding, the shopping before vocations, birthday, that hot date, the cousin wedding etc. that could easily account for another $600. That figure goes up as you add, toothpaste, mouthwash, body soap, shampoo, hair spray, hair conditioner,deodorant and so on. When you take all of these factors into account that projected number is not ridiculous after all.
    After reading all the comments above I made a survey in my office. My PA, 3 colleagues, the office cleaner, the security guard, and myself
    the one who spent least was a female colleague whon spends about $1,400 to include hair cuts every 8 weeks, perfume,and toileteries. The office sanitary engineer and my PA spent equal amounts on different things £3275per year, My SE spend £1700 of the $3275 on manicure, pedicure, and eye brow while my PA a beautiful African woman kept her hair imacculaty coiffed with her diverse hair extentions for £1700 and gave herself manicures and pedicures to save on her expenses. A male Colleague came close to me with a $ 12,000/year beauty maintenance. Some of our client spent anywhere from $75,000 to 200,000 a year. Our clients from 12 – 90+ years old. I understand that the may represent a small part of the total market, but they do represent an important and growing part of the market.

    if you where to by your lunch everyday a 5 maybe acceptable but when you think of it as $25 per week x 40 week a year that would be $1000 spend a year. \plus add the special lunches a colleague leaving party or birthday lunch and the occational drink after work could easily add $500 more…

    Specially in our society today we spend more on feeling well and looking good and that has different value for each f us.

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