Distinguishing Wants From Needs

By Gregory S. Davis | February 27, 2009 AAA

Overextending and/or overspending are as American as apple pie. Services used today like wireless cell phone plans, digital cable TV and fast food could be eliminated from personal expenditures if necessary, but why go through all of the trouble? Isn't technology and business innovation supposed to make life a little easier? Let's look at a few sector-specific ETFs positioned on either side of the line between 'wants' and 'needs' that investors may wish to consider.

IN PICTURES: 9 Ways To Go Bankrupt

Wireless
According to the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry, 84% of Americans (as of June 2008) are wireless subscribers, up from 66% three years prior. The next time you find yourself at a traffic light, take a moment to notice the number of drivers headed in the other direction talking into their cell phones. Depending on the city you're in, you just may notice more drivers chatting it up than those who are not.

Cable
Another trend driving telecom is the 52.5% penetration rate of basic cable for the 123.4 million homes in the U.S. passed by cable video service, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's 2008 Industry Overview. The Vanguard Telecom Services ETF (NYSE:VOX) gives investors broad exposure to cable providers like Embarq (NYSE:EQ), and to a larger extent, to leading wireless service providers AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ). The VOX fund is down 8.77% since the beginning of the year through February 25.

Food To Go
Brown bagging it for lunch makes sound financial sense, but having the discipline to do it is another story. Although job losses rose by 598,000 in January, sending the unemployment rate up to 7.6%, the number of people who completed temporary jobs increased to 7 million. These news reports could mean that people returning to work, even on a temporary basis, may still be unable to resist a quick slice from Yum! Brands' (NYSE:YUM) Pizza Hut chain or a value meal from the golden arches of McDonald's (NYSE:MCD). Both stocks are among the top holdings of the PowerShares Dynamic Food & Beverage ETF (NYSE:PBJ) alongside cereal and convenience food manufacturer Kellogg (NYSE:K) and agribusiness player Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE:ADM). The PBJ fund is down 10.83% since the beginning of the year through February 25. (Learn more about investing in stocks from this sector in our related article Sinking Your Teeth Into Restaurant Stocks.)

Electricity
I'm not saying you don't need electricity, but it's possible that our ease of flicking a switch or plugging a laptop into the wall can lead to overuse and higher utility bills than necessary. The Vanguard Utilities ETF (NYSE:VPU) is one way to plug into energy-generation providers including Southern Co. (NYSE:SO) and Dominion Resources (NYSE:D). The VPU fund is down 11.15% since the beginning of the year through February 25.

Final Thoughts
Investors should note their expenses on personal needs versus wants to identify whether an investment in one of these sectors makes sense based on their own erratic or controlled spending habits.

Learn to get your budget in order; read our Budgeting 101 Special Feature.

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