Howard County Maryland | High Society | Monied 'Burbs
In October, Ad Age began a yearlong look at the American Consumer. Working with Esri and the Patchwork Nation, we are tracking 11 households in 11 representative counties to examine the impact of demographic and economic change on consumer behavior. In this piece we introduce one of those households. For more on the project and segments, see http://adage.com/consumer
You can't tell a story that 's largely about the recession, as the American Consumer Project is , without also looking at those who sat this recession out. Among the best places to look for positive economic stories is the area surrounding our nation's capitol. Ten of the 25 highest-earning counties in the U.S. are in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area. They're distributed throughout northern Virginia and Maryland.
Rosemary and John live in Howard County, Md. The fifth-most-affluent county in the U.S. sits in far suburban Baltimore and far far suburban D.C. She's a senior quality-assurance manager for a biotech company. He's a patent attorney on staff at a major marketer. When I had my first round of calls with the 11 families in the American Consumer Project, Rosemary and John were the only couple I talked to in tandem. There were two points during our hourlong interview that they had a debate. It's telling that one was about the level to which the recession had affected a friend who had lost his job. Rosemary said she hadn't seen him make any lifestyle changes, but John insisted he had a hard time. "How do you not work for a year and not struggle?"
They moved to Howard county when John started this job because it's in the middle of their now-far-flung workplaces. They each have lengthy commutes, although Rosemary works from home several days a week.
When they first moved, they lived in Columbia -- one of the nation's first planned communities. While there was much they liked about it, such as the walkability, parks and community centers, they eventually grew tired of all the fees and taxes that pay for that , so they moved elsewhere in the county, just outside Columbia.
The county seat is a quaint town in a classic New England sort of way, Ellicott City. It's got the churches high on the hill and a winding little stretch of shops that were likely thriving 150 years ago. It runs along a small creek and now has an odd mix of affluent-seeming boutiques and high-end pet care sandwiched between hippie crystal shops and palm reading storefronts. The hotel is a purple structure called the The Obladi after the Beatles songs with rooms named John, Paul, George and Ringo. It feels very touristy but Rosemary and John go there from time to time for a favorite restaurant and home-decor boutique.
They have a nice house on a nice cul-du-sac block in an area that feels somewhat rural but with some strip-mall-ish suburban accouterments. It feels very much like what you might think of when you think of middle-class America. But it takes a lot more income to get that to that level than it used to.
They're the first owners of the house they've lived in for three years, and were able to choose the floor plan and customize a lot of the features. The lot they bought was part of a farm subdivided into eight parcels. The developer built a home for the farmer at one end of the block. The demographics of the block are even more diverse than this ethnically diverse county. Besides the farmer, there are three white families, two African-American families, one African family (from Cameroon), and Rosemary and John, who are Korean.
For both Esri's Tapesty and the Patchwork Nation, Howard County is in their top-tier classification. The dominant Tapestry is High Society and it's a Monied 'Burb in the Patchwork Nation. These counties are high-income and highly-educated, and they overindex in spending on nearly every nonrental category. They tend to be dual-income married couples like Rosemary and John, so the per capita income here lags behind some other counties like New York County.
Since the 1970s, essentially all growth in household income has come from adding a second earner -- not from anything resembling wage increases. That's helped create affluent households like theirs that seem more upper-middle-class than truly wealthy even though they're in the highest brackets of income. It's helped create a class of people like Rosemary and John.
They're very causal about everything. The way they talk about driving nice cars or traveling the world or owning items might seem like luxuries to many is very relaxed and nonchalant. They don't brag but they don't shy away from talking about numbers either. It's very matter-of -fact. It's just how they live. The same can really be said about Jay in Leavensworth, too. He's talks about growing up "dirt poor" with the same matter-of -factness that Rosemary and John talk about Hawaiian vacations. Affluent, struggling or in between, for all of these families, their stories are who they are.DEMOGRAPHICS DRIVE CHANGE
When people aren't overly concerned about money, there's one sure way to change their spending patterns — cause some sort of external change. A sudden drop in income might do that , but that 's not something that happened to many in Howard County as the unemployment rate here is historically better than in the U.S. as a whole.
In the case of Rosemary and John, it took the addition of a new member of the household and I don't mean their dog Benji.
Five years ago, Rosemary and John bought a Honda Pilot. They were planning a little ahead but figured that since they were ready to start their family they would need a family car. It turned out that the thing they couldn't plan was the timing. Starting the family was more of a challenge than they could have anticipated. After years of extremely costly fertility treatments they decided to adopt, which isn't cheap in itself. Everything was in order. They had been matched with a baby, had the nursery decorated and were waiting for the right travel visas for everyone when Rosemary discovered she was pregnant -- naturally. The agency canceled the adoptions, despite their desire (and ability) to raise both kids. They were devastated but at the same time ecstatic to have their now 10-month-old daughter join the family.
Even that dramatic change caused augmentation of spending rather than alteration.
"I honestly don't think our spending habits have changed that much. We still buy what we would have bought before, we've just added all of [our daughter's] stuff," John says.
Among the "stuff" the baby needed was a new ride.
"By the time I got pregnant, we decided that the [Pilot's] safety features were a little out of date, so we bought the [Acura] MDX," Rosemary says. "Our family car never actually had a family in it, and it just guzzled gas for five years."
John couldn't get a baby in and out of his two-door BMW 330 so he traded it in for an four-door Acura TSX.
Rosemary says that John's spending habits haven't changed at all because he shops only for himself. He doesn't argue that point. His big purchase in the last month was a pair of gym shoes. She says she spends less on herself now and buys more for the baby. Unique items and well-designed clothes from higher-end children's boutiques and websites are where she splurges.
When she shops for her daughter, the price of items isn't as relevant as how it affects the health and well-being of her family. Rosemary joked that before the baby she didn't care about how much pesticide they ate, but now she makes more frequent trips to the grocery store and farmers' markets in order to get fresh organic produce. Finding the grocery store can be a challenge. Columbia sets much of the shopping back behind hills and landscaping to keep the natural feel of the area.
"When John and I first moved to Columbia, and we didn't get our internet service yet, and there were no iPhones then, and we didn't have GPS. We figured, OK, we can just drive down the road and we'll see a Blockbuster or a grocery store. We couldn't find anything because every strip mall was like hidden by a hill. Everything was sort of tucked away."
She dines out with her girlfriends and confesses to watching a fair amount of reality TV. She watches shows like "Project Runway," "Top Chef," "Dancing with the Stars" and "The Amazing Race." John plays video games.
"It's unwind time," she says.
They both get a lot of news from the internet and can watch both Baltimore and D.C. TV stations for local news. Often they do both, surfing on their laptops and iPad while they watch TV.
Rosemary also lists the "Today" show as a key source. Their daughter wakes up between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. at this point, and they're up early getting ready for work regardless. Their daughter, therefore, likes "Today," too. She's a bigger fan, however, of watching videos of herself on the iPhone. When she's not chewing on it, that is .
"Who doesn't love Matt, Ann and Natalie?" Rosemary asks speaking of both babies and mommies.
If you're driving through Howard County, it doesn't feel affluent in the way that , say, the North Shore of Chicago or the Hamptons does.
John offers an explanation. "You have incredibly wealthy people in Montgomery County in the Potomac area, and I don't know that you have that kind of wealth in Howard County. And this is just me, I don't have the research to back this up, but my guess is that you just don't have the poor people in Howard County to bring the average down, and so that 's why the median income is so high."
The U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey does have the research to back him up. Of the 105,000 households counted in Howard County, eight out of 10 earn more than the U.S. median income. The majority have incomes over $100,000 and nearly 15% earn more than $200,000 putting them at the very top of the U.S. economic ladder. In other words, the recession largely skipped right over Howard County.
Rosemary adds, "I grew up in Montgomery County, and just driving around you could see these mega mansions. I mean, they're huge, ridiculous. I feel like when I drive around Howard County, I just see normal homes, average homes, which are probably a little bit above average, the national average, but to me, this is what I'm used to seeing. I feel like it's nothing extravagant."
She's right as well, according to the ACS. There are many very nice homes here. One in three are valued over $500,000. But the megamansions are in other parts of the region. Only 2.6% of homes here are worth more than $1 million. Those are largely in the western section of the county in towns like Clarksville.
It's reflected in the retail as well. It's nice, but not ultranice. Discussing this lead to the second debate:
Rosemary: When we lived in North Arlington you'd see the Saks Fifth Avenue, high-end department stores and things like that . But you don't see that here. The nicest thing in Howard County is Nordstrom's, and Nordstrom's is pretty mainstream.
John: There's a Saks in Columbia.
Rosemary: There's not a Saks in Columbia.
John: Yeah, there is , isn't there?
Rosemary: In Columbia? A Saks 5th Avenue?
John: There's a Nieman-Marcus.
Rosemary: No, those are outlet stores. That doesn't count.
John: In Columbia Mall?
Rosemary: There's a Lord & Taylor, there's a ...
John: Oh, it's Lord & Taylor I'm thinking of .
EVEN CUT-BACKS ARE DEMOGRAPHIC
The one area that Rosemary and John have cut back their spending in the last few years is travel. It has nothing to do with money, but everything to do demographics and the logistics of traveling with an infant. Even with their SUV, a quick weekend get-away to the beach means a car packed to the gills with baby stuff.
When they were first married they would take one big trip a year together. They visited everywhere from Mexico to Greece to Korea. Now that 's morphed into an every-other-year trip with John's family. Rosemary was in charge of coming up with three options for next year's destination and they will all voted over Christmas. The verdict was a rented house (for 16) in North Carolina's Outer Banks. They both grew up in the area and most of their families are near-by . Their daughter is not the first grandchild on either side, but is the first in 12 years. She gets plenty of attention, but it's still good to get away and take advantage of the free childcare that comes with an extended family vacation. It's not quite the same sort of relaxation as a romantic getaway to Fiji would be, but in the new reality of parenthood, it will certainly be a good change of pace.