As we are celebrate Thanksgiving this month and with the recent crisis that has caused many to rethink what is important, I have been opining on a thought. It is not meant to judge or critique, just observations. My clients are am confident that I served them to the best of my ability, taking a long-term approach to home ownership. The complexity of the current crisis has been illustrated by smarter people than I. However, I believe this is a crucial part of the dilemma.
It used to be that spending money on status symbols for the sake of flaunting your wealth was an activity reserved for celebrities and millionaires. That has all changed. Conspicuous consumption, what was once referred to as "keeping up with the Joneses", has brought the lifestyles of the rich and famous to suburbia.
The demand for status goods, fueled by conspicuous consumption, has diverted many resources away from investment in the manufacture of more material goods and services in order to satisfy consumer preoccupations with their relative social standing and prestige.
The philosophy of "keeping up with the Joneses" has widespread effects on society. According to this philosophy, conspicuous consumption occurs when "households care about their relative standard of living" in relation to their societal peers.
One area in which "living above ones' means" has caused negative social effects is that of credit card usage. In the first quarter of 2002, total credit debt was $660 billion. By 2005, the total credit card debt had increased to $735 billion. Americas' average credit card debt in 2007 was $8400 per household. By the end of 2007, consumer debt in America had risen to $2.5 trillion. According to the Federal Reserve, over 43% of households spend more than they earn.
Another recent example is the 2007 subprime mortgage financial crisis, in which credit was eagerly extended to homebuyers who were unable to afford the homes that they were purchasing. That in and of itself is an issue that has been addressed by many smarter people than me.
The Trappings Of Success
Everyone is looking for the smallest phone, the cable provider with the most channels and the television with the biggest screen. Add in desktop computers and high-speed internet access and you've created a list of America's growing "necessities". According to a 2006 survey entitled "Necessity or Luxury" by the Pew Research Center, 33% of Americans now view cable or satellite TV as a necessity. In 1996 that number was 17%. Also, 51% now can't live without a home computer, up from 26% in '96.
Some items that were seen as fads or didn't exist ten years ago have jumped onto the necessity list:
- Cell Phone: 49%
- High-speed internet: 29%
- Flat-screen TV: 5%
- iPod: 3%
This tableau is at once absurd and sad--but not altogether surprising. We are, after all, a nation of accomplished spenders, slaves to advertising and status symbolism. The conspicuous fruits of our consumption shout out our aspirations and insecurities.
Why are we killing ourselves this way? In large part, we work so that we might spend. Americans are engaged in an intensifying national shopping spree rooted in competitive emulation--keeping up with the Joneses on a manic scale. We are impoverishing ourselves, in pursuit of a consumption goal that is inherently unachievable.
Corrosive consumerism, of course, has existed as long as envy and avarice. Look at the pharaohs' pyramids. Evidence of its current manifestation will seem blatantly familiar to anyone with a TV, a car, or kids. (The coolest brands are often fashion brands or 'badge items' that people wear and relay a message about themselves.)
In the late 20th century, competitive spending has intensified insidiously. In part, that's because the gap between rich and poor has widened, creating a highly visible class of superwealthy who set outrageous spending precedents for everyone else. At the same time, TV ads, not to mention the programs they punctuate, have brought images of Lexuses and Rolexes, directed at the rich, to the gazes of average Joes.
Much of our spending clearly is unnecessary or wasteful, raising troubling moral questions. Moreover, the uphill pursuit of material nirvana is stressing us out. Amid widespread wealth, most Americans aren't content with their lives.
Why We Do It
There are a variety of factors driving consumption:
- The desire to show off our success
- The need to have what other people have
- Prolific advertising and product placements
- Easy credit
- A society that favors instant gratification over hard work
The Joneses Are Broke
Many of the people driving around the suburbs in their giant SUVs while talking on their new cell phones are deeply in debt. If you ask them how they are doing, they will tell you that they are just barely getting by.
Why so much debt and such a grim outlook from areas of obvious affluence? It's simply a matter of people spending far more money than they should. If you can "afford" life's luxuries but aren't funding your 401(k) and investing in your retirement savings, you may want to reevaluate your financial situation.
If you believe what you read, we have to have stuff! More and more stuff! Without it we are less important, less beautiful, and less popular and the biggest lie, less happy. Let us CHOOSE to be grateful for what we have and those around us.