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An Age of Consumerism
We live in an era where intrinsic worth has been reduced to nothing more than the amount of material goods currently in our possession.
Big houses and fancy cars define our notion of success, and as long as our backyard appears to have the most material value, we are the absolute winner in our society and have won “the game.”
Controlled by the notion of the American Dream, the typical U.S. citizen struggles to make ends meet with 69% of Americans reported to be in debt in 2011.
So exactly why is it that so many Americans continue to spend outside of their means?
The Ideology of the American Dream
In order to understand how the American Dream impacts us, we must first understand what it is and how it has changed over the course of history.
The original meaning of the American Dream comes from the ideology that anything can be achieved through hard work. This includes your children to grow up and receive proper education; in most cases, this means living a better life than their parents.
Regardless of race or background, anyone was within the reach of prosperity. This was the appeal which drove many immigrants to the US in search of a better life.
Yet the American Dream that we have come to realize today is based on the concept of keeping up with the Joneses that started shortly after World War II.
Supported by the notion of competition, we often use each others’ possessions as a way to demonstrate that we are ahead in our careers, resulting in millions of Americans being involved in conscious and unconscious spending.
We have even reached the point where our comparisons are not only related to our neighbors down the street, but rather to reference groups who are not even within the same income bracket. In her book The Overspent American, Juliet B. Schor calls this upscale spending “new consumerism”:
“And therein lays the problem. When a person who earns $75,000 a year compares herself to someone earning $90,000, the comparison is sustainable. It creates some tension, even a striving to do a bit better, to be more successful in a career. However, when a reference group includes people who pull down six or even seven-figure incomes, troubles arise. When poet-waiters earning $18,000 a year, teachers earning $30,000, and editors and publishers earning six-figure incomes all aspire to be part of one urban literary referent group, which exerts pressure to drink the same brand of bottled water and wine, wear similar urban literary clothes, and appoint apartments with urban literary furniture, those at the lower economic end of the reference group find themselves in an untenable situation. Even if we choose not to emulate those who spend ostentatiously, consumer aspirations can be a serious reach.”
-Juliet B. Schor
This new consumerism has contributed to the fact that many Americans are in a substantial amount of debt. However, this isn’t the only factor at play to the unobtainable American Dream.
Research shows that consumer spending has actually decreased since the 1950s. Wages are remaining stagnant while costs in categories such as college tuition and health care are increasing.
The United States has one of the highest health care costs in the world and continues to increase at a rapid rate. The fact that citizens’ paychecks aren’t moving with the increase in price of necessities makes it more important than ever to limit spending.
The American Dream Doesn’t Always Bring Happiness
One good way to wake up from the Dream is to realize that mindless spending doesn’t necessarily correlate with an increase in happiness.
While researchers are still trying to find the link with materialism and your mental state, many studies conclude that more spending does not equal an increase in satisfaction in life.
In his book, The High Price of Materialism, psychologist Tim Kasser discusses how materialism impacts our well-being. He states that people who focus on extrinsic goals such as obtaining new products are more likely to have a higher level of unhappiness in relationships and poorer moods, leading to slowing down personal growth.
It may be true that those with a large amount of material goods go through life with little distress. However, the unhappiest people according to Kasser were those with the most conflict and in need to resolve this conflict by the ownership of highly-expensive goods.
It has come to the point for the average American to believe that if we could just have as much as our neighbors, all problems would be solved and happiness would be obtained.
Find What Matters to You
I cannot honestly say that I am completely free from the American Dream, as it has had a lasting impact on me growing up. Ever since I was a child my family and friends have been in pursuit of owning nice cars and expensive houses. I got caught up in the hype.
However, after continually spending and still finding a high level of dissatisfaction with my life, I realized something had to change. There were three things that I was able to pin down that brought me true happiness:
- Friends and Family
- Financial Security
1. No man is an island. Without friends and family, I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied no matter where I was or how many things I owned. If I had expensive goods, I always preferred to share them rather than use them alone.
“I came from a very large, very poor family. Growing up, I was a very happy child, even when I didn’t have shoes to wear, and food was only a once every few days indulgence. Now that I am on my 15th vehicle (currently owning three), and have my own house full of my own material possessions. I find myself unhappier than I have ever been, not having any friends or family left to share them with. They have become meaningless objects that represent nothing more than the greed that drove my loved ones away.”
– Jarren Long
2. Freedom to me meant being able to choose where I wanted to live and what job I could pursue. When I was just out of college and in a job I later found to be more than stellar, I could easily leave without worry due to my savings. Change was always around the corner.
3. Having financial security for me was merely not being stressed out about money. I would have enough to eat well and pay the rent, but it didn’t necessarily mean that I had to have the latest luxuries on the market.
As long as my actions were not in aligned with these three things, I wouldn’t maintain happiness. Keeping these three principles in mind, I decided to quit my relentless spending and give my new lifestyle a try.
I didn’t really notice a change at first, but my financial wealth and satisfaction with life slowly started to increase. Obtaining happiness to me was more centered on obtaining the 3 items listed above instead of the new iPhone or the latest craze.
If you’re currently caught up in the American Dream, it’s time to wake up! It may not be as simple as saying to yourself that you’re going to change in an instant, but admitting that you’re still sleeping is a good start toward improvement.
Move Away From Dissatisfaction
You’ve found your sources that make you unhappy in your world of consumerism, and you know it’s time to wake up.
Slowly start to change your habits and you will notice a world of difference.
For me, the one thing I tried to focus on most was picking up a hobby. That hobby was being frugal.
I started to find it exciting that I could still enjoy the finer things in life while still saving money. The idea of getting 15% off my next restaurant meal from coupons and cash back meant that I could have the life I wanted to live without spending a fortune.
I stopped buying new things that were no longer necessary as it meant that I had to compete with others. After all, the most important opinion was my own.
This frugal living is no longer a hobby, but rather a way of life.
Focus on Your Likes
Be honest with yourself and decide what your likes and dislikes are. It’s okay if they’re not the same as everyone else.
If owning a nice car isn’t as important to you, be satisfied with owning one that simply runs well rather than forking over an extra few thousand for an upgrade in appearance. Don’t be afraid to go with the less-expensive jacket that matches your style.
On my path toward waking up, I found myself doing more sports and reading in my spare time. I started to care less about what fashion magazines had to say and care more about what made me internally happy.
Not only did this improve my health, but I felt like it was a more authentic way of living.
When I stopped comparing what was under my possession, a huge level of stress was lifted from my shoulders. There was no longer a constant worry on my mind on what else I could buy, and thus a new feeling of freedom was found.
I can’t say that I’m a consistently happy person, but now that I don’t focus on the ideologies of the American dream, I have become closer to my friends and family, my level of freedom has increased, and I feel more financially secure. And these are the things that matter to me.
If you are one of those people caught in the effects of trivial spending in order to support the American Dream, take control of your life and spending habits and admit that you too are a part of this.
The American Dream is over and it’s time to wake up. With mass consumerism coupled with stagnant wages and increasing costs, it is more imperative than ever to take a hold of your financial situation. Start realizing what’s important to you and what matters in your life.
And most importantly, have faith and don’t give up. Thanks again for reading.
My name is Jason Wuerch and I'm currently located in Madrid, Spain running a personal finance blog called Frugal For Less. My goal is to help everyone and anyone willing to make and save money through easy and simple ways that don't require much effort. Just because you're frugal doesn't mean you have to give up life's luxuries.