Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Vicious Cycle of Consumerism

DH and I got talking about the craziness of modern life and how in the old days only one person had to work in a household. (As usual we were bemoaning our busy lives and wishing for more time to get things done at home and just relax).

So we started listing out what people MUST have nowadays that not only weren't necessities when we were growing up, but were nonexistent. So we came up with this list, which I'm sure is incomplete:

- Cell phones
- Cell phone service (which is incremental to existing land-line service which most people still keep)
- Cable TV service (when our old 3 channel system was free over the air)
- Computer
- Internet service
- Stereo system, CD player (instead of a "record player")

And of course, when we were really young, people didn't have clothes dryers either. They hung the clothes out on the line.

And, as a result of all the additional appliances, we use more electricity, which costs more, and then we need more money to pay for it.

Thus the vicious cycle starts. You need two salaries to pay for the additional necessities of life...and make more money...and then start thinking maybe it would be a nice idea to buy a bigger house, since after all, you're both working and you deserve it.

Thus was born the idea of a "starter house."

Back in the day, people bought a house, and lived in it until they died or retired and went to Florida. For instance, my in-laws are celebrating 50 years in their small, 1957 split-level house. It's a nice little house, with three small bedrooms, 1-1/2 baths, and a nice yard. They only had one child, my husband, so there was no need for a bigger house. They have lived very happily in it for lo these 50 years.

But nowadays, if a couple had owned a house like this for a few years, they would soon be "trading up" to a bigger house. A better house. A house with 3 full baths, a 3-car garage, 4 or 5 bedrooms, a "great room," and more. "Good enough" is never good enough anymore.

Another side effect of needing two salaries and having both spouses work, means there is no time to do all the things my father-in-law always did for himself, and my mother-in-law always did, since she stayed at home. Thus, today's two-salary families also need:

- Multiple cars (one for each spouse, and perhaps for the oldest teen child, who of course HAS to have a car...lord forbid they walk anywhere these days).
- Cleaning service
- Paying to have the car washed (my father-in-law always did it himself, in the driveway).
- Lawn service
- Dog walker (since no one is home during the day to let Fido out or take him for a walk)
- Child care
- Dishwasher (who has time to do the dishes when there are two people working till 7 p.m.?)

Which results in still more money being spent, on electricity, gas, and services that people in the old days did for themselves.

Other things people pay for now that they didn't do then include:

- Hiring tutors for the kids' SATs
- Multiple TVs so each kid has his or her own set;
- Multiple computers so each kid has his or her own.
- Video game systems, video games

When I was young, toys were basic - they didn't come with electronic components and they were not all that expensive.
Chatty Cathy was about as high-tech as we got. And of course, we had Betsy Wetsy and Tiny Tears, dolls that used water to make them more "realistic."

I had those dolls, plus Lincoln Logs and wooden blocks. And I remember being thrilled getting new books to read at Christmas.

Are kids nowadays happier than we were then, with all of these state-of-the-art toys? I don't think so.

Coincidentally, I found
Loren of "In a Dark Time...The Eye Begins to See" discussed the same issue a couple of days ago, and included additional insight I'd like to share with you. From "In a Dark Time":

"Klodt’s chapter “The Leisure of Abundance” sounded strangely reminiscent of a conversation another birder and I had at Nisqually the last time I was there, two old guys wondering why cheaper goods didn’t result in people having to work less. After all, when I was young, way back in the old days, the dream was that modern machinery would free man from having to work, or at least work so hard or so long.

As Klodt points out, this dream has largely been sacrificed in the name of consumption:

'To be sure, the emphasis on efficiency in the workplace has resulted in tremendous increases in productivity. Yet productivity gains have not been translated into increased leisure but have instead gone into increased consumption. In her excellent book, The Overworked American, Juliet Schor notes that if Americans today enjoyed the same standard of living they had in 1948, they could work every other year or take six months off. Today we have a variety of “labor-saving” devices and entertainments unknown to earlier generations. In 1948, Americans didn’t own dishwashers, home air conditioners, microwaves, or automatic dryers. They didn’t have televisions, computers, compact disc players, or VCRs. Fewer Americans owned their own homes, and the typical single-family dwelling was smaller (roughly the size of today’s three-car garage). Yet we could well ask if the material: things and comforts we have gained in the last fifty years are worth six months of the year, or half of the time of our lives.

At the very least, we should ask how things might be different if we had opted for more free time rather than greater consumption. It is pretty clear what things we wouldn’t have, but what would we have that we don’t have now? Would marital relationships be stronger? Would our children be better cared for and feel more secure? Would we have greater opportunities to express ourselves creatively? Would communities profit from increased participation in their social, cultural, and political life? Would we feel relaxed and enjoy the simple things of life more fully? Would we be friendlier and take more interest in our neighbors? Would we be healthier in body mind and spirit?'

Obviously, all we can do is speculate about what might be if we weren’t driven to consume so much, but what better time to think about our values than amidst the Christmas season which increasingly seems dedicated to Mammon rather than to Christ?"

I urge you to go to Loren's site and read the rest of this excellent post on this subject.

Of course, I am part of the problem; it would be hypocritical to say otherwise. Would I give up my computer and Internet access? Would I want to go back to only 3 television channels and forego watching "The Daily Show" or HGTV? Of course not. Consumerism is an addiction; once you start buying more, you can't stop.

But when we went to the Adirondacks a couple of months ago and were generally out of the reach of the phone and the Internet and had no television, it was very peaceful, very relaxing. And it makes me realize most of the stress we have today is something we have bought and paid for, and continue to pay for, every time we lament our lack of free time.


Diane M. Roth said...

I love this post! I don't have a dishwasher, but wish that we did. (we both work, I'm a pastor.) And I still have my Chatty Cathy, from when toys were more basic (and, I think, fun).

Of course, we like old movies, too.

That Chick Over There said...

Very thought provoking.

Anonymous said...

And I bet Chatty Cathy was made in the USA and wasn't sprayed with lead-based paint. Imagine that!

I don't think you mentioned air conditioning. When I was growing up, NOBODY had air conditioning. People started acquiring it as a luxury when I was a teenager.

I drove past an old motel today that had a sign advertising that they had air conditioning AND color TV!

Mauigirl said...

I wish I still had my Chatty Cathy - the old ones are being sold on E-Bay!

Thanks, Chick Over There!

Good point, Bunny - Of course, air conditioning is another "necessity" we can't live without these days. And I remember when color TV was a big deal - there was one family on our block that had it when I was a teenager, and we all wanted to babysit for the kids in that family so we could watch the color TV!

Anonymous said...

Mauigirl! This is an awesome post. You remind us that we've met the enemy and the enemy is us. I know you read the debt post I wrote (thanks for you comments!) and you know that a large part of "my friend's" problems is just exactly what you describe here. So many things we spend money on now that just didn't exist when our parents were our age.

And we wonder where the money goes...

M said...

My experience has been somewhat different. First, I don't think everyone does spend on a lot of the things you listed, large home, cable tv, lawncare, etc. I know we don't--yet we are still live that same busy lifestyle you describe.

Especially outside of the suburbs, many live in small apts, no lawns, no cars, or no new cars on a regular basis. etc. Many choose more simple living over obtaining aquistions, paying others to take care of their simple needs (like washing a car), yet still are stuck on the same treadmill.

Many of the items/services you listed are, as you pointed out, choices, and one can easily opt out of many of them if not all. The reason I believe people need to work more nowadays is not because of those luxuries but because of:

1) healthcare is now very expensive and not always easy to get and is usually dependent on one's employer

2) pensions are essentially gone and we all have to save for retirement, and

3) housing costs much much more in relation to average income in many places than it did in the past.

4) Extended families, and communities are often distanced (and also often busy) and thus people are often left to do everything on their own--thus the need for so much childcare, and paying for services that in the past people often did for their friends, family, and neighbors.

Cell phone, cable, and lawncare, those are luxuries and choices that we can do with out. Housing, healthcare, and something to live on in retirement and old age are not. They are necessities.

I think the lifestyle you describe is one that fits a certain demographic. Those who do not fit that demographic still have to work just as hard and lead busy lives as well, all just for the basics of survival--and often esp. for healthcare. Looking at our biggest expenses, they are for housing, and healthcare, and then food.

None of the luxuries we do splurge on at times is a factor in our needing to both procure an income. It is the need for the basics of survival really that keeps us on this treadmil. We could cut out all luxuries and still need almost exactly the same income.

There are other contributers to the situation as well, I'm sure, but I think this is a much bigger issue than simple consumerism. That may be one factor, but get rid of the type of consumerism you describe, and the prob. will still exist, I believe.

LET'S TALK said...

Great post, and very true. I'm wondering what happen to all the things I had ten years ago.

I don't know how hot it use to be, but now it is so hot at imes in the summer that a air conditioner is needed.

There's a lot of other things that we don't really need that we seem to not be able to do without because we have grown so use to having them around. Things such as the computers and high speed internet service.

Christopher said...

The USA is a consumer nation.

All me make today are movies and weapons. If Hollaywood and the military, industrial complex ceased to be, the USA would be 100% manufacturing-free.

Another reason (among many) why we are a debtor nation. But hey, what do I know?

The Harry and Nancy 110th Congress have yet to tell Bush "no" to a single request for additional war funding and the debt ceiling has reached a staggering $9.4 trillion dollars.

FreakyNick said...

I still don't have a cell phone!

My daughter wonders how I can live like that. I wonder how I could ever live WITH one.

I refuse to start, because I know as soon as I get one, it will be a MUST. Just like the computer and the internet.

I love it when I go out backpacking and get away from all the techno crap. It is so relaxing.


I still wonder why people keep saying "someone" is the reason for the season, yet reject all of his philosophy.

Don't tell me the reason for the season, show me........

I think I'll be wating a long time for that.

Mary Ellen said...

Great post, Mauigirl!

My husband and I did it a little differently than most of our friends. We decided that when we had kids that I would quit working and stay home with the kids. After my first child was born, I did just that. When she turned 4, and I didn't have any more children, I went back to work and she was in pre-school/daycare. The only reason I did that was because I thought she needed to be with other kids, for the socialization. When she started kindergarten I had another child and quit my job to stay home. All other jobs I had was working out of my home to help pay the bills, but I was there with the kids. I even did daycare and took care of other people's children while they worked.

I don't regret it, and we moved from our "starter" home which was only two bedrooms with one bath, not conducive to raising four kids. The house we are in now (4 bedrooms, three baths) was full for awhile but is now empty with only one child left who is ready to move on to college next year.

The good thing...we stayed in this house even though many of our friends were "moving up" to the big fancy homes in the area. But our mortgage is paid up and we were able to put our kids through college without them having to have debt after they graduated. Fancy isn't important to us, but our kids education is.

Now, I plan on going back to work full time, I did my job with the kids. It's not so much for the money, I don't mind living frugally, but I need to get out and use my brain before it slips away!

Mauigirl said...

DCup, yes, I'm sure these luxuries that have become necessities are a big contributor to credit card debt. (And for me, on line shopping is big! I have to really control myself - especially with books from Amazon!)

M, you make some very valid points. It isn't as simple as I'm making it here, for sure. I know this is really specific to a particular demographic, which is the demographic that surrounds me here in northern New Jersey. A suburban, upper middle class lifestyle. There are teardowns all over the place where people buy perfectly good moderate sized houses and tear them down for a McMansion or even bigger.

Even among the more blue-collar middle class people who are struggling to get along, I don't know a single family that doesn't have a computer, several TVs or cell phones for themselves and their kids.

But to your point, a huge piece of the puzzle does center on healthcare and housing, plus the rising cost of just about everything. So there is certainly more to it than what I'm talking about here, especially for city dwellers who pay high rents, etc.

And very good point about the lack of extended family - another loss to our society. People move around so much these days since job security is nonexistent, and they no longer live near their relatives who could have helped out with the childcare, etc., as they did in the past.

Let's Talk, I think it was probably just as hot in the old days but people just put up with it - or they went to the movies to keep cool! But once you get used to A/C there's no way you can do without it.

Christopher, you are so right - we make nothing here anymore, and with the writers' strike, soon Hollywood will be out of business too! And of course, our economy not doing well (except for the richest of the rich) is another factor that causes more two-income households to be necessary.

Nick, good for you, not having a cell phone yet. I am not a huge fan of them but I do find them handy - I especially like to use mine when my husband and I get separated at a store..."Honey, where are you?" "Aisle 10, plumbing supplies." "Oh, OK, see you there."

I haven't yet given in to the i-Pod technology. Still use old fashioned CDs. And I don't have a Blackberry...yet.

Mauigirl said...

Mary Ellen, thanks for your blueprint for how to do it! You make a very good point, that it can be done if you plan ahead and find ways to supplement bills by working at home.

And certainly not all people work outside the home just because they have to - it is indeed a way to keep your mind active and add something interesting into your life as well. For all I complain about my job, I wouldn't want to just stay home, I would need to find something else to do if I left this job, to keep my mind active and feel productive.

TomCat said...

Excellent post, Maui. M beat me to most of what I had to say. Some of the luxuries you mentioned are good values. I spend $50 a month for my DSL service, my only luxury. It is the costs of necessities: housing, food, fuel, and medical care that have skyrocketed, while thanks to Bush and the GOP, just the increase in income of the top 10% over two years is greater than the total income of the bottom 20%.

Sue J said...

Great post! My partner and I have been trying to "simplify" our lives over the past year, and it's hard!

We got rid of the satellite dish, but then found our reception was horrible. Then I found out that the FCC requires all cable companies to offer a basic basic plan, which in Baltimore costs about $10 per month. We get all the local channels and some DC ones, and a few other channels as well. I thought I would miss the Law & Order marathons on TNT, but instead I have more time to relax with a book, work on projects around the house, or we might even sit with a glass of wine and have an actual conversation.

We have an informal rule that we wait a day before we make any substantial purchase to decide whether its something we really need. Nine times out of ten, we don't go back and buy it.

Mauigirl said...

Tomcat, very true - these are all parts of the puzzle that make our lives very different from those of our parents. I just heard on the radio this morning that the price of a gallon of milk has gone up something like 90 cents since a year ago, due to rising costs of transportation due to gas prices going up. So it's all intertwined. And you of course are right about Bush & Co.

Sue, that's interesting about the $10 very basic cable. I'd tell my mother, who complains about her cable bill, but if it doesn't have C-Span on it she wouldn't be happy! I agree, when we don't have all these distractions we are able to sit back and read a book or actually talk. What a concept!

Sue J said...

I'd tell my mother, who complains about her cable bill, but if it doesn't have C-Span on it she wouldn't be happy!

Prepare to make momma happy: it includes C-Span! All cable companies are required to provide a low level service that includes local and government access channels.

Yay for mom!

Sue J said...

Oh -- and by the way, no cable company advertises this, so you won't see on any of their flyers or commercials. But if you call them up, they'll know exactly what you're talking about.

Loren said...

I'm glad to see that so many people have commented here, mauigirl.

I think all change begins with awareness, and I think there's a growing awareness that the simple life offers many advantages we've forgotten about.

Mauigirl said...

Sue, thanks for letting me know! I'll have to check into it and see if my mother would like to save some money on her cable TV bill!

Loren, I think you're right, people are becoming more aware of how they're complicating their lives. Even if two people have to work, life can still become simpler and less stressful if some changes are made.

M said...

Maui Girl

Thanks for your response (and your comment on my Smiths post too). I don't think you were being judgmental. I think it was more just what you pointed out, a matter of different lifestyles and surroundings.

The suburban upper middle class lifestyle you describe is a totally different world than the one I live in and associate with generally, so many of the premises in the post just didn't apply to me and those I know/see, and I think that led me to interpret and view the points differently than some others might.

You said "Even among the more blue-collar middle class people who are struggling to get along, I don't know a single family that doesn't have a computer, several TVs or cell phones for themselves and their kids."

Though that may be true for some or even many, my point was that for many people those things aren't what is causing them to financially struggle, have a lot of debt,or be stuck on the rat race. How much after all is a phone, tv, and computer (and associated monthly costs), etc.? Sure those things add up too, but I know that in my life those costs are minuscule in comparison to what I pay for health insurance, health care copays, medication, housing, education, and so on.

In my opinion, those costs are the ones that are contributing to the go-go-go lifestyle you describe, and are capable of making, and do make, even the most financially conscientious people struggle, rack up debt, or have to work day and night to keep up.

Which is precisely why I think some of that luxury spending--unless one is truly an out of control ovespender/shopaholic--is not the real problem, but more a red herring that distracts from some of the more significant costs that are truly hurting the American people.

Many (I don't mean you!) point to the fact that we all have microwaves and dishwashers and so so nowadays to dismiss the true effects and causes and realities of poverty and other problems in our society. When I think the truth really is that having a microwave or something similar doesn't add all that much cost esp. when compared with the exorbitant costs of so many of our true necessities these days, such as health care, education, and housing.

Hope that makes sense and doesn't seem dismissive of your point, b/c I think your point and the reminder that luxuries aren't necessities and are often not worth the time we give up for them is an important one. Although I would argue that cell phone and computers in many cases ARE necessities as they are often needed for safety, work, etc. Most people nowadays I think would be at a significant disadvantage nowadays without easy and consistent access to the Internet.

Mauigirl said...

M, thanks for your very thoughtful comment - and I totally agree with this:

"my point was that for many people those things aren't what is causing them to financially struggle, have a lot of debt,or be stuck on the rat race."

And believe me, I totally support people buying the little luxuries that make their lives worthwhile. If life were all about just work and sleep it would be pretty boring.

And I do agree too that the computer and internet access are really a "cost of entry" into the business world these days, and it is certainly important that less-advantaged people have internet access, etc., to make sure they can be competitive in the business world.

If I carried my premise to the real extreme I guess we'd all be living like the Amish with horse and buggy, etc. And then someone from a previous generation would say "In MY day all we did was walk, we didn't have any fancy horse-and-buggy!" LOL! So you are right, we do have to accept our society as it is today and deal with the bigger issues of healthcare costs and commodities that are going through the roof, etc.

At my job today they mentioned that costs of wheat, corn and other grains had gone sky-high, I forget the percent increase, but it was astronomical. And of course that will all translate into more expense for consumers overall.

And using ethanol for fuel will just make things worse, since people will be growing corn for fuel and not growing wheat or using corn for food.

Thanks again for your comments!

Anonymous said...

Great post Maui Girl and it's wonderful that it generated so many comments--all of which I read!

My husband and I are both artists and don't have much cash, but we don't have the problems that many of our other friends have--things you describe.

Out of necessity we have to do many things on our own. We dry our clothes on a clothes line, do our own yard service, wash our one car ourselves, walk our dogs everyday, cook the majority of our own meals instead of eating out and wash the dishes by hand.

We have our own Hawaiian crafts home business which we started over 10 years ago because we didn't want to commute to work. I find the trade off suits me.

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