Jan 31 2012
Juliet B. Schor’s book The Overspent American reflects upon American consumerism and what drives people to buy what they buy. Schor states that people buy products as a way to portray a certain image. Symbols have become very important in terms of visibility, Schor claims, “What they aquire and own is tightly bound to their personal identity.” It ties into her theory of competitive acquisition which states that we want to have the best in order to depict a certain image. Schor uses the example of looking at what people have in their yard to determine their social class. She points out that trucks/campers, window air conditioning units, and putting out laundry are all examples of the lower class. Schor also states, “successful suburbantes drive minivans, own PCs, and spend a lot on home furnishings. Prosperous baby boomers have camcorders and four-by-four vehicles, play racquet ball or tennis, like making home improvements and spend a lot on insurance.” All of these items portrays a certain image and people feel pressure from society to uphold these images.
The dangerous part of competitive acquisition is that people are spending money that they do not have. People in the past would compare themselves to their neighbors who made relatively the same amount of money however, now people are comparing themselves to certain “reference groups” and many times these people make more money. Daily exposure to products which are beyond our means becomes the norm and we are pressured into purchasing items we can not financially obtain. Credit card spending has made people feel more comfortable spending money and most of the time it is money that they do not have, which is what Schor calls “see-want-borrow-buy.” According to the data that she provides, the amount of money that people have been saving has decreased throughout the years which is very dangerous considering the amount of spending that consumers are doing.
It was interesting to hear about those who have chosen to downshift. Even though there are many downshiffters who have made this decision voluntarily, many of those who were forced to downshift claim that they are happy with the change and it has become a “blessing in disguise.” Downshiffters work far less hours and in return they make less money. However, it gives them time to do things that matter such as spending more time with family. In order to downshift one should join the “simplicity movement” by wanting less which will help to increase your quality of life. Many downshiffters tend to be middle class whites with at least a college education and many happen to be women without young children at home. Schor has a list of nine ways in which you can learn to control your desire and learn how not to conform to social norms. Also, Schor discusses the effect downshifting will have on the economy. She states that employment can be maintained if fewer people want jobs and if they work fewer hours.
I found myself relating to this book and it has made me think about why I want the things that I buy. I really liked the example that she used with the gift exchange because it is something that I can relate to with my own friends. My best friend is an only child and I on the other hand have four sisters and a brother, so we have had very different backgrounds when dealing with money. While she doesn’t mind spending a ton of money on a birthday or Christmas gift I would rather not spend as much. However, as Schor pointed out, if a friend gets you a nice gift you feel obliged to buy them something even nicer, which creates a trend of increasing price tags. Also, I found it interesting when thinking of how companies advertise. I had never really thought the effects of Super Bowl advertising and how they are able to reach to millions of people that come from all different backgrounds and they are all trying to be persuaded to buy the same products. A CEO and a construction worker are both being told to buy the newest BMW, which of course in most cases the construction worker would not be able to afford. I realized after reading this that it creates a norm for the entire population that everyone should by a BMW, rolex, or other high priced items when in reality for many it is unobtainable.
I enjoyed watching the video during class called “Cool Hunting.” Watching how marketers would hire people to find out the newest and hottest trends was fascinating. The fact that a company will make something cool then purposefully “kill” the trend in order to bring something new into the market for people to spend their money on. This was a new concept that I had never really even thought about but it makes complete sense. It is sort of amazing to think that millions upon millions fall for this marketing trick and we don’t even know it.
Also, I think that our class conducted a very good discussion on this book. It was interesting to learn about everyone’s spending habits and they way they justified a purchase because it was on sale or because they had a gift card. This book definitely makes me think before I make a purchase and to really understand why I actually want to buy the product. Is it to fit in? To portray an image? Is it a necessity? Can I actually afford it? Will it be a good investment for the future? I have realized these are important questions that everyone should ask themselves before making a purchase. Now that I think about it, these are the same questions my mom would always ask me before I would buy a shirt or a dress that I “had to have.” These questions always use to bother me because I believed that if I had the money to buy it, then who cares if I REALLY need it and even if I don’t really need it, I want it so I have to buy it….or do I?
After reading Juliet B. Schor’s Overspent American, this reflection is not so much a reflection on the book or the discussion, but a reflection on myself.
Why do we buy what we buy? Well, I bought this shirt to stay warm. But why did I buy it at JC Penney and not at Marshall’s? Why do I want to buy a Jaguar as my first car, and not some other car that gets better gas mileage and perhaps better for the environment?
It’s all about image. What will people think when they look at me. For example, I brought up in class how I was interested in this one t-shirt. I went over, looked at the tag, and it was designed by Hannah Montana. I was willing to walk away from a very good looking piece of clothing just because among my friends, Hannah Montana is not cool. But here’s the beauty of ‘cool’: I’m positive there are millions of girls out there who would call me insane for calling Hannah Montana ‘not cool’. She’s in fact the epitome of cool.
Schor writes about Americans spending above their budget, and even if it means certain debt, Americans feel compelled to keep up an image of wealth and success. This is what Schor calls “See-want-borrow-and-buy” and she calls it a comparative process, where we look relatives, friends and coworkers. These are the people we see every day, people who are in the same social scale we are, and people who are the most judgmental. A stranger on the street, we may never see them again for the rest of our lives. But friends see what we wear, what we drive, what we eat, and what kind of house we live in. These are the people we are competing with. Here’s some reinforcement for the “it’s all about image” aspect. It’s now cool to be green. It’s great to be economical and save mother earth from choking to death on carbon dioxide and sulfur smelling factory fumes. For example, Harrison Ford, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Ferrell, Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, and Kate Hudson all own a Toyota Prius. Green is in. However, bad habits are hard to break. We brought up in class how one could buy a re-usable shopping bag in stores now and just bring it every time one shops. No more plastic or paper. Save oil and trees. But, we also brought up stories of people always buying more than one and collecting them. It all boils down to forgetting to bring it along with you when you go shopping. There’s an explanation for that. Convenience.
When do people do their grocery shopping? When they’re already out, usually after work. So, we leave work, and we come upon a shopping center, and then we want to pick up a few things. Of course, who remembers to bring their shopping bag to work, when they didn’t plan on shopping? On page 95, Schor talks about how when middle or upper-middle class people buy a house, their first criterion is in fact not safety, but how close is the nearest shopping center. I think this is true, as it’s all about convenience when shopping. It starts with the grocery store, and it can be argued that food shouldn’t be an hour away. But then, why not have a grocery store next to a Wal-Mart instead of one in the middle of nowhere? (p.s. Microsoft Word corrected my spelling of Wal-Mart. It seems I had forgotten the dash in the center) Why not do your grocery shopping, clothes shopping, visit the bank and go out for lunch all in the same area, instead of traveling all over the place? This shows how important convenience is for marketing. With all the stores so close together, consumers are tempted to visit other stores, along with their original destination.
Within her book, Schor also addresses the ‘Diderot Effect’. If one buys a new house, the old furniture doesn’t seem to fit in the new house, so it’s tossed or sold. The old furniture is not culturally complementary to the new house. It doesn’t even need to be a house. It can be a new pair of shoes. How many women have bought a pair of shoes, and they need to get a whole new outfit to match it?
So, what can we do to fix all this?
People who have had it with the pressure of ‘keeping up with the Jones’’ are called ‘downshifters’. They’ve given up material overload, stress, and have added more balance in their lives and more money in their pockets. Now, the profile of a downshifter found in the book has some examples that are feasible, and some not so feasible. Repairing rather than buying: Feasible. Reusing recycled paper bags: Careful, see above comments about the consequences of that. Makes own clothes, cards own wool, shears own sheep: Not feasible. We agreed in class that getting land for sheep and getting the sheep is quite an expensive task. Can we all become downshifters? Can we downscale? If done gradually, Schor says our economy will not fall apart. Downturns in product demand can lead to consolidations and efficiency gains, especially in industries where production capacity is already too high (Cars?).
I distinctly remember Christmas 2008 at the Smith household. My mother instigated what was a good-natured little conversation piece at dinner. The “game” was called, “if money was no object.” The objective was to go around the table—my parents, two siblings, and sister-in-law—and explain what we would gift each other with and why if money was no object. According to Juliet Schor, however, there was more at play than an innocent game. Whether or not we realize it, families around the proverbial American dinner table find themselves in a world of desire that both contributes to and is the product of a new consumerism.
Schor asserts on page 71 of her book The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need, that “while fantasy and imagination are important, we should not lose sight of the fact that much of this wishing is really wanting—wanting that turns into buying.” My family borders on the bracket Schor describes—the half of the world’s richest country who say they can’t afford all they need. It’s not an income issue and our standard of living is hardly poor—indeed it is quite the opposite—but the pinch at the end of the month stems from poor money management. The problem, Schor points out, is that the GDP has increasingly become our nations plumb line for true quality of life (21). We buy more, we spend more, we produce more, sure. Still, does a perpetual want for more actually lead millions of Americans to the established social position they, according to Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, aspire to as they continue spending the money they do not have? (6) Judging by survey results that show many think “materialism is ruining the country, perverting our values, and damaging our children,” competitive consumption for the sake of status is hardly making life better for the Smiths—no matter how it may look to the Joneses or whoever the increasingly unattainable “reference group” happens to be this year (24).
The reason this consumerist culture persists, argues Schor, is not because of a natural, personal or individual tendency to find worth in consumption. Instead, it has much to do about habitus—socially produced tastes that indicate whether or not an individual “fits in” (29). Somewhere along the way, producers and their representatives received the power to determine which items would carry what status. It is a code system so engrained that even if money was no object, a person would reach for the polo shirt over the knock off Wal-Mart style because it is “better” (39). The same code system leads people to spend more money on a living room verses a bedroom or on lipstick verses moisturizer. We invest in visible symbols to simply be seen (45-51). If we are not spending to keep up, we are buying to look different. As we discussed in class, people first went green to be different, though it is now a fad. The video we watched pointed out that trends begin with the individual thinkers, the free spirits, the cool. Keeping up with cool, and spending to do so, has become our national pastime as marketing agencies fight to stay ahead of cool and sell their product to the Smith family of 30,000 dollars as they do to the Jones family of 300,000 dollars. The message is if you have the money, perfect. If you do not have the money, then it will be worth the splurge. What results when the Smiths simply cannot afford to splurge is a world of debt (73). They are told not to be jealous, but encouraged every day in many ways to compete by upscaling. The concern about debt gets taken out back with the old cabinets, now remodeled, as, like teenagers, consumers like the Smiths just try to keep up and stay “in.”
There is a point in time for many families, as there has been for mine, when we cannot simply pile the recycling on top of our debt and call it a day, having done our part to change the world with our earth-consciousness. For these families, money has long not been an object—it has been a swipe of a plastic rectangle. There comes a sobering realization that money is, indeed, an object, and there can be a lack of it. This epiphany might mean cutting back on what you buy for the parents you admire and the siblings you adore. Though I would like to offer them so much more at the time of year that inspires me to love my family the way I believe God loved the world when he sent his son on Christmas, it is also very freeing to come to the knowledge that money is just an object and that, subjectively, social status is not really all the Jones’ crack it up to be. What one does with this information has everything to do with how, and if, we begin to see a change in this consumer culture of ours—a topic of conversation we have already begun to touch on in our discussion of the American downshifter.
Juliet Schor’s book “The Overspent American” was a good introduction to this class and provided a ton of information about consumerism in America. I found her book interesting when she wrote about the psychology of the consumer, attempting to keep up with his or her reference groups (the Joneses). The personal stories she told about real people made the book seem more authentic and really underlined what a big problem shopping has become for so many Americans. Her graphs, when I was able to get my head around them were startling and occasionally saddening. The chart demonstrating which items were necessities for today’s world comes to mind. For instance, a large chunk of Americans responding that a second television was a necessity in their homes seemed outlandish. Those numbers were from 1996 so I can only imagine what items are considered necessities in 2010 with the influence of The Real Housewives and similar programs giving never before seen access to the rich and famous for an underclass unable to keep up. While Schor’s study of reference groups and advertising’s impact on the average consumer brought up some interesting questions and points it wasn’t particularly new information. What really fascinated me was the downshifter revolution.
I had never heard of downshifters before reading this book, but now I want to learn more. Downshifters are those who “opt out of excessive consumerism” in order to bring their work and life more “into synch with who they are.” Schor follows a slew of downshifters from a variety of income levels who experienced mixed results. Still, the downshifters cast quite the contrast to my idea of the typical, materialistic American. Something I wondered about downshifters, which we touched on in class, was how downshifting may have become a form of keeping up with the Joneses. It almost seemed like some of the people in Schor’s book wanted to beat their friends to downshifting in order to one-up them. On page 130, Schor writes about a downshifting couple who “feel pretty smug” to accentuate the difference between themselves and their friends. I think downshifters have created a sort of competitive downshifting reference group of their own, where the goal is to find the best deals at Costco or to only eat foods grown in a personal garden. It truly seems like a competition.
In Juliet B. Schor’s 1999 book The Overspent American, she analyzes how Americans have changed the culture of consumerism into a “see-want-borrow-buy” mode, thus putting many in positions where they have to choose between debt or giving into a culture that states that material possessions make happiness. This book is a fascinating look at an aspect of our culture that, for many, is a way of life. Schor’s main argument explains that the mass media advertises to millions of people with a product that not all of those millions are intended to buy. Because of this mass marketing, the poor yearn for products and lifestyles from television and advertisements that they see. Schor argues that shift in the media brought about a new way of living. Before television, Americans compared themselves to neighbors and friends, only bothering to keep up with the latest and greatest on the block. But now that all Americans can see MTV’s Cribs and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, we compare ourselves to the people that more than us. This negatively affects bank statements and financial futures of the those that buy into this new consumerism culture.
Before class discussion, Josh and Allison asked us all to write down our most recent purchases. As someone pointed out, we all stated what we bought, but then gave immediate justification for why we bought it or what kind of a deal we got on it. At first I wondered about whether or not this was an effect of the current economy and the way that it is hip to frugal these days, but I realized that it would have happened two years ago, too. But not everyone in this exercise would necessarily try to downplay their purchases. It’s a cliche example for this class, but it fits so well – the women on The Real Housewives Of… show would have no problem stating their last purchase, and probably even brag about how much money they spent. I think that while we might not all be of the same social or economic class, we all do go to the same school, where there is a money norm. We’re “broke college students,” or at least that’s what we keep telling ourselves. I’m sure that there are people that are not broke, but I definitely am. Therefore, to have started the class saying “I bought a seat cushion for my bike,” would not have worked for me. I cannot afford a car; I’m paying for my own college and other expenses. Therefore, my bike is how I get around on and off campus. So, I have to end that sentence with “… my seat is really uncomfortable and I ride my bike around everywhere.” When, really aren’t we feeding into consumer culture in a way, just by stating that we don’t? We are all fitting a mold of frugality. Like Schor said, shopping is advertised as a way to be different, but it really just ends up in people looking the same. I guess that by us not spending much money we are actually more similar in our spending habits than at first glance.
As a final note, I want to share something.
In class we were talking about ways to not spend money, and someone mentioned “lifting babies as weights.” At the risk of not being able to find it and also being that obnoxious kid that isn’t really on topic, I didn’t share this while we were in class. However, here is a funny video from College Humor about the “Stay at Home Dad Workout.” I’m not sure how to embed from College Humor, so just click here. No, but seriously. It’s funny.
“The Overspent American” was an interesting read and touches on many of the problems that average Americans deal with on a day to day basis. In the novel Juliet B. Schor paints a vivid picture of a country that is increasingly over reaching their financial means and finding themselves spiraling deeper and deeper into debt as a result. I was aware of may of the pitfalls that are present for modern day consumers but I thought it was interesting the ways the author delved into the deeper psychological issues involved and probed what is it that truly drives people to such mass consumption. I liked when she used information she gained form individuals and it helped me put a lot of the dry data she included into context.Her inclusion of all the different charts and graphs was interesting but I fond many of them to be oddly specific and in some ways it served to confuse more than clarify. sometimes got the feeling that she was trying to pad the book some and there were many different instances where she would just simply list consumer products. I think there was a time where half the page was just a list of typical household products. I understand that she was trying to paint a vivid picture for the consumer but it started to become redundant and unnecessary. Sometimes hearing all of those products only served to make me want to go shopping which was the complete opposite of her intention. Either way her book was informative and dealt with an important issue that more Americans should be informed on. I liked how at the end she include the list of ways to ward of excessive consumption and hopefully it serves to help consumers in the future.
The class discussions were also very enlightening and it helped to hear the opinions of all the various class members on the subject as opposed to just the author. I particularly liked when people used specific examples of downshifting and over consumptions. It was also very interesting to hear about other peoples spending habits and personal consumption because you sometimes forget that not everyone acts just like you in their consumer habits. I was interesting to learn about how corporations research teenagers and the various techniques they use to find out what is considered “cool”. I never really gave much thought to it but the there is a whole exhaustive process involved. i always thought it was something that happened naturally but in fact it has a whole manufacturing process involved.The next time I watch an advertisement or visit the mall I will be sure to keep all these thing in mind.
Juliet B. Schor, in “The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need”, argues that America is suffering from a case of “competitive consumption.” Not only are we consuming more and more material goods, but we are often using our purchasing power to identify ourselves, create a “public persona”, or keep up with what Schor calls an individual’s reference group- the group of people or social class that we aspire to imitate. Schor points out, however, that such a cycle of consumption is neverending. There will inevitably always be that one more piece of clothing that is sure to land an individual the coveted job, the car or house that will make all of one’s friends envious. Schor details what she terms this “upward creep of desire” by providing the reader with the example of French philosopher Denis Diderot. Diderot, upon receiving an elegant and beautiful dressing gown as a gift, began to feel that the familiar and well-used furnishings in his study, where he wore the gown, were not quite up to par with the elegance of the garment. Thus, he felt that he must replace the chairs, as well as the bookshelves, the rugs, the desk, and so on. Schor’s use of this example comes towards the end of the book, as she pushes the reader to consider his or her own spending habits as well as what can collectively be done (by, for example, a community or the local school PTA) to rectify what she sees as an increasingly growing phenomenon.
Schor ultimately outlines “Nine Principles” she believes will help individuals and society as a whole “get off the consumer escalator” (p.145). By becoming more conscious of what exactly they are spending (and, in the process, becoming a more educated consumer), Schor hopes that individuals will be forced to confront and perhaps even change many of the problems she sees as becoming increasingly more common in American society: a “work-to-spend” lifestyle, a deteriorating environment, the rise of the “new consumerism”, and a “lack of consumer control.” (p.145) Through such ideas as lending libraries, avoiding “retail therapy” (compulsive shopping), and higher taxes on certain items, Schor hopes that Americans will reevaluate what really matters to them in life as well as the ways in which we express ourselves.
I really enjoyed reading “The Overspent American”, as well as our classroom discussions that went along with it. I feel like consumption of material goods is a topic that almost everyone can relate to in some way or another, and I think our classroom discussions reflected that. I enjoyed listening to everybody else, especially the personal story of downshifting by the Dad who had a medical practice in D.C. before, stressed out by his job, he moved to South Dakota and is now working for much less but enjoying himself more, I think. It really was a perfect example for what we were discussing at the time- downshifting and making do with less (whether it be income or simply material goods). That discussion reminded me of an article I had read in Parade magazine (part of The Washington Post) over Winter Break. The article profiled a family who had been living in a large house and was comfortably well-off. Feeling, however, that they had much more in the way of “things” and space than they knew what to do with, the family of four sold their house and bought a much smaller one, giving the difference to a charity organization. The father mentioned how, in their larger house, the family did not interact much. Now, however, the family did the dishes together and the two children (teenagers) would play duets (one on guitar, the other on piano) in the living room. They were, on the whole, much happier as a result of their downsizing.
Juliet Schor’s book certainly made me think about my own spending habits. I am definitely not a person to make large purchases very often; in fact, I often feel guilty, I think, after purchasing something (even something small or seemingly insignificant, like an article of clothing), wondering if I truly “need” it or if I really should spend my money on something like that. I often feel like I need a justification for something. But, perhaps more and more often, I will see something I like and buy it, perhaps a bit more impulsively. I’m not sure if that is “letting go” more and if it really is a good thing. I like to go shopping, even if it is just to look around. At the same time, I can only spend about an hour at the mall (maximum) before I begin to get a headache and need/want to leave. I feel overwhelmed by the amount of choices and the people everywhere. I do, however, find myself looking at something or contemplating buying an article of clothing because I think it signifies a particular “subgroup” of the population, perhaps that I wish, in part, I belonged to. Thus, I think “identity” and consumption very much go hand in hand, especially with me. In trying to be individual, at the same time I wish to conform. I think it is very much a contradiction- as if I’m not sure who exactly I wish to be, so I will “try on” other identities. Clothing, jewelry- all of these items I feel let us experiment, in a way, with exactly who we want to be. Then again, as Juliet Schor argues, such material items really should not be the only basis of our identity and who we are as a person. It is definitely something I struggle with, I think.
In the introduction of Juliet Schor’s book, The Overspent American, she speaks about two different groups of Americans. There are the social climbers and the downshifters. The social climbers do more than try to “keep up with the Jones’s” and rather try to belong to a reference group that is completely out of their reach financially. They work long hours or spend on credit so as to own things that they feel they are entitled to or are supposed to own. Some of these people, after seeing that excessive spending has become detrimental to their lives, or possibly through bankruptcy, become downshifters. Others feel that (understandably) society has become too overwhelming; with high pressure jobs that lead toward even more spending they voluntarily “downshift.” This group of Americans spends less because they have realized what they need and what they want are two different things. In this society we have a “see-want-borrow-buy” (Schor, 68) mentality, and this leads to identifying with materials and making commodities represent our identities.
When discussing the first one hundred or so pages of this book, I was constantly reminded of the reality TV show “Real Housewives of Orange County.” These women live very luxurious lives and flaunt their wealth. This topic led to a question asked in class, wondering if spending money was an inherently bad thing. I feel the middle ground between overspending and not spending at all is balance. These housewives at the beginning of the series bought and were given extravagant gifts of jewelry, clothes, and even a motorcycle. But now as the series continues, with a less than stellar economic climate, these women are seeking the error of their ways, with one moving out of the house she was leasing, to another being stuck in upside down mortgage and cutting corners by cleaning herself. Its possible to buy nice, expensive things, but only if you can afford it. Putting things on a credit card while not receiving an income will lead to serious debt. If people could feel comfortable in their own skin without piling on the excess, many would be out of debt and join the growing number of happy, less stressed downshifters.