Last week’s class discussion was dedicated to Juliet Schor’s book, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. I found this book to be fascinating. It was all about how the American identity is tied to consumerism. Schor argues that what we acquire and own is tightly bound to our own personal identity. Our belongings create and support a particular image of ourselves that we present to the world. Because of the competitive nature of consumerism and acquisition, many of us are constantly comparing our own lifestyle to those of a group of people we respect and want to be like, whether they are our neighbors or our “friends” on TV! What people spend both reflects social inequalities and helps to reproduce and even create distinctions. I think this phenomenon can be demonstrated by the recent “OC craze”. There are currently at least a dozen shows on cable television that glorify life in Orange County, California. People accross the nation are comparing their lives to these overly tanned bleached blondes, wondering why their lives aren’t like that. Girls especially are spending tons of money on the “OC look” – ripped jeans, peasant tops, gold jewelry, big sunglasses, and oversized purses. Here’s a picture of the four girls from the hit MTV “reality” show, “The Hills”. Lauren, Heidi, Audrina, and Whitney live in Los Angeles and spend their time at their fabulous jobs at Teen Vogue, in exclusive night clubs, lounging by the pool, and galavanting around with male models. Yep, just four regular girls, being real. Pretty much could be me and my best friends. Ha, yeah right.
In the second half of the book, Schor exlpores how Americans constantly try to “keep up with the Joneses”. We subconsciously spend our money on things that make us look as wealthy as those around us. On a recent episode of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”, one of the characters responded to the question “How do you keep up with the Joneses?” with “PLEASE! I AM the Joneses!” (Check out my post with clips from “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” to see just how rediculous these women are). Because we live in a time that emphasizes technological progress, we feel like we must constantly upgrade to stay in line with the times. There is absolutely no reason to have ten editions of the ipod, yet one almost feels ashamed to be listening to the original ipod that came out only a few years ago when now there is the ipod Touch to be coveted! Schor also explores how kids have become a part of the consumer culture. Receiving gifts from their parents, craving new fads, and being involved in expensive extracurricular activities all make kids an important part of the consumer base. Gifting is another phenomenon that Schor talks about. Whether it is conspicuous gifting or self-gifting, it is just another way for us to justify spending our money as a status symbol.
Schor presents portraits of Americans who have been able to swim against the current of consumerism. She calls these people “downshifters”. These are people who are either voluntarily or involuntarily living on less money; getting back to “the basics”. Some of the people she studied live on $20,000, $10,000, and even $6,000 a year! They have really been able to make a distinction between wants and needs. Think of how much money we could all save if we didn’t spend as much on frivolous items such as Starbucks coffee, manicures, movie tickets, dinners out, and other indulgence items.
At the end of the book, Schor makes recommendations for how we can cut back and prevent ourselves from becoming overspent Americans. She suggest that we all make attempts to downshift in our own lives. She offers that we need to have a better understanding of advertisements and spend more time listening to consumer organizations instead of just manufacturers. We must promote saving and teach students how to save money and manage their spending. I am so glad my mother taught me how to write a check and balance a check book before I became a teen! Schor also proposes luxury taxes, progressive property taxes, and no corporate tax credits for advertisements. I think that Schor has presented an enlightening and informative wake-up call to us overspent Americans!