Monday, July 18, 2011

For the Love of Consumerism

I have a love/hate relationship with Pottery Barn Kids. For me, it symbolizes my internal battle with consumerism. On the one hand, I'm repulsed by the $89 doll buggy my three-year-old asks for every time the catalog arrives at our house. On the other hand, that little pram is so stinking cute that I kinda want to get it for her. So it goes with most everything at that store. All of the Pottery Barn catalogs draw me in like nothing else (except those red, Starbucks Christmas cups, which I pathetically adore). Looking at those catalogs, you just know that if your house looked like that, you'd have not just a more well-appointed home but a more well-appointed life as well. Your Saturdays would start off with the New York Times and a cup of coffee in bed before the whole family trekked off in a vintage Jeep Wagoneer to pick up pastries at the nearby French bakery. Then, it'd be on to a morning of perusing the local farmer's market, where you'd carry the perfect woven tote. Your children would be well-behaved and adorable throughout the entire expedition, never once whining that the farmer's market was boring. You'd come home and listen to jazz or cool indie pop while you cooked a delicious, gourmet meal from scratch, while your children played happily nearby, never once raising a ruckus or making a mess. Later, some friends would come over for dinner and you'd regale each other with stories about your latest trips to Croatia or Turkey... Deep down, I know it doesn't work that way, but I get sucked in every time.

It seems that for most of the 90's and the early 2000's, the vast majority of us began to believe and embrace the Sex & The City-style consumerism that now seems somewhat dated. As we watched shows like S&TC, it began to seem reasonable that an average, middle-class woman should buy (and could afford) a pair of $500 Manolo Blahniks. Watching shows like Flip that House, it seemed that we could all make a mint buying, renovating and selling real estate. Financial prosperity was here and everybody was riding high. Even if we weren't riding all that high, it seemed like we should be and likely would be very soon.

When I graduated from college in 2000, I moved to New York. I set up an appointment with a head hunter and arrived at her office wearing my first suit. She told me how glad she was to have a candidate come in who was poised and had a proper resume put together. Before I left her office, she'd arranged a temp job for me and within two weeks, I had three job offers. One college degree and one internship to my name and I had my choice of jobs. How could I not believe the good times would never end?! Everyone else seemed to believe it too.

I was hired at a law firm as a paralegal along with a couple of other recent college grads. Within just a few months, we all received raises. Life was good and would only get better. While I never lived beyond my means, I certainly dreamed beyond them. I dreamed that I'd somehow save up and "invest" in an Hermes Kelly bag, for a cool $15,000. This never happened given how ridiculously far out of reach that purchase was, but given the popularity of the "Confessions of a Shopaholic" series, I know I wasn't alone in my dreams of being a young gal in a big city, donning designer duds.

11 years and a Great Recession later and this all seems so -- gross. Last weekend, my husband and I finally watched The Company Men, starring Ben Affleck. While it was a bit trite at the end, it clearly represented what's gone on in our country. We were all advised to buy the most house we could afford, based on the idea that housing values would always rise and we'd likely continue to make increasingly higher salaries. In the opening scenes of the movie, it showed perfectly appointed homes, stocked with every stainless steel appliance and electronic toy its owner could (or perhaps, couldn't) afford. Of course, like many Americans, he got laid off and lost everything from his house to his golf club membership.

While I've contemplated my relationship with consumerism before, somehow this movie has really made me re-examine not just my individual motives as a consumer, but our society's relationship with consumerism as well. While I recognize that our economy's largely dependent on our consumeristic habits, I can't help but wonder how we all got so off-course. How did we come to a place where everything has a brand-name version of it that we all aspire to? From jeans to candles, from Sub-Zero to Wolf appliances, things that were once reasonably-priced and fairly generic have gone designer. 20 years ago, most Americans just wanted a dishwasher from Sears that worked, now it seems like it has to be Bosch or it's bad.

Clearly our spending and over-spending has gotten us in the predicament we're in today. Aside from our aspirations to expensive goods, there's the more common problem of consumption for consumption's sake. Most of us are guilty of buying things we don't really need and maybe don't even really want all that much just because they're there and we're bored.

The question is, how do we get out of this retail approach to life? Where do we draw the line between wanting and having nice things and not going overboard with it all? How do we re-capture more of a balance between our purchases and our incomes? I certainly don't have the answer. One moment, I'll be rational, wanting to sock money away for a rainy day, only buying the things my family absolutely needs. The next, I'll be coveting a new sweater or something out of that darn Pottery Barn catalog again.

A while back, my husband and I got the book, Smart Couples Finish Rich, and in it, the author suggests people evaluate their values and then make sure their purchases are in line with those values. For instance, if you want to spend more time at home with your kids, don't buy an expensive car that you have to work that much harder to pay off, thus preventing you from spending that time with your kids. Sounds easy and logical enough, but I've found the reality can be a lot harder.

While I think people are quieter and less blatant about consumerism now than we were a few years ago, it's still running rampant. At the height of the recession, I read about wealthy women shopping on Fifth Avenue in New York and asking the designer stores for plain, non-branded bags, as they didn't want to be so ostentatious about their purchases during a time when people were struggling so hard to make ends meet. So, while they didn't want to be so in-your-face with it, they were still buying it.

In 2008, I had hoped the one positive thing to come out of this recession would be a collective shift in values away from so much consumerism. Despite periodic reports of Americans moving away from McMansions and the like, it doesn't really seem like anything's changed too much. Watching House Hunters, it seems we're all still wanting the biggest house with granite countertops as much as we ever were.

Wall Street bankers are still taking home insane bonuses and the rest of us are still coveting, well, everything. I certainly can't point fingers as I'm guilty of this as much as the next guy but still, I wish we'd somehow, collectively agree to forego some of this stuff and turn our attention elsewhere.

It's been proven time and again that our collection of things hasn't made us happier -- on the contrary, we're less satisfied with our lives than we used to be. In general, we have so many things they've largely lost their value, yet we continue to pursue them. We all see it with our kids, who generally have so many toys they don't really know what to do with them and don't enjoy them all that much. I know these aren't the values I want to instill in my kids -- what I'm less sure of is how to prevent it.

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