I’ll never forget the first time I heard those immortal words – Greed is Good! Hey, like any kid of the 1980s, I watched Gordon Gecko getting all the hot girls and all the glitter and fame and I knew I wanted it all. I was raised to be a good American and a consumer. Heck, after the 9/11 attacks our president told us to go and shop till we drop. It’s the American way after all. Except that consumerism is killing us all.
Mind you, I’m not the sort of person who is particularly interested in being a minimalist. I mentioned last week that I have a silver collection worth in the tens of thousands and it’s true. I also admit to loving my gadgets – I just bought a new iPad Air 2 and a 2nd generation Moto 360. However, I also know that I need to live within my means and not overdo it. Otherwise, consumerism is going to destroy me.
My Ex Wife
Let me tell you about my crazy ex-wife. No seriously – she was a total whacko. Never mind the screaming and the fighting we engaged in constantly. The spending – oh my dear Lord! The first night we were married, we went to Shop Rite, a local supermarket chain here in the New York area.
We were just two people and yet she managed to fill two wagons to capacity and the bill came to over $800. This was 16 years ago mind you. 16 years! Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $1,120 today.
Our marriage didn’t last long but the food she wasted money on that night sure did. I still remember three years after she moved out, I found a box of instant mashed potatoes she had bought that night. It was still good. This woman also had so much clothing that the closet in our bedroom was full to the brim and I had to put my clothing in the guest room next door.
Oh and she was crazy about fish – at one point, we had four different aquariums running throughout our two bedroom apartment. Not to mention the spending on our honeymoon – I had vouchers for free flights on Delta Airlines but she refused to use them because it meant a connecting flight and she had to have direct flights only – never mind the extra costs.
All in all, we were together for just four months (no, I’m not kidding – it was four months of hell, but that’s a story for another time). In four months, this woman ran up bills totaling in excess of $40,000 (around $56,000 today), none of which she could pay back because she wasn’t working.
At the time, I had just finished college and was on the path to becoming a teacher (I have since moved on to working in sales, which pays much more) so I wasn’t making much. The whole experience with her ended up sending me to bankruptcy court where I had to explain to a judge why I had let my wife’s spending get so out of control.
Now I admit it – I’m no tightwad and I like to buy stuff too. But the experience with my ex-wife taught me a valuable, albeit very expensive lesson – that consumerism is bad when taken to excess. Since then, I have learned to live within my means. I keep some money in savings as an emergency fund and I don’t borrow more than I can afford to pay back on my credit cards.
The Trap of Consumerism
Look, any economist will tell you that when people are spending money, it’s good for the economy. If nobody spends money then nobody is making any money and then it all ends up being flushed down the toilet in some kind of a vicious cycle.
So yeah – spending is a good thing. For the economy. It helps spread money around and gets people to grow their businesses.
However, for you as an individual, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of consumerism – to keep buying and buying and more and more crap just like my ex-wife.
Never mind that you can’t figure out how in the hell you’ll pay for it all later. That’s not my problem right now. That new car is so shiny and I must have it. That big screen TV set will look awesome when the World Series is running and I’ll be the envy of the block. Just keep spending – don’t worry – you’ve got credit cards to put it all onto.
Now all of this is to say nothing of the other dark side of consumerism – that you don’t end up saving enough money for retirement or emergency expenses.
Take my situation for example – about three weeks ago, I fried my computer by spilling a glass of wine onto the keyboard (teaches me to drink while watching Netflix at my desk). I brought it to a repair shop but was told it wasn’t worth fixing and that it would be cheaper to buy a new one.
I decided that instead of buying another laptop, I’d go for an All In One. A bit more expensive but it gets me a much bigger screen and this way, if I ever spilled something on the keyboard, I wouldn’t have to worry about frying the whole computer – just the cheap keyboard which I can replace for twenty bucks.
The model I wanted was $729. I was able to pay cash for it because I’d learned my lesson from my ex-wife. I always make sure I have some money in the bank in the form of savings for just such an emergency. Yet, the average American admits that they would have trouble putting together $500 for an unexpected emergency. That’s what consumerism does to you – it robs you of the ability to feel confident.
And Ultimately, Consumerism Is Bad for the Economy Too
All of this adds up to consumerism being a really crappy thing when it comes to the economy too – remember how I said that if nobody spends then nobody makes any money and the economy goes down the toilet?
Well if you spend too much, you eventually get to the point where you realize you’ve gone overboard and you go the other direction – you stop spending on even essential things and try desperately to cut back. Eventually, you get to the point where your consumerism is going to cause the economy to crash because you are freaking out about how much you owe and you’re not sure how to pay it all back.
There’s nothing wrong with spending and even splurging once in a while. But consumerism run wild is never a good idea and it’s going to get you into trouble.