Do You Own What I Own?

The following quotation from the opening page of the Winter 2004 issue of The Wilson Quarterly feature story, “Shopping and the American Way of Life” clearly delineates some of the reasons I’ve wanted to reconsider consumerism and my own relationship to things:

In America, shopping is a national pastime, and consumer spending the engine of prosperity. But consumerism is also the source of deep ambivalence. One moment, Americans decry the country’s rampant materialism; the next, they jump in their cars and speed off to the mall, on a mission as consumers to save the nation from recession. Indeed, it’s American consumers’ seemingly insatiable taste for more that has kept America’s economy-and the world’s-afloat the past few years. Is our consumer society sustainable? Is it defensible?

Though I’ve always considered myself rather frugal, I’m embarrassed to admit that though I dress like a “granola” many of my tastes run more towards a “yuppie” life style.

Although my wardrobe runs towards, sandals, jeans, hemp shirts and GoreTex jackets, I prefer fancy restaurants to Burger King or McDonalds. I’ve probably eaten hamburgers out four times in the last year, all with grandson Gavin, but I’ve eaten out at relatively expensive restaurants many times during the same time period. Generally I prefer “ethnic” restaurants, particularly Thai restaurants, but it’s also hard to ignore the fine local seafood restaurants.

I either made all the furniture I have or I got it second-hand from my parents years ago, but I didn’t feel guilty about buying a top-of-the-line sharpening machine recently. Though the Inca table saw that I made most of my furniture with is over twenty years old, it, too, was considered “extravagant” when I bought it. In fact, I’ve never bought a tool that I didn’t consider “top-of-the-line” because I hate to have to replace a tool that I already own. I’m willing to pay top price if it means that the product will last longer and work more effectively.

As a result, except for my computer equipment most of what I own is “old,” just like me, but unlike me, most of it works as well as, if not better than, similar new items. Heck even my HP scanner, the one with SCSI port plugged into a Firewire adapter, is ancient by modern standards.

Though I’ve never been able to afford the kind of art that I really like and generally settle for relatively inexpensive prints, I have managed to spend upwards of $500 for individual watercolors and pottery I really liked.

In other words, like most Americans I’m deeply ambivalent about what I buy and don’t buy. At the same time I’m throwing things away and trying to simplify my life, I’m buying new things in order to do the things I want to do.

6 thoughts on “Do You Own What I Own?”

  1. All I buy is cigarettes and coffee and, lately, the right to sit in a cinema seat for an hour or two at a time to watch a non-Hollywood film. I have no new books or music or magazines. My clothes are frayed. No car. No TV. The computer was free from work. I haven’t eaten food outside home or work in months and months. Not counting household expenses (family + home upkeep), I live on probably about ten US dollars a day. If everyone consumed like I consume, the world economy, except for cafes and cinemas and ballpoint pens and spiral-bound notebooks and the internet and basic household goods, would collapse.

  2. Regarding the tools: One thing I’ve learned, often painfully either literally or figuratively, is that often spending more for true quality *is* frugality. I’m slowly replacing my Black and Decker workshop motif with better tools, as money and opportunity allow. An inexpensive saw that cuts an expensive piece of wood improperly is no bargain, over the course of years. Regarding restaurants: I must confess that, even at the age of 50, I’m a fast-food junkie. I’m more comfortable at Wendy’s than at a fancy restaurant with the waiter sniffing around. When I force myself to step back, I always realize I enjoy the food I prepare at home more than almost eating-out experience, and it’s certainly less expensive, but I’m still victim of rampant consumerism when it comes to fast food.

  3. If you’re still buying cigarettes, you must be richer than I am eeksypeeksy. How can anyone afford today’s price? Still, you’re obviously living more frugally than I am.

    I hope I didn’t imply that I go to “fancy” restaurants, as nothing would be further from the truth. I resent fancy restaurants where they charge you $50 for a steak that you could prepare just as well at home.

    No, what I love are the “ethnic” restaurants, which are “reasonably priced,” and you’re served spicy food by South Americans, Indians and Thailanders, or coconut prawns by college students earning their tuition.

  4. Interesting post and comments. Most people I know are not really cutting down on their consumerism, but are glad to talk about how sad it is. It’s unknown whether I cut back on anything, I’m just poor and you can’t spend what you don’t have. I know what conspicuous consumtion looks like, for I see it everywhere, but I’d barely recognize it on me these days. I wish I had $500 to piss away, but then I wish I had $100 or just $50 to just throw away, too.

    Last week somebody suggested I could gain more convenience on something for a mere $12 a month more. Obviously he thought it a very small sum; I just nodded at him and changed the subject, for it seemed a very great amount to me. There are a great many “small expenses” that would make life better and they soon enough add up to a fortune for me. So I don’t subscribe to any of them. It’s too bad, isn’t it, that I’m just no damn good!

  5. Ironic, in a post-modern sense, that the only ones who ever question what’s enough is those that already have too much, isn’t it?

    Of course, those who don’t have enough don’t really need to question whether they have too much and are sacrificing other values for their possessions.

    Still, it seems to me that society probably needs to ask these questions if we’re going to debate what kind of society we really want.

    Seems to me that the Republicans have pretty much decided that unbridled capitalism, the kind where everyone gets all they can and then keeps it, is the True American Way.

    Being one of those sorry, liberal, Democratic intellectuals, myself, I guess I’m still questioning whether that’s the best we can come up with as a society.

  6. I just saw an article on the NY Times site, one of the “most frequently emailed,” that was exhorting people to save for retirement. It said when you’re a student it’s chic to be poor, but when you get old it’s no fun. So I expected to hear about bag ladies and living on Social Security. But the writer went on to say that people making $150K now aren’t saving enough to live at that lifestyle when they’re old, and addressed his many readers in the $500K/year category who are going to have such a hard time maintaining their way of life. I laughed out loud.

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