Return to the Overcoming Consumerism index
Two families, compared-each having the same income and basic housing situation in the same community can be used to illustrate the negative effects of consumerism and the healthy effects of actively avoiding it. This is not a study of good and evil, merely of behavior and its consequences.
One family, (The Ables), makes careful decisions about their economic and social activities and thus are working for their own self preservation. Even while spending little and saving much they can live well and enjoy their surroundings while they strengthen their community and thus the nation.
The other family, (The Binges), blindly goes on its way leaving a trail of social and spriritual destruction in its wake. They consume and spend and go deeper into debt. Things just happen to them, life seems out of control, because, for them, it is.
The Able family maintains a "wish list" of things that they decide they need in their home- Not what advertising suggests that they should want. Often the items on the list are crossed off as a substitute is found or a different way of doing things is discovered or they just decide that the novelty is not worth the price both in money and the before-tax time needed to earn it. If an household item breaks, a repair is made. If this is not possible or a replacement is not found used in alternate sources such as second hand stores, garage sales or Craigslist, they then research the purchase of a new item.
Research means using the internet or personal recommendations from friends to check for quality and durability. Consumer Reports magazine is consulted at the local library. The Ables actually subscribed to the magazine in the library's name: this way they get to read it and so does the community. Advertising is a sign that the item probably is of lessor quality-otherwise why spend money touting it?
These researched items are purchased where possible, from local small businesses whose owners have a stake in their community, living near or in it and treating it with respect, rather than just as a "market". The items that the Ables buy may cost more short-term but pay for themselves many times over in durability and the pleasure that they provide to say nothing of potential resale value. Domestic and local manufacturers and food growers are favored, helping to keep money in the local and national economy and assuring that the items are made under U.S. environmental regulations. Buying organic produce grown nearby assures local food security and keeps the landscape nearby in farms and ranches rather than malls or subdivisions.
When they decide on a purchase, the Ables pay the local merchants in cash unless they choose to use a credit card to get a warranty extension or to buy something unavailable locally. Paying by cash or check saves the merchant the 2% to 6% percentage fee they pay to the credit card company on the purchase plus the per transaction fee they have to pay their bank. Sometimes Lorna Able will ask them to split the savings with her on more expensive items bought for cash.
Lorna asked her card companies to drop their annual fee. They do. All except American Express, "We offer some unique services to you Ms. Able-that's why we think you should continue paying our service fees..." intoned their shill. " I don't think you offer me anything, I'm canceling my account." And she did.
Michael Able often researches his big purchases online but he never buys this way-instead he helps create and maintain jobs as he calls the vendor's 800 number or goes to the retail outlet because no matter what the website says, no matter what gimmicky security software they tout, he just doesn't trust it. Besides, he enjoys talking with people, asking about the product and where their working situation. A few 800 numbers recently have been answered by people in India that work for slave wages. He asks them to hold on and puts the phone down then walks away for five minute or so and abandons the company for good. For the same reasons no one in the family ever uses an atm or debit card -instead they make face to face contact with the bank tellers who are their neighbors when they deposit checks or withdraw cash.
They have one of those Safeway club cards which they occasionally use when an item is unavailable in the healthier alternative markets where they shop. When they filled out the application, Michael used a fake address and the phone number of nuclear weapons maker General Electric. Whenever someone solicits a family member for personal information not required by law, they cheerfully provide it-with just a few numbers changed. "Why yes, we would be glad to give you our social security number"-then they make one up-helping to confuse snooping privacy busting databases.
The new items the Ables buy are treated as though they have to last a lifetime. For example tools are carefully oiled, instructions, warranties and receipts are filed alphabetically in a flex folder by store name. If an item is later sold or traded, having all the paperwork enhances its value. Any item that does fail gets returned to the store where it was bought. The Ables are merciless when it comes to this. If something fails, they take it back. If they don't need the item they take it back. If they bought too much of something, they take it back. Before they buy anything they check to make sure that there is no restocking fee. i.e. Sears is actually a pretty good store to shop in as their Craftsman line of U.S. made tools is returnable if they break or any is wrong with them. Because of this, it is the only large corporate store that the Abels patronize and only for garden or other tools which they often wear out and then replace for free. [UPDATE, Sears has been bought out by a leveraged takeover outfit that is stripping it of value, hiring foreign workers and they no longer honor their Craftsman warranties]
The Ables create wealth for others by giving unwanted used goods to thrift stores or individuals rather than destining them to a landfill. Instruction manuals and paperwork is taped inside the object. Once again, Craigs List is an excellent way to sell or give away or find free or nearly free if you live in the urban areas that they serve.
The Ables treat every economic
transaction as a constructive opportunity to exercise their social convictions.
They will point out to local merchants why
they are deliberately shopping in the local community and boycotting
large stores and that they will only buy quality merchandise. Shop
owners embrace these convictions and often converse with Michael or
Lorna and soon become their friends. When they have no alternative
but to patronize large chain stores, they will ask the employees in
the check out line how they are treated, whether they have health
benefits and if they are able to support themselves or their
families. Often other customers and sometimes nervous managers get
involved in the discussion. The Ables have referred bright pleasant
people that have met this way to several local businesses where they
have become valuable employees and are paid better wages than in the profit sucking corporate boxes.
They will point out to local merchants why they are deliberately shopping in the local community and boycotting large stores and that they will only buy quality merchandise. Shop owners embrace these convictions and often converse with Michael or Lorna and soon become their friends. When they have no alternative but to patronize large chain stores, they will ask the employees in the check out line how they are treated, whether they have health benefits and if they are able to support themselves or their families. Often other customers and sometimes nervous managers get involved in the discussion. The Ables have referred bright pleasant people that have met this way to several local businesses where they have become valuable employees and are paid better wages than in the profit sucking corporate boxes.
Once Lorna was told by an officious manager of a large national retail chain that employees were not allowed to discuss details of their employment with members of the public and that ""she had to stop asking questions. That's all it took for her to basically cause a riot in the check-out line. One employee quit on the spot and took of his apron, throwing it on the ground at the feet of the corporate clown manager, customers were siding with Lorna and were shouting at the manager and vowing never to come back and other employees were giggling and hiding their smiles.
Lorna writes checks to pay her utility and water and scant credit card bills, the day they arrive, stamps the envelope and binder-clips them together with the appropriate mail date penciled on the back in chronological order. This way she mails them at the last (comfortable) minute and gets the use and interest on the family's money as long as possible. She does however pay her dentist and local merchants immediately upon being billed. Her checks are from a local credit union that is a non-profit bank that returns all their profits to their depositors in the form of lower fees and higher interest.
This family has a durable older carefully-maintained car which was paid for in cash when they bought it used. It costs little to register and insure. They plan their use of it and thus are able to drive fewer miles. They ride share with several neighbors that are too old to drive--taking them to the store or picking them up after they have walked into town for exercise.
They buy organic food from nearby farms and an ever increasing amount raised in their own backyard. They hang out in the garden a lot. It took a while to get the knowledge how to build up the soil and grow things in their climate, but now they have more fruit and seasonal vegetables than they can ever eat. What they can't grow they obtain from a Community Agriculture Farm Service that delivers a box of in- season fresh organic local produce to their door. This does cost slightly more than buying cheap industrial agriculture produce from their local Safeway but they are receiving far more nutrition and satisfaction from it as it tastes better because of the rich soil in which the produce was grown and they are saving on potential future medical bills stemming from the long term effects of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, additives, preservatives and chemicals used in packaging.
As Lorna, a Ph.D. microbiologist, puts it, "One pesticide-induced lymphoma or breast cancer will eat up the savings from a lifetime of buying cheap food."
Lorna's major contribution to family economy is that she doen't spend a lot on buying things for herself or to change her appearance. Eating healthy food, working in the backyard and getting enough sleep is her beauty regimen. She jumps out of bed in the morning, brushes her hair and pins it back. Michael's contribution is that he doesn't buy any of the macho toys that tempt most Americans such as the sports car or all terrain pickup truck, the wide screen tv, golf-clubs or other closet-stuffing junk.
This family practices short, medium and long-term planning. When they shop they buy their frequent purchases such as pasta or shampoo by the case thus saving money and being well provisioned against supply interuptions.
They spend less on material things than many of their neighbors and thus can actually save money or choose to work less which gives the family more time for leisure, interaction with each other, neighbors and friends. They plan to live in their home for a long time, while they continually improve it, thus benefiting their community and becoming a greater part of it, something that several of their friends who are renters also do.
By working less-they pay fewer taxes on income. Let's rephrase this in case the significance of this evades you. Individuals in the family can choose to earn only enough reported income to reach the standard deduction and no more.That means they owe no taxes.
Their son, Richard Able does just this. He attends university in the Bay Area and lives very comfortably in a communal housing situation where his daily expenses for housing, utilities and food are less than $20 per day. See the link for details.
There is a contentment in their household. They far less vulnerable to economic dislocation since they have distanced themselves from relying on the consumer economy. The only debt that they have is their mortgage, which they refinanced when rates dropped without taking any cash out. Soon it will be paid off and they will be 100% debt free.
And now, The Binge Family, (not their real name we live too close to them for comfort-they might read this)
They watch lots of TV and lust after the endless things advertised. But they are in luck! The Cadillac Escalade was Zero down, lots of options but its purchase drives them even further into debt. The DiTech cash-out mortgage that they used to buy even more stuff is a looming monster now that the value of their house had plunged and they are underwater. Their trips to the Nascar races, malls, franchise steak houses, movie theaters and other such things are really cutting into their credit line and work is taking more and more time out of their weekend. The parents are getting real nervous and the stress level is building. The kids are becoming even more psychotic as they pick up on this stress. Their house is a mess, full of clutter and junky products that break and get thrown out.
These folks succumbs to fashion and purchases on impulse without researching prices or quality. They buy things made cheaply overseas usually in corporate-owned high-rent department stores or malls with high debt service and huge overhead expenses paid for by the inflated price of the merchandise sold therein. These high prices are often masked by expensive advertising campaigns which promote "sales" and "discounts" designed to lure in consumers. They subscibe to a megachannel lineup of sports, shopping, infotainment and other cultural sewage that never seems to satisfy.
So how do we know all this about them? What's on the curb in front of their house on garbage day reveals a lot. You can tell by the post-sale timing of the big store shopping bags as well as a lot of consumer electronics cartons and styrofoam inserts piled by the three overflowing garbage cans. Every year they threw out another steel Christmas tree stand with their tree instead of reusing it and getting a discount on the tree! Or at least they used to, now they don't even bother with the tree anymore. Recycling? They don't bother. Large cartons overflowing styrofoam peanuts into the gutter and last years gimmicks get heaped up every garbage day.
You can tell by the logos on the trucks in front of their house that this family purchases mass-consumption type services from corporate strangers, often from outside of the community. The employees are paid as close to minimum wage as possible often with a sales commission to give them incentive to sell a product no matter what its quality. Thus they have less inclination to give customer service or know their merchandise than would workers in a family-run or small store. Often these corporate employees are immigrants that cannot give customer-service except in Spanish.
Stores like those patronized by the Binge Family offer a sea of changing faces--few long term employees. For example, a chain of furniture stores ships its management trainees from city to city. They live in apartments and have barely settled into a community when its time for the next move out of town and up the corporate ladder. One Binge Family daughter is away in another city doing just such a rotation. Her out-of-state personalized license plate, framed by a faded plastic sports franchise holder, makes some crude attempt at glorifying her former telemarketing "career".
Purchases of this family are made on
credit which can add up to 29% or more interest to the purchase
price. (We know this because they constantly complain about it to
their neighbors). When products cease to work or fall out of favor,
which happens quickly because of poor quality often masked by trendy
design, they are sent to the landfill.-(3 garbage cans and large
plastic bags full of ? every week) Their house is the one with the
broken rebounder aerobic exerciser as well as poorly
made-TV-advertised treadmill-sitting in the back yard under the
broken home depot special lamp: Do they think this stuff will fix
itself sitting out in the weather? Their personal junkyard is
a-building. Any day now we expect to see a car on blocks appear
This is the kind of family that always has the television on and even feels a compulsion to turn it on when company arrives. And community? absolutely no time for anything except the mall. All is superficial and right-now for them without any working for the future or the long term. Neighborhood association meetings? "Can't be bothered". Clean up crew for the local park? "Sorry, we've got season tickets". Block party? "What do you mean there are no hot dogs? "
Human relationships with friends and neighbors must suffer in this environment because, after all, for them consumption is a form of aggressive competition. They are constantly showing off the latest knick knack that they have bought. They literally go out of their way to drive by or even walk up to neighbors' fences to show off the latest thing. There is actually something kind of childishly naive about these folks and in a way they are fortunate-they can march down to the mall and whip out their credit cards and buy themselves some (temporary) happiness. No need for original thoughts or introspection or pondering life's mysteries because there's always last night's ball game or American Idol to talk about. It's not lack of education either: Mr. Binge has an advanced technical degree that allows him to earn a very good salary. Mrs. Binge laughs about how she went to college to obtain her MRS degree.
This family has moved a lot, out of boredom or bad planning, as though neighborhoods were items to be tried out. We wouldn't be surprised if they moved any day now. Instead of saving money and buying a house-staying in one place and improving it, this family abandons one situation for another, whether it be a new house, neighborhood or city. They treat their environment like it were a cheap hotel, cars dripping oil parked on the lawns, goods piled up in places visible to the public such as their back balconies and back yard and in general they care little for the aesthetics of their surroundings. We know other people, of far less means, who rent their homes unlike the Binges, and yet they lovingly care for their surroundings and enrich them with trees and plants and care and attention.
A new car, usually junky quality and a heavily advertised brand like a Pontiac Vibe or a Jeep Whatever, is bought by a different Binge family member every year or so to temporarily resurrect their self-image. The vehicle usually is loaded with gimmicks that inflate the price and repair costs. It's inevitably dead last on the Consumer Reports ratings of cars. The depreciation of the car robs it of much of its value in the first year. Registration, taxes and insurance are higher for this new vehicle than they would be for an older simpler car. It has little trade-in value because of faddish design and lack of durability. Mr. Binge made the big step recently of buying a brand new Cadillac Escalade. He of course picked the most impractical color that there is--jet black-guess he likes to run the air conditioner and constantly wash dust off it. Also it is top theft target and has worst overall insurance theft losses. I would guess that they spend a third of their income on their cars.
Because of the longer hours this family must work, they often resort to saving time by "eating" out in fast food terminals like Panda Express, McDonald's or Outback steakhouses. The factory food dispensed therein is loaded with fat and chemicals. Not much money and some time are saved now but at what price to long term health in the future? The factory food they buy is full of calories but lacking the nutrients that organic food has. Their bodies require a certain amount of nutrients and so they eat and eat and eat and the buttocks grow and the bellies flow.
Eating fast food is expensive: check out the Lunch Savings Calculator.
What of their long term prospects and family structure? Their eldest daughter has been married twice before the age of 25. Their only son changes his look like a shop window every year or so. Several years ago he was into some kind of heavy metal or such thing, greasing his hair up and sporting all manner of dime store junk that he attached to a cheap leather jacket that he would wear to the mall where he hung out in fast food places. This year, it is a different clown costume and set of different CDs and canned values that he can shop for at the mall. Of course he has an earring to show how independent and rebellious he is.
From James Howard Kunstler 's page on the economy of upstate New York which is part of a masterful and prescient website for the thinking American: This reminds me of the Binges.
" I think it is safe to say that their economic roles in the community are provisional at best. There are few real institutions left here. More often than not the family itself is a jerry-rigged makeshift operation of temporary boyfriends and step-children with a lot of role confusion such as, who really is the caretaker and who really is the adult? with a lot of drinking, drug abuse and sexual misconduct as normative."
Mrs. Binge is a sight to behold. She buys products for her body--lots of products. They don't necessarily improve her looks although she must think that they do. She cannot pass by a window or a mirror without looking at her reflection. Her hair is heavy with spray, she reeks of perfume, lays the makeup on to cover up the junk-food induced acne and she stinks of cigarettes. The top of her breasts must hold a special fascination for her because she is constantly looking down at them as if to reassure herself that they are still there. Underneath it all there occasionally appear remnants of a sweet young woman that has just been drowned under all these self-inflicted things.
Manicure, pedicure, facials, waxing, god knows what plastic surgery and the battle is still being lost because she doesn't get enough sleep judging from the blue flickering light emanating from her bedroom window until late at night. I would venture a guess that she hasn't eaten a vegetable in the last decade indicated by the constant refinery odor coming from their barbecue area.
Her daughter must have bought her own make-up trowel because she too now sports the Noh-theater pink edged mask of foundation, eyeliner and other facial goop. She too is smoking.
The Binge's like chemicals. Mr. Binge has different chemicals to spray on his tires, on ants, on weeds, on bushes, bricks, wasps, driveway, barbecue, garbage cans, and himself when bugs come out in the evening attracted to his meat-eaters sour body odor.
The Binge family does have one dubious advantage. They can seek, and obtain, immediate short term satisfaction in things and they do not have to work at self-examination or better living; "blessed are the meek for they are easily satisfied: plenty of time to watch TV, sports and a freezer full of steaks-at least until the power goes off."
The Family Able has far more money and time to spend on themselves, the education of their children or save than does Family Binge. They support their local community of which they are a part and help keep their neighbors working while they generate less waste and use less energy than the Binge Family. The Family Able eats well, is not torn by artificially created demands for more things and makes do with less. They work together toward common goals and have profited from frugality. When energy gets expesive and scarce which family will live better?
to the top of this page
Overcoming Consumerism Index Consumerism's bad effects
O. C. Accomplishes? Active Resistance Hands on methods
consumption chart resources to overcome consumerism
radical anti-consumerism cars
How to raise food How to raise trees
eliminate polystyrene products
Corporate officers and their interlocking interests