Why Have Americans Become So Overindulgent?

I’m on a quest to simplify my life. Recently I’ve begun to cut my budget, declutter my house, and cut down on my time commitments. As I’ve been working on these things, I’ve had a lot of time to think. Perhaps it’s the sociology major in me, but I’m fascinated by the behavior of groups of people.

I started thinking about how Americans live their lives today, as opposed to how my grandparents lived their lives. My grandparents were survivors of the Great Depression. I remember doing a high school project, in which I interviewed my grandparents about the Great Depression. Fascinating stuff.

They told me stories of not having money, of neighbor helping neighbor. They told me of the fun they used to have just playing outside, a free activity. They told me of having to wear their clothes until they were tattered, and then mending them so they could be worn longer. My grandparents’ generation was the epitome of frugal.

Then I thought about how Americans live their lives today. We’re not satisfied with a 3 bedroom, 1 bathroom, 1000 square foot starter home. No, we need 4 bedrooms, 2 baths, and 2000 square feet. The average new car is around $30,000. That’s more than I paid for my first home! (It was a manufactured home, but still).

We buy clothes that we never end up wearing. We buy our kids more toys for Christmas than they could possibly ever appreciate. We think nothing of spending $4 for a cup of coffee….every morning. (I used to be guilty of this). We eat out 3 times a week. (I used to be guilty of this too). We need 52 inch high definition televisions and 200 channels. We think nothing of paying $200 for a pair of jeans.

What has happened to America? Why do we spend so much? Why do we waste so much? I don’t have the answers. I assume that it is partly to do with the easy availability of credit. Whatever the reason, I think it’s sad. I think we are doing a disservice to our children by teaching them that they need to have the biggest and best of everything. We teach them that things should be easily available, and we don’t teach them to work for what they have. We’ve created a society of entitlement, and I don’t want my children to feel entitled.

When I began blogging about being frugal in May, it started as a means to get out of debt. But as my blog has evolved, so have I. I notice things about myself and about society that I don’t like. Being frugal has become more to me than trying to get out of debt. It’s become a mission to become the best steward I can be of the blessings God has given me. Getting out of debt isn’t good enough. Living a life that reflects my reverence to God and leaving a legacy of frugality for my children is more important. I will eventually pay off the debt. I can’t ever see myself giving up my frugal lifestyle.

If you have any thoughts on why we Americans are the way we are, please share! I’m fascinated by this subject, and I’d love to hear your opinion!



Author

By , on Sep 18, 2007
Lynnae McCoy I'm Lynnae, wife of one and stay-at-home mom of two. I'm committed to getting out of debt by being frugal with my choices in life.

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{25 Comments}

  1. Rochelle:

    I agree – I have often heard the following:

    You deserve it!

    It’s our time (or our turn) now.

    We finally can buy what we want.

    We struggled growing up now we have the means to buy/get what we want – no more struggling.

    You earned it!

    You worked hard for it!

    Why not so and so has it – you can have it too.

    Bigger is better.

    There is a huge sense of entitlement in America – it is sad, but I do not see it ending any time soon. I googled waste in america because my family enjoys buying unnecessary gifts that are truly not needed – that only adds to all the junk most of us already have and I struggle with this but I am definitely out numbered so I do not discuss it, because of course I would be labeled mean and ungrateful. And, I definitely hear this a lot “It’s the thought that counts”. It’s like a mental illness or something.

  2. Reed Mencke:

    We are the unwitting victims of greed. Our own to be sure. But we were not always like this as the author points out in her discussion of her grandparents and how they coped with the depression. What happened since our grand parents and parents saved every penny, repaired every broken appliance, wore clothes till they were in rags, etc? Many comments above are enlightening. But one factor has not been discussed in depth.
    Many or most modern corporations prosper by cultivating the American consumer. To them we are potential “marks” to be exploited for profit.
    In the 1920s corporations discovered they could sell more product simply by “planned obsolescence” that is by making stuff designed not to last. Over the past 90 years or so this principle has been refined to an art form until today we consumers don’t expect anything we buy to last. We pay a fortune for a car, then expect it to last only a few years. Great for the auto manufacturers, not too great for our pocket books. Our acceptance of these expenses comes partly from the fact that we are rich compared to people in many Asian or South American countries. People in Cuba tend to own cars made in the 1950s and sure enough they do manage to keep them running. But is was invented by American corporations to move product.
    Why wash dishes for your kid’s birthday party when you can buy paper plates and throw them away afterwards. This is the attitude that derives from the “throwaway society” concept. Think of the list of industries and companies that make their living entirely because they have convinced us (brainwashed us) that it is just too much bother to use things more than once, to wash dishes, to clean up after a birthday party? (We might also ask who brainwashed us to think every child must have a birthday party attended by 50 to a hundred friends at a business establishment like “Chucky cheese Pizza” a bowling alley, or a movie theater. Are we really benefiting our children by providing this kind of a birthday? Who are we benefiting?

    “Planned obsolescence” and “throwaway society” are concepts invented by corporations to promote corporate profit and marketing is a term for activities that would be better described as “brain washing.” We give our corporations unlimited access to our children on Saturday morning TV and more recently in our public school system which has discovered that American corporations are more willing to pay for education than American taxpayers if they are allowed to market in the schools, sell their their products in school vending machines, or push their farm subsidies in out school lunch programs. It seems that most parents are too busy to care. Why too busy? Because they have been brainwashed by these same corporations to pursue “the American Dream” another concept invented by corporations to sell product to consumers.

    It is great that people on this blog are questioning why we do some of these things. But don’t be to mad at yourselves or your kids. You are up against companies with tremendous wealth and friends in Washington and they are determined to make you their own.
    Copy the link below to your browser for an excellent discussion how this transformation occurred: http://www.ourbetternature.org/throwaway.htm

  3. Shay Jansen:

    I find we live in a disposable society, nothing ever get’s fixed because it cost to much to get fixed, or it wasn’t built for repair or cost more to repair then it does to buy brand new.

    We are a society where we want it now and we have it now weather we pay cash for this or we use credit. The avalibility of credit in America is amazing! I live in Australia and to obtain one credit card you have to have a clear credit rating if you have any marks on your credit history file forget about getting fincace unless you go to one of these companies that will give you credit but at up to 30% interest.

    We are a society of wants and not need’s anymore.

  4. Lynnae:

    Thank you!

  5. A very nice post which we have listed as our favorites. Keep up the excellent blogging!
    Cheers,
    FIRE Finance

  6. Lynnae:

    Yeah, marketing is the enemy. My husband works in advertising sales, and I often tell him he works for the enemy. :)

  7. Fabulously Broke:

    I agree with Marsha’s point.

    “You deserve it.”

    “You’re worth it.”

    “You’ve worked hard for it.”

    That keeps coming up again and again in marketing…. and it DOES make you think: Hey! I worked 47 hours this week. I DESERVE a treat!

    -sigh-

  8. Marsha:

    On a related note: I’ve begun to notice the references to “treating oneself” on TV and in printed matter – as well as how often I think I “deserve” a treat.

    Back in the day, treats were really rare items, not something one had every week – certainly not an entitlement.

    I’m as stricken as anyone with the affluenza disease, but I’m trying to be more mindful and change my ways.

  9. Meg:

    A lot of it is a sense of entitlement. Everyone’s keeping up with the Joneses and it’s not just that we want to show off, it’s that we think that if the Jones family has it, then why shouldn’t we? We look to others to see what is acceptable behavior. What’s not accepted is saying, “No, I really can’t join you for dinner because I can’t afford it” or “Yes, I’ve worn the same outfit twice this week because I don’t have the money for more clothes”. And now we are all in debt (well, the vast majority for sure).

    Another issue – mindless shopping. We buy stuff that doesn’t fit, doesn’t flatter, then we only admit it to ourselves after the tags are off and the receipt is history. We buy stuff without even thinking about where we’ll put it. I definitely believe in smarter shopping. Fortunately, it often results in less buying.

  10. Abbi:

    I enjoyed the post and the comments. It is sad the large amount of people that are living way in debt. I would say that the ease of getting credit, marketing and simply a lack of financial traing by parents has a lot to do with it. I feel so incredibly blessed to be raised by parents who were not materially minded, hated the idea of being in debt and also didn’t have a TV so we weren’t bombarded with constant adevertiesments.

  11. Lynnae:

    Yes, that would definitely do the trick! lol

  12. Lynnae:

    Ah yes, TV can be evil in that way. I use the DVR a lot to skip commercials, but you’re right. There are a lot of shows out there that promote consumption and spending.

    Fabulously Broke, I like your solution. I may have to pull out my budget the next time “What Not to Wear” comes on. :)

  13. Fabulously Broke:

    *laughing*

    I just have to look at the price of one dress ($500 let’s say…), plug it into my budget and watch it explode into negative numbers and red LOL!!!!

    Best deterrent. Ever.

  14. Fabulously Broke:

    ^^^^

    I agree with that. Since watching less TV in general, I don’t feel bad that my (then-apartment) was not properly decorated, outfitted or organized.

    I still watch shopping and style/fashion shows though, and it’s hard not to want a change in your wardrobe afterwards… :-… my solution has been to play with my budget/loan amounts while watching ;)

  15. Debt Free Revolution:

    Lynnae, I think it has more and more to do with MARKETING. Mass media and mass communications have brought marketing up close and personal, and sometimes even right in our faces in our own homes. Many television shows have become nothing more than elongated commercials for consumption of goods. I discovered that when I watch less TV, I want less things.

  16. Lynnae:

    Thanks for the input, everyone. I’m loving this discussion!

    I think it does boil down to envy and greed most of the time. And it’s sad that most people don’t see it.

    Heidi, I also agree that most Americans don’t think they’re rich. For a long time my husband and I sponsored a boy in Indonesia, and he had nothing. He was thrilled to get $10. Whenever I find myself getting jealous of what others have, I think of that boy and how much I really do have. I have everything I need, and that’s what matters.

  17. Paula:

    Let me just warn you, don’t watch TLC’s Jackpot Winners. It’s a show about regular people who won large (LARGE) powerball jackpots. We were flipping between this show & monday night football last night. This one guy won like 50 million dollars. At the beginning of the show, he goes thru his house and comments on how much each thing cost. Like he showed this place setting and it cost 10,000 and then he pauses and says “we have 10 of them”.

    My 9 year old son pipes up and says “Man, he sure did waste his money buying a lot of junk. I’m sure it won’t be long before he’s back in debt (pronounced with the b deBt)”

    This show really annoyed me.

  18. I think most Americans don’t think they are rich and therein lies the problem. If people realized how they stood in relation to the rest of the world, I think it would make a big difference.

    So broader horizons would help with the Keeping up the the Joneses bit.

    On the other side, Americans STILL are the most generous people in the world, however, we obviously could be doing a lot more if we lived a bit more frugally.

  19. You asked…here I go….

    It all started when we FIRST starting coming over here. People came to America because they were being held back in England, either religiously or whatever…America became the land of opportunity. The most basic idea (now anyway) of this can be seen in every American’s yard…Grass. In England truly only the wealthy had grass yards to play or leisure in. Or farmers, but I digress. So these people move to America and they want GRASS!! Now, if you want to buy a house what do you look at, how much property you get…what size the yard is…is it fenced in?
    People came to America where there was no set of rules and regulations already in place for who was nobility and who was trash. So people who had a middle class income in England could come over and be RICH in America. They got what they wanted and they were the envy of everyone. The land was so plentiful that they could build bigger houses for their large families…obviously NOT to today’s standards but bigger than they were in England…You see where I’m going with this.
    Plantation owners in the south had to have slaves because their farms were soooo large they couldn’t manage them on their own. So when the northerners, who ran factories that paid next to nil to the orphans and widows, decided slavery was bad the southerners were ready to fight because they wanted to keep their bigger farms!
    I could go on and on….

  20. Lynnae:

    Shan, thanks for the book recommendation! I’m definitely going to have to read that.

    Paula, I’m glad your son already sees how wasteful that is. $100,000 on place settings is insane!

  21. I am sure there are lots of reasons, but I agree with Fabulously Broke, it really boils down to Envy & Greed. It also has a great deal to do with people not knowing God, and looking for other less godly things to worship, so they turn to idols (cars, houses, planes, boats, etc). The old testament of full of stories of people doing this.

    We have established a society where wealth = how much stuff you have, when in fact that isn’t wealth at all. The availability of credit doesn’t help at all and only serves to accommodate the “I want it now mentality”.

    I would say though the recent trends of people being in way too much debt and the housing crisis is really causing people to re-think the bigger is better strategy. This is evident in major home builders focusing on building smaller and less costly homes in 2008 and the auto manufacturers making smaller and more affordable cars.

    I think we are beginning to maybe see a trend in the opposite direction…but I tend to be an optimist.

    Honestly, I think it’s just because of our blogs and the power and influence of the M-Network :-) (If you believe this, I have some property I would like to sell you, please contact me)

  22. Fabulously Broke:

    Oh and I forgot to mention competition.

    We’re in constant competition with our peers from young – with grades, looks, who is the most popular, parents who are richer, what kind of cars our parents drive.. .it all feeds and shapes our values as we grow up.

  23. Fabulously Broke:

    ^^^^^
    …And because they don’t track it, and/or are in denial about it.

    I think we’re just a product of the Gimme-Gimme generation, boosted by such a big boom in wealth after the war, that those attitudes about living for the NOW, are not taken lightly, and instead of saving for tomorrow, we’re spending it all today just in case something happens to us. Or at least, that’s the justification….

    It’s keeping up with the Joneses, but now we’re competing with everyone and anyone – even with celebrities that live lifestyles we CLEARLY would not be able to attain or live

    Envy & Greed = Human nature

  24. People spend money because they can. Relative to the UK, the US has higher salaries and lower cost of living so you’d expect Americans to be wealthier, and some are, but expenditure increases to fill all available income when income increases slowly.

  25. Shan:

    I’m afraid I don’t have the answers, either, but I’m reading a good book that is making sense of our drive of over consumption and entitlement. It’s called Affluenza and it’s by by John De Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor.

    The authors liken our habits to a social disease, and they illustrate how our culture … well, cultures the gotta-have-it mentality.
    I highly recommend the book.

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