So you’re out mowing your lawn one day. You happen to glance up from your beat-up old mower across the street, where your neighbor is pulling into his driveway in a brand new luxury sedan while a team of hired gardeners carefully manicure his lush green yard. You don’t get it. His house is the same size as yours and you know the jobs that he and his wife have aren’t anything special. How does he have so many more toys than you? How can he afford them?
Well, rest easy my hard-working friend; if he’s like many Americans, he can’t. He’s just another victim of our country’s endless pursuit for bigger and better material possessions, regardless of if we can afford them or not. Sure a brief moment of jealousy might come over you for a moment or two, but it’ll pass. Resist that urge to “keep up with the Joneses”; you’ll be happy you did.
Why we do it
Americans are nothing if not great spenders. Status-symbolism runs rampant in our country, and today’s advertising would have you believe that everything is within your financial reach. With loans and credit cards available in a moment’s notice, we believe it too. But spending carelessly without real cash resources to back up the habit is putting us in bigger and bigger financial holes. So why do we do it?
Studies on the “affluenza” epidemic reveal several reasons why Americans spend the way they do. First, we work hard. The average American spends hours commuting to an unsatisfying job. Spending is a way to release the stress of the everyday grind while justifying why we slave away for 40-plus hours a week.
Also, television has made us believe that high-end items like BMWs and Tag Heuer wristwatches are to be had by everyday working stiffs, not just the super-rich elite.
These are both valid reasons, but what really drives our ultra-spending is our own insecurities and jealousies. Though it’s a fact that everybody struggles from time to time, we all want to project the image that we’re set financially and can afford the luxuries of life. This approach is just the beginning of a vicious cycle.
We all want to compare ourselves to our peers and own material goods that are on par or better than anything they have. We never stop to think about the poor or the homeless we see on the streets and stop to count our financial blessings. The endless quest for bigger and better toys makes us lose sight of what’s really important in life. In the meantime, we bury ourselves in massive amounts of debt that we’ll be hard pressed to ever climb out from under.
How to stop it
You can inoculate against affluenza, however. Start simply by setting a few long term goals. Planning on seeing the world after retirement? Then before you buy that RV now, picture yourself in 20 years on that African safari with your spouse. Don’t let purchases now affect future dreams. Sure, it’s not easy to sacrifice instant gratification for something far into the future. But just remember, a little willpower goes a long way.