In recent weeks I’ve felt a distinct discomfort when listening to the media, the government, and even my acquaintances talk about money. It’s always been pretty clear that I’m not normal and that I don’t fit financially into this society. I’m a saver and a proponent of more frugal lifestyles. I’m not a big spender. I’m the one who suggests game night over a night at the movies, or pot luck rather than a big dinner at a restaurant. Among my friends, I’m considered odd because I don’t find great joy in spending or have the latest gadgets or coolest car. I’m used to being out of touch and considered weird, but the holidays and the tanking economy have only magnified my abnormality and my discomfort with the way this country encourages spending over saving.
The media turned Christmas into a two month spend-a-thon. I don’t think there was one day during the holiday season when I didn’t see a story on the news about consumer spending and holiday sales. One day the buzz was about how bad holiday sales were expected to be. Yet the very next day, they were reporting that the consumer had saved the day by spending more. Back and forth this went every day for nearly two months and it will go on through January until all those gift cards are redeemed and all the corporate earnings are reported. Is this really national news every night? Aren’t there other, more positive things that can be reported?
It’s not that I don’t like to shop or enjoy giving and receiving gifts at Christmas. I do, in moderation. But I also like to save for the future and know that any emergencies will be taken care of without incurring debt. I believe, like most, that there is more to Christmas than shopping, gifts, gift cards, and retailers’ bottom lines. But it seems like this is the only part of the holidays that the media celebrates or even mentions. There are very few mentions of the good things at Christmas. People helping people, truces, family bonding — these are not apparently newsworthy events. The only thing that’s newsworthy is the daily shopping report and a report on the traffic conditions at the malls, in case you want to go. The media’s worship of the consumer makes me very uncomfortable during a season that is supposed to be about so much more.
The government makes me equally uncomfortable these days. The message coming from the Fed and our leaders is that the consumer can save the day. If consumer’s pull back on their spending, the economy will head into free fall. Keep spending, they say, and you will save the economy! Save your money, I say. We’re finding out now that too much uncontrolled spending doesn’t really help anything. When it gets too far out of control, as it has in the housing and credit markets, the entire economy suffers when the house of cards collapses. It makes me very uncomfortable that the government seemingly places all of it’s economic eggs in the consumer’s basket and that the consumer is expected to shoulder the responsibility for securing our economic future.
To make matters worse, it sometimes feels as if the government is punishing those of us who live disciplined financial lives. In their rush to lower interest rates so that more credit can be more easily obtained, they seem to forget (or not care) that the interest rates paid on savings accounts drops accordingly. There is no way for the Fed to lower interest rates on credit without a corresponding drop in savings’ interest rates. So those of us who choose to save our money and who have very little use for low credit interest rates get punished as the government tries to find a way to keep consumers out there shopping. It’s not a nice feeling watching my savings rate drop every month.
Then there are my acquaintances who are wandering around looking shell-shocked because the bills for the holiday damage are coming in. They pour out their sob stories to me, hoping for sympathy and empathy that I just don’t have. They spent way too much at Christmas (and throughout the rest of the year) and now it’s time to pay. Only they don’t have the money. So they’re shuffling things around, trying to pay one credit card with another, transferring balances, getting home equity loans, and falling further behind. The common theme around the water cooler is how bad things are, how much everything costs, how there’s no way to make it today and how hard times are.
I don’t disagree, to a point. Yes, prices are up. Yes, the economy has problems. For some people there are genuine hardships not related to overspending and I have compassion for them. But it’s difficult to find sympathy for the complainer who whines about the price of milk when he has a brand new Jaguar sitting in the parking lot. It makes me uncomfortable to listen to this because, while I don’t enjoy paying five dollars for a gallon of milk or three dollars for a gallon of gas, I can deal with it because I saved my money when times were good, knowing that the bad times would come again. I chose to be prepared. These people complain to me like I’m supposed to do something, or at least share in their misery so they can feel like they’re not alone in this mess. Sorry, I think, but I just can’t help you.
I’m not uncomfortable because of the choices I’ve made. I’m not writing this because I feel like I’m drowning in peer pressure to spend and looking for a justification. I’m writing this because I think my discomfort at the spend, spend, spend mentality of this country is a symptom of a larger problem and I hope I’m not alone. When an economy is built solely on spending and placed on the backs of consumers, it cannot be sustained long term. Eventually the consumer runs out of money, the spending stops, and then where are we?
When our government and our media are encouraging this spending, ad nauseam, what else can we expect but to have a nation of people in debt? Why does the level of debt and the lack of savings in this country surprise anyone? So many people figure that if the media and the government are telling them to spend then it must be OK, even if the money isn’t currently there. It will work out, they’re told. You can get more credit, so don’t sweat it. In fact, some think it’s their patriotic duty to spend more than they have in order to prop up our struggling economy. Just keep spending and everything will be peachy, is the rallying cry.
The problem is that when individuals overspend, it doesn’t help anyone, despite what the government and the media say. The government that told you to spend isn’t going to come to your aid when the bills come due. The media is going to take great glee in reporting about your misery, yet do nothing to help. And when those bills come due and you can’t pay, the economy suffers because unpaid debts are a drag on the economy. Then the very people that were told to spend and did so end up cast aside. What good are you, the government and the media say, when you can no longer spend money? What value are you to this economy when you are in debt, missing payments, and unable to buy stuff?
The flip side to this is that those who don’t overspend, who save and live within their means end up like me: uncomfortable, angry, and feeling punished. We have to listen to our government and our media promote a spending frenzy that we find abhorrent and pointless. We are put in the position of being objectors to the national policy. We don’t buy, so we aren’t patriotic; we aren’t doing our part. In fact, we are pretty worthless to the economy in the eyes of some because we don’t consume enough. We have to listen to people we know moan about how little money they have and feel bad that this surprises them. We get to earn less interest on our savings because we must sacrifice higher rates in the name of the consumer and easy credit. We end up on the outside of the national conversation, unable to relate and secretly happy about it because our outsider status means that we have protected our financial futures.
What’s wrong with this picture? I doubt I’m the only one who is uncomfortable with the current financial picture of this country. Why can’t we find some other way to run this economy, instead of relying on a shrinking base of consumers with money to spend (or credit to spend)? What would be so wrong with an economy built on production, quality, innovation, or knowledge? Why not get excited about finding new ways to make our economy hum instead of dropping it all on the back of individual consumers? Why not open up new national conversations about other things that go on in this country besides spending? Why not advocate the benefits of saving and frugality? I realize that my questions are mostly rhetorical and I don’t expect any answers, certainly not easy ones. Maybe if enough people feel uncomfortable, as I do, and begin to live in new ways that challenge the current spend, spend, spend mentality, there can be a change in this country’s approach to consumerism and economic policy. One can dream, right?
Image courtesy of The_Beast