Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Overspent American by Juliet Schor

Everyone knows Americans spend too much, consume too much and borrow too much. But why? What drives our consumerism?

The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need seeks to answer these questions, and author Juliet Schor explains in this fascinating book why so many Americans work more than ever, spend more than ever, own more stuff than ever--and yet somehow, despite living in a land of plenty, more and more of us feel increasingly dissatisfied with our lives.

Schor argues that humans, just like all other higher mammals, place a high value on social status; in fact, our desire for status among our peers is so instinctive that often we aren't even aware of it. And the fact that we are blind to these instincts explains why we so easily confuse needs with wants, and why we unconsciously compare ourselves to people who are simply out of our league: "friends" on TV who live in homes that cost two or three times what we can afford, or colleagues at the office who may make five or ten times our income.

And that, in turn helps explain why so many Americans, despite being among the wealthiest people on Earth, go about their day believing, preposterously, that they live in a state of privation.

If there ever was a book that described the entire pickle that Americans, right now, have gotten themselves into--with our big mortgages and the expensive cars that we borrow to buy, and the credit card debt we've taken on in order to fill our lives with "stuff"--it's this one.

On rare occasions, Schor will dip into sociology-speak (the best jargon example I found was "because the social comparison aspect is salient for the escalation of norms"), but the vast majority of this book is readable, concise (just 173 pages, not counting footnotes) and utterly fascinating.

I highly recommend this book. The Overspent American was written in 1998, but it is a particularly timely book for right now. As equity and credit markets melt all around the globe, and as we head into what seems likely to be a 12-24 month recession (or worse?), many Americans will need to rethink their respective definitions of needs and wants.

Reading List for The Overspent American:
Once again, this book yielded an exceptional reading list that was unfortunately far too long to put into this blog post. I've carved out the best-sounding 10 books below. Let me particularly strongly recommend Your Money or Your Life, a book that had an enormous positive impact on my life.

As always, if you are interested in the entire reading list, which contains an additional 26 titles for further reading on the subject of consumerism, email me at dan1529[at]yahoo[dot]com and I'll be more than happy to send it to you.

Full Disclosure: if you purchase any items from Amazon by following the links provided, I will receive a small commission. Please think of it as my "tip jar"--and thanks so much to readers for all of your support!

1) Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin
2) The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture by David E. Shi
3) Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things (New Report, No 4) by Alan Thein Durning
4) The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith
5) The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen
6) The Simple Living Guide: A Sourcebook for Less Stressful, More Joyful Living by Janet Luhrs
7) The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline Of Leisure by Juliet Schor
8) The Status Seekers by Vance Packard
9) The Winner-Take-All Society by Robert Frank and Philip Cook
10) The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko

Related Anti-Consumerism Links:
Center for a New American Dream
New Road Map Foundation
Adbusters.org
Center for Screentime Awareness/TVTurnOff.org


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