"By 4:55, with no police officers in sight, the crowd of more than 2,000 had become a rabble, and could be held back no longer. Fists banged and shoulders pressed on the sliding-glass double doors, which bowed in with the weight of the assault. Six to 10 workers inside tried to push back, but it was hopeless."
"When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since yesterday morning,’ ” Ms. Cribbs told The Associated Press. “They kept shopping."
- The New York Times, November 29, 2008 (1)
Instead of using the economic downturn as a time for some much needed reflection on how rampant consumerism has impacted our lives, indeed our collective soul, Americans, like crack addicts on a budget, are going to extremes to get their next fix at a discount. Retailers and advertisers are our dealers, hyping shortages to increase demand. Witless tools of greedy marketers we as a nation have become.
Here's an idea: do without. Really. Job security hasn't been lower in 70 years. Personal debt has never been higher. Doesn't that point to saving? But don't just do it because it's responsible. Do it to re-set your definition of need. Because what is desperately needed now is a new equilibrium. A new normal for what we, as citizens of the world's richest nation, truly need to feel content. Once you have chosen to go without that which you had once deemed necessary, you may begin to look around at all the other things you thought you needed and see it as mere clutter.
I speak from some experience here. Out of necessity, I was forced to pare down my belongings as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda. And I had a lot of belongings. I was 37 when I started my service and had already had well-paying careers in advertising and education. I spent my leisure time perusing Pottery Barn catalogs and Banana Republic stores. This, before I could do it no longer, was a consistent source of entertainment. A new skirt or arm chair brought a sense of freshness and contentment for at least a couple weeks. But the returns were diminishing. The more stuff I got, the more I needed to reach the same level of satisfaction.
Then, I was told I could bring just 70lbs of all that I owned to Uganda for the next two years. I'm not embarrassed to say I was the volunteer who brought the most luggage. Not embarrassed because it serves my point here. If I could get used to less, so can most people. I went from a spacious one bedroom apartment to 200 square feet including my pit latrine and bathing room. Effectively living in a quarter of the space I used to occupy. But I hardly missed it. I didn't miss my TV. I didn't miss my extensive shoe collection. I didn't miss my computer. I had no trouble living within that space and within my means. In many ways, I felt liberated. I was no longer a slave to my possessions. When I returned to the US, I was often surprised and frustrated by the amount of time it took to check my email, manage my finances or shop for groceries. Nevermind the price of an avocado.
I had re-set my sense of normal. When I moved to Jakarta with its lavish malls and my tax-free expat salary, my old ways did not re-emerge. Yes, I bought some clothes to refresh my wardrobe for an office environment, but it was more a task than leisure activity. Instead, I explored my new surroundings, spent time with new friends, traveled, read, and photographed. In fact, it was in Indonesia that I renewed my passion for photography. Don't get me wrong, a cute pair of shoes still brings a smile to my face, but if I already have similar ones, I can pass them up.
So how do you reset your new normal, short of ditching your family and moving to an African village? First of all, I'm not talking about a drastic alteration (for most). I for one would have a hard time parting with my mobile phone. But we can all set a new personal standard for what we need to be content. Here are a few ideas:
- Read this excellent, non-preachy guide (with cartoons!) to reducing your consumerism: Affluenza
- Get a fresh perspective: spend a night volunteering at a homeless shelter instead of lining up for deals. This will give you a whole new appreciation for the word need.
- Make a list of the things you really want and then put off buying them for 3, 6 or 12 months (or ever), and I'm talking about a flat screen TV or that third pair of black heels, not health insurance. It may seem painful at first, but you may see over time that you don't miss the items.
- Don't fill your leisure time with consumerism. Pick something you love to do - cycling, writing, photography - and do that instead. Yes, you may have to make some initial investments (don't use it as an excuse to gear up), but in the long run you'll have a much healthier and less expensive hobby than going to the mall.
I hope you will find, like I did, that it's not only easy to pass by a "Sale" sign, but it can actually make you feel freer. And as you find your new normal, appreciate a simpler life with less waste and less impact on the environment. Think of it as an added bonus.