The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #165433 Message #4056040
Posted By: Stilly River Sage
30-May-20 - 11:31 AM
Thread Name: De-clutter & Fitness: House, job, life 2019 - 2020
Subject: RE: De-clutter & Fitness: House, job, life 2019 - 2020
I Don't Feel Like Buying Stuff Anymore
Our economy is built on Americans of all class levels buying things. What happens when the ability — and desire — to do so goes away?
I didn’t even realize I’d lost my desire to shop until one day, about six weeks into isolation, I absentmindedly clicked on a Madewell email offering an additional sale on a sale. I don’t even have anywhere to wear the jumpsuits I already own, let alone one that would require heels. Every work trip, every speaking gig, every quick vacation had already been canceled, even as my calendar still had reminders of the life I had planned in advance, on a different timeline, for myself. But in a matter of weeks, those, too, would be gone. I feel very lucky to spend my days walking my dog on the same loop I always take. But that walk, for the foreseeable future, requires no new purchases.
I don’t need new makeup, because I’ve stopped wearing it. I have Zoom calls with my friends after they’ve put their kids to bed, and everyone’s hair is just as wild, their faces just as makeup-less, as mine. I’m still lucky enough to be working. Others have been furloughed or laid off. Those changes may shape the tenor of our shared but separate isolation, but not its fundamental character. The aperture of my world feels very small, its rhythms incredibly repetitive. Sometimes, it’s almost calming. Other times, it’s incredibly claustrophobic. Either way, there are only so many pairs of leggings I need to navigate this new life.
Not wanting to buy things feels as bizarre as not wanting to sleep or not wanting to eat. It’s been ingrained in us, as Americans, as an unspoken component of residency. Before the coronavirus pandemic, I’d find myself clicking on the emails that overflowed the Promotions tab in Gmail, seemingly from every store I’d ever patronized. I’d online shop while I was traveling for work, while stressed, while avoiding a seemingly insurmountable number of other emails in my inbox. Buying things, especially things on sale, provided a momentary sense of comfort: I was fixing some problem, completing some task, simply by clicking “Buy Now.”
We’re trained to buy often, buy cheap, and buy a lot. And I’m not just talking about food, which everyone has to acquire in some capacity, or clothes. I mean all the other small purchases of daily life: a new face lotion, a houseplant holder, a wine glass name trinket, an office supply organizer, a vegetable spiralizer, a cute set of hand towels, a pair of nicer sunglasses, a pair of sports sunglasses, a pair of throwaway sunglasses. The stuff, in other words, that you don’t even know that you want until it somehow finds its way to your cart at Target or T.J. Maxx.
In post–World War II America, the vast majority of things we buy are often not what we actually need. But they’re indisputably things we want: manifestations of personal and collective abundance. We buy because we’re bored, or because planned obsolescence forces us to replace items we can’t fix. We buy to accumulate objects meant to communicate our class and what sort of person we are. We buy because we want to feel something or change something, and purchasing something is the quickest way to do so. When that doesn’t work, we buy “an experience,” whether it’s a night at Color Me Mine or a weekend bachelorette trip to Nashville. We buy because, from the Great Depression onward, how we consume has become deeply intertwined with how we think of ourselves as citizens.
The US didn’t become a nation of consumers because everyone has ample amounts of discretionary cash. Before the pandemic, income inequality had reached its highest levels since the Depression. Most Americans’ wages, when adjusted for inflation and purchasing power, have barely risen in four decades. In 2018, with the economy at its most robust in years, 61% of Americans said they could not cover a surprise expense of $400. In 2019, a study by the AARP found that 53% of American households did not have an emergency savings account — including a quarter of those who earn more than $150,000 a year.
So how do Americans buy so much when we have so little discretionary money? Massive amounts of credit. Payday loans, credit cards, quick and easy car loans, and the newly common “Afterpay” function in online checkouts incentivize spending beyond our means. The average American has a startling $6,194 in credit card debt, with an average interest rate of 16.88%. Over the last decade, auto debt has gone up 40%, and the average auto loan for a new car is a whopping $32,199. In April 2019, Americans reported borrowing $88 billion over the previous year just to cover medical costs. The middle class is going deeper and deeper into debt to maintain the expenditures of middle-class identity. The working class has done the same — borrowing for cars, for tuition, for everyday expenditures — only often at much higher interest rates.
And yet we keep spending: As of 2018, the average household expenditure was $61,224. That's rent and groceries, but also nonessential items: entertainment, vacation, clothes, plus all that other random stuff that ends up in your shopping cart.
It's a long read, so this is just the beginning of it.