Monday, January 5, 2009

The lure of materialism

Recently, I had two experiences that caused me to ponder the relationship between the way we spend our money and our perception of ourselves and our status in the community. Both experiences involved attorneys who were much younger than I was. In each case, each of them had recently gotten a job with a perceived higher salary and prestige. Notably, in each case, the attorney had purchased new Mercedes automobiles. The first time that this happened I dismissed the purchase as that attorney's problem and not mine. The second time this happened, with another attorney friend, I began to be very concerned.

In both cases, the attorneys were already driving very nice cars. These purchases were apparently not made out of necessity to replace an existing clunker. I attribute the purchases, rightly or wrongly, to status and nothing else. This type of spending is a symptom of the new consumerism and has been called conspicuous consumption. It is the antithesis of being prepared to face the vicissitudes of the current financial crisis and is essentially putting our trust in the arm of flesh. See Proverbs 11:28 and D&C 1:19

I am not concerned about purchasing Mercedes automobiles, as such, or any other particular brand, but in each of these cases the decisions appeared to be made based on status. This phenomenon has been studied extensively by Professor Juliet B. Schor. Her book The Overspent American was a bestseller a few years ago.

Not only is the problem what we buy and why we buy it, but the problem is buying anything at all solely for the purpose of appearances. One way to address this problem is through a strict budget, making decisions in advance as to how or why we are going to make purchases and setting realistic limits. I ran across a touching example of this in Burning Bushes and Blackberries. You should also read the comments.

I remember hearing about a neighborhood, just north of mine, where the young children who showed up at the bus stop wearing the "wrong" kind of clothes were unmercifully persecuted. Recently, in a library, I watched a four or five year old child throw a tantrum because his mother wouldn't let him borrow an R rated video he apparently knew all about.

We buy food and consume it until we are overweight. We buy beyond our means and live lives of desperation trying to make ends meet. A negative reaction to this type of purchasing is not limited to a few crazies living out in the desert. There are organized groups trying to help people get control of their lives and finances. One of these groups is called The Compact.

When we are coming out of a buying season with visions of people being killed by anxious buyers looking for bargains, I think it is time to really reflect on how we view purchasing and possession.

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