On The Overspent American

I recently finished reading The Overspent American – Upscaling, Downshifting and the New Consumer – by Juliet B. Schor.

Below are key lessons in the form of excerpts that I found particularly insightful from this book in which Juliet “analyzes the crisis of the American consumer in a culture where spending has become the ultimate social act”:

1- “While I believe all Americans are deeply affected by consumerism, this book is directed to people…whose income afford comfortable lifestyle. I focus on more affluent consumers not because I believe that inequalities of consuming power are unimportant. Far from it. They are at the heart of the problem. But I believe that achieving an equitable standard of living for all Americans will require that those of us with more comfortable material lives transform our relationship to spending. I offer this book as a step in that direction.”

2- “This book is about why: About why so many middle-class Americans feel materially dissatisfied…How even a six-figure income can seem inadequate, and why this country saves less than virtually any other nation in the world. It is about the ways in which, for America’s middle classes, “spending becomes you,” about how it flatters, enhances, and defines people in often wonderful ways, but also how it takes over their lives…IT analyzes how standards of belonging socially have changes in recent decades, and how this change has introduced American to highly intensified spending pressures. And finally, it is about a growing backlash to the consumption culture, a movement of people who are downshifting – by working less, and living their consumer lives much more deliberately.”

3- “…Even though products carry well-recognized levels of prestige, are associated with particular kinds of people, or convey widely accepted messages, we cannot automatically infer the motivations of the consumers who buy them…There are other sources of meaning (beyond social inequalities). Gender, ethnicity, personal predisposition, and many other factors help structure the meanings and motivation attached to consuming.”

4- “First, for a significant number of branded and highly advertised products, there are no quality differences discernible to consumers when the labels are removed; and second, variation in prices typically exceeds variation in quality, with the difference being in part a status premium…The extra money we spend could arguably be better used in other ways – improving our public schools, boosting retirement savings, or providing drug treatment for the millions of people the country is locking up in an effort to protect commodities others have acquired. But unless we find a way to dissociate what we buy from who we think we are, redirecting those dollars will prove difficult indeed.”

5- “Today, in a world where being middle-class is not good enough for many people and indeed that social category seems like an endangered species, securing a place means going upscale. But when everyone is doing it, upscaling can mean simply keeping up. Even when we are aiming high, there’s a strong defensive component to our comparisons. We don’t want to fall behind or lose the place we’ve carved out for ourselves.”

6- “To maintain psychological comfort, most of us must transcend the strictures of the current consumption map…The first step is to decouple spending from our sense of worth, a connection basic to all hierarchical consumption maps. The second is to find a reference group for whom a low-cost lifestyle is socially acceptable.”

7- “I outline nine principles to help individuals, and the nation, get off the consumer escalator…1) Controlling desire…2) Creating a new consumer symbolism: making exclusivity uncool…3) Controlling ourselves: voluntary restraints on competitive consumption…4) Learning to share: both as a borrower and a lender be…5) Deconstruct the Commercial system: Becoming an Educated Consumer…6) Avoid “Retail Therapy”: Spending is Addictive…7) Decommercialize the Rituals…8) Making Time: Is work-and-spend working?…9) The need for a coordinate intervention.”

8- “It can hardly be possible that the dumbing-down of America has proceeded so far that it’s either consumerism or nothing. We remain a creative, resourceful, and caring nation. There’s still time left to find our way out of the mall.”


Omar Halabieh

The OVerspent American


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