Rethinking the American Dream

usa-clip-art-6The “American Dream” has been hijacked. It used to represent our basic ideals of freedom and opportunity. It seems to me that it now represents consumption to the max. In a nutshell, isn’t the common notion of the American dream now that the person that dies with the most “toys” wins?

We need to rethink whether or not this line of rationale is good for us as Americans or not. I think it is harming us fiscally and mentally. Author Nigel Marsh sums up our problem quite well in saying that “there are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation, where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.”

I have talked to folks suffering from this mentality and have seen firsthand the effects it can cause. It becomes a vicious cycle that wreaks havoc on a person’s life. The signs of this behavior in our society are all around us. To take Nigel’s quote a step further, we even see people purchasing things that they don’t have room for so they fill up a storage unit or two with all of their extra possessions. Those possessions become a faint remembrance yet there is still a monthly bill for their conglomeration of paraphernalia. By the way, there is more than enough room in the storage units of America to fit every single citizen inside their walls. What a depressing thought.

The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results. So why not make a commitment to change? Someone mentioned to me after reading my blog about my car with 200,000 miles that society will judge me based on the car I drive and that sometimes it is worth getting a newer model for that very reason. I say, who cares? There are lots of people driving nicer cars than me that can’t sleep very well at night because of their massive workload to keep up with the debt they have racked up for lifestyle choices that they can’t afford.

Think about the last commercial you saw. Did it tell you about a product and how it works or did it try to tell you on how much improved your existence could be if you only dropped the dough to bring it into your home? Advertisements have steadily changed over the past few years. The giant companies are trying to sell you on a lifestyle change. They tell you that their particular item will get you well on your way to the life you’ve always wanted. This is what I’m talking about. You do want to keep up with the Jones’ right?

I don’t want to sound like I’m on a soapbox and don’t struggle with these issues too. It is hard to live in our society and not buy into the carnival of consumerism. I have certainly fallen victim to this cycle before. Recognizing the problem, however, is our first step towards change. Have you ever had instant regret after a purchase? Ever realized that your most recent splurge wasn’t what you thought it would be? You probably wanted your money back but by then it was too late. It has happened to all of us.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the American dream and how we can take it back. If we consume less and make better choices it puts control back into our lives. If we make these changes we aren’t controlled by the job we don’t like, we aren’t devastated financially if that job ends, and we have a new found freedom to explore the way we live. I’ve met too many people enslaved by their belongings because of the choices they’ve been told are “normal.” Let’s be abnormal. Let’s be counter cultural. By the way, no-one that I know of has ever laid on their deathbed wishing that they had spent more time at the office and bought more material possessions. I must agree with my friends the Avett Brothers. Down with the Shine.

25 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 02, 2013

    Insightful read. Thanks.

    Reply

  2. Avatar
    March 02, 2013

    This post has “Fight Club” written all over it : “The things you own end up owning you.”

    It’s tough to live within a budget and not make those purchases that you know you shouldn’t make. But once my budget is in motion I feel like I can see all the bad choices I was making.

    Great post JL

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 02, 2013

      Totally Ryan. Why didn’t I think of the Fight Club reference?

      Reply

  3. Avatar
    March 02, 2013

    I hate everything about my life. I had a plan that did not work, and now I am in student loan hell. There’s no getting out from under it. None. I see no hope for the future.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 02, 2013

      Hope Less,

      I’m so sorry you feel that way. I know things can be tough and student loans can especially be a bigtime burden. I would suggest that you talk to someone who can provide you counseling through this difficult time. Check out nfcc.org. It is the best place I know of to get some free advice and help in creating a plan for your situation. Maybe they can help you create a budget and a plan for paying back those student loans. I hope that helps. Thanks for stopping by and please contact me via email if I can help you talk through some things.

      Reply

  4. Avatar
    March 02, 2013

    We need to listen to positive role models in our parents (which I’m thankful I have), in the Churches and in the public eye. People emulate what they see on a regular basis. It has taken us about a year of listening to Clark and Dave to finally take action and really put their advice to use. Lastly, we cut the cable tv; something that simple yet effective gave a boost to our relationship, finances and mental health. Thank God :)

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 02, 2013

      Orlando, Way to go on cutting the TV cord! That is such a simple yet profound step to take. It has been such a great thing for our family. We spend more time together doing more important things than vegging out in front of the tube. Plus we save some big dough every year. Congrats on all your hard work and success.

      Reply

  5. Avatar
    March 02, 2013

    The people in my world aren’t trying to buy fine things they are trying to pay their bills. 1 of 7 people are out of work and those that are working are not getting raises and often are under employed.
    I’m sure there are people trying to buy the better car, house, clothes but there are not many around here.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 02, 2013

      Hey Jim, I don’t disagree with you that there are a lot of people that are definitely struggling to get by right now. I totally sympathize and hope that some of my tips are at least somewhat beneficial. Thanks for your perspective.

      Reply

  6. Avatar
    March 02, 2013

    Great article! And so very true…I have seen a stagnant economy, wages frozen, and budgets that can no longer keep up with inflation, etc. I think Clark Howard was smart to produce some of his own electricity and even sell some his energy back to the power company!!!. It is now time to think outside the box. Employers are trying to do more ( a lot more for that matter, with less) Even though profit margins are hitting record highs for some companies which leaves me wondering why they won’t reward the extra efforts of hard working employees in these leanest of times? The way I see it, material posessions are not all that important. If someone doesn’t like you because you don’t have the latest and greatest riding lawn mower, car or the newest and trendiest of clothes, then “unfriend” them in real life! 😉 So mend things rather than throwing them out, visit your local thrift store, shop at Aldi’s, Costco, etc. and buy in bulk, Plant a vegetable garden, try canning some food, engage in bartering where you can, keep that old car for another fifty to 100 thousand miles, visit the library to borrow a book, play board games and have family night’s at home rather than going out for dinner and a movie. Our employers are not going to further compensate us in what they see as challenging economic times, the government is going to cost us more in taxes and restrict us where they see fit. It is up to each and everyone of us to be as self-reliant as possible in these uncertain times. Help others where you can and don’t forget to praise the one who makes it all possible for you to do what you do and provide what you have.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 02, 2013

      Great thoughts Kevin. Thanks for your perspective and list of fantastic tips. You are correct that self reliance and wise decisions help create freedom in our lives. I think bartering is awesome too. We should really be using that method more in our society.

      Reply

  7. Avatar
    March 02, 2013

    There is so much to say on this topic. “Enslaved” is one of the key words in this post. Once you let go of the “need” to keep up with the Joneses you feel such a load off of yourself. I see people sacrificing their futures (and their presents) by trying to fill some gap in their lives with stuff and justifying with words like “it was such a good deal” and “I don’t want my kids to be the only ones without it” and so on. I find it funny that I’m sure people in our relatively affluent area feel sorry for my family because one of our vehicles is a 98 Honda Civic (my goal is 200k miles as well). Yet,I would guess that I have much more cash in the bank and retirement than they do (and probably give to charity, but, now I’m sounding judgmental which is not good either). I was thinking about the economy and the sequester and so forth (very deep thoughts for my simple mind) and, as bad as it may be for some folks I realized that most people will still find a way to have several flat screen tv’s, video games, iPhones, and >$30k cars and go out to eat multiple times during the week. I don’t care if someone has to give up these sorts of things. It’s hilarious some may call giving up luxuries a sacrifice! It’s awful to say, but, my concern also doesn’t lie with people who live beyond their means and then a small adjustment causes it to crumble (I wish them well, but, I will not lose sleep because they gambled). My concern lies with the generational poverty that exists with several groups in our country. I pray for the children who are truly hungry and living in substandard conditions. I have a feeling that their lives don’t change much with our country’s economic state. I know that the sequester will put deep cuts into programs that serve these groups, but, I still think that, with the government inefficiencies, that these groups will not see a a big impact on their lives.
    I started by saying there is a lot to say on the topic — it is far-reaching

    Reply

  8. Avatar
    March 02, 2013

    Hey Anna, There really is so much to say on this topic. I appreciate your thoughts. Your lifestyle of saving and thinking about the future is going to have some huge long term benefits for you. Living below your means has some giant benefits, one of them being that it makes it easier to sleep at night. Also, because of your choices you really won’t be “enslaved” to your job. It provides some definite flexibility. I agree with you on the generational poverty that exists in our country. One of the main benefits of living below our means is the added ability to give our money away to those in need. That is truly an amazing gift.

    Reply

  9. Avatar
    March 07, 2013

    I found your blog through a tweet from Clark Howard, and then I happened to find “Down with the Shine” through that link. As a fellow Avett Brothers fan, it caught my eye immediately. Funny thing is that I never thought about the song as a statement on commercialism. I always thought of it more from a relationship perspective. Thank you for the new insight to the song. It’s like hearing it again for the first time.

    I agree with Kevin’s comment. I’ve been shopping upscale consignment and flea markets for years. Funny thing is that I don’t really share that with anyone because I feel that I would be judged or thought poorly of. It’s not that I can’t afford new retail clothes, but once you get a couple great deals at consignment shops, you just can’t bring yourself to pay retail. Thank goodness that some people do still buy retail so that they can donate those clothes to thrift stores and sell consignment.

    Reply

  10. Avatar
    March 07, 2013

    Hey Bonnie,

    It’s great to meet a fellow Avett Brothers fan. If you want some more explanation straight from the horses mouth, Seth and Scott put out a commentary version of their latest album. You can check it out for free on Spotify which you can download for free at spotify.com. They give some comments on each song and why they wrote them. It is very cool.

    Keep shopping those consignment shops! I appreciate style and don’t want only Ikea and Wal Mart pieces in my house just for the sake of cheapness. Shopping used at consignment shops, thrift stores, yard sales, and craigslist is by far my favorite way to approach shopping. You can get amazing gently used things at a fraction of the original price. Check out my first blog for some more thoughts on that. http://www.saveoutsidethebox.com/innovative-furniture-shopping/

    Thanks for your comment Bonnie!

    Reply

  11. Avatar
    March 13, 2013

    I couldn’t care less who’s impressed & who’s not! My 10 year old Honda Hybrid was paid off 7 years ago!! With only 100,100 miles on it, it’s barely broke in. The body will probably be gone before the engine! LOL Actually, I’ll probably have body work done & have it repainted. Perhaps, I won’t need another car for 10-20 more years! I LOVE having no car payments. And since I drive a Hybrid, I don’t go thru a lot of gas. I take VERY good care of my cars – stick with recommended maintenance – stickler on oil changes – have everything looked over (belts, hoses, fluids, brakes, etc.) EACH time it’s in the shop for an oil change or anything else.

    I shop at discount places/used online such as e-bay & have been known to stop at Goodwill & other such places. I don’t require fancy clothes – the latest shoes – although I do have one weakness: leather handbags. I really have to watch myself on that last one (even tho many are thru e-bay).

    I have a library card in which I can obtain free books – magazines – movies, and if it’s a book that I really want a copy of for my personal library, the used book store normally has a very nice copy for me – real cheap!

    I owe ZIP to credit cards – am not in debt at all – & invest wisely – quite diversified via much research. I can go to bed at night knowing that all I have hanging over my head are my monthly utility bills. The freedom that allows me is heavenly!

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 13, 2013

      Way to go Trish! We all have a weakness or two. The problem comes when we succumb to all possible weaknesses. That is the way our culture operates. But it is obvious that you have made great choices and are reaping the benefits. Keep up the good work!

      Reply

  12. Avatar
    March 13, 2013

    I have had an interest in Psychology and consumer behavior for some time.
    When I was in high school, I coveted a type of purse that the popular girls all seem to carry. After saving up for an entire year, I purchased said purse. Oh, I was delighted,for about 2 months. Around month two, I felt ill that I had spent so much on that purse. Since that time, I wondered why I had felt that way. I have since discovered the consumer behavioral concept of the “Hedonistic treadmill.” When we initially acquire something novel or what we covet, we get a rush of the neurotransmitter Dopamine. The feeling does not last. Ever. So, we move on to the next big thing. In pursuit of that rush.
    Perhaps this fulfilled an important biological need: acquisition of vital resources when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers.
    In modern humans, it causes untold misery in the form of debt, bankruptcy, and the never-ending cycle of acquisition. Being free of the burden of debt means having more choices and control of your life. I have been debt free for many years. This meant being teased and ridiculed by friends and coworkers for driving a 10-15 year old car. That’s O.K. I don’t need to impress them. The only person that I need to feel good about is me. A side note, two of those people that teased me about my old car have filed for bankruptcy for their overwhelming consumer debt.

    Reply

  13. Avatar
    March 13, 2013

    Hey Elle,

    Thanks so much for sharing. You are very correct about the Dopamine effect. That is why people just “have to go shopping.” I actually referred to that effect in my first blog: http://www.saveoutsidethebox.com/innovative-furniture-shopping/

    Being free from debt is most definitely a much better long term feeling. That is what my site is all about, helping others see the freedom possible through saving money. You don’t have to do things the way others do it. You don’t have to keep up with the Jones’ and drive a new ride. There is another path that allows you to rest easy at night and not owe everyone in town money.

    Thanks again for your perspective.

    Reply

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