I’m an American. This means certain things, objectively and subjectively. But in the last five years my immediate connotation of an American is “a consumer.” I’m not talking about a price matching, frugal, intelligent consumer. I’m talking about someone who acquires something for the sole purpose of disposing of it. You see, that’s what Americans do. We are, objectively, the most consumption-heavy culture in the world. I think this is bad. I think that our proclivity to consume makes it nearly impossible for us to make sound financial decisions. That is if you choose to ignore the obvious.
Here’s what I know.
The United States consumes the most food in the world (per capita).
The United States consumes the most gasoline in the world (per capita).
The United States consumes the most television (viewing) in the world (per capita).
The United States consumes the most electronics in the world.
The United States consumes the most housing (frequency of home purchases) in the world.
The United States consumes the most prescription medication in the world.
The United States consumes the most marriages in the world (measured by divorce).
You are doomed if your lifestyle is one of acquisition and consumption. Consumption, in many cases, is lazy. I had an individual stop by Facebook fan page to mock me yesterday regarding some advice he had heard me recently give. My advice seemed silly and superficial, but what he didn’t understand is that my advice was actually well though out and deep. My advice? Use less gasoline. It’s only appropriate that I digress for a moment to disarm any of you that might think that this blog post is a cloaked salva about the environment and the depletion of natural resources. Nope. It’s not. In fact, this post is about what is consumed, it’s about who is consuming.
On the most basic level, consumption is about filling a need or desire. We thirst for something, hunger for something, or want for something, and we acquire, use, and dispose of it. That doesn’t seem that outright nefarious, does it? In my opinion, the trouble stems from the American myth that you need “things” to achieve satisfaction. We, as a nation, measure success and satisfaction based on the accumulation and possession of things. This too, is bad.
I’m not suggesting that we all live in shanties in the woods, however I think there is a ginormous middle ground between our consumption habits as a nation and what healthy consumption habits actually are. There are personal finance implications, as well. For instance, our unwillingness to examine our transportation costs more closely is a prime example of our ignorance. Anyone that lives more than 10 miles from their workplace, yet owns a vehicle that gets poor gas mileage, isn’t considering the personal finance ramifications of consumption. But I have kids and need a four ton vehicle, you might say. Really? There are better solutions. One such solution, that people rarely consider, is to actually live near your workplace. Again, you might suggest that this is easier said than done. Really? People all over the world do a pretty good job of this. Americans don’t do a good job at this, especially in middle America.
Is this philosophical? Maybe. Was that rhetorical? No, I answered it. I sincerely believe that our consumption habits dictate our financial lives. I personally have taken myself through several exercises that serve to evaluate my consumption habits, and I have acted on them. My office is a half a mile from home. My grocery budget is $62/week. We have one TV in our home. I read and write more than I watch television. These extensions of my personal philosophy have served me well. I tell you this because I wish the same for you. Satisfaction can come via acquisition and consumption, but true satisfaction comes when you don’t need to consume to be satisfied.
Peter Dunn a.k.a. Pete the Planner® is an award-winning financial mind and a former comedian. He’s a USA TODAY columnist, author of ten books, and is the host of the popular radio show and podcast, The Pete the Planner Show. Pete is considered one of the foremost experts on financial wellness in the world, but he’s just as likely to talk your ear off about bass fishing.