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Materialism Goes Bankrupt


Bargain hunters at Saks Fifth Avenue (Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times)

Like everyone else I’m concerned about the recession—or worldwide depression, which I think is more likely, even if it’s not as bad as the Great one.

But unlike others, I haven’t changed my spending habits much. It’s never cost that much to sustain me, and I’m not sure where I’d cut back if I had to.

For dinner I had Steak Diane Flambé. That’s unusual, but it only cost me $6, which is about what I’d spend on a Big Mac, fries and a drink. Miss Diane was a whole lot better than Mickey D’s.

I do my own cooking and gardening. I seldom buy new clothes; I wear what I’ve got until it gets ragged. I’ve got a lot of clothes I only wear around the house, but a lot of designer duds too, bought at the outlet mall, marked down from $150 to $30. I look nice when I need to and ordinary when I don’t. Right now I’ve got on blue jeans, a corduroy shirt that my mother gave me (she died 14 years ago) that I don’t like that much, but it keeps me warm, and a Cincinnati Charter Committee T-shirt no later than 1991. I’m happy as a clam.

I seldom go anywhere, though I’ve been with friends to the nearby college town for concerts and plays this season; we carpool. My mortgage is $600 a month, fixed rate, all-inclusive, PITI. I’ve got equity if I ever have to cash out.

In fact I live in one of the cheapest places in America, the rural Midwest. We didn’t have a housing bubble; no one who isn’t a native wants to live here, so there wasn’t any surplus demand to make prices rise—or fall when the credit dried up.

I burn a lot of natural gas in the wintertime because I’m cold-natured, but I do without AC in the summer, maybe just a day or two.

But you know what really saves me money? Not having TV. I quit that 20-some years ago; at first I didn’t have time for it, and then I didn’t miss it. Thus I’m not exposed to constant advertising designed to trick me into thinking a Big Mac, fries and drink are just as good as Steak Diane.

I stopped allowing the materialist impulse generator into my house. I’m the freest person I know.

There aren’t any movies I want to see, though I might buy the DVD of “Milk.” I don’t need new furniture or diamond rings; my car, a top of the line Honda Accord, is a model year 2005. I don’t expect to replace it till I’m on Medicare, if then.

I am a child of the 1960’s, a Baby Boomer, one of those reviled “Me Generation” people, which is really a laugh because it’s my generation that made me anti-materialistic. There really is something wrong with thinking that happiness results from buying things, in a world where most people get by on a dollar a day. We first confronted reality in the ’60s, it was called Vietnam and Civil Rights.

An article in Monday’s New York Times concerned the end of conspicuous consumption. It includes this quote, from a member of my generation who didn’t get the memo I got at 15:

“I think this economy was a good way to cure my compulsive shopping habit,” Maxine Frankel, 59, a high school teacher from Skokie, Ill., said as she longingly stroked a diaphanous black shawl at a shop in the nearby Chicago suburb of Glenview. “It’s kind of funny, but I feel much more satisfied with the things money can’t buy, like the well being of my family. I’m just not seeking happiness from material things anymore.”

Puh-lease, lady, keep your hands off the diaphanous black shawl. You don’t need it. (At least she’s a schoolteacher, not a stockbroker.)

My spending and saving habits are so ingrained in me now that it’s hard for me to understand people like her. But I’m very clear about the Christian morality of money: God wants you to prosper, and God wants you to give your prosperity away, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, nursing the sick, setting the captives free.

Material things are not God. God is God; accept no substitutes.

Currently The Times and other papers are full of speculative articles wondering whether this recession will permanently alter Americans’ spending habits, or whether we’ll go right back to gobbling up everything in sight as soon as it’s over. There’s no way to know, but the speculation helps fill up the newsprint.

However, there’s a little bit of evidence that more people are starting to ask a different kind of question than spend vs. save or materialism vs. spirituality: Even if we want to spend, is our former lifestyle sustainable?

That answer would appear to be no, environmentally as well as financially.

Between global warming and the price of oil, we’re not going to be able to afford all the crap we already have, much less buy more.

I think of all the foreign foods we import into this country; what happens when a carbon tax gets added to everything? Airplanes, trucks, ships, they all operate on oil, and we’re running out. I’ve heard of hydrogen-powered cars, but not planes and ships.

Do I need to spend $17 for a pint of Italian extra-virgin olive oil, when I can buy a gallon of locally-produced soybean oil for $5?

But that price too will soon go up, because of all the petroleum domestic agriculture burns, both in fuel and fertilizer. At some point we all may have to decide, “If it isn’t local, I can’t afford it.”

I hope more people see the opportunity the current crisis presents to remake our lifestyles and worship the God who created this place, not the devil who’s trying to destroy it. He just loves to advertise!

For the price of a pint of Italian extra-virgin, I can see a play in the college town. Live theater, imagine that!

For a quart of extra-virgin I can see and hear Joshua Bell play the violin.

I can grow my own lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, herbs, onions, peppers, cherries, flowers, and run out to my friend’s grandparents’ farm to pick sweet corn in July. I can buy eggs and chicken and meat from local farmers who let their animals graze on bugs and grass like God intended.

I don’t have to eat oranges from Brazil or beef from Argentina (although there’s no substitute for French and Italian wines).

We all need to ask ourselves, what in my current lifestyle is unsustainable? At what point will I get priced out of the market?

What’s in my best interest as a human being? What’s my ethical responsibility to others and to the planet?

I’ll tell you this, of all the fun things I’ve ever done, few compare to having a couple of friends over for a home-cooked meal. In the winter we eat indoors and in the summer I’m out on the grill. We eat good, we really do; and the value of having company is priceless.

If it takes a depression to convince Ms. Frankel to pay attention to what’s real and get rid of what isn’t, then thank you, God, for this depression. Please feed and clothe and house all who are hurt by it, and soften the hearts of those who are not.

We can’t go on like this, and I have hopes for the current generation. I also hope that President Obama will be so wise and so skilled that eventually the depression will end, and Americans will be building things again, not running Ponzi schemes Wall Street calls “the banking system.”++

One Response

  1. Me…I wore out my self-seeking (which happened to include treasure seeking)…years ago. One morning I woke up in a Five Star Hotel after a 1st Class International Flight (the company paid but I made lots of $$$) and felt empty and sick inside…what could it be? Afterall, I’d strived so hard, both as a drunk and later as a sober person) to get it ALL and to get it ALL just right!!!

    I discovered that the gathering of “stuff” wouldn’t give me the happiness that I imagined came with it…don’t get me wrong, I enjoy many lovely things even today (and a few of the old trinkets remain even though I’ve gotten rid or given away most of them)…today I live in a small village in Central America. I live in the village with the regular folks and I like it that way…true, the inside of my home is a little paradise but I love plants, flowers animals and artwork….it gives me great pleasure to just “be”…I didn’t know how to do that before and I think it has to TRUSTING GOD because I’m no longer afraid…I’m not driven to find security through “things” or “people”…I’m full of acceptance today….the world around me require that I face it, jump in and do what I can to be part of it in a positive way…I’m no longer afraid to SEE…I don’t use anything to block my view or participation in REALITY…that’s a huge gift that God has given to me.

    I gave most of the designer clothing away years ago…although I still like a little touch of panache in my clothing here and there.

    I’m visiting Florida right now….think I’ll go see how they view reality at hit the stores during this worldwide economic end of the month sale.

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