Not long ago, I stepped into an elevator where a 30’ something woman was holding a delivery box from Sephora. I said, “I’ll bet it’s something great”; she replied: “I ordered it last week and to tell you the truth, I don’t remember what I ordered”.
The Current Dilemma:
Consumers like you and I drive 70 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. We are individually and collectively responsible for the success of the U.S. economy. In every major recession, we are told by our leaders to start shopping to kick-start the economy.
COVID, which has triggered a significant economic contraction, will be no different. We will be urged to shop, just as before. But this time, we can do something different.
In a post-COVID world, we have a chance to revolt: to reclaim control over our behavior, express ourselves differently and improve choices in how we spend our time and money. The opportunity to break free from debt is right in front of us.
Permanent change won’t be easy. We are up against daily habits reinforced by highly paid marketing specialists. Conscious control over ourselves– our immediate freedom—only seems to go as far as the click-to-buy buttons on our devices.
Despite what leaders convey, most of our consumption ends up damaging the environment through resource depletion, added carbon footprint, and poor labor standards. Unwittingly, we are consuming ourselves to death.
Up until COVID, we spent more money on shoes, jewelry, and watches than on higher education, annually. In America, we are, by far, the largest consumer economy on Earth, three times as large as China with only one-third of their population. Thanksgiving holiday—a time to share and be with family and friends— has become a trigger for Black Friday sales, generating over $7 billion online, and another $4 billion on Thanksgiving Day, all in 48 hours. Marketers have now added Cyber Monday, a chance to buy more stuff.
Motivating you to buy frequently is not cheap. Industry spends over $400 billion globally, capturing your attention, pitching stories and images, playing music, and proffering tag lines to get you to buy, buy, and buy. Brands are infused with as much personality as the persons buying them, and personal data from your purchases are being tracked to ensure that you don’t escape your habit of buying.
An entire industry of specialists from data analysts, to cognitive psychologists to UX/UA designers of screens, has evolved to ensure that your critical faculties are blocked as they promote the painful habit of compulsive buying.
The average American in 1970 was exposed to 750-1000 commercials daily. Today, that number ranges from 4,000- 7,000. There is hardly any space—public or private—-that doesn’t feature a product or service for a better life; more sex appeal; more status; more ‘hip’ behavior and belonging to your ‘tribe’, or just plain fun. Don’t miss out on life, just buy whatever’s pitched, and experience the rewards.
Judging from mainstream behavior, it’s working. The average man spends roughly 3 hours shopping in stores weekly, and is twice as likely to shop online compared to women. On average, women spend 400 hours shopping annually, amounting to 8.5 years over a typical lifetime.
This does not include 15 hours spent weekly by both men and women surfing the web for deals.
Attachment Disorder and Bulimia:
Vast numbers of Americans suffer from an attachment disorder over things, demonstrating a kind of bulimic response of binge and purge. If we turn a clinical eye to this behavior, we would see it for what it is: a pathologic relationship to everyday life that is destructive to oneself, others, and the environment.
What behavioral evidence of pathology do we have?
Commonly, we see an item and say that we ‘love’ it, or ‘got to have it’, or ‘it’s so cute, it would look great on’, or ‘it would look great in the living room’. We binge, and make a momentary ‘attachment’ to the item.
Yet, as we imbibe vast amounts of goods, we then, in a relatively short period of time, vomit them up in spring sales, garage sales, re-sales on eBay, retail thrift shop donations for script, and consignment sales.
The average American—one adult— generates 82 pounds of textile waste yearly, or 11 million tons into landfills. The average garment is consciously designed to last 50 percent less time compared to garments ten years ago. The rate of consumption has gone up 400 percent in two decades.
Purchasing from fast fashion producers like Zara, and H& M, for example, can be pleasurable. They combine low prices with appealing designs. This translates, however, into a death spiral for the environment and people, in spite of what they advertise.
Cotton, a major textile used in making a lot of fast fashion, for instance, uses vast amounts of water, and consumes 25% of total pesticide worldwide. When the pain of farming, poverty wages, and increased rates of cancer due to chemical exposure are added up, it’s clear that the price you pay for a deal reflects none of these impacts; otherwise it wouldn’t be cheap.
For larger items, storage facilities remain a fast-growing business in the real estate sector. TV programs featuring people making discoveries and deals inside storage units embellish the disease. Roughly 65 percent of people who rent storage units also store things in their garage, according to industry statistics.
Shackled by Debt:
Consumers overwhelmingly admit to not sticking to their budget—if they have one at all. Impulse spending has got the better part of them. Unpaid U.S. credit card debt is approximately $700 billion while interest paid to American banks is $113 billion, up 49 percent over the last five years. Most consumers would need a second and third job to keep up with their spending.
The Federal Reserve reports that the average American household owes over $117,000, while the median income is $59,000. This debt consists of credit cards, mortgages, car loans, student, and personal loans. Payday loans, which account for roughly 10 percent of consumer loans, can charge more than 230 percent interest over time; almost everyone can get credit but not at the same price. We are, in other words, on a treadmill of consumption, and debt to support our habits.
I noticed, from my initial research, that the States with the highest levels of household debt-to-income ratios are also the most politically conservative. Viewed differently, Republican representatives represent the consumers with the most debt to income in the poorest states.
Their constituents owe their lives to credit cards, mortgage and debt companies. Many are one or two paychecks away from digger a deeper ditch; most reluctant to rock the boat.
The Emotional Costs:
Debt is detrimental. The emotional cost is high; strife over money is a tell-tale indicator of divorce. Twenty-five percent of married couples hide debts from their spouses, not wanting to cause conflict. High levels of anxiety, stress, and depression are often a further result of high debt levels, as is the overuse of alcohol and drugs to numb anxiety. These symptoms have been demonstrated worldwide.
Furthermore, research indicates that persons under financial stress exercise poor problem-solving skills, often placing themselves in further debt and financial crisis. They literally cannot ‘think straight’.
What to Do To Make The Best Out of COVID:
How to reclaim your mind; your ability to make choices, and get out of debt:
- Take stock and value your mind: First, admit that you have a problem. Ask yourself why it seems normal to you to frequently purchase what you don’t ‘need’ and value purchases that are essentially frivolous. Why are you willing to trade your personal freedom and financial wellbeing for trinkets?
- Block your exposure to advertising: Install ad-blockers on your devices to avoid those endless pitches to purchase. Reject advertising, complaining to Google, Facebook, and others that you are sick and tired of being pitched. Select to pay for such things as music services that are advertiser free. The less you are forced to see what you should aspire to be or value the better. You can prepare to discover more of yourself outside the category of ‘consumer’.
- Take small steps to reject consumption: Altering your behavior will be difficult at first. Years of buying habits will seem wired-in, natural. You may even feel anxious. Begin to shift the nature of your behavior to something more rewarding, like an outdoor activity or contributing to a charity. Transform spending—your desire to consume—to creating and contributing. Stop shopping Amazon and sites that use AI to compel you to purchase. They will take you to the habitual poor house. Establish a group of friends to make a commitment to shop and consume less.
- Extend periods of time between surfing the web and buying things: If you shop two or three times per week, or at night when you are bored, reduce it to twice, then to once, then to every other week. The key is to extend the time to demonstrate to yourself that you have control over your behavior. This, of course, doesn’t apply to groceries, which you need to buy more frequently. You will need to discover new behavioral substitutes and new ways to spent time. Write down the time and money that are being saved by not surfing the web for things and buying them.
- Keep a diary of your experiences and record of your bank account: Keep a record of how you are changing, what it feels like to shop less, and note the differences in your bank account that small savings make; they add up. In fact, take the monthly bills from shopping expenditures and cut them in half and contribute that amount to an account marked ‘mind-savings’.
- Get psychotherapy or financial counseling: If you can’t make the change on your own, consider getting help from a psychotherapist. You don’t need a specialist just one who you feel comfortable can help you kick your destructive habit.
- Appreciate all that you have: for then, you will understand that it’s all you need.