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How Much More Stuff Do We Really Need?

A reformed overspender's reflections on Black Friday and Cyber Monday

posted by Suzanne Gerber, November 29, 2012 More by this author

A woman using a leaf blower to deal with a mountain of clothes.

Suzanne Gerber is the editor of the Living & Learning channel for Next Avenue. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.


A woman using a leaf blower to deal with a mountain of clothes.
Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Thinkstock
At our weekly staff meeting on Tuesday, a colleague recounted a snippet of conversation he'd had with a friend that morning. She casually mentioned that she'd "forgotten to buy something on Cyber Monday." To which he replied, "You know, you’re not obligated."
 
Funny, but the truth of it is a bit depressing. Or a lot depressing. This year on Black Friday, Americans spent $52.4 billion, up 16 percent from 2011. And three days later, Cyber Monday, now in its eighth year, raked in $1.5 billion. Just in case anyone cares, that figure is up 28 percent from last year, and the bulk of the shopping was done by people at work.
 
Getting and Spending
 
So is $54 billion a lot of money? Let's put it in perspective. It breaks down to $166.79 for every single American, or about $230 if you leave out the approximately 25 percent of the population under 18.
 
That amount is virtually equal to South Africa's entire gross domestic product for 2011 ($55.4 billion). Closer to home, the most populous state, California, has an annual public school budget (K–12) of $38 billion.
 
I guess on the bright side, it's way less than what Americans give to charity ($300 billion). And yet if you look at estimates from the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, projected total sales in November and December will hit $586.1 billion, or almost double what we give to charity in an entire year.
 
On the afternoon of Black Friday, I visited an old friend. She was happy to see me but tired: She'd been up since 3:30 a.m. because she had to be at work by 5 a.m. Her employer, the arts and crafts store A.C. Moore, was giving away $5 gift certificates, and people had been lined up for hours before she arrived — clearly eager to save $5 on plastic wreaths, picture frames and yarn.
 
Is it just me, or is anybody else horrified by this shopping frenzy?
 
And, not to get preachy, but how much more stuff do we really need?
 
New Meaning for 'Home Shopping'
 
A number of years ago, a few close friends I'd always exchanged birthday gifts with decided no more physical presents. Now we treat each other to experiences: musical performances, plays, home-cooked meals or dinner at some fun restaurant. Of course, the best part is getting to spend time together.
 
(MORE: Holiday Gifts That Give Back)
 
I know I don't need any more stuff. In fact, I need a whole lot less. Over the past year or so, I've undertaken the (ongoing) task of "deacquisitioning." I've given away, thrown out or sold more stuff than most people in developing nations will ever own — possibly more stuff than exists in some of those countries. And there's still so depressingly much more to go.
 
Last weekend, while gazillions of Americans were pushing and shoving, or clicking, their way to ever more conspicuous consumption (under the guise of "saving money," an irony that seems lost on most consumers), I had my own little "shopping spree." But I never left the house, and no money exchanged hands. I simply rooted around in closets, drawers and cabinets. 
 
Here's a partial inventory of my finds:
  • Several bottles of perfectly aged fine wine, ready (and needing) to be drunk in the next 12 months.
  • A minimum of 15 books I can't wait to read.
  • Hundreds of songs by favorite artists or new ones I've been eager to check out, buried deep in iTunes.
  • A dozen beautiful sweaters that will serve me well during this predicted "much colder" winter.
  • A perfect casual winter jacket.
  • 10 pairs of jeans that (probably) still fit.
  • 4 2013 calendars.
  • A pair of black ankle boots that look very 2012.
  • Brand-spanking-new winter boots.
  • 70 items of clothing ready for Goodwill (literally). 
  • 93 teabags.
  • Enough body cream to keep everyone I know hydrated until Easter. 

OK, so maybe not everyone has 93 teabags and more shoes than they’d ever let a man know about. But I'm pretty confident that most of us have more than we need; certainly more than we use.
 
We don't have to go to extremes in our self-restraint or self-recycling, though there's something admirable about dumpster diving and the other activities associated with the freegan lifestyle, not to mention looking for (or posting) free items on sites like Craigslist and freecycle.com.
 
Consumerism isn't inherently negative — it drives the economy, and that's a good thing — but just maybe we've taken it a little too far. It's no secret that shopping can become an addiction (and escapist strategy) just like drugs and alcohol. Perhaps it's time to focus on the big picture, and the negative consequences of our personal spending habits — before we fall off our own fiscal cliffs.