Simple Saturday ~ Book Review – The Overspent American

The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer by Juliet B. Schor was published in 1998, but the information seems as relevant today as it did more than a decade ago. The book is geared toward middle and upper-income families, who seem to be caught up in a never-ending cycle of keeping up with the Joneses, no matter who the Joneses are.

“The Joneses” are our first error, according to Dr. Schor. In the past, our Joneses (or reference group) would be our neighbors, who all lived in houses about like ours, drove cars similar to ours, and likely had two adults and only one income. However, Dr. Schor asserts that today, our reference group is no longer our neighbors, many of whom we do not even know. For many people, the new reference groups are our colleagues and coworkers, who may hold financially very dissimilar jobs to our own, and our media “friends” that is, the fictional people we see on TV and relate to. It’s not uncommon for someone making $50,000 to compare their financial prowess to someone making well over half a million.

Dr. Schor also discusses the brands and types of items we buy as a way that we identify ourselves and show our “place” in the complex world. In my peer group, nearly all my friends have iPhones (“regular” cell phones are no longer good enough for us) despite the fact that they cost a minimum of $70 per phone per month, in addition to the purchase price. Everyone has a laptop, including the kids, many of whom have their own iPhones, as well. (Often the model that their parents have already upgraded from.) Plenty of our friends go on overseas vacations regularly. Frankly, it’s a lot to think about keeping up with. I’ve had several conversations with my daughters reminding them that because they attend a private school, they are automatically surrounded by people with more money than is typical, and that a trip to Africa or Denmark is not something that most families take on an annual basis. (In fact, I dismissed one expensive private school, which really was out of my financial league, in part because a European school trip is mandatory for all high school students. I didn’t go to Europe until I was 33, and I’ve only been a two overseas trips total. I don’t want my child going to school where it’s thought that such an experience is a must for teens.)

Finally, Dr. Schor talks about “The Downshifter Next Door.” This chapter focuses on telling the stories of various individuals who have moved away fromconstant pressures to spend – from people are embracing voluntary simplicity to people who have made commitments to stop buying so many material goods and services. I think this is the group that most 365 Less Things readers are trying to become a member of.

The last chapter contains nine points to help turn this financial, emotional, and environmental quagmire around. They are:

  1. Controlling Desire – Stay away from places where you’ll spend.
  2. Creating a New Consumer Symbolism: Making Exclusivity Uncool
  3. Controlling Ourselves: Voluntary Restraints on Competitive Consumption
  4. Learning to Share: Both a Borrower and a Lender Be – Love this one and definitely practice it.
  5. Deconstruct the Commercial System: Becoming an Educated Consumer
  6. Avoid “Retail Therapy”: Spending is Addictive
  7. Decommercialize the Rituals – Christmas is a religious and family holiday. Don’t let the mall tell you how it should be.
  8. Making Time: Is Work and Spend Working? Cut back on your spending and maybe you can change how and where you work.
  9. The Need for a Coordinated Intervention

Lastly, I’ll leave you with this discouraging thought - which to me especially embodies the politics of the state that I live in – although remember that knowledge is power:

“The intensification of competitive spending has affected more than family finances. There is also a boomerang effect on the public purse and collective consumption. As the pressures on private spending  have escalated, support for public goods, and for paying taxes, has eroded. Education, social services, public safety, recreation, and culture are being squeezed. The deterioration of public goods then adds even more pressure to spend privately. People respond to inadequate public services by enrolling their children in private schools, buying security systems, and spending their time at Discovery Zone rather than the local playgrounds. ” (p. 21)

By Cindy

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  1. Thanks for another interesting book review. I am going to call my library right away and get them through inter-library loan if I can! We do have so many more opportunities to be with people of all different degrees of wealth. We can learn from others if we are wise, and as long as we don’t envy them. No matter how much money you have, there are challenges. The grass is not always greener on the other side. If we were to be in someone else’s shoes for a few days, I bet we would wish to be back where we were in the first place. The ideas you mentioned above are good to think about especially as Christmas is one time when people spend a lot of money.

  2. This looks like a very interesting book. Thank you for the review.

    Some of the points the author makes reminded me of a book titled, “The Millionaire Next Door” by Thomas Stanley, which told about how real millionaires often tend to drive second hand cars, dress simply in clothes that don’t make them stand out, etc.

    Our family has been simplifying Christmas for years, and this year is our simplest yet. I have a wreath on my door, a Nativity scene on my hutch–and the only gifts we’re giving this year are small money gifts for our grandchildren.

    It has been a stress-free season, and I love it.

    • That sounds just lovely Becky. We’re aiming for a low stress holiday season, too, and so far it’s working out just fine.

  3. Good book review. I like that last quote. I think the who problem is definitely the warped idea of keeping up with anyone and especially those who are not really like us. I think it is more than keeping up but rather the idea that we can become those people in a sense. Sad.

    • I had worked with two women whose husbands worked together. We ladies all had the same job, but not the men. One was a VP, and the other was a worker bee. Of course because the wives worked together, the men socialized and were friendly. It absolutely made the worker bee husband crazy that the other couple had and spent so much money, and it was obvious that he was desperate to keep up. I’m sure since the wives worked together, he worked with the husband, and everyone socialized, it was difficult for him to really accept that they were in very different financial situations.

      • It absolutely makes me crazy that the other couple spend so much money on material goods as well. Not because I am jealous though but because it is usually pointless clutter that is a waste of natural resources. Perhaps I have gone too far in the other direction. 😉

  4. Loved this book! Have you read her latest, “Plenitude: True Wealth”? I’d be curious what you think of it.

  5. The last paragraph is so true. It is a shame. There are so many budget cuts these days.

    There is one thing I disagree with though: the trips overseas. This is an eye opener for a lot of people. Even young children greatly benefit from that. Rent a little place, far away, in the country of your choice, spend a couple of weeks there, try to live like the locals. That put things into perspective. My kids came back transformed. It is one thing to see what happens on other parts of the world on TV or in books, it is another thing to experience it, to discover that your little world – that you thought the norm – is so not. Sorry, I got carried away here.

    • I am on NatalieInCAs side here. going to different places is the only way to understand that your normal isnt normal. and that you cant afford a car in germany, but could belong to the rich upper class in nicaragua – with the same amount of money.
      and please send more of your sort over here. all americans I got to know were lovely people. 😉

      • Ladies, I’m not saying that trips are an unnecessary expense (although right now they’re an unachievable expense), but I don’t want my daughter’s school to dictate that she will go and will go with her classmates. If she’s going to Europe – or anywhere else in the world – she’s going with us as a family or on a mission trip with church. I have a lot more faith that she’ll learn more and see more that way then touring cathedrals with a bunch of other rich kids.

        • I agree with you – not that all trips abroad are bad luxuries, but to be growing up with the notion that those trips are the norm, and not in fact a luxury, is the problem. Also, I’d much rather go together with my own child than let her go with a bunch of school friends.

        • got it. there is a how-question, but I still consider travelling a good thing. at every age and preferable to poor countries…

        • I agree, it really depends on how they do it. I had two overseas trips when I was a student (one in England, and one in the USA). Both were “exchanges”. During the year, our class communicated with another class overseas. Each student in the class was assigned a foreign student in the other class and we would write letters to each other during the year. Then during the trip, we stayed with their families, went to class with them, had field trips. It was reciprocal, they also got to come visit us. Was really fun. You really get to know what’s the life of someone your age, and the costs are minimized because you don’t have lodging and food to worry about. That’s how I went to the USA for the first time. 🙂

          • NatalieinCA ~ What a great idea having you communicate with each other before doing the exchange. That way you are already familiar with each other so that you have a better chance of feeling instantly at home in your new environment. I don’t know if this is the normal procedure in these exchanges but if it isn’t it should be.

    • Ah NatatlieinCA,
      I am with you on this, my own children have benefitted enormously from experiencing life in other countries. Even ones that don’t seem that different to your own still present a learning experience not to be missed. Our children did however get this experience with their parents not with a school group.

      One thing I am not convinced about though is that the higher the school fees the higher the education standard. There comes a point where the fees are just paying for the prestige. Correct me if I am wrong.

  6. Thank for this review Cindy. I haven’t heard of this book, but I just reserved it at my library after reading your review.

    It sounds fascinating!

  7. Thank you Cindy, i will see if my library has this. Your right the downshifter probably represents most of the people that would read this blog, it’s certainly true in my case.

    Sharron x

  8. This sounds like a very interesting read!

  9. After eighteen months of research and careful consideration, we have just bought a new (yes, new) car, to replace my 13 year old compact. We had a very specific set of requirements to meet our needs, and we’d have bought used had what we wanted been available. During our search we had friends bombard us with suggestions, all of them for very expensive luxury vehicles. I guess they wanted us to spend OUR money to live up THEIR expectations!

  10. Interesting, Cindy, I’ll have to find a copy. Re the Joneses: when I was growing up, I suggested to my (very old school) grandmother that she and Granddad should “keep up with the Joneses” and buy a smart new car like their neighbours. Nanna turned to me and said “Darling, as far as our life is concerned, we ARE the Joneses. If others wish to, they may live as we do!” Ouch! But I haven’t forgotten it, either.

    • I love your Grandmother! She sounds like my kind of gal.

      • Yes, Nanna was terrific. Probably the strongest woman I ever met – yet I never knew her before her stroke, and she lived in a wheelchair, physically frail for forty years! She not only had visits from friends with families, but their children, and later, grandchildren brought their families to see her! She taught us all so much.

        • My mother once said, “Is that how your friends do things?” regarding my wish to use reuseable cups for my daughter’s party. I answered, “I don’t have to follow my friends. They can follow me.” Nanna and I had the same idea.

          • Good on you Cindy and good on Nanna too. I don’t care what other people think of what I do either especially when I think I am setting a better example.

    • I just have to reply to this because my last name is Jones. And you definitely don’t want to keep up with us because we are pretty frugal. Whenever my Mom hears the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” she just replies, “I wouldn’t. They just keep refinancing.” I love this answer. Grin.

      • One of our overextended friends (gorgeous house, mortgage to go with it, etc.) is named Joan, so in our house it’s called “keeping up with the Joans”.

      • That’s funny Deb J. Your mom has a good sense of humour, good for her. No one ever pronounces our surname right so there would be no point in them trying to keep up with us either. For a name so simply and phonetically spelt I don’t know why people have such a problem pronouncing it. Funny enough it seems to be an Aussie thing, Americans never had a problem with it.

  11. I’m pretty much the poor-church-mouse of my social circle, due to permanant health problems limiting the type and amount of hours I can work. I don’t have any particular problem with being in the lowest income bracket most of the time, but was taken aback recently when one of my oldest friends asked why didn’t I have an i-phone? I do have a very basic 5 year old dumb-phone which serves my purposes but, when it eventually dies, I will be replacing it with another very basic non-smart-phone . I made some neutral remark about not being able to afford one but I was a little hurt that, after all these years, he’d somehow forgotten that he has 4-5 times my income, that he owns his house outright and I pay rent. There is such income disparity in the modern world that people of comparable intelligence, educational achievement and commitment to their work can be making radically-different salaries.

    The best ever quote on the subject of the Jones (no offence DebJ ;)) was Quentin Crisp’s: “Never keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level.”

    If nothing else, it’s easier and cheaper!

    • Hi GreyQueen,
      I can imagine how you found that remark from your friend offensive. In situations such as that I think it is best to just be honest that is usually the best way to make them realise what they said was inappropriate. In your case I would have said just what you said here such as ~ As you well know “due to permanent health problems limiting the type and amount of hours I can work” I don’t have the kind of income you do to afford such luxuries. A little plug for the environment doesn’t hurt either, like ~ And besides my old phone still works fine for me so I see no point in adding to the demand for new products whose production continually pollutes the environment. Stated flatly without any hint of resentment can have the desired impact on the person at the receiving end. That is, making them feel contrite about their rudeness and making them think twice about the impact they are having on the environment.

      I don’t think anyone needs to be dragged up or down any levels. What we all need to do is be content with what we have and not covet what our neighbours have. It is likely most of it is on credit anyway and also unnecessary. The only thing I care about when it comes to what the neighbours have is the impact all their stuff is having on the environment. I feel compelled to have less just to set a good example which in turn makes me feel good about having less and that is far better than feeling envious. You are so right GreyQueen it is easier and cheaper!

      • I bought the simpliest phone imaginable. We call it “my preschool phone” because it has huge buttons on it, so I can see it without putting my reading glasses on.

        • I gave up on the reading glasses and got progressive lenses that I wear all the time. I got sick of looking over them like an old grandma, taking them on and off and putting them down places and not being about to find them. These ones I leave on and can see everything all the time.

          The only reason I have an iphone is because it was a hand-me-down from my daughter although I am thinking of updating it so I have video capability and internet so I can upload blog related stuff when I am out and about. I often come across stuff that I think that would be great to tweet or facebook for my readers but don’t have the capability.

        • I was just thinkind of getting a phone like that for my mum. She has about 20 reading glasses everywhere in the house, but when she needs one, its not there. There is no chance that she leaves them where they live when she dont need them anymore, there is also no chance that she will wear one around her neck. that leaves her with a daily life full of “where are my glasses?”. but hey, everybody choses their own games.

  12. On going abroad for teenagers: Do it! But send your kids (taken they want to) away for a long time, not just a touristy vacation. I spent 6 months in Texas when I was 17. It was a stretch for my family (though the host family doesn’t get any money, there are expenses like the flights and the organizational fees … thanks again grandma for helping!). It changed my world (and my English ;-))
    I think going away for a while is so good because you notice you can cope – most of the time – which makes you strong and self assured. And sometimes you can’t cope – which makes you humble and humane. It’s important to realize that just because one speaks with an accent doesn’t mean one thinks with an accent. And you realize so much better if you’ve once been the one who failed to be understood.

    • This is so true Ideealistin. Cutting those apron strings and allowing your children out in the world on their own is crucial to their learning to fend for themselves. I sometimes think I have been overprotective of my children but them some people think the opposite of me. Most of the exploring they are done has been with us in tow but it has been a learning experience non the less.

      You are so right about living in someone else’s shoes. Being the odd one out occasionally helps you to be sympathetic to your fellow human beings in a similar situation. Being patient when sharing the road with people who aren’t sure where they are going is a lesson learned just from visiting another city that you aren’t familiar with. How quickly we forget these things sometimes once we are back in our own cosy environment.

    • “It’s important to realize that just because one speaks with an accent doesn’t mean one thinks with an accent.”

      lovely sentence. if I would rule the world, everybody just had to spend some time in a place alone where he not only looks different but also speaks a different language. just because it would make that person humble and empathic. it is not easy to be alone in a place where you cant even open your mouth without clarifying that you are NOT one of them…

      I have been in scotland for a year, I moved to the north of germany coming from the south (that was actually the hardest languagewise), I’ve been in denmark for a year, and I travelled to a lot of other countries. it not only changes your idea of other countries, but you can also learn to see your home country from a different angle, which is in case of germany always a discussion about hitler in the end…

      • Yes Lena I understand where you are coming from. Having an unfortunate history to your home country doesn’t need to be pointed out to you like it was your fault personally. The sad part is I don’t even have to leave my own country for that to be a problem.

        When I think of Germany I think of how much I enjoyed the food there and how I don’t look out of place at all. I guess that has something to do with my German ancestry.

        • you know, in case of denmark, which is (hopefully was) going a sort of right-wing direction, I was actually bringing up this topic by myself. We have been going down that road of blaming others. it wasnt successful, its a bad choice. and I feel obliged to actually point that out over and over and over again. because I do feel responsible, in that matter that I do NOT want it to happen again.

          food is great. australians never look out of place, I guess its that australians in general have a european background right?