The Overspent American

How might Americans get free of the mind-numbing cycle of overwork and overconsumption? Sarah van Gelder invited author Juliet Schor to discuss this question with leaders of the voluntary simplicity and downshifters' movements.

SARAH: Juliet, why did you write The Overspent American? What was the relationship to your previous book?

JULIET: When I was traveling around the US after the publication of The Overworked American



 I was struck by how many people asked questions about how to escape from the work-and-spend cycle. I wrote this book both to explore the barriers that are keeping people from scaling back on consumption and to look at the factors that might make it easier to downscale.


SARAH: Most economists would argue that the work-and-spend cycle is what you want in a healthy economy. What concerns you about this dynamic?




  1. It requires many hours (too many hours) of human labor and undermines the quality of life for that reason.
  2. It is ecologically unsustainable.
  3. It does not yield happiness.
  4. It is changing our culture in undesirable ways.

Your book talks a lot about the ratcheting up of the standard of necessity; what was once considered a luxury becomes a necessity. What contributes to this inflation in our definition of necessity?

The key factors, in my mind, have been the worsening of the income distribution, the growing prominence of television and the resulting decline of sociability, the increasing pressures of jobs (which make people spend compensatorily), the ubiquity of shopping opportunities, and the loss of meaning in Americans' lives.

I think it's also useful to look at the effects of “reference groups” – those people (real and fictitious) against whom we consciously and semiconsciously measure our own consumption levels. They help form our aspirations and the degree to which we are satisfied with what we have.

Reference groups used to be mainly composed of people near us in the social hierarchy. But people now are more likely to take the top 20 percent of the income distribution as an aspirational target. TV and the media have been important in this by giving us “TV friends” to compare ourselves to, who are almost all affluent.

This has created a strong “aspiration gap” – the gap between what one has and can afford, and what one aspires to. Being “middle class” is no longer enough.

SARAH: You talk a lot about denial in your book – denial that the US is a class society and becoming more so all the time. Denial about the role of debt and status in our life. Juliet, could you say more about the nature of this denial and its impacts? Then I'd like to open this to others in the roundtable.



JULIET: I believe Americans continue to overspend in part because it allows us to paper over conflicts, to avoid dealing with ugly status and class issues and many of the dysfunctional aspects of our financial lives. Sixty percent of the families in America can maintain their standards of living for only one month if their income disappears. The next 20 percent can maintain it for only three months. That means that 80 percent of the population is living at an incredibly high level of economic insecurity every day, whether or not they're consciously aware of it.


It's interesting that the biggest blockbuster movie we have at the moment is Titanic. On some level, I think it captures the story of our times: High living in the moment. Tremendous faith in technological fixes. Denial of warnings. Repeated avoidance of signs of trouble. A final catastrophe. This seems to be a story that deeply resonates with people in the late 20th century.


VICKI: A recent feature on NBC Nightly News cited the following statistics:

• We have $1.24 trillion in consumer debt – an all time high.

• personal bankruptcy is up over 400 percent since 1980 (1.3 million people declared bankruptcy in 1997)

• 1.02 million Americans are behind in their mortgage payments. These are hard numbers that reflect the kind of denial Juliet is citing.

I would add that the advent of “unsecured debt” in the form of credit cards has fed this cycle. If you pay at the minimum rate of 3 percent, a $2,000 purchase at 18.5 percent interest will take 14 years to pay off and cost an extra $1,900.


Someone once observed that people live by stories, including nations, and that if you can control people's stories, you don't need to control their armies or legislatures, because you already control their minds and hearts.


In the US, television tells most of the people most of the stories about most of the world most of the time. It's not just the thousands of ads for products; they are more fundamentally watching thousands of ads for a “work-and-spend lifestyle.” Never do we see ads for simple living, or for future generations, other species, the rain forest, the ozone layer.


It is not enough to turn off the TV. This medium is far too powerful in shaping our collective consciousness to ignore. The one-dimensional mindset of the mass media is diverting our cultural attention, dumbing-down our potential, and holding back our evolution.


SARAH: Let's talk more about future generations. Children have an interesting role in our reactions to consumerism. Juliet points out that many parents are most concerned about “keeping up with the Jones” in areas affecting their kids. On the other hand, many adults are turned off by kids' materialism. Is there a backlash against consumerism on the part of kids or their parents?


Many people are opting to work and earn less primarily to gain more time with their children. As boomers begin to downshift and cut back, advertisers are turning more intensively to children. A recent report documented efforts to gain brand name identification among children starting at age two.


I am a mother of a seven- and a nine-year-old, and they heavily influence my perspective on life.


I think parents are buying things for their kids in part out of a sense of fear about the future. Even my educated and affluent peers seem to feel they have minimal control over anything except their immediate family situations, and they are determined to give their children the maximum advantages possible. This involves the over-programming of children in an endless array of enrichment and sports programs along with the tendency to buy kids the latest technology, toys, and educational tools, all to give your child the competitive edge.

This same fear drives parents to stay in the high-earning careers that guarantee financial security for children, even when these careers often rob children of precious time with their parents.


What a crazy system it is in which huge numbers of people are so fearful about failure and do so many crazy things on this account. I already see it in my son's first grade; the intense pressures on children and young teens to do well in school is pretty frightening.


I think one of the key things is to ask ourselves what kind of structure we are creating that allows only a few to succeed – and in which those that do “succeed” are likely to be overworked and miserable? It's important to fight the trends in the global economy that are creating this kind of insecurity, rather than looking to this privatized solution of cramming kids full of computers and extra-curriculars – basically starting a productivity drive with kids at the age of two!



There does seem to be a race to provide “enriching” experiences for kids. Some child psychologists, such as David Elkind, author of the Hurried Child, suggest we're doing a lot of damage to kids by overcrowding them with structured, adult-supervised activities. Kids' sports, for example, have become so over-organized.


When I was a kid, my buddies and I met at the park, picked teams, made our own ground rules and played baseball and football and other sports informally. I think it provided good lessons in organizing activities, taking leadership, and getting along with each other. Now, the sports are all controlled by adults.



I do think kids are receptive to the message of frugality; they're aware that they have too much. John and I certainly saw this when we filmed sixth-graders at Jones Elementary School here in Mount Airy, North Carolina, last year, for Escape From Affluenza.


We were astounded at the level of interest in simple living among the kids. They knew they had too many clothes while their counterparts in the Third World had too few. They could get rid of 80 percent of what was in their closet and not notice the difference. The students were attracted to the “old ways” and recounted with pride how much food their grandparents grew in their summer gardens.


 SARAH: More and more stuff, and less and less security! It's ironic that fear of the future would cause us to overspend, work hard to project an image of success, and live on the edge financially – thereby in fact making us less secure.



CECILE: When I quit my job as a community college administrator, one of my first thoughts was, “I won't have a title! Who will I be?” A few months after quitting, I attended a very expensive wedding, and I had real difficulty knowing how to answer the question, “What do you do?”


Juliet talks in her book of the necessity to maintain an image of success (which requires consumerism), because we fear that we could so easily become unemployed. Of course we feel insecure! We just have to look at the homeless to remind us of what could happen to us.

People's concern for projecting an image represents an underlying insecurity – a feeling that we are alone in a universe that doesn't care about us. So consumerism is, in some sense, a substitute for being cared for.

In a way, it's like the early Puritan idea that being “successful” proved that someone was “saved.” “Success” meant God must have smiled on them – they were safe and saved. So to reduce consumerism, we need to deal with the insecurity and the pressure to project an image of success.


I think that a lot of the symbolic power of consumption is perpetuated through the requirements not to talk about these things. These symbols of success are transmitted nonverbally – the designer logo, the right cosmetics, or the choice of a vacation send certain signals. These are always a little bit under the surface. So I think bringing these associations out into the open, making them visible and verbalizing the symbols, is crucial to giving individuals more freedom to choose not to buy into these symbols.


The anxiety many people feel about their financial future is very paralyzing; it makes people feel out of control. There are some things individuals can do: reduce or eliminate debt, increase savings, gain marketable skills, and learn to provide for a higher fraction of your total consumption expenditures yourself. You can get your own financial situation and lifestyle into a place where you can weather things like the loss of a job.


WANDA: Many people assume that when Frank and I left our fast-lane life in Los Angeles, we came home to run this orchard with a sizable nest egg – as if people in their right minds could never take such a significant risk without one.


Actually, we didn't have money in the bank – just a strong sense that our lives were out of whack and needed an overhaul. But after 12 years of hard work and simple living, we're on much more solid financial footing than we ever were in with our high-paying jobs.

I've found that being less consumed with earning money gives me more time for building security through “human infrastructure.” It takes time to build and maintain friendships, but I believe that people provide the best kind of security.

Let me give an example. I have a friend Marion who had been a high school English teacher in Virginia for many years when she got into a difficult political situation. I could see she was miserable, but she was reluctant to leave. I urged her to apply at the schools here in Mount Airy and made some calls on her behalf. She was offered a job, made the move, and has been much happier for it. She has also acted on my behalf when I needed help. That kind of caring, hands-on interaction doesn't happen when your daily schedule is overloaded, when there's no time for reflection or action.

SARAH: What would you say is the biggest, not-to-be missed opportunity for moving to a more sustaining way of life? What one factor have you seen that gives you the most hope that this is possible?


I think it is transformative to simply withdraw from the preoccupations with the rat race of accumulation. It is radical simplicity to affirm that our happiness cannot be purchased, and that we can accept ourselves as we are. We can affirm that each of us is endowed with a dignity, beauty, and character whose natural expression is infinitely more interesting and engaging than any identity we might construct with stylish clothes and cosmetics.



I believe living a life that involves meditation, reflection, and/or prayer is the single greatest factor in moving to more balanced sustainable lifestyles. I think quiet retreat from the dominant culture is vital. I also think that individuals are incapable of staying the course alone, so I think supportive communities and groups are vital.


CECILE: I think the “not-to-be-missed” opportunity is involvement! We must have personal change, yes, but the simplicity movement must go beyond that to working toward something larger. It might be co-housing, eco-villages, “time-dollar”/bartering groups, neighborhood organizations, environmental organizations, churches. Some group that keeps your spirit alive and makes a difference.

My solution, of course, is simplicity circles – a place were people can make real contact with others and gain the courage to express their real selves in the rest of their lives. Then they have a better chance of resisting the forces of our consumer society.

WANDA: A friend of mine from L.A. refuses to ever wear anything with brand labeling or identification on the outside, not a logoed T-shirt or a brand-name pair of shoes. And that might be an idea worth bandying about. Try asking a bunch of teenagers to dress for a week without showing a single label. That would be a challenge! JOHN:

Not to be missed opportunities: Talk about the big picture – the connections between our purchases and the workers who produce them, the environment, our own personal stress, our family relations, and the community.

Use humor, and realize that this issue speaks to Left and Right alike. I do think we're having an impact, so keep up the great work, everyone!


At the New Road Map Foundation, we are shaping our message currently around stress and savings (which are linked).

Money not spent equals resources conserved, both human hours at work and the natural environment.

Savings equals peace of mind and strength, both personal and national (less dependence on foreign investment).

Energy devoted to a full spectrum of meaningful activities – work, family, friends, community, worship – makes for human well-being.

The amazing part of this work on consumption is that, since it is the centerpiece of our culture and economy, it is also a powerful place to work for systemic change. You can press anywhere and move the mountain.

Cecile Andrews is the author of The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Lifeand has spread the word about simplicity circles through her column in The Seattle Times and her radio show on a local NPR affiliate.

John de Graaf is the co-producer of the television special
Affluenza, which aired last fall on PBS stations around the country. The follow-up program, Escape from Affluenza, will air nationwide on July 7 (see page 56).

Duane Elgin is the author of
Voluntary Simplicityand Awakening Earth. He has also recently published two important reports: Collective Consciousnessand Cultural Healing and Global Consciousness Change.

Vicki Robin is the co-author of the bestselling book
Your Money or Your Life. She is also the president of the New Road Map Foundation, and an international speaker on financial integrity and sustainability.

Betsy Taylor is founder and executive director of the Center for a New American Dream. She was previously the executive director of the Merck Family, which sponsored the study on American values regarding consumption that resulted in the report, Yearning for Balance.

Wanda Urbanska is co-author with Frank Levering of
Simple Living: One Couple's Search For A Better Lifeand Moving To A Small Town: A Guidebook For Moving From Urban to Rural America. She is also host of the upcoming PBS blockbuster, Escape from Affluenza.

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