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Consumerism Galore — the free-market or over-indulgent consumers?

BY MARIA PETH - GUEST OPINION | AUGUST 21, 2009 7:07 AM

I stand in the aisle of the local store slightly overwhelmed with the plethora of choices available to me. I count 15 separate shampoo brands and just as many hair conditioners, not to mention the hair gels and creams. As a child, my mother would ask me to get a bottle of lotion and put it in the cart. I would pick up the Jergens Body Lotion, and we would move to the next section. Now, there are entire stores devoted to hand and body soaps and lotions.

Is this consumerism or free-market choice? Are we a nation of over-indulgent consumers? How do we teach future generations about value and conservation when we are in this current gluttonous mode? Stores are attractively stocked with abundant collections of goods that have been heavily marketed. Our kids assume that the world is made of places to shop. Often we find that shopping becomes a daily occurrence. Where to go from here?

Recently, I read about a woman who for one year purchased only the consumables that were necessary. She did not purchase one piece of clothing for a year, sold her car, and swore off makeup, trips to the salon, and cable television. She apparently saved $20,000 by year’s end. At first, her method seemed strange and depraved. Upon further investigation, however, the concept — although decidedly frugal — offers challenge and freedom. In our current times, a bit of penny-pinching is vogue. So I began to think about this prudent concept of limiting purchases strictly to necessities.

It is harder than I imagined.

I find myself making lists for the grocery store and, upon closer evaluation, find that chips, cookies, ice cream, and gourmet cheese do not fall under the necessity column. How am I going to survive the onslaught after my family find that I am depriving them of their few food luxuries?

Next my list for the local Wal-Mart: school supplies, toilet paper, dish soap. Now I come to DVDs, dog treats, and M&Ms candy. Again, I imagine that I am the worst mother ever if I deny the kids and dog their goodies. I clearly see that I am a seasoned consumer with no discretionary control. I have been brainwashed and am a robot when it comes to shopping.

Because of the conditioning of our societal pressures and acceptance, we have in fact learned to live with just a bit more than we need. If I lived alone like the woman in the story who swore off purchasing everything but the very bones of her wants, then perhaps I could manage this challenge more handily.

Outside of giving up my status as a good wife and mother, I vowed to become more conscious of my own personal purchases and gently begin to make my family members aware and appreciative of the extras which we are blessed. I will, however, purchase cosmetics because I do not want others to suffer at my expense.

My son — who just recently graduated from college with a finance and accounting degree — reminds me that consumers make the world go around. Someone has to produce, someone else will market, and yet another will transport the products. And that equals jobs for people, he says. The more jobs, the better the cycle works. He teaches me that I should not stop buying but rather share some of what I buy with those who don’t have the means to buy for themselves and to balance the saving and buying ratio to a more equal tally.

So I am back to square one, leaving the guilt of buying behind and the challenge of saving and sharing ahead. Perhaps the future generation already has the conservation issue mastered. For saving money and growing one’s wealth is preservation. Perhaps freedom of choice is a good deal: Even when there are 15 different varieties, I will still need only one and can bank the rest.

Maria Peth is a resident of Waverly, Iowa and a UI graduate.


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