By David Mays



Why We Want What We Don’t Need


Juliet B. Schor

HarperPerennial, 1998, 250 pp. 


SchOver 02-12-138

Schor’s book, based on substantial research, is meant to help us understand and break free of the social forces that reinforce a “work-and-spend” lifestyle. 

For millions of us, what we acquire and own is tightly bound to our personal identity.  “Many of us are continually comparing our own lifestyle and possessions to those of a select group of people we respect and want to be like….”  Schor calls this “competitive acquisition.”  But today, the neighbors are no longer the focus of comparison.  The new “reference group” is made up of people whose incomes are three, four, or five times as great as ours.  This has resulted in a national culture of upscale spending, the “new consumerism.”  The new reference group includes television families, celebrities, and others we admire.  Many of these represent six and seven figure incomes.  That’s trouble.   (3-4)

“The new consumerism is also built on a relentless ratcheting up of standards.”  “What we want grows into what we need, at a sometimes dizzying rate.”  Many of us feel we’re just making it.  It’s a generalized feeling that exists at all levels.  Why do so many middle-class Americans feel materially dissatisfied?  How have standards of belonging socially changed in recent decades and how has this change introduced Americans to highly intensified spending pressures?  (6-7)

“Veblen argued that in affluent societies, spending becomes the vehicle through which people establish social position.”  (7)

“Daily exposure to an economically diverse set of people is one reason Americans began engaging in more upward comparison.”  In the 80s competitive spending intensified in a very big way.  (10-11) 

“The size of houses has doubled in less than 50 years, there are more second homes, automobiles have become increasingly option-packed, middle-income Americans are doing more pleasure and vacation travel, and expenditures on recreation have more than doubled since 1980.  Over time new items have entered the middle-class lifestyle: a personal computer, education for the children at a private college, maybe even a private school, designer clothes, a microwave, restaurant meals, home and automobile air conditioning, and, of course, Michael Jordan’s ubiquitous athletic shoes….”  (11)

“Yet, by the midnineties, America was decidedly anxious.  Many households felt pessimistic, deprived, or stuck, apparently more concerned with what they could not afford than with what they already had.  Definitions of the ‘good life’ and even of ‘the necessities of life’ continued to expand, even as people worried about how they could pay for them.”  (12)

“By 1991 almost everybody was gazing at the top of the pyramid.”  “Taken together, 85 percent aspired to be in the top 18 percent of American households.  Only 15 percent would be satisfied ending up as middle-class.  But keeping up with that top quintile is not easy, because they keep getting richer….”  (13)

In 1996 per capita consumption was rising but consumers’ expectations were rising faster. (14)

“The story of the eighties and nineties is that millions of Americans ended the period having more but feeling poorer.”  (18)

“American consumers are often not conscious of being motivated by social status and are far morel likely to attribute such motives to others than themselves.”  “Indeed, what stands out about much of the recent spate of spending is its defensive character.  Parents worry that their children need computers and degrees from good colleges to avoid being left behind in the global economy.  Children, concerned about being left out in the here and now, demand shoes, clothes, and video games.”  (19)

“Debt service as a percentage of disposable income now stands at 18 percent.”  “Average hours of work have risen about 10 percent in the last twenty-five years.”  (19)

The average American household is currently saving only 3.5 percent of its disposable income, about half the rate of a decade and a half ago….”  “Indeed, 60 percent of families have so little in the way of financial reserves that they can only sustain their lifestyles for about a month if they lose their jobs.”  (20)

“When we count not only our incomes but also trends in free time, public safety, environmental quality, income distribution, teen suicides, and child abuse, we find that things have been getting worse for more than twenty years, even though consumption has been rising.”  (21)


Many of us are like youth in that we care a lot about what our peers think of our visible consumption choices.  (47)

“In many ways, the cosmetics companies are not too different from the snake oil peddlers of the nineteenth century.” (49)

“Fakes make up a large segment of the market in visible commodities such as jeans, watches, sunglasses, designer apparel, and leather goods.” (56)

“That we are what we have is perhaps the most basic and powerful fact of consumer behavior.”  “What we buy also affects who we become.   …the more we have, the more powerful, confident, and socially validated we feel.”  (57)

“Although people may claim that they are striving for individuality, they all end up looking more or less predictably the same.” (59)

The visible triad: house, auto, and wardrobe. (59)


“The most striking feature of household spending in modern America is its sheer volume.”  (67)  “If you are a typical American consumer, you did not always have so much.  There was probably a time in your adult life when you could fit everything you owned into your car and drive off into the sunset.”  (68)

“The sequences of events starts with a social act—being exposed to consumer goods.  It proceeds through the mental stages of fantasizing, wishing, and rationalizing.  Borrowing may be the next step…” (68)

Society critics focus on ads and the media, but “the more powerful stimulator of desire is what friends and family have.” (69)

“Between seeing and buying lies the inner world of desire.”  “People anticipate, they daydream, and they plan….”  61 percent always have something in mind that they look forward to buying. (70)

1/3 of the population say they are heavily or moderately in financial debt.  (72)  “The painlessness of spending with plastic makes it hard for many people to control.”  (73)

“Where you stand relative to those with whom you compare yourself has a significant impact on your spending.”  People say they don’t follow the lead of others but my evidence shows they do. (75)

The more education a person has, the less he or she saves.  “Apparently people with more education are more status-oriented, more tuned in to identity and positional consumption, and more concerned about keeping up with the upscale groups to which they aspire and belong.”  (76)

The more TV a person watches, the more they spend.  “What we see on TV inflates our sense of what’s normal.  The lifestyles depicted on television are far different from the average American’s: with a few exceptions, TV characters are upper-middle-class, or even rich.”  (80)

“Sitting in front of the television five extra hours a week…raises your yearly spending by about $1000.”  (82)

“Americans live with high levels of denial about their spending patterns.”  “But while 70 percent of the sample described ‘the average American’ as ‘very materialistic,’ only 8 percent felt they were materialistic themselves.”  People greatly underestimate the amount of debt they hold on their cards.  (83)

“The one place where keeping-up behavior is paramount and conscious is where the kids are concerned.”  (85)  “In many places, private school is becoming a part of the upper-middle- (and even middle-) class standard of living—a requisite element in the basic package.”  “Public school becomes tainted with a lower-class image.”  (86)

“The standard for birthday parties is escalating.  Americans give their kids more in pocket money that the world’s half-billion poorest adults earn each year.”  (86)

“Retails stores report that they do almost 25% of their total volume during the Christmas season.”  “Generous gift giving is also one reason couples end up spending more than they should.”  (88)  “Many of us are looking back longingly to an era when gifts were not obligations but expressions of our generosity, when couples didn’t use bridal registries as shopping lists, and when kids didn’t hand out must-have Christmas lists.”  (89)

“Even those who said they didn’t feel pressure, really did.”  (91)

“We often think ‘function’ when our subconscious is screaming ‘status.’  (94) (e.g. 4-wheel drive SUV.) 

“Studies showing that consumers often cannot discern brand differences without labels provide further evidence of the widespread conflation of status and quality.”  (95)

“American consumers seem to accumulate large numbers of things in which they subsequently lose interest.” (104)

“What’s most impressive is that we are complaining about too much junk even as housing space per person has risen substantially.”  (106)

“We are impoverishing ourselves in pursuit of a consumption goal that is inherently unachievable.”  (109)

Chapter five is on profiles of  “downshifters.” 

The most common reason given for voluntary downshifting is “wanting more time, less stress, and more balance in life.”  (114)

Today’s downshifting trend is different in that people are not dropping out of society, living communally or ideologically motivated.  “They are smack in the middle of the American mainstream.  But they are swimming against a long-standing current of ‘economic progress.’” (115)  What’s different about them is that they have been able to buck the “national religion.” (137)

Nine principles to help people get off the consumer escalator. 

1.  Control desire.  Become conscious of how this insidious process ensnares us.  Avoid catalogs, malls, TV, and do less ‘socializing.’  Do without what you want for awhile to test whether you really need it.

3.  Put on voluntary restraints.  Put limits on gift spending, for example.  “Coveting our neighbor’s belongings was so important a no-no that it qualified as one of the Ten Commandments.  Greed is one of the seven deadly sins.   But that has been turned on its head.  Aggressive spending has been made patriotic.  (152)

4.  Share things with your neighbors instead of buying everything yourself.

5. Exegete commercials.  Read between the lines.  Learn how to budget, plan, be patient and save.  “We have paid almost no attention to the ignorance of our youth when it comes to practicing ‘safe spending.’”  (157)

6. Avoid “retail therapy.”  (158)

7. Decommercialize the rituals (holidays, birthdays, Valentine’s day, etc.)  (160)


[I felt so depressed after reading this book that I had to go out and buy something.]


[Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.  The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.  I John 2:15-16]