How Much Is Enough?

I've been talking about religion quite a bit lately, not here so much but among friends and acquaintances. Like it or not(not, thank you), it is a factor in these election times. A conservative I know recently told me during one of our discussions where I again asserted that our founding fathers intended there to be a separation of church and state, that the U.S. is a Christian country. No, a country where the majority of citizens are Christian maybe but not a Christian country, I retorted.

This exchange got me thinking about what religion or common values really bring us, the American people, together. Even among Christians, there is a mass expanse of differing mores and norms. Add to that all of the other religions groups and the bevy of people who don't align themselves with any religious group.

So what then is the most uniting factor among nearly all of the U.S.'s people? It's the religion of stuff, the Holy Order of the Benevolent Consumer, Our Lady of Twelve Month Interest Free Financing, the Church of the Latter Day Payments.

Besides a few offshoot groups, wanting, buying and having stuff is a common thread that transcends denominations. Somewhere along the line, thrift ceased to be a virtue and instead became a liability. We are encouraged to use our money and tax rebates as economic stimulus, even as people face rising health care costs and risk home foreclosure. The American economy is a machine that requires us to lubricate it with our dollars to keep it running so going off the grid isn't an option but how much is too much?

Even home ownership, the only form of "savings" for many of today's adults, has been pillaged by the hubris of the seductive home equity loans. Until recently, these loans, better known as second mortgages, were thought of as the borrowing of last resort, avoided by all but those in the most desperate financial crises. Paying off your home used to be the goal, not bleeding it until nothing was left hoping the value would rise fast enough to keep up.

Now, for the first time since World War II, the portion of home value that Americans actually own has fallen to less than 50 percent. How did this happen? In part because slick advertising changed the paradigm. Rather than see free and clear home ownership as a goal to work towards, we were told we were all but ignoring a source of "free" money. Citibank encouraged Americans to “live richly”, “Seize your someday,” a Wells Fargo ad advised in 2007. I couldn't find it online, but I still clearly remember a billboard that showed a woman carrying a bunch of shopping bags and the tagline was, "Is your home equity burning a hole in your pocket?" The message was, don't have enough money for that vacation, new car or home remodel, don't worry, you're sitting on a veritable goldmine.

Even when it came to credit cards, banks encouraged consumers to rethink negative feelings about debt. For example, Mastercard's “Priceless” campaign, which implied that having things, experiences, whatever, was worth more than the peace of mind an even balance sheet brings. Americans hold $850 billion in credit card debt, and according to the Consumer Federation of America, the average balance per card-holding household is $8,568.

Only two generations ago, America was a nation of by and large thrifty people living within their means, even saving money for unforeseen expenses. Today, according to the Federal Reserve Board, Americans carry $2.56 trillion in consumer debt, up 22 percent since 2000 alone.

When did we become so comfortable spending more than we earn. When did we forget how to say no, it's not wise, it's impractical, it's just stuff? When did we stop saving for the things we want and just buy them now, with no plan in place to pay them later.

There is no $700 billion bailout for the American consumer, uh, I mean citizen. The government isn't going to step in and forgive your debts and financial obligations. In fact, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, made it increasingly more difficult to discharge debt owed to credit card companies. Understandably, you spend money they want the money, I get that.

My point is that nobody is going stop the massive hemorrhaging so many Americans are now seeing as the consequence of the "live today" and "worry about tomorrow, tomorrow" mentality. Banks, and credit card companies and all of the various businesses that want your money(mine included) are not going to encourage you to spend responsibly. That my friends is a matter of personal responsibility, something we used to be a little famous for.

On a personal note, in light of our recent exorbitant, unforeseen medical expenses, today hubs and I sold a car. It was a third car, his "fun" car but as hubs said, there's nothing fun about keeping a car at the expense of our savings or our time. More expenses means more hours we both have to work, and we really like our free time.

Hubs got rid of a toy saved for and purchased with cash as a reward for hard work. I have looked over our household budget with a giant red pen for ways to cut unnecessary expenses. We are making sacrifices that aren't even really sacrifices. These are the things many of our grandparents and great-grandparents did as the rule, not the exception. Hubs and I are both good savers so forming a plan and sticking to it is something we can do. It's actually becoming fun, a challenge to get back to basics and a reminder to own our stuff rather than let our stuff own us.

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KaritaG said... October 9, 2008 at 12:11 PM  

Not to add to your fire, but are you keeping track of where the bailout money is going?

derfina said... October 9, 2008 at 12:23 PM  

You make a good point. As much as I want to have a less is more attitude, I am as guilty of tithing at the local malls as anyone. My husband is considering getting a shoe appraiser to come in if things get too tight!

formerly fun said... October 9, 2008 at 12:27 PM  

you're killing me, that is unbelievable.

me too, i have had my trips to Target for razors that turned into $200 shopping trips for stuff I could care less about 2 weeks later. It's a widespread disease, they don't call it consumption for nothing. I myself have to force myself to walk away, fromt he girls clothes, pillows, shoes,... I have to consistently ask the question, do I really need this? More than a vacation, more than a day off?

Rassles said... October 9, 2008 at 12:29 PM  

I have been getting into so many arguments lately about this very thing, you have no idea.

The fact of the matter is, luxuries are becoming necessities, and that's not just because they're so desirable, it's because companies are counting on us to be luxurious.

I blame it, one hundred percent, on credit cards.

So to keep the economy going, we need to start educating about the concept of consumerism. I'm not saying we should tell little kids to buy shit if they want it, but a lack of consumer education is such a large factor in this whole crisis, because people just don't understand how shit works, they don't understand saving, they don't understand that you can't just keep putting shit on your credit card because it exists.

Sorry. Rant. I get frustrated sometimes.

Anonymous said... October 9, 2008 at 1:06 PM  

I am so glad I was raised mostly by my depression era grandparents. I've never seen the inside of a mortgage or auto loan, and have only had one credit card my whole life. We own our home, car, truck, barn, land, horses, etc...I'm not being all 'new agey' when I say we are very satisfied with what we have. I don't think this makes me better, but someone who got to hear a different voice. I like that voice and hope I keep listening.

~Mountain Lover~ said... October 9, 2008 at 1:27 PM  

This is the very reason why I despise the current plutocracy of government in bed with corporations. Credit cards are now the opiate of the masses and we're busy keeping up with the Joneses and buying more and more crap. We're too distracted to notice that we're working more hours than ever, taking less vacation than ever, two-worker households have become a necessity rather than an option, and that a handful of people are making billions off of this whole scam, while the middle-class has become increasingly worse-off than ever.

I was kind of shocked to hear that the average credit card debt was THAT LOW.

There was an interesting program on PBS a while ago called Affluenza. If I wasn't stupid with linking today, I'd direct you there.

formerly fun said... October 9, 2008 at 2:15 PM  

i totally agree. i don't buy my kids shit when we go to the grocery store or target. put it on your christmas/birthday list I tell them. my 8 year old gets $8 every other week, his 'paycheck' for his share of household chores. A fourth of that $8 goes into his savings account for big purchases for later on like computer, car, space camp(he wants to go). We match him dollar for dollar on savings so if he gets a twenty from grandma, he's incentivized to at least put some of it away. The rest is his to spend. And there are no 'advances' on allowance. One of the few arguments I've had with hubs is when he let the boy buy something he didn't have enough $ for and said we'd front him the next few weeks allowance. I remember chastising hubs, great, let's teach him how to use credit at seven. Geez, this could be another post. Anyhow, I say start early when it comes teaching about $ and saving.

i was also in part raised by depression era grandparents and they taught me a lot about thrift. to me money was about choices so i liked to keep my options open and that's what saving was to me. good for you for staying away from the trappings of credit. it sucks sometimes though b/c if you decide you want it, it's hard to get, even if you are very fiscally resposible. i remember buying my first new car at 26, i had $4500 to put down and no credit and it wasn't easy getting a loan.

mountain lover-
I thought the avg was low to but for instance, my husband and I carry no debt besides our home, cars, school, etc paid off. So someone else is carrying our share on top of their own. It's difficult, I get the 'I wants' sometimes, I try to stay away from the mall b/c it just makes me think I need stuff that I don't. We had a yard sale recently and I was a little disgusted at myself for the things I was getting rid of that I'd hardly used, it wasn't that much but it all adds up and I thought of all the chachas I waxed to buy stuff that someone else was now buying for cents on the dollar.

A Free Man said... October 9, 2008 at 5:01 PM  

Fantastic, FF! You'd think that in a nation with such a strict Christian background, we would have learned something from the cautionary tale of Mammon. Maybe not.

The analogy that you make of materialism as religion is dead on and I've been sucked in to it in the past as well. It's really more on an addiction than a religion. An addiction to plastic crap that we just do not need. We're going to find ourselves buried in plastic trash and debt before too long.

It's not just the U.S., either. Same situation or worse in the UK and Aus.

Rassles said... October 9, 2008 at 6:31 PM  

There is something about you that just blows my mind.

You're one of those people. You know? The good ones.

Not that I didn't know it before or anything, but I just thought you should fucking know.

Bluestreak said... October 10, 2008 at 2:38 AM  

great post, FF, and reminds me i need to do the same.

mainly, i´m completely rethinking false-homeownership as something to aspire to when in fact you do not own the home, the bank does.

total recklessness. the wheel is coming back around though. I think it will take a rude awakening for people to realize they can´t just spend, spend, spend. Especially when the banks and credit card companies begin to say, "NOPE".

Sandi said... October 10, 2008 at 5:48 AM  

I keep hearing a radio commercial about getting a home equity loan to take your family on vacation!


Put up your house for a vacatin?

That type of advertising should be illegal.

Gypsy said... October 10, 2008 at 9:02 AM  

I am so ashamed of myself lately regarding finances. We don't live outside our means, necessarily, because we don't use credit cards. But I'm woefully ignorant about budgeting and saving. Sigh.

And I so very easily get swept up into the "keep up" mentality. It sucks.

Captain Steve said... October 11, 2008 at 5:28 PM  

That is a fabulous idea. I'm one of the thrifty people, but I still find myself heading to Walmart or Target and ending up with a new pair of shoes that isn't necessary, a new hoodie, or 8 books from the library sale that I could just as easily have checked out. I don't use my credit card because I've seen what that can do to people, but I still know it's there.

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