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The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need

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Book Overview

The Overspent American explores why so many of us feel materially dissatisfied, why we work staggeringly long hours and yet walk around with ever-present mental "wish lists" of things to buy or get,... This description may be from another edition of this product.

Customer Reviews

6 ratings

Inspires to spend less and live a more meaningful life

Though the book has dated examples it still hold some extremely valuable truths that every American should consider in what we spend our money on and why. If you are dissatisfied with all the stuff you’ve accumulated then this is a must read.

Examining our Motivations

This book is an exploration into our motivations for acquiring mountains of stuff. The book also includes brief descriptions of some groups of people who have managed to get off the acquisitions bandwagon. Schor takes us through some of the classic literature on class and consumption patterns, noting that we make use of lifestyles as a form of social communication. We show our status or place in the hierarchy of society by the goods we own and display. Others may judge us according to our display of goods, or they may choose to challenge our status by some acquisitive one-ups-manship. As an example of such social communication, Schor cites some research she did on cosmetic brands. Of all the types of cosmetics, lipstick is the one most likely to be applied in public. Schor found that women will often choose an expensive brand of lipstick to carry in their purses, especially if they are going to apply it in public where others will see and recognize the tube. But in blind tests, it was found that lipsticks are all more or less equivalent in quality, so women pay extra just for the visible tube. In contrast, facial cleansers are almost always used in private, and women make their choices between facial cleansers based on what works best, not brand name. This brand consciousness pervades all of our purchasing behavior, whether we are aware of it or not. Think of your living room- -are there furniture brands or types of furniture some people display in their living rooms, but you would not even consider putting in yours because of what it would say about your taste? What statement does your wrist watch say about you? Does it show you pay attention to fashion, or that you are strictly practical, or that you're proud of being a cheapskate, as anyone can tell from your torn Velcro band that's held together with duct tape? Whichever way you answer, realize that you are not unique. There are others just like you, who share many of your preferences and have similar possessions in similar states of newness or disrepair. Do you avoid mass produced or branded items in favor of handmade? Funny enough, that's what hot with the upper-middle class right now- -you're not bucking the trend- -you are the trend! Marketers make their business on studying patterns of acquisition. Zip codes are often great indicators of similar consumer groups by virtue of the fact that people who share the same zip code often live in houses that fall within a certain price range- -they often have similar incomes, and similar experiences. Marketers use this information to design effective campaigns to get people to buy products and services. In the past half century, they've gotten people to buy more stuff than ever before, and the rate of acquisition seems to be rising rapidly. One reason for the rapid rise in hyper-consumption, Schor argues, is that people are no longer trying to keep up with their neighbors, since neighborhoods are less cohesive and people d

Tops! Deals With the Heart of Overspending & Materialism

...Harvard professor Juliet Schor has written a timely and convincing work. Schor's argument is that people are actually happier when they are not obsessed with craving material luxuries.Schor's perspective is balanced, realistic, and moderate. Unlike books that offer advice on money management, Schor cuts to the quick and goes to the heart of the problem: we buy not because we need but because we attempt to find identity, status, or security through our purchases.The volume is divided into seven chapters. The first is titled, "Introduction," but is not really merely an introduction. It is a chapter in the fullest sense and might better be titled, "overview." Let me share one of numerous quotables from this section: "American consumers are often not conscious of being motivated by social status and are far more likely to attribute such motives to others than to themselves. We live with high levels of psychological denial about the connection between our buying habits and the social statements they make."The second chapter, "Communicating With Commodities" discusses how people crave the standard of living portrayed by television sitcoms. The American majority is frustrated (and sometimes desperate to attain such a standard) because they compare themselves to these fictious upper middle classed lifestyles. Shcor illustrates where this can lead by referring to the "sneaker murders" where people were actually killed for their shoes (of the "proper" brand, of course).The third chapter, "The Visible Lifestyle" emphasizes the sub-conscious quest for status. In her typically well-balanced perspective, she distinguishes between, "the desire [for] social status [and]...trying to avoid social humiliation." This is a GREAT chapter.The fourth chapter, "When Spending Becomes You" is also superb. She quotes one statistic that 61 per cent of the population ALWAYS has something in mind they look forward to buying. She also discusses how religion used to curtail obsessive materialism and spending, but no longer does. As a professional clergymen, I'll second that. She is right.The last two chapters, "The Downshifter Next Door" and "Learning Diderot's Lesson" offer practical ways to attack this problem. We must change our attitudes and view frugality as a virtue, not a vice. She offers several case studies of "downshifters," those who have decided that, once past a modest financial threshold, family, time, and the deeper things of life are worthy of financial sacrifice.This volume exposes how shallow, foolish, and silly our society has become in our uncontrollable culture of reckless spending. It is a gem of a book, worth your time for sure!

Credit card debt-free in 2003....

As a young professional who is lucky enough to make more than most people my age, I was perpetually frustrated by my inability to save. When I whine about the vicious work-and-spend way I was living my life, most of my friends would tell me to just shut the hell up because they simply don't understand how someone with my income could have a difficult time "just keeping up." And then I read "the Overspent American." Now everything is starting to come together. I'm no different than most people in my situation. Apparently, the more you make, the more you spend (because those with money are generally more status-oriented, and "status" requires money...lots and lots of money). Couple this with one's general dissatisfaction in the workplace, and spending goes even higher because people with means buy more things to distract themselves from the general unhappiness that is their life. 'Lest you think this is a "bleeding heart" book that doesn't put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the irresponsible consumer, let me assure you that this book makes no excuses for our society's poor consumer choices. Like any well-documented social science project, this book merely explains the new consumerism, based on Schor's studies and interviews with downshifters and overspent consumers. It passes no judgment, but it does not give irresponsible consumers an easy scapegoat for their problems either.On the contrary, I felt like this book was a wake-up call. First, it made me feel better simply to know I wasn't the lone idiot who couldn't get my finances together. But second, and more importantly, this book gave me hope. It talks about downshifters and other individuals who have successfully managed to get their consumerism under control. I am now more determined than ever to crawl out of the credit card existence I've been living somewhat uncomfortably in for the past 8 years. Like my one-line summary of the book suggests, I'm now seriously planning (rather than just hopelessly wishing) to be credit card debt-free in 2003!For anyone who finds themselves living paycheck to paycheck, or struggling just to get by (despite a decent income), this book will shed light on some of the reasons why, and inspire you to make the necessary changes to ensure your long-term financial prosperity and conquer your short-term consumerist impulses. A quick, but powerful, read. Highly, highly recommended.


The Overspent American is an amazing book (probably one of the best non-fiction works I've read). Juliet Schor is very insightful and makes many good points regarding why we consume as much as we do and why we shouldn't. She uses statistics, studies, and case studies to address her points.The main weakness of this book is that it is slightly repetitive with the same points brought up again and again (such as Americans overworking (though considering Schor's book The Overworked American was such a huge success, I guess that's not really a surprise)). Juliet Schor also needs to work a little on her statistics skills, especially with regards to using qualitative variables (but this is a very minor problem) and causal relationships (just because A and B have a statistically significant relationship doesn't mean A causes B).While reading this book I gained insight into why my coworkers and friends act the way they do (such as only buying top of the line lipstick and only putting it on in front of others). Unlike many books that just say what's wrong with society, she actually has a whole chapter on suggestions on how the individual, community, and government can solve these overspending problems. I think her suggestions are excellent and include many ideas such as techniques for evaluating spending, creating equipment libraries, and taxation.I highly recommend this book to EVERYONE. This book is compelling enough that if enough people read it, many things would change is our society (gift giving, over consumption, over working, etc).

What is consumption for?

Juliet Schor's "The Overspent American", a sequel to her earlier work, "The Overworked American", assails our state religion of consumerism. While it is easy to laugh off the "downshifters" she praises, or make snide remarks about her well-paid position at Harvard or her residence in Newton, Massachussets, it is difficult to argue with Ms. Schor's basic thesis that much of our consumption is a joyless attempt to establish our social status in the eyes of others. Ms. Schor is not the first commentator to decry "keeping up with the Joneses". This work is original in that she understands that the "Joneses" are no longer our next door neighbors, but a caricature of the upper-middle class presented in mass culture. The 90s version of keeping up is more pernicious than ever because the upper middle class standard is used as a reference by people who must spend everything they earn, and sometimes more, to even approach that way of life. Her analysis of liptick purchase patterns illustrates her critique of mindless consumption; it is impossible to differentiate lipstick in terms of quality, yet women purchase large quantities of designer lipstick just to impress people by unveiling a case with a Chanel logo. Furthermore, Ms. Schor notes that more educated women are more likely to make "status" purchase, even when adjustments are made for income.In fact, Ms. Schor is at her best when puncturing the pretentions of the educated, professional classes. She is funny and right about Ikea; it was the darling of yuppies when it represented a quirky, Scandinavian do-it-yourself sensibility. As Ikea became "McCouch", the affluent customers disappeared. If we are to call Ms.Schor a radical, it is for her understanding of the complex operations of class identity in the consumer culture.Maybe her proposals for government intervention to put the brakes on the mindless cycle of work-and-spend are farfetched. Ultimately she does offer common sense advice that anyone can understand. Spend on what you genuinely enjo and forget about the futile, and pathetic, pursuit of impressing the rest of the world.
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