“The mind of a the thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.” -Oscar Wilde
According to this article in the Wall Street Journal, a study by the Commerce Department found that American consumers spend an average of $1.2 trillion dollars on stuff we don’t need. Spending on non-essential items now accounts for 11.2% of all consumer spending, compared to only 4% in in 1959. The study defines non-essential items as “pleasure boats, jewelry, booze, gambling and candy.”
I, of course, disagree, that booze (and candy) are non-essential items. And jewelry. And I’d like a boat. But aside from that…
While it’s clear that the definition of “non-essential” is up for debate, it’s also clear Americans spend a lot of money on crap we don’t need. Just walk through a Wal-Mart during any holiday season. Lots of plastic, made in China, cheap shit. The economic model of a Dollar Store is based on selling crap we don’t need. And it isn’t just kitsch that we buy. How many people have clothes in their closet they have never worn? How much stuff do people buy off of infomercials? Kitchen gadgets you’ve used once? Exercise machines which have never experienced a drop of sweat?
I have this argument whenever I travel. I want to get people souvenirs, I swear, but I’m so disgusted by the chintzy crap in souvenir stores, I almost never do. While the funny tee shirt or the refrigerator magnet might convey my sentiment (that I’m thinking of you while traveling) in a year or two, it’s going to end up at the Goodwill, ultimately. My trip will be forgotten; my sentiment will be forgotten.
People, however, apparently don’t like if if you send them a five euro note that says “Thinking of you while in Austria!” Who knew?
It’s not the lifespan of the product that bothers me, per se. I think food (and, of course, booze) make fabulous gifts, and those last about 8.2 seconds. It’s the existing over-consumption that bothers me. We all have plenty of tee shirts. My quality of life won’t be improved by yet another souvenir tee or another magnet or shot glass or piece of plastic formed in China.
That’s not to say that I haven’t received “non-essentials” as gifts that I’ve enjoyed immensely; a gorgeous etched plate from Turkey, a leather carving from Mongolia, a brightly colored wooden painting from Haiti. But for every one of those items, I’ve received five things over the years that have ended up at Goodwill.
I don’t have clothes with tags them. I don’t have exercise equipment. I don’t have refrigerator magnets. Maybe it’s because I’m cheap. Maybe I just like having a dust-free living. Maybe I was attacked by bric-a-brac in a former life.
Though, according to economist Dan Ariely, there is an upside to buying stuff. He argues that wanting crap you don’t need (like a pleasure boat) incentivizes people to go out and earn money, thus making them more productive citizens and creating more wealth.