Very few admit to being materialistic; if they do it’s said that they are only on occasion. The term carries with it visions of wealthy men and women lounging by a pool sipping wine after a long day of shopping at Gucci, Rolex and browsing the Aston Martin showroom. By such definition, most Americans wouldn’t see themselves as resembling such extravagance. But our conventional definition of the word has us living in a way that is far more detrimental psychologically, and financially.
What’s worse than being financially wealthy and frivolously throwing money around? Not being financially wealthy and frivolously throwing money around. The former exists when you have a sizable amount of wealth and can afford to spend it liberally; the latter has you living outside of your means and digging yourself deeper into debt.
Thanks to globalization and the advent of cheap consumer goods, Americans are able to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle even with a very modest income. This is made possible by outsourcing the production of goods and forcing factories into wage wars by driving labor costs down to compete for business. But you and I never see this – we’re far too busy buying our new $3.00 t-shirt from H&M to bother with where it came from or how it was made. With such a system in place, the appearance of wealth and status is well within reach of just about anyone.
Since we are able to acquire cheaper versions of a product vs their expensive counterpart – we also acquire the false feeling of having gotten something special; because the expensive version is desirable and rare, hence why it expensive which makes it even more desirable. The correlation between status and well being is triggered the moment we get that new car, watch, purse, wine, tv, cell phone or any other product that is a cheaper version of its luxury equivalent.
But here’s the interesting part, I just mentioned items that are synonymous with being materialistic: cars, purses, watches, cell phones – items that are used to convey status. But what if you don’t care about these things? Maybe you tell yourself “I’m not materialistic, I’d take records, books, and vintage clothes over luxury goods any day.” Thing is that materialism isn’t limited to a set criteria – it exists in all forms. A hoarder is materialistic, even though they often possess garbage, they are still placing an over inflated value on things.
The goal isn’t to replace one obsession with another, but to change the way we think about our wants – taking the time to better understand and refine them. The kid that buys a bunch of records to impress his friends with their collection is – at their core – no different from the billionaire with a collection of sports cars – both are trying to convey a similar message: “Look at me; look at how interested I am in *insert noun here*.”
We tend to not believe that someone is truly serious about something until they show it through their actions and purchases. Take for example someone who tries to appear environmentally conscious: drives a Prius with a “Coexist” bumper sticker on the back, shops for groceries at their local Whole Foods, recycles every week, votes Democrat, and only buys clothing made from organic cotton. If you saw this person you’d be safe in assuming that they cared about the environment. But do they?
I believe that if you are passionate about something you don’t need to follow the conventional blueprint others have laid out for you. You can be an audiophile without having a house full of records – do you even listen all the records you currently have? You can love fast cars while only having just one that you cherish and put blood, sweat, and tears into restoring; that’s more valuable than any “impressive” auto collection. And believe it or not you can be an environmental activist while driving an old civic, wearing Adidas you bought from Goodwill and shopping at whatever grocery store is closest to you.
You don’t have to be a caricature – you just have to be genuine. The only attributes you need to project out into the world are the ones that make sense to you, and you alone.