Post may contain affiliate links more information is provided in this link.
The middle class has been a thing ever since hierarchies were invented. However, the definition of the middle class has changed significantly. There will always be people in the middle of hierarchies, but what people should own in order for themselves be considered “middle class” has changed. What people believe they, as the middle class, should own is middle class consumerism.
How has middle class consumerism changed? People have said middle class consumerism is trying to follow the American dream. What is defined as the American dream? I have heard it was a house with a white picket fence, a car, and 2.2 kids, something like that. However, the American dream was first coined by James Truslow Adam in The Epic of America.
“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
― James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America
He was talking about fair opportunities, and the ability to progress based off ability or achievement. It does not necessarily mention having a house, or a car, or anything for that matter. Middle class consumerism has nothing to do with the real meaning of the American dream. So how did middle class consumerism sneak into the American dream? Let’s first look at what people spend their hard earned money on.
Why Do People Seem To Work More Than Ever?
Americans are now more overworked than ever before. Yet experts claim that people were expecting less time working a few decades ago. Why is this? Simple Dr. John Nye shows that people have to work fewer hours to afford goods and services compared to the 19th and even early 20th century. In fact, just to illustrate this point, a book I read How We Got To Now by Steven Johnson explains how an hour of artificial light back in the 19th century would require 3 hours of work. Now an hour of artificial light hardly requires any work at all to pay for it.
But if this is true, why are people still working more hours? Standards of living have been increasing over recent decades so it is not because of a loss of income. It is because people are spending more. USA Today says that the average American spends $18,000 on non-essentials, one of the requirements of middle class consumerism.
People may say that these are “essentials” like buying lunch at a restaurant or food truck. My experience from spending 80 cents to a dollar for a Greek yogurt says that the restaurant lunches are not necessary. Also people say that they need subscriptions to be entertained and they ask: “What? Am I supposed to stare at a wall?” A few decades ago, you better believe that’s what people did after work, that or read. And have you seen TV a few decades ago? People were enthralled by multiple camera angles in a modest setting. Now if a TV show did only that we would declare the show to be boring or cliched.
Simply put, our standards of living have increased immensely. Has it increased to the amount of hours worked and wage increases? That is debatable. Would it be easier to grow wealth without us having to buy mandated luxuries like insurance? That is also debatable. I may bring both up in future posts, but regardless, our standard of living has increased.
What Happens When You Get A Raise?
With such a high standard of living it would be expected that when most Americans receive a raise, they would not be able to find anything to spend money on and secure their finances. Nope, people will find something else to spend it on. People feel…competition to show off their money with expensive brands. If they did not, expensive brands would not spend millions for branding each year (it would be pointless otherwise). The competition to show off money among the middle and lower class is actually rather new. At first, this was only done in the upper class. Now every American seems to care more about glamour and status that money seems to bring instead of true wealth.
Life At Home In The Twenty-First Century
This was a book published by Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs. They interviewed 32 families of various backgrounds who are middle class and even went through every corner in their houses and documented every object. There are many things middle class Americans have that is not normal in any other first world country.
Americans have more consumer goods per person. In fact, there is clutter in almost every corner of the American home. This is a symptom of the disease which is middle class consumerism. While people may say shopping and getting new things makes them feel better, the clutter actually has a negative medical effect on these people. It in no way helps them.
I notice the desire to form clutter. When my wife and I rented our first small 1 bedroom apartment my mother commented on how little we needed (even thought I was a minimalist). She said she would not get us any gifts to limit potential clutter. That was wise as we did not want clutter. However, even my mother, one of my main teachers in frugality, has a slight desire to fill their residence (and others) with stuff.
To show how out of control middle class consumerism has gone, the authors explained how America has 3.1% of the world’s children and about 40% of the world’s toys. Parents actually have sentiment and nostalgia for these toys. I promise you the 36.9% gap with toys is mostly to please the parents. There are children that would play more with the cardboard box than the toy. I was one of them, at least according to my mother.
The second thing you will find in America you will never find anywhere else is an additional fridge and/or freezer. Americans are almost the only culture with this. Is there fresh food in these containers? Nooooo. They are convenient food, chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks, frozen pizzas, etc. Americans shop far less frequently than other cultures. They instead buy in bulk to fit their busy work schedules. In fact, much of the bulk is never used.
Why does this happen? Because people apparently have a hard time eating the same thing for more than two days. My wife has this issue, and everyone at my university thinks I am crazy that I can cook meals in bulk from scratch and eat them for at least three days straight.
There is another reason for this. Parents buy these pre-made foods “because they do not have time to cook actual meals.” There are 4 levels to why this does not work:
- Pre-made foods tend to be less healthful.
- It does not take that much more time to make a meal from scratch, or partially from scratch.
- Pre-made foods tend to cost more than cooking from scratch.
- Parents work harder and spend less time cooking so they can afford these pre-made foods (it is like when Fry from Futurama said “[my night job is] exhausting, but I need the extra money to buy coffee to stay awake for my night job”).
Most activity in America takes place in one space. The kitchen. It is used for everything from planning to eating. So if the kitchen is a versatile place everyone can eat in what is the point of a separate dining room? Most will say that it is for extra formal space when people come to visit, but those events are very rare. We have considerably extra space in the house now. I have heard people say that it only increased “20%” since previous generations. These people have only looked back a few years. Let’s look at the 1950s and then today. A new house right now has almost 2,500 square feet (has decreased in recent years). In the 50s the average house size was almost 1,000 square feet.
Are families becoming bigger and we need more space for each person? Nope. In fact families are becoming smaller. So people do not need extra space for their “extra children.”
Furthermore, most resources are spent for the master bedrooms and bathrooms. They are gorgeous rooms that seem out of place from the rest of the house, almost spa-like. Remodeling of both of these rooms easily extend into the $10,000s. In LA the average creation of a master bedroom and bathroom was around $80,000 in 2004. Why is this? These rooms are hardly used. They are used as retreats for the parents. Parents are tired from working so hard that their solace is to spend so much of the money from their hard work so they can wake up in a glorious space just so they can return to their overly tiring work to pay for that glorious space. Check this link out. I know, I cited Fry’s quote before, but it is too fitting and the logic is hilariously painful but clearly common.
The book, nor the documentary, mention self-storage. But then again the title is Life At Home In The Twenty-First Century. I do not think they checked the self-storage units. However, I will bring them up. When the idea of independent storage was first brought up by The Berkins Moving and Storage Company, it received some criticisms and was turned down by multiple banks for a loan. It made no sense, why would Americans spend money on things they do not need and have to pay for space to store these things they do not need? As foolish as that concept sounds, it was not nearly as foolish as skipping out on investing in self-storage during the time. Self-storage right now is a multi-billion dollar industry since around 30 million Americans spend $1,000 every year to store their unused things, do the math.
I find this preposterous, but at the same time understandable. While I personally do not buy much at all, my other families and friends move sometimes and they try to get rid of certain things they kept for years. They keep asking if we will need this stuff, or at least eventually. If we do not take it, they keep these things, sometimes saying they’ll have it in case we change our minds. It appears I live in a culture where people see something, buy it for others and then pass it on even if it brings them little to no comfort.
What Can You Do?
Live Below Your Means
I am still young in my career at an age of 26 and I do plan on climbing up the social ladder in the future including buying a house. My wife and I currently live well below our means and have paid off most of our debts while still investing in assets and saving for the future. I am confident that we will both carry on with these habits. If you have these habits, you should be able to live well below your means when you are more established. For those of you who are not, I highly recommend shopping with only cash for a while to determine what you may be spending too much on, or what you should actually spend money on.
For toys, try to get hand me downs or check a yard/garage sale. That or get your kid a cardboard box, no seriously apparently I was playing with a cardboard box for months when I was two years old. She brought it up recently, but I do not remember that. Was I drunk? (Extreme sarcasm notice).
Talk To Family And Friends About Gifts
I do not know why, but apparently it is taboo to talk to people about what they want, or what you would like as gifts. For instance, my brother is moving to South Carolina in the near future and I asked him if he would like anything at his new place. He asked for the single serve coffee pot similar to the one I have from Hamilton Beach. I thought this was a great gift. Otherwise, I probably would have bought him something he would not need, or worse, have more than one of and need to take up precious space.
I was always simple with gifts. In fact my in-laws and my parents provided us with mugs as I find them very practical since they double as cups and bowels. What can I say, I love coffee and soup. However, that got a little out of hand as one of my cabinet looks like the clutter found in common middle class American homes as shown in the picture below. Yes, there is more than one row (three rows), and no, these are not all of the mugs I own. However, some do break from time to time so they will find use (note the first ACS mug is not present).
I talked with my in-laws and family saying we did not need any additional dinnerware. They were not offended in any way (unlike how most people think people will react). My mother-in-law asked if she could make us gifts instead that would be for decoration and memorabilia, and I said yes. She hardly has to pay more than one dollar or two to make amazing gifts. Don’t believe me? Ask Beelzebug, a gift figurine my mother-in-law made for me as a gift.
It’s a funny story. We were playing Monopoly and I am very competitive when I play some would even say I am evil. My wife said I was demonic and I laughed an evil (and sarcastic) laugh. I said: “yes, I am Beelzebug (mispronounced the name) demon overlord of Monopoly, ruler of Park Place and Boardwalk.” Everyone was laughing until my father-in-law asked who Beelzebug was? Then they laughed even more, and I joined in, but tried to explain myself shortly after. Whatever, I can mispronounce things from time to time. But that story now lives on forever through that figurine my mother-in-law made to capture the Beelzebug moment. And this gift is one that I sincerely treasure and will probably tell this story to my kids.
Have Home Cooked Meals And Eat Together Often
I personally love cooking. I thank my parents for that. Guess which one taught me how to cook the most. My father. Men, it is not unmanly to cook, in fact if anything your significant other will love you more for it. Trust me charm and good looks are not enough now-a-days.
I support cooking from scratch as much as possible. You will cook based more on ingredients, which will save you money on the grocery bill. Also, you will create amazing dishes. My two signature dishes are hunt and harvest winter rolls and tart cherry barbacoa curry ramen. Comment below with some of your own creative recipes. Furthermore, having the family together to eat is beneficial to individuals.
Settle On A Smaller Residence
As hard as it is to believe, The Washington Post claims most people are trying to downsize their houses, at least for entry-level and single people. You should be thinking of having a smaller house, much like everyone else is. If you want to start a family, make sure to talk to determine how many children you want. Try your best to have only one extra bedroom than children you have, or space out children so you have time to sell your starter home to buy a new one. Either way, you do not need a 4+ bedroom house for 2 children.
The first thing I recommend to avoid taking up too much space is to get a smaller residence. You will feel less inclined to fill up a house with too much stuff. Try to dedicate every room to something. If you want to dedicate a room as a gym or an office go ahead. But note, if a single shirt is hanging on the treadmill/desk, the room is no longer a gym/office, it is storage space.
I have talked with many Europeans and they noticed that we as Americans buy too much. I have heard Europeans touring our country say that it is a wonder that we apparently have no idea why we are in debt (spoilers it is mostly because of middle class consumerism). Should I have corrected them? Frankly, I don’t care what the strangers think about me. That may be one of the main reasons why I do not buy into middle class consumerism, have a sizable retirement account, and helped pay off over $60,000 in student debts.
It’s All About Choices
Instead, you must make good choices over bad choices. For instance, an American author Neal Gabler admitted that he made bad decisions like buying a house in the Hamptoms, and sending his children to private school. Ultimately, he takes responsibility for his own financial issues. It also reminds me of one of the opening quotes made by Jason Bateman’s character, Mary Byrde, in the Netflix show The Ozarks. “Money is not peace of mind. Money is not happiness. [It] is, at its essence, that measure of a man’s choices.” He then mentions how these choices like going to work over a child’s soccer game and many things like that add up to your financial security.
While I do believe financial security, and many other things, can be strongly determined by past choices, those who say only choices matter forget one crucial thing. People can be stronger than merely their past decisions and control their future choices. Anyone can overcome their past choices with their future choices. But this is a double-edged sword, you can overcome your adversity through future choices, but you can also lose your wealth through different choices. The American dream is alive because although there will always be outside factors in your financial future, you, yourself will always be the ultimate factor. Even decisions as small as buying coffee can affect your financial future. You can listen to middle class consumerism and continually (and pathetically) try to keep up with the Joneses, or you can use your money to forge your wealth.