Do We Need Everything We Want?

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Emily Stewart, a business and economy writer for Vox, has authored a great article in which she asserts that “you don’t need everything you want”. This advice may conflict the tenets of capitalism, which advocate for the indulgence of an extravagant lifestyle that is only affordable by the privileged 1% of the American economic class.

Part of the issue is that we seem to have blurred the distinction between a want and a need. Child care and a place to live and a tank of gas to get to work are necessities. The latest iPhone, not so much. On this, some people — and I include myself here — have lost the plot. If you took a European vacation this year, what a delight. Also, it was a privilege, not a right. It’s a choice, too, and one that might make your financial goals later down the line harder to attain.

The American economy remains one of abundance. Said abundance isn’t equally distributed, of course, and lots of people really are struggling. But as angry as consumers say they are about the economy, they’re not, on aggregate, changing their spending habits. For many people in the country, life is pretty good. And yet, they often don’t feel that way. No matter how much we’ve attained, we always want more.

– Emily Stewart on Vox

Emily says she comes from a working-class background but can currently afford to live in big cities where the cost of living is much higher. Then she questions why so many of us feel that whatever we have is not enough? She writes:

A lot of it isn’t our fault, really. We live in a consumer economy that tells us that more is always better. We’re constantly being bombarded by more and more choices, which leads us to chase the latest version of the “best” of everything — an enthralling but impossible quest.

There is nowhere you can look in society that isn’t screaming at us to spend, spend, spend — and, frankly, we view it as un-American to live any other way. It causes us to conflate nonessentials with essentials; we don’t just want the thing, we feel like we have to have it.

Barry Schwartz, Dorwin P. Cartwright professor emeritus in social theory and social action at Swarthmore College, and the author of multiple books on psychology and the economy, told her “When there are lots of options, one consequence is that your expectations go up. When [businesses] start making all this variety, it’s just inevitable that your expectation is something up there is the one that’s going to be perfect. If that’s your standard, then everything you ever choose is going to end up disappointing.”

David Mick, a professor of commerce at the University of Virginia who focuses on a mix of consumer behavior, marketing, and mindfulness, told Vox, “We just have a lot of people that really don’t know how to budget, and this is because of the credit card society. People have ready access to buy a lot of things quickly without a lot of thought.”

Kelly Goldsmith, a marketing professor at Vanderbilt University who studies consumer psychology and behavioral science, told Emily “There is always a trade-off, because money is a zero-sum game. If you’re spending it on X, you’re not spending it on Y. Unless you’re increasing the pie, which isn’t guaranteed. It’s hard to deprive yourself ever, and it’s especially hard to deprive yourself when it seems like the economy has turned in a way that is not favorable to your current situation for reasons that have nothing to do with you.”