Cash & Comparison


Germans are renowned for their quality brewing. How is it that this entire country has good beer? Germans take such pride in their workmanship that an inferior beer would not survive. Hundreds of years ago, that was quite literal: if you brewed an inferior beer in Germany, you would be put to death. It’s unique to think about how events in history can contribute to the cultures that we know, often in unexpected ways.  

Recently, I have been thinking about how our environment can impact our habits and perspective. I’ve been trying to look at my life through fresh eyes to see how my culture has affected me. If Germans are known for quality (beer, knives and automobiles), Chinese people are known for industry and North Americans are known for… consumerism.

I realized that, despite my best efforts, I am very consumeristic. In North America, we have a history of wealth, a market for advertising and lots of comparisons. These factors combine in subtle ways to create a culture of consumerism that most don’t even realize exists.

In North America, we are blessed to have a history of wealth. Granted, the first settlers to this area were pretty poor. However, they came with a strong work ethic and desire to improve their situation. Those factors, combined with accessible natural resources, quickly made many people wealthy. As people grew more wealthy, they created businesses and industry which in turn provided opportunities for others to build wealth. That is the benefit of capitalism: wealth spreads and circulates.

Capitalism also incentives entrepreneurship and encourages innovation. Skilled entrepreneurs and a nation with excessive wealth created a multitude of products for sale. Some were revolutionary and vital to life. Others were not. 

In the early 2000s, a new product was created. The Tickle-me-Elmo doll became the favourite toy for millions of people. Really? A talking Elmo doll was the best we had to offer? 

Our society’s wealth has created an opportunity for us to buy totally useless products, just because we have money. 

We have started to use the accumulation of stuff as a measurement of wealth and a sign of status.  This has become so ingrained in our culture that most don’t even realize it is there. 

I have a great car. It’s a little, red Chevy Cobalt. It’s compact, reliable, fuel-efficient and has been surprisingly good at getting out of snowbanks. I like my car and don’t need a new one. Yet, that doesn’t stop me from wanting a nice red Mazda 3. See, the Mazda 3 is also a small, fuel efficient car, but it’s much sleeker. 

Even though I have a perfectly good car, I want a nicer car. Consumerism makes us want to level up our possessions. With the huge selection of products, levelling up is easier than ever.

Have you ever gone shopping for hedge trimmers? The number of brands and varieties is overwhelming; almost as overwhelming as shopping for cereal in a typical supermarket. The multitude of features increases our comparison and ensures that there will always be a new model with some new feature being released. It also makes it hard to compare and we lose sight of what matters. 

“This hedge trimmer has self-sharpening blades, but is electric and needs a cord. That one is a powerful gas trimmer, but you’ll need to replace the blades every two years. And that other trimmer is crappy in every way, but it’s got a light. Unless you’re trimming at night (why would you trim at night?, I don’t really see it being useful. But it’s got a light! That ought to count for something, right?”

In the sea of products and features, we lose track of what we actually need. Advertisers are counting on this.

Marketing is a fascinating field. It is more than just creating ads and paying to have them broadcast. To be a successful marketer, you need to understand human psychology and your market. And boy, do we have some skilled marketers. Our lives have become so saturated with ads that most people don’t realize how it affects them. Even though we may not buy the specific product in the commercial, the repeated messaging conditions us to think that more stuff means a better life. 

Even if you try to resist the messaging, each ad wears down our willpower and self-discipline. For years, I have not had access to a TV. But I was in a hotel recently and flipped the TV on. I was amazed at the sheer number of channels and how many ads there were. As an outsider to marketing, I could see the effect of the ads. But I wasn’t immune. I almost wanted to go out and buy that special pet food they advertised. They said it’s made with natural, organic ingredients that will keep my dog’s coat shiny, fill him with energy and clean his teeth also. And it is such a great deal! 

One problem, I don’t have a pet. After just 30 minutes of being subjected to ads, I wanted to buy stuff, just because it had some great (or at least exaggerated) benefits. 

Most of our culture spends much more time watching TV than I do. The Soviets did a study and found out that if people are subjected to consistent messaging for 2 months, they will begin to lose part of their rational thought. We have been subjected to a lifetime of messaging that tells us to buy stuff. Apparently, the messaging has worked.

Over the summer, I worked in a remote part of the mountains. We had limited internet, no TV, and spotty cell service. It was a day’s worth of travel to get to the nearest city. I can count on one hand how many items I bought during my 4 months there: 5lb of carrots, 2 pizzas, 1 pint of ice cream (eaten in one sitting…), a book of postcards and a few key chains. But now I live in town. 

In the past week, I have spent more than I did during the last four months. And I keep wanting to buy more: get new shoes, buy crampons, buy a broom, find some eco-friendly bathroom cleaner, etc. Just having access to more stuff has made me want it. In a really clear example, I noticed how every other tenant had a mat in front of their door. “What a good idea,” I thought. “It will help keep rocks and mud from tracking inside.” So I went out and bought a mat. It’s only once I got home that I realized I was not motivated by cleanliness but was comparing my apartment to everyone else’s.

Comparison is built into our DNA (at least it feels that way). I don’t think we can wish that part of ourselves away. It’s like a habit. We can’t stop the trigger that begins a habit. But we can subtly change what that habit triggers. If we are wired to compare, how about comparing how generous we are or how far we can make a dollar stretch?

Over time, I have begun to change how I view possessions and how I compare my life to others. I love travelling and have experience in hospitality, so now I travel around filling seasonal roles. My constant moving has forced me to reduce what I own. Even if I unknowingly begin to accumulate stuff, I am reminded as soon as I need to pack up. I’ve got packing/moving down to a science. Everything I need for life can fit in my car. 

It only takes me about 10 minutes to take my possessions to a new place. But it’s still a large crate, two small crates, a backpack, my bedding and a case with my files/office stuff in it. Instead of being in awe of someone’s nice stuff, I now am in awe of how little they travel with. When I see a new co-worker with just a suitcase or two, I admire how they are able to do it. It makes me realize that living with even less is possible.

I don’t consider myself a minimalist. I am just a conscious consumer. But the idea of minimalism is very attractive. I heard once about a challenge in the minimalism world to only own 100 possessions. I even heard about an extreme version where people only have 10 or 12 items. I can’t comprehend that. At times I feel like my toilet case alone would exceed 100 items. Yet, I also know people who have much less than 100 items. And they do not go out of their way to become minimalists. 

So many people in other countries have not been blessed with the wealth we enjoy. They live a simple life by necessity. Why do our western examples of extreme minimalism have more possessions than even wealthy people in other countries?

This demonstrates how, regardless of our intentions, often if we have the funds, we will spend it on stuff: just like I was tempted to buy dog food even though I don’t have a dog. So, to reject consumerism, we could strategically stay at a medium income. John Wesley purposely lived a simple life and only allowed himself a small income to live on. If he made any more than that, he would give it away to others.  

It could be worthwhile to set up automatic savings accounts so that you have a false sense of how much money you have. If your checking account always looks low, you will not be inclined to buy stuff. Or find a good charity and donate generously to it. Capitalism is great to benefit those who have the initiative and the means to fulfill their dreams. If we share our wealth, we will help balance the scales and reduce our own consumption of the needless products we get caught up buying. 

I want to be intentional about my life, which is why I think about what is influencing it. Consumerism is impacted by our wealth, comparison and advertising. So the best way to resist needless shopping is to limit our wealth, switch how we compare our lives to others and reduce the access advertisers have to our lives. If we work hard enough and find similar people, maybe, we can change our culture.


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