COMMENTARY: Americans need to examine spending habits

Aaron Hughey

Why do we buy things when we are painfully aware that we can’t afford them? And why does the economic ‘big picture’ seem to have such a negligible influence on our spending habits?

These are important questions that are particularly relevant to college students, whose spending habits can often be characterized as less than ideal.

If you want to get a handle on why you spend money you don’t have, I’d like to recommend you pick up a copy of “Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying no Matter What” by Lee Eisenberg.

I ran across this book in the bargain section of Barnes & Noble a couple of weeks ago. Even though I really didn’t need it, it was so inexpensive I couldn’t pass it up – which actually gets to the essence of what Eisenberg is talking about.

The author argues that shopping is much more fundamental to who we are as a culture than is often recognized. Rather than being motivated by necessity, he notes that many Americans buy for status, a fondness for the unique, and for the social and emotional benefits that we seem to derive through the simple act of purchasing things.

According to Eisenberg, most consumers can be categorized as classic buyers or romantic buyers. Classic buyers tend to be very price conscious and practical; they have a definite preference for ‘tried and true’ products. Romantic buyers, on the other hand, love to have more choices, like extra features, and have an affinity for products that are ‘new and different.’

A point Eisenberg makes repeatedly is that impulsive buying is continuing to increase in American society – the recent economic downturn notwithstanding. A contributing factor to this trend has been the explosive proliferation credit cards have experienced since their introduction in 1949.

Eisenberg also documents how excessive shopping can be considered an unhealthy addiction. But unlike other self-destructive behaviors, uninhibited spending tends to be sanctioned and even actively promoted by many societal institutions.

In a discussion on the reasons people spend money on nonessentials, he uses model railroading enthusiasts to illustrate an important point. Employing Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, he explains how spending money on this kind of pastime provides a connection to the real world, fulfills the need for love and belonging, self-esteem, and, ultimately, self-actualization.

“Shoptimism” also contains several fascinating – and potentially controversial – marketing research findings. For instance, the author cites studies showing how the Jewish community patronizes nightclubs more than Protestants or Catholics, how African Americans buy a lower percentage of ground and whole-bean coffee than non-African Americans, and how women who work in offices are more likely to wish they had ‘different faces’ than women who live on farms.

On the surface, these kinds of examples may appear to be irrelevant, but Eisenberg shows how advertisers routinely use this information to effectively tap into specific markets – and entice you to buy things you may or may not really need.

So if you are not too busy shopping, I highly recommend reading “Shoptimism.” If nothing else, it will give you a better understanding of how we are all being constantly manipulated by marketers and advertisers in ways that seldom cross our minds.

Aaron Hughey

Professor, Counseling and Student Affairs

This commentary doesn’t necessarily represent the views of the Herald or the university.