Black Friday = America’s Running of the Bulls

On the day after Thanksgiving each year, Americans partake in a strange pastime where they line up for hours (or even days) in order to be one of the first to rush into a store and snap up all the supposed bargains on offer. I have a very hard time understanding the allure of this type of madness, but then I’m not much of a consumer. In America land, consumerism is a national sport and Black Friday is the equivalent of the Super Bowl. This is one aspect of the American culture that I will not miss at all.

The following video offers a glimpse of the frenzy. Someone likened the scene to what you would see in starving, third world nations when the food convoy arrives. I’d advise you to turn down the volume before you watch this clip. For some reason it’s pretty loud.

Changing the Culture of Consumerism

Throughout the Global Financial Crisis and the Great Recession we’ve all heard it: Governments and economists telling us to get out and shop to save the economy. I’ve even seen Facebook friends ponder on their status update, “Should I go shopping to save the economy?”

Our Culture of Consumerism

Consumerism is about more than just the proliferation of advertising and spending countless hours at the mall, it’s a culture. Culture can be defined as the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another. That means that our culture comes from all the social interactions that take place in our lives; discussions with family, friends and work colleagues, the TV shows we watch, the magazines we read, Facebook updates we are exposed to. All these social processes add up to become our reality. They define what feels natural to us, what clothes we wear, what foods we eat. We take all this as a given, but it’s really our culture which is shaping our reality.

Unfortunately, consumerism is now the guiding force in our culture. It is so pervasive that literally our well-being, our self-worth and our social status are all intricately tied to our consumption patterns. Obviously this is not a sustainable or viable system to base a culture on.

Why do we Consume so Much?

An interesting (but disturbing) statistic I came across recently, states that the average American lifestyle requires the extraction of 88kg (194lbs) of materials every day. Because we live in a culture that reinforces high consumption patterns, we consume far too many materials. How can we possibly need to use up more than our own body-weight in materials every day? It’s because we associate our well-being with how large our homes are, how big our TV screen is or the size of the car we drive. Consumerism is undermining the ecological systems that allows us to thrive as a species. If we don’t start shifting our culture away from consumerism, this current recession is going to be a stroll in the park compared to the world we’ll walk into.

Attics, basements and garages are loaded with the plunder of our shopping. I see people leave their cars on the street because their garages are so full that there is no room left for a vehicle. Some people even rent storage space to hold their extra stuff. Dumps are filling up with items that have never been used, just tossed out. More and more people are making a living off the perfectly good trash that’s thrown away every day. There is even a TV show called Hoarders which documents the lives of people at the extreme end of what has become a national preoccupation. Does all this stuff even make us happier? Research would suggest that the answer is No.

Consumption Does Not Make us Happier

One of the biggest side effects of the consumer lifestyle, is having less time to enjoy life. We are too busy working more hours, to make more money, to buy more stuff. We spend more hours commuting to work because we want larger houses, which are usually found out in the suburbs. We live in one community, but work in another so we spend so much time rushing around in our cars that we are exhausted by the time we get home. We are so tired that instead of going out to engage with our community and enjoy time with friends we end up watching on average 4 hours of TV per day. The TV shows us lavish lifestyles to which we should aspire and the advertisements tell us that without X or Y we are just not good enough. So, on the weekend we spend too much time at the shops trying to buy our happiness. We become obese and socially isolated. Consumption is undermining our future and our long-term ability to be happy.

How Can our Culture Shift From Consumerism to Sustainability?

So what can we do to combat the culture of consumerism? For a start, we have to work intentionally to shift cultural patterns away from valuing ‘things’ and instead valuing living sustainably or even better, living as a restorative force for the environment.

There are a number of institutions that can be used to move our culture towards sustainability: Business, Media, Education, Government, Traditions and Social Movements. Our culture currently says that the only mission of business is to maximise profits, but there are many great initiatives where small businesses, non-profits and co-ops are operating for the greater good of the community. Many schools are now adding school gardens to act as outdoor classrooms and to give children some much-needed exposure to nature. In recent years we’ve also started to see how the media can shift our culture. The movie Avatar is a good example because it reinforces the idea that we are dependent on and connected to a broader planetary system. In the movie Wall-E, Earth was governed by the Buy n Large corporation which caused mass consumerism and covered the planet in trash. The only life that was left were some obese humans living in space. We need more stories like these to reinforce that consumerism is not a good choice. The more exposure to this cultural story, the more it will start infecting people and begin to spread virally.

Social movements (Grassroots movements) are where I see we need to spend much of our effort to change our culture. Social Movements are often driven by a ‘tipping point’ which unites the majority of the populace in an effort to create change. A tipping point is a moment of ‘critical mass,’ when a trend, idea, or concept becomes a juggernaut. A small event can create a ripple effect, but in order to create one contagious movement, many smaller movements need to be created first.

What Can We Do to Create Social Change?

In the book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, the first key concept is that there are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them. With an epidemic, a tiny majority of the people do the work. If you are reading this blog, that probably means you! The movement has started, we just need to keep the momentum going until it reaches critical mass.

The second key point is that there is a simple way to package information that can make it irresistible/sticky and will compel a person into action. In order to be capable of sparking epidemics, ideas have to be memorable and move us into action. Personally I’ve found my approach to be different with different individuals. If you can find an issue that someone feels passionate about, it is much easier to tailor the message for that person. If someone is worried about their finances, I show them the fantastic outfits I’ve put together from the thrift store (op shop). If someone is concerned about toxins that their kids are exposed to, I explain how most cleaning products can be made with simple, non-toxic household ingredients like vinegar and baking soda. If someone is worried about health issues, I talk about my organic vegetable garden and the delicious foods I can buy in season at the farmers market. If someone has a new baby, I crochet cute baby hats as gifts and explain how enjoyable the process was to make it.

Finally, what really underlies successful epidemics, is a strong belief that change is possible; that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus. Tipping Points are an affirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. The world as we currently know it may seem like an immovable place, but it is not. With the slightest push; just in the right place; it can be tipped.

So in the process of changing our culture away from rampant consumerism, who will you be?

An Innovator? The adventurous one? A visionary? Will you be the translator? Can you take ideas and information and translate them into a language the rest of the population can understand?

An Early Adopter? A part of the slightly larger group that is infected by the innovators?

A member of the Majority? A part of the deliberate and the skeptical mass, who would never try anything until the most respected try it first?

Or, a Laggard? A member of the most traditional group that sees no urgent reason to change?

By becoming aware of these different groups it is easy to see where best to expend our efforts. Inspiring Early Adopters and the Early Majority will create more momentum than trying to convince a Laggard. It is also a more enjoyable process than constantly bashing your head against a brick wall.

So for those of you already on board; the visionaries who are changing the culture at a grass-roots level: what have been your experiences? What works? What doesn’t?

Photo by: What What

On getting out of Debt (I bought back my Freedom)

Two years ago I was in a lot of debt. I mean A LOT! We are talking seven figures here. I was ok with it because I considered it ‘good debt’ (i.e. it was all investment related). I earned a good wage, worked in a secure job, could comfortably make the repayments and my assets were consistently growing in value. I was also clueless about what debt really means.

I learned the hard way that debt is equivalent to slavery or at the very least forces you into indentured servitude. The minute that any of my lenders wanted the money back, I had to be prepared to give it. This happened to me a number of times in late 2008 as margin loans were called in because of falling stock prices. My lowest point was the day I received a margin call while on Christmas vacation in Mexico. Rushing around to arrange fund transfers internationally with limited communications was not the way I wanted to be spending the holidays. After a few months of sleepless nights I resolved to sell all my stocks, and I exchanged financial loss for some peace of mind. It was an expensive lesson, but at that point I had my eyes opened to the real world lurking beneath the veneer of modern life.

While shackled to my debt repayments I had no choice but to keep working, even if I hated my job. I had no freedom. I exchanged my time for money, and in the process I felt like my precious time was slipping away. I dearly wanted to work less and undertake some personal projects I was passionate about but instead I felt I needed to stick with a high paying job for the ‘security’ it afforded in making those loan repayments. In some ways I sold my soul for a salary.

Once I had my eyes opened to the true nature of money and debt, I made the decision to get out of debt entirely and do it as quickly as possible. I made some tough decisions about my assets and was fortunate enough to sell some Australian properties quickly for a reasonable price. I’m not sure how much bigger the Australian property bubble can inflate, so I felt quite comfortable with this decision. I’ve always been a saver, so tightening the budget wasn’t too difficult for me. Brendan and I stopped going out for coffee as often and we found lots of free things to do around town. In the process of simplifying our life, frugality was a natural outcome. Growing a vegetable garden, cooking at home and consuming less were not only good for our finances, they were also great steps to take towards a more sustainable and self-sufficient life. As my debt began reducing, the snowball effect started to kick in. With less debt came smaller interest payments and the whole process sped up.

As of today, I’m pleased to announce that I’m now debt free!

In less than 18 months, I’ve paid off seven figures worth of debt. I think I may have single-handedly killed the economy, but I’m OK with that.

It’s still hard for me to come to terms with it. This was a huge goal for me and proves once again that if you set your mind to something you can find ways to achieve that goal. I have bought back my freedom!

Now that I’m no longer shackled to loan repayments I can CHOOSE how I want to live. I can CHOOSE to leave my job and study basket weaving if I so desire. I can CHOOSE to work part-time. I can CHOOSE to move to the country and raise goats and chickens. I can CHOOSE to stay in my current job for as long as it remains fun. Whatever my dream, I am now FREE to pursue it.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those personal finance and frugality bloggers out there who inspired me in the initial part of this journey. I’d also like to thank my husband and best friend, Brendan for all his support. We make a good team.

So what next? Well I guess I want to encourage people to make this one of their goals. There are so many good reasons to break away from debt slavery and I intend to dedicate some future posts to this issue as well as some personal finance related topics based on issues we might encounter in an uncertain future .

Read more from me:

Voluntary Simplicity, Frugality and why all this economic stuff is relevant

photo by: Strevo

7.0 ways you can help Haiti

Image from: Winking Owl Studios

Today on Unstuffed’s blog, she links to The Urban Field Guide who lists 7.0 ways you can help Haiti.

We tried to use the texting method but for some reason it didn’t go through, so I went with option one instead…

If you click on Etsy and enter Haiti, many of the shops are donating all of their sales to varying relief funds. I won’t say what I bought because it’s a gift and I know the recipient reads this blog. To my mind, this was the win-win option: This purchase helps the haitian relief effort, helped the Etsy seller become known to me (I’m likely to be a repeat customer) and helps the person for whom the gift is intended. I don’t shop often, but this type of shopping even I can enjoy.

Cognitive Dissonance in the Age of Cheap


Photo by: henri ismail

“We rail against exploitation of low-paid workers in Asia as we drive twenty minutes to the Big Box to save three bucks on tube socks and a dollar on underpants. We fume over the mistreatment of animals by agribusiness but freak out at an uptick in food prices. We lecture our kids on social responsibility and then buy them toys assembled by destitute child workers on some far flung foreign shore. The Age of Cheap has raised cognitive dissonance to a societal norm.” ~ Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

Cognitive Dissonance: A condition of conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistency between one’s beliefs and one’s actions.

I *heart* the library


Photo by: sendung

One of our favourite outings is to spend a couple of hours at the local library and that’s where Brendan and I spent yesterday afternoon. It’s simple, educational and frugal, so we try to go at least a couple of times a month. I’ll check out a couple of books and then we’ll grab a comfortable armchair and while away the day reading as many magazines as we like. There’s no need to hurry and when we’ve had enough, we jump on our bikes and coast home.

Here’s what I have checked out for the month. It’s probably a little ambitious to think I’m going to get through them all, but I’ll give it a try.

The Story of Stuff

I’ve watched a lot of videos in the last 18 months, but one of the first films which really helped my see how many of our problems are intertwined was The Story of Stuff.

The Story of Stuff is a 20 minute, fast paced, fact filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. This short film exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It’ll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at the stuff in your life forever.

I consider this a must watch.

August reading


Photo by: ailatan

Over the last 12 months I have been reading more and more non-fiction. This whole economic collapse has been fasinating to watch, even if it’s not so much fun to participate in. For people of our generation, who have never really seen a recession, I think this last year has been a wake up call. We’ve lived in a time of perpetual growth and I guess we all came to believe that was how the world really was. I’ve certainly had my eyes opened and will never again take our economy for granted.

As such, I’m reading a lot of interesting books which I probably wouldn’t have bothered picking up before. Here’s my reading list for this month.