When Wants Become Needs: A Narcissistic Rant on the Consumer Culture Tradition of Getting Accustomed to a Lifestyle

Funny Birthday Ecard: It's never too early to start a mid-life crisis.

Over the past several years my life has changed a bit, as life is wont to do.

I went from being a single city-girl to a cohabitating-turned-married suburbanite of sorts. As much of one of those as is possible being a participant observer of my own life.

When I started this blog, one of the topics I was fascinated with was my ethnographic observations and analysis of suburban life and culture.  Interestingly enough, I was born in the suburbs and moved to a more urban area as a child and then did spend my teenage years in a working class suburb.  So the concept wasn’t entirely new to me, but experiencing it as an adult was.

I started recognizing in my life the patterns I had observed in others that I used to judge.  I started seeing my expenditures become very focused on the types of things I would do project work for as a professional consumer anthropologist and my needs becoming characteristic of the types of satire, existential rantings and and otherwise burb-hating dialogues I both hear from and engage in  with my city / hippie / hipster / artist friends.

I started having regular conversations about remodelling, Whole foods, my lawn and gutter service, maid recommendations, which hybrid SUV to buy, re-slinging patio chairs, matching duvet covers to paint colors, etc.   And as my disposable income started slowly dwindling, I refused to allow that to affect my city-girl need for dining out and my personal passion for travel. You see the winding path before me don’t you?

And then panic started to set in as I realized I was building my own cage:  living exactly up to my means – a carefully orchestrated symphony of income and savings (at least I have that good fortune and foresight) and debt that somehow  add up to  a perfect zero at the end of every bi-monthly pay period. I started to question how it was that I was that my two person household was somehow living, for all intent and purposes, from paycheck-to-paycheck off of way more than what most families with a couple kids live off of, yet I was still concerned about having enough money to meet all my needs.

Even being fiscally responsible and keeping a careful budget and carefully planning expenditures,  I still found (and find) myself freaking out about money on a regular basis.  The part that really grinds my guts, however, is the realization that I am so freaked out because I have somehow infected my brain in the traditional American consumer culture fashion into believing that my incremental build up of “wants” had been translated into my brain as “needs”.

Granted, I acquiesced to many of those needs because it is easier than arguing with my wife or my own rationalizations and comfort often ends up winning over logic.  I fortunately avoided the McMansion trap because, not having children, being in the “right school district” (which translates into inflated property values) wasn’t an issue. So, at least my cage doesn’t include a debilitating mortgage.

BUT, I somehow have developed a laundry list of money-sucking needs like:  a lawn that stays weed-free and green, a luxury SUV, premium cable, organic hair care products, expensive groceries, an appropriately fashionable wardrobe, the latest smartphone and other suite of technology (laptop, e-reader, noise-reducing headsets, flat screen TV, Blue ray player), Delivery of the New York Times so I can “feel” the newspaper, a bar stocked with premium booze, season tickets to the theatre and / or Opera, at least one week at the beach house every year in addition to at least one more vacation, designer furniture, art and a host of other “i have to have that” purchases and experiences that end up eating away at the spending-money budget.

If I were to plot my situation on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs I guess I would put myself right up in the “self actualization” part of the pyramid.  I have come to the conclusion that self actualization is freaking expensive if you are not willing to make yourself uncomfortable.  This puts me in a bit of a conundrum which I know I do not hold exclusive rights to.  Is this what they call a mid-life crisis?  I feel like I’m too young for that but then realize If I keep stressing out like this that I am likely closer to mid-life than I would like to think.

And then my inner philosopher kicks in.  One of my favorite quotes of late states ” you can be extraordinary or comfortable but not both”.  Well shit.  Now what?  I suppose the “now what” is really making a point to examine what I believe to be needs versus wants  – because I realize I am becoming a slave to comfort and I will not stand for being anything less than extraordinary.

And as an anthropologist and sociologist I always place myself in the bigger picture.  Thus I wonder if it is possible for a large, complex society (such as the one I and likely anyone reading this blog participates in) to turn back from a rampant consumer culture to something more simple.  I know we are trying.  I see the movements in barter, communal living, local food and other trends related to making life more manageable and less detrimental to our psyche as well as our planet.  But I wonder what kind of cultural disruption it would take to get us there.  I also wonder  what kind of psychological disruption is required for an individual to snap out of the matrix?

Lest my readers think I am complaining, rest assured I am fully aware of the runaway narcissism being poured out in this blog. If nothing else, I behave with integrity knowing exactly who I am.   I am far from in a “woe is me” situation, but my place at the pointy end of the pyramid allows me the luxury of pontification as well as a fancy Macbook to type it on  and an audience of readers who will hopefully have something constructive to say about it.  I welcome your observations as well as your judgement.

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7 thoughts on “When Wants Become Needs: A Narcissistic Rant on the Consumer Culture Tradition of Getting Accustomed to a Lifestyle

  1. Me and my sister are in a stage of life of the “happily married/new mom” phase. We were saying last week that it almost gets depressing planning out a perfectly comfortable life..”where to live? what school district? saving up money for vacation, clothes and toys for kids, perfectly decorated home…” don’t get me wrong, I’m thoroughly suburban, but too much needs (er, wants) is suffocating. “self actualization is freaking expensive” lol why not make this the blanket slogan for all commercials, and cut to the chase. So insight/judgements?: give to charities, or find a cause. There have been times I’ve given money away to spite my comfort, like “I hate the fact that I ‘need’ another pair of shoes, so I’m giving $50 away”. Generosity is not a cliche, it’s medicine! K, rant over. Thanks for sharing yours, I like the insight of this piece.

    1. Generosity has always been a part of my repertoire. I give a good amount of money to everything from public radio to food banks to sociallyforward lobbyist groups and more than the occasional guy / woman / family / hippie artist / brutally honest drunken vagrant on the street. I think the problem is I don’t give enough time.

  2. I am 61 years old. When I was 16 I made 3.00 per hour, living on my own. LPs (record albums) ran about 5.99 or so. I bought every record I wanted. I could not spend all of the money I made. 5 years later I made double the amount of money but was desperately poor – but I started drinking a lot then too.

    So today, my wife and I have a household income more than ever before, we are suitably comfortable, we do anything and buy anything we want, but our wants apparently work out. We have no where near the amount of money we are supposed to have at this stage of our life. But we are both more professionally content in what we do and look forward to the future when we retire back to New Orleans for good.

    So I don’t want to come off as some altruistic hippie type baby boomer. The shit may hit the fan in a few years and I may be sporting a 5-day growth pushing Lucky Dogs to tourists on Jackson Square (not really a bad gig I don’t think), but damn, life is good today and has been good for some time.

    The bottom line of the bottom line is that I have never found a correlation to my level of meaningful or happy living to my income. In some ways I think I am just pretty lazy in when it comes to making money. So it goes.

  3. If it makes you feel any better you can be both extraordinary and comfortable by defining both terms outside of the norm, you just have to accept that you won’t ‘fit in’. As for our rampant consumer culture, unfortunately it may already be too late for a lot of people.

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