Not long ago, a friend persuaded Angelika Hederer to accompany her on a little shopping spree at Banana Republic. Hederer, who concedes her clotheshorse tendencies but considers herself to be a choosy, temperate shopper, bought two pairs of pants (one black, one white) and a navy V-neck sweater, items that already were well-represented in Hederer’s abundant wardrobe at her Westside home.
Everything she bought was 30% off, and the bill came to $180, hardly extravagant for a woman of Hederer’s means. (Her husband, now retired, made a comfortable living selling European auto parts). But when she got home, she felt her purchases nagging her with silent reproach.
“I put the bag on the floor and went to my computer and then I thought, ‘I’ll bring it back,’ ” she recalled. “I don’t need it. Why the expense now? Why should it hang in my closet?” She returned the clothes.
Like a number of well-to-do Americans, Hederer lately has been reappraising her fashion spending habits. Her feelings are sometimes conflicted.
On the one hand, Hederer noted, some economists are urging those with jobs and incomes to help reheat the cooled-down economy by firing up their credit cards. On the other hand, she thinks that the affluent should show some solidarity with the rest of society by cutting back in tough economic times. She believes that, like charity, consumer chastity ought to begin at home.
“Now with the recession I can be very good and not buy anything,” said Hederer, a native of Germany. “I spend all my money for Pilates. Because one really has enough.”
But a number of social scientists, behavioral experts and sustainable-living or “voluntary simplicity” advocates say that holding to such resolve and self-imposed moratoriumsisn’t likely to be simple or easy. It’s an attempt to alter, in a relatively short period of time, attitudes and routines acquired over years, if not decades. And because making such changes could entail bucking peer pressure, class expectations and self-perception, not to mention plain old habit, it’s daunting for a person acting alone. The task is likely to get even tougher once the recession (presumably) lifts.
The trick for those moved to cut back, some experts say, is to think more deeply about whether that exquisite pair of Louboutins or that pair of $250 jeans truly enhances their quality of life.
But it’s challenging to examine what we value, what we’re moved to buy and how much is enough. Michael F. Maniates, an associate professor of political and environmental science at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., said scholarly research has consistently shown that most Americans think their countrymen over-consume, but don’t think they do personally.
Significantly, Maniates said, Americans’ ideas about what constitutes a high level of consumption have radically altered over time. Since the last decades of the 20th century, instead of just trying to keep up with the Joneses next door, many of us have been trying to match lifestyles with Wall Street hedge fund managers who summer in the Hamptons, or with the images of Hollywood opulence that relentlessly bombard us -- or with “Sex and the City.”
Also, because so many Americans work long, hard hours (U.S. productivity is still among the world’s highest) and take fewer vacations than their European counterparts, we may tend to seek more of our pleasures in shopping-mall excursions than in, say, learning to play the guitar or taking up tennis. To fundamentally shift our focus from “acquire more” to “experience more,” Maniates said, we need to examine our entire system of work and how we reward it.
“If this is going to stand a chance of any permanence, it needs to go beyond the individual action” and be built into public policy, he said. “We really need to think of ways of making it possible for people to think about working less and getting by on less.”
Growing up in Germany when it was still rebuilding from World War II, Hederer had an idea of what it meant to get by on less. Although her family was prosperous, she was aware of the deprivation around her. Her husband, also from Germany, “still knows what hunger is, because he was born in ’38,” she said.
“He would laugh now if I said I don’t spend much money on shopping.”
Even though she frequents such stores as Saks, Armani and Zara, and bargain-hunts in Europe during trips to the couple’s second home in Switzerland, Hederer doesn’t consider herself a hard-core fashionista. She likes to mix high and low labels, doesn’t shop seasonally -- “I would hate to spend a fortune for something that is like a fashion for one season, like a pink jacket” -- and said she “would hate to go to a restaurant and spend $200 a couple.”
But if her memories of past hard times give Hederer pause about spending money today, she may be atypical. Tim Kasser, an authority on issues related to consumption and values who teaches at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., said that people raised in uncertain or harsh economic times tend to be more focused, not less, on acquiring material comforts than the offspring of affluent societies.
“If you look at how the ‘Greatest Generation’ ended up acting once they got money, they certainly built a lot of big houses and got gas-guzzling cars and all the rest,” he said.
Kasser pointed to research that supports the idea that money truly can’t buy happiness. Those who focus on material possessions have a higher incidence of smoking, alcohol and drug abuse and depression, while people who are oriented toward intrinsic values tend to be more content. Happiness in Western industrial society has remained relatively stagnant for the last 50 years, he noted, even as prosperity has grown.
Though Kasser believes that the current economic crisis could spur new ways of living, he doubts that long-lasting change will result “unless a new narrative is provided and new economic structures are put into place that make it easy and compelling and desirable for people” to pursue lives in which primary delights don’t come from stuff.
“To be honest, most of the people in my area and who talk about this feel it’s probably not going to happen this time,” he said.
Still, the possibilities are there, said Carol Holst, founder of L.A.-based Simple Living America, a program of the Center for Transformative Action at Cornell University. Americans “are can-do people” and may use the current crisis as an incentive for adopting more voluntary simplicity, she said. But she too acknowledged that will be challenging.
“People, many of them, seem to be oriented toward getting through this period just so they can get back to things the way they were, and the way they were was so unhealthy.”
The alternative? “It’s not about giving up,” Holst said. “It’s about bringing into our lives that which is truly satisfying.”