One of the women had a laptop. The other had a notebook and a pen. At first, I thought they were working, because they were focused on comparing information on the computer with a list they were making.
A third woman walked by their table — in the restaurant where I was having dinner Monday — and asked if they were ready “for the big day.”
And then I pieced together what was going on. They weren’t preparing for a presentation at work. They weren’t doing anything productive. They were merely getting ready to place their orders for Amazon’s “Prime Day” on Tuesday.
Here’s what else I learned. The woman with the laptop borrowed $2,000 to buy things Tuesday. The other one at the table told the third woman that she didn’t want to borrow any money to buy things, but she said she had $1,500 on a credit card to spend. She was explaining how many months it will take to pay off the card if she pays just a little more than the minimum each month.
Yes, you heard that right. She was proud that she didn’t have to borrow money — because she doesn’t understand that a credit card with interest payments is borrowing.
It’s easy to make fun of this woman for not understanding what she’s doing and it’s easy to make fun of the other woman for taking out a loan just to buy stuff. As an anecdote, it suggests something is out of whack these these women’s thinking. But the real issue is what this sort of consumer mentality says about the culture in which we live.
There’s nothing morally wrong with spending your money on things you want or need. And people have the right to go into debt to buy things they can’t afford if someone wants to lend the money to them and if they want to spend their lives paying interest.
But I am very uneasy about what I see in our consumer culture. I find it terrifying that our society now seems to be built on the notion of consuming, not of producing.
There was a time when the value of work and frugality were core values for most of this country. Even for people who weren’t religious — or weren’t Christians or Protestants — the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic” was a core social value.
The name came from German sociologist Max Weber, who described this set of values in the early 20th century. Even people who had never heard the phrase grew up with parents and grandparents who taught the core values of hard work, discipline and frugality. The ideas seem to have originated with Calvinist thinking, but I’m going to skip the theological underpinnings.
People who were steeped in this sort of thinking saved money, produced as much as they could and they collectively built this country from a collection of poor and backwards rubes into the most wealthy and powerful nation on Earth.
But starting with the post-World War II period, the mindset slowly started shifting. Old values were thrown away. Work and production were despised more than ever. Pleasure and consumption were encouraged. Consumer borrowing became a powerful tool that drove our short-term standard of living and mortgaged the long-term future for the expensive trinkets which we increasingly bought and frittered away.
A country which had been built on work and savings quickly turned into a consumer culture based on borrowing and spending.
Is it any wonder that the people who have been elected to make decisions for these consumers have borrowed trillions of dollars and created mountains of debt which can never be paid back? The politicians they elected did exactly what they did — buying whatever they wanted, on credit, of course, and ignoring how the debt could be paid.
This country is heading toward political, social and financial collapse. I don’t know when it will happen, but if you pay attention to broader trends, you can sense the long-term shock-waves coming. It’s not coming because a few people have made bad decisions, of course. It’s coming because those bad decisions and poor thinking have become the new values by which a group of politicians set us up for ruin.
(There are other social and political factors, too, of course, but that’s another issue for another time.)
In a very real way, the values of the Protestant Work Ethic built the wealth of this country. The wealth, in fact, was so massive that it’s taking a few generations to destroy it. But a nation of people who hate to build and produce — and who love to borrow and consume — are on their way to ruin.
There’s nothing wrong with spending money. There’s nothing wrong with companies which make beautiful things for you to buy. But there’s something horribly wrong with a collective mindset which leads people to borrow and to consume as though there’s no tomorrow.
It’s too late to save this society from its inevitable collapse. The decisions you make for your family over the coming years will determine whether you go down with the masses or provide a positive foundation for growing wealth in your future.
Note: For the sake of full disclosure, remember that any link which you click to Amazon from here earns a tiny commission for me when you buy something. There’s nothing wrong with spending money or with buying from Amazon. Please be wise about your spending, though.