The Overspent American Essay - Critical Essays

The Overspent American

Juliet B. Schor describes what she calls “competitive spending,” focusing on the middle and upper-middle classes in THE OVERSPENT AMERICAN: UPSCALING, DOWNSHIFTING, AND THE NEW CONSUMER. She reveals a new scale of competition in the 1990’s: Instead of competing with the Joneses, Americans often find themselves competing with the world.

One particularly pervasive effect comes from television. Advertisements for expensive products reach audiences for which the products never were intended. Those in lower classes are exposed to these ads, and they come to believe in an exaggerated prevalence of such products as Mercedes-Benz automobiles, big screen televisions, and expensive jewelry. Programming itself is no help in offsetting this impression.

Schor’s survey of telecommunications workers showed few satisfied with their incomes. Most wanted 20 percent to 100 percent more income before they would feel satisfied. Schor also cites results of various polls. The income needed for a fulfilling life has stayed just above the median income, and high percentages of people in all income groups say that they spend nearly all of their money on the necessities of life. The nature of “necessities” has changed as well, with new products constantly being added to the list.

Schor demonstrates status spending, rather than simply postulating it, in her study of cosmetics. Lipsticks, for example, are used often in public and come in recognizable containers. Schor found that women were willing to pay more for name brands even when there was no difference in quality.

Schor next turns to a group she calls “downshifters,” those who have scaled back their spending and consumption. Schor clearly approves of the downshifter lifestyle. In Chapter 6, she provides nine principles for getting off the consumer escalator. Many of her principles are collective rather than individual, but they begin in a new consciousness among consumers.

Although her book is accessible to general readers, Schor supports her work with appropriate scholarly apparatus, including a bibliography, notes that often provide illuminating insights in addition to sources of data and quotations, and appendices that describe her surveys and cosmetics experiment.

Sources for Further Study

Business Week. May 25, 1998, p. 17.

Fortune. CXXXVII, May 11, 1998, p. 40.

Journal of Macromarketing. XVIII, Fall, 1998, p. 173.

Library Journal. CXXIII, May 15, 1998, p. 94.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 6, 1998, p. 8.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, June 21, 1998, p. 34.

The New Yorker. LXXIV, July 13, 1998, p. 75.

Newsweek. CXXXI, June 1, 1998, p. 70.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 13, 1998, p. 63.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 10, 1998, p. 5.