The Christmas season is once again upon us, and with it overwhelming encouragement from Madison Avenue to spend what we have not earned to buy what we cannot afford. The day after Thanksgiving—known as "Black Friday," indicating the period in which retailers are in the black (or at least hope to be)—signals the start of the "holiday shopping season." That phrase in and of itself reveals the commercialized emphasis that has unfortunately come to define Christmas for many Americans.
The thrust of this consumerist message is that the holiday is best enjoyed or most fully realized through the acquisition of things. Advertisements bombard us with images of bountiful Christmas scenes in which beautiful packages surround the tree, implying that happiness is produced upon the receipt of this or that consumer product. Credit card issuers alone (those most interested in seeing you spend what you don't have) spend more than $150 million on holiday advertising and promotions. Evidence that these messages work is found in the fact that—according to Christian financial advisor, Dave Ramsey—"over 50 percent of Christmas shoppers will spend well over what they planned to and will go further into debt."
As to the severity of this debt, Ramsey points out that "more than $70 billion, over half of what was charged last year, ended up as revolving debt and the interest on last year's gifts are still being paid today." On average, "two-thirds (65 percent) of shoppers overspent their budget by $100 to $500 and 75 percent overspent by $50 to $100."
Of course this consumerist philosophy, rooted in the notion that making more money (enabling you to buy more things) will necessarily result in greater life satisfaction and happiness, is a pervasive message year-round in America. Recent studies show that most Americans believe they would be "perfectly happy" with just 20 percent more income. And according to Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor's 1998 best seller The Overspent American, "one-quarter of Americans making $100,000 believe they don't have enough cash." (In 2007, the U.S. median income was $50,233.)
However, the evidence demonstrates that "once a society's basic needs—food, shelter, employment—are satisfied, the accumulation of greater and greater wealth does not generate greater collective or personal happiness over the long run." This is known as the Easterlin Paradox, named for renowned economist and USC professor Richard Easterlin.
In the early seventies, "Easterlin sifted through numerous surveys asking Americans how happy they were. The explosion in wealth created by the postwar boom had not made a dent, he discovered. Although the average family was 60 percent richer in 1974, levels of contentment remained unchanged from 1945" (USC Trojan Family Magazine, Winter 2007). These findings "flew in the face of the assumption held by most economists and politicians that populations get happier as national wealth increases." According to the article "today, no one disputes the truth of the Easterlin Paradox."
The United States is far richer in 2008 than it was 1974 and yet again these figures show no improvement. In fact, every measurement of personal well-being—psychological, emotional, and spiritual—demonstrates that despite our increased abundance we are less satisfied and more depressed than ever.
A joint study recently conducted by the World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School reveals that the U.S. has the highest rate of depression among a survey group of fourteen countries. Conversely the poorest nations reported the lowest levels of depression. Researchers suggest that this may be due to differing expectations. Precisely! Americans have been conditioned to expect that happiness and satisfaction naturally flow from prosperity and the acquisition of things. That is the whole point of consumer advertising: to make us discontent with what we have by offering the expectation of an improved life through the purchase of the latest product—an expectation that very quickly eludes us after we have purchased said product.
Consciously we know this is ridiculous; however, subconsciously we frequently find ourselves seduced by the lords of consumerism into believing this silliest of propositions. As Easterlin has confirmed, as we acquire possessions, our aspirations rise in proportion to the gains, leaving us no happier than before. Indeed the more we earn, the more we want! This misguided expectation sets us up for perpetual disappointment because as the evidence demonstrates, prosperity fails as a source of true happiness and life satisfaction.
The first remedy is to simply recognize the false and patently illogical "gospel" offered by consumerism. This alone offers some degree of immunity from the insidious and seductive voice of consumerism. Secondly, from a purely financial perspective, Dave Ramsey offers some practical advice relative to Christmas:
• Make a list of everyone you are buying a gift for and put a dollar amount by every name. Total it at the bottom. This is your Christmas budget. The people in the mall have a plan to get your money, so get a game plan for your shopping so you can keep some money. There is no excuse for financing Christmas.
• Pay cash. Put the total from your budget in an envelope and when the cash is gone, stop spending. This will help keep you on budget because if you overspend on Aunt Sue, Uncle Harry won't get a gift.
• Sixty-nine percent of Americans bought a gift for themselves last year. Don't buy yourself a gift! This is the season to give not to receive … from yourself.
From a spiritual and philosophical perspective, remember that Christmas is ultimately about God's gracious and abundant gifts to humanity—the gift of life, family and friends, good food, music, worship; the virtues of charity and mercy, and the greatest of all: His Son, Jesus. These are the real and meaningful things that make life satisfying. So this Christmas, may we all be reminded to revel in God's gracious gifts, to drink deeply the beauty and wonder of life and the season—these will leave you feeling much more satisfied and debt-free!