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Bad Economy Breeding Better Consumer Habits?

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What I see as a silver lining in this depressing economic landscape is a welcome shift towards different attitudes about consumerism in the United States.  I first experienced the need to spend more wisely in my own household during the past couple of years and then heard comments among my friends, and eventually I saw more and more stories in the media about a growing trend in frugality and cautious consumerism.

A number of us in America are looking harder at our spending habits and changing. Consider this article from the New York Times about using cash. A few months ago, at home, we began to purchase groceries and goods from retail stores almost exclusively with cash instead of credit cards, mainly to stay within a budget and to avoid feeding the credit card companies more and more interest. It’s not easy though. With plastic I used to spend more because I didn’t have to check my wallet and count my cash first. The pause made me stop and consider, “Do I really need this?”

Whether it is clothes, shoes, food, small luxuries, or another book, it’s all purchased more thoughtfully. I often find myself putting something back and thinking over all the things I already have that can be re-purposed, reused, used a year longer, fixed up, cleaned up, or done without completely.

This shift in habits is very good in the long run for all of us.  In our consumer culture of the past decades, we have consumed new products at an embarrassing rate, leaving mountains of cast-off items in landfills and junkyards and, regrettably, basements and closets filled with discarded junk.

And we’ve piled up personal debts using easily attainable credit. I remember in the 1980s banks wouldn’t offer credit cards to college students. When I graduated in 1988, I couldn’t get a major credit card without trying to apply for a small department store credit card and building a solid reputation first. In more recent years, you may have experienced, as we did, the family dog receiving an offer in the mail for a credit card with a high interest rate and bigger than necessary line of credit. 

Cash makes me feel a little insecure—if lost or stolen, it can’t be replaced, or as has happened more than once, I might be ready to check out and pay and be short a few dollars. But, it feels good to use cash. It feels good to live within your means and sleep better at night.

Pickier consumers, I hope, will also equal better quality goods in the long run. Too many products hit the market at an attractive price but with disappointing long-term performance. How many times have you had to replace appliances in the last 10 years—the kind of items that used to last for decades?  Vacuum cleaners are a good example.

Many of us are learning for the first time ever how to buy more wisely, and businesses would do well to take note, by providing better quality and value for the price.

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About Birgit Nazarian