Want to know why the gap between the haves and the have-nots keeps growing? Because the haves live within their means. They don’t waste their hard-earned money on all the crap that Americans spend billions, maybe even trillions, on each year.
American consumers seem to have an almost insatiable appetite for just about any type of useless garbage that anyone decides to make in China for a few bucks and sell here for a few hundred. Which is probably why nobody has any savings and everyone complains they don’t have enough money to live on.
Actually, the problem is much worse than that. The all-consuming consumer is like a lifestyle choice that’s quickly becoming the norm. What’s it all for? Honestly, I really don’t know. All I do know is that it wastes far more than our money. It wastes our time. It wastes our lives. And it doesn’t make us happy. It makes us miserable.
Don’t get me wrong. Buying and selling goods is good for the economy. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about stuff that nobody needs or can afford. I’m talking about stuff that has no benefit. I’m talking about stuff that’s a flat-out scam. Here’s a surprisingly long laundry list, off the top of my head:
Cars for every purpose. We have minivans, SUVs of every size, crossovers of every shape, convertibles, pickups, and options and gadgets for everything but driving. I have a neighbor with a sedan, a minivan, a VW Bug, a pickup, and a convertible – for two adults and two kids (only one can drive and he has his own truck). Of course there’s no room in their garage for any of their vehicles. Too much junk.
Weight loss systems. It’s hard to believe, but we’ve somehow managed to become an entire society of obese people who spend billions on miracle diets, club memberships, and workout equipment. And have you noticed how everything is a system? Even a caffeine pill is a diet system.
Dog and cat food and toys. The pet food industry is about $20 billion and the fastest growing segment is the pricey stuff. My wife buys it. Does it do any good? I have no idea. They still die of cancer. Yeah, I know they’re like our kids, but still. My dog growing up had Alpo, a leash, a collar, and the occasional Liv-a-Snap. Throw in a stick and she was good to go. And she lived to 17.
Self help books. People are obsessed with self-improvement, time management, and leadership parables and platitudes. We spend billions trying to become someone we’re not. I don’t care whose habits they are, where you put the cheese, or what some guy says he can do in a 4-hour workweek. It’s all a waste. Find yourself, do what you love, work hard, be happy. That’s what works. That’s how you get ahead.
Vitamins, supplements, and miracles cures. Don’t even get me started on homeopathic medicine, colonics, hair growth, male enhancement products, and pills for your libido. They’re all scams.
Gambling. Not just Vegas, Atlantic City, and Indian casinos, either. How about the lottery? A sucker’s bet that rakes in billions. And the stock market. Think you can time the market or pick winning stocks? That’s funny; the pros can’t.
Sneakers for every activity. When did one pair of $20 sneakers become 6 pairs of $100 running shoes, cross trainers, basketball shoes, walking shoes, hiking shoes, and waterproof trail running shoes?
Sporting goods and gear. Everywhere I go I see basketball hoops – and nobody is ever playing. Sneakers are just the tip of the iceberg. We buy more sporting goods and gear than ever before and we’re all in worse shape than ever before. But I bet you’ve got closets and garages just full of all that stuff you don’t use.
Costco. Let me just say this. The Tobaks have enough toilet paper and garbage bags to last a lifetime.
Fast food. It isn’t that fast and it isn’t cheap. On the other hand, it tastes like garbage and is terrible for you. If you just stay home and learn to cook from scratch, you can get a healthy, great-tasting meal on the table for less. And no, it doesn’t take that long.
Foodie food. Just because you call yourself a foodie doesn’t make you a chef. It just means you pay way too much for all sorts of pricey stuff. We have a specialty supermarket near our house, sort of like a Whole Foods. They’re all over California. I don’t know how anyone can afford to shop there. I guess I could if I wanted to, but why? It’s dumb.
Kitchen gadgets. Kitchens are filled with all sorts of gadgets and machines these days. It’s nuts. Want to know how the pros crush garlic? They smash it with the flat blade of their knife. Bam! Crushed garlic. And pro blenders have an on-off switch. Mine has all sorts of settings and sensors, none of which work.
Specialty booze, wine and beer. Ever do a blind taste test of $100 versus $20 wine? I bet most people would like the cheap wine better. And how much of that pricey Patron Tequila with Cointreau and Grand Marnier do you think you can taste in a margarita filled with sour mix?
Water and sports drinks. Bottled water and sports drinks are a huge industry. It’s hard to believe that people spend billions on H2O, sugar, and salt. Don’t even get me started on energy drinks.
Smart appliances. These days everything from stereo systems and refrigerators to washers and dryers are networked and full of sensors and displays. All our homes are full of this stuff. And you know what? The more features and functions, the faster it breaks.
Designer clothes. When exactly did $20 sweatshirts turn into $200 hoodies? And when did $20 Levis become $200 Diesels? Watches, suits, handbags, shoes -- it’s nuts. I wear t-shirts, torn jeans and Vans. Even that ain’t cheap.
Gadgets. Call me reactionary, but I think smartphones are making everyone dumb. I’m from the high-tech industry and get this: I don’t feel the slightest need to own an iPad and I don’t replace my phone or computer anywhere near as frequently as other people do. Why? Because there’s no reason to. I mean, why should I have to be ashamed to have an iPhone 3GS? It works fine. Really.
Beds. The best mattress I ever owned cost like $500, and I think that included the box spring. Know how much a Tempur Pedic or Sleep Number bed costs? Me neither, but I’m pretty sure it’s in the thousands. Our backs evolved for sleeping on the ground. How complicated can a bed be?
Here’s the thing. Life is for living, not owning or buying. Just ask any legitimate Buddhist monk and he’ll tell you: the less you have, the happier you’ll be. The simple things make you happy. Complicated things make you miserable. No kidding.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.