Where Exactly Is The “Pressure” To Spend?

by golbguru on September 27, 2007

Many times, the blame for mindless consumerism falls squarely on the “social pressure” to spend. Here are just a couple of examples (out of many available) of how the “pressure” comes into play.

From a TIME magazine article “What America Buys and Why“, published in October 2006:

Status also drives us to shop. It’s what motivates us to buy televisions larger than our neighbors’, Compeau says. And as America grows more populated, we’ll only feel more pressure to spend, says Elizabeth Goldsmith, a Florida State University professor of consumer economics. “A lot of it is watching what other people buy. The more crammed in we are, the more we watch each other.”

According to Matt at One Million and Beyond:

The pressure to keep up with the proverbial Jones’ is in my opinion so strong in our society is hamstrings us financially from a young age.

Now, in light of such pressure plays, I have some thoughts:

  • Who is forcing you to spend? Analyze what kind of answers you come up with - friends? peers? relatives? neighbors? or that idiotic bodybuilder on the television?
  • How have they pressurized you? Did someone convey to you - either by words or by deeds that you are inferior because you spend less?

After contemplating on this for sometime and following stories about “Keeping up with the Joneses“, I have to admit that I don’t really see the origin of social pressure. I prefer to break this Joneses concept into two distinct features:

  1. The desire to keep up with the Joneses.
  2. The pressure to keep up with the Joneses.

In my opinion, it’s the desire part that’s playing a major role in increased spending - not the pressure.

My idea of “pressure” is when you are actively forced by someone to do something - when you don’t like doing it. For example, pressure is when my professor tells me: “I don’t see you in the lab often, you must spend more time in the lab if you want to accomplish something” - here, my professor is actively forcing me to spend more time in the lab - against my wishes. That is pressure.

I haven’t really seen or felt such pressure when it comes to spending money. No one (in real life) has ever told me that I am stingy, nor has anyone expressed displeasure over the fact that we live in a 600 sq. feet apartment, or made me feel lowly about the fact that I don’t have cable, or that I walk to school, or eat fruits for lunch. And, no one compliments me when I indulge in stupid splurges.

It doesn’t bother anyone else about how I choose to live my life and honestly, I don’t think anyone cares that much [just my experience - probably people in the corporate world have a different experience].

Think about it. If you buy an outrageously unaffordable car just because your neighbor bought one, would you say that your neighbor forced you into buying that car - while you were against buying it? OR is it because you wanted that car anyways - and the neighbor’s actions just provided you with an excuse?

Acting under social pressure is understandable when you are a teen and haven’t really developed an independent thought process - that’s precisely why endorsements by adults are needed (almost always) when teens deal with financial transactions. But 25~30~40 year olds succumbing to social pressure? I don’t think that’s quite social pressure.

So my question is, when people talk about the “pressure” to spend, where exactly is it coming from?

Have you felt it in anyway? Do you think you feel it more when you force yourself to “blend” with whatever is around you?

Am I mistaken in thinking that such spending pressures are nothing more than imaginary consumerism standards that we set in our own heads?

On this note, take a moment to understand this relatively new term “Affluenza“:

Affluenza is a social condition arising from the desire to be more wealthy, successful or to “Keep up with the Joneses.” Affluenza is symptomatic of a culture that prides financial success as one of the highest pursuits to be achieved. People who are said to be affected by Affluenza typically find that the very economic success they have been so vigorously chasing, ends up leaving them feeling unfulfilled, and wishing for yet more wealth - sometimes addicted to their economic pursuits.

Affluenza is arguably present in the United States, where the culture is one that prides itself on possessions and financial success. Mainstream media outlets, such as television broadcasts, tend to show how pervasive the idea has become. Affluenza also tends to bring with it very high social costs and strains already diminishing environmental and natural resources. (source: Wiki)

Seems to me that more people might be suffering with Affluenza, than feeling the proverbial “pressure” to spend (?)

~$$~

A Thought Experiment

Here is a two-scenario thought experiment that I am toying with.

  • Scenario #1: suppose there is a group of 10 people who usually drive to work. Let’s say that 4 of them dump their cars and start walking to work - do you think the other 6 would take to walking because they perceive some kind of a social pressure from the 4 who walk?
  • Scenario #2: suppose there are 10 people who usually walk to work. Now, let’s say that 4 of them get new cars and start driving to work - what’s the probability that the other 6 would feel socially “pressurized” to get new cars and drive to work?

I am pretty sure that the perception of social pressure will be noticed in only one of the above scenarios. I think you can guess which one it will be. The concept of trying to “blend” with your surroundings may fall flat on it’s face with such an example. This is just an hypothesis, so I won’t attach too much weight to it… but it’s interesting nevertheless.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Meg 09.27.07 at 11:30 am

Pressure doesn’t have to be coercive; that’s the whole point and definition of “social pressure.” Like in high school no one may be blantantly threatening you or even suggesting that you drink/smoke–but if all the “cool kids” are doing it, you ARE indirectly pressured to do it–even if you are allergic to cigarette smoke and hate the taste of alcohol!

I feel the desire to spend more than the pressure–though my desire isn’t to fit in or be like the Jones’. I just want to spend so I can be more comfortable–like I really want to pay for a nice gym membership with yoga/pilates options. I want to wear flattering (ie expensive) clothing. I want to eat out several times a week, etc. No one is usually actively or even indirectly pressuruing me to spend that money though.

However, I HAVE been pressured to spend in the past, especially in college when I was surrounded by girls with lots of discretionary cash. For instance on a girls trip to Vegas earlier this year, I could have gotten us a nice room downtown for $30 a night total because of a family hook-up. But my GFs pressured me to shell out almost $100 a night (each!) to stay off the strip at a trendy place. Which I did, against all my frugal judgement. I could afford it more than they could anyway. And I’ve had friends who, on shopping trips (which I was usually coerced into in the first place) oohed and ahhed about some expensive garmet I just HAD to buy. And of course I usually want to even if I know I “shouldn’t.” So it’s a combo of desire and pressure.

2 Aaron 09.27.07 at 11:44 am

Your thought experiment does a good job of showing the distinction between competition and conformity. A lot of people have these things tangled together in their minds, but they’re actually quite different.

The first people who adopt a new fashion (like clothing styles or gadgets) do so because they want to stand out from the masses. They’re competing. They want everyone to see them as superior and more sophisticated.

The second wave adopts a fashion because they DON’T want to stand out from the masses. They’re conforming. They buy new gadgets and wear new styles of clothing because if they don’t, they’ll get strange looks from everyone.

3 Jennifer 09.27.07 at 12:23 pm

I often feel social pressure in regards to my children. For example, many families in my area send their children to expensive summer programs. There is distinct social pressure when people ask what my kids will be doing this summer. It doesn’t mean that I must give in to this pressure, but it is there.

There is also social pressure when all my neighbors are going out together for an expensive dinner complete with limo. When I am invited I feel the social pressure to go along.

I think social pressure is the pressure to do what your peers are doing. It takes courage to not go along with the crowd.

4 kitty 09.27.07 at 4:17 pm

I agree that it is both. I think when it comes to cars or TVs or even clothes people just see it, it looks nice, there is just a desire to have it and maybe a little envy that someone else has it. Because really, how many of us have any idea what kind of a TV our neighbors have? As far as cars go, do all of our neighbors really have expensive cars, or do we only notice those who do?

The pressure may come in because of job requirements. I’d imagine somebody working on Wall Street may have a job requirement to dress expensively, especially if their job involved dealing with rich customers.

As posters above mentioned, one experiences pressure while going out with a group of friends or neighbors. I went out on a few of such gatherings, but each time I had known in advance the approximate amount and the amount was well within my means. If it hadn’t been I’d come up with an excuse.

A young girl invited to be a bridesmaid experiences pressure to buy an expensive dress she’d never wear again.

One story I was told happened to an acquintance. A mutual acquintance invited a group of people to a restaurant for his birthday. I didn’t go because I didn’t feel like driving over an hour to Brooklyn - good choice. Apparently, after the dinner he asked his guests to split the bill - $80 per person. Nobody had been warned about it: he had invited them, hadn’t mentioned the cost, the restaurant was his choice. They had brought presents. A couple of guests were really struggling financially and would’ve never dreamed of going out to a restaurant at all, much less such an expensive one; the woman who told me this story was unemployed. Some guests could afford it, but still wouldn’t have come had they known about it in advance or suggested a cheaper place had he discussed cost. Yet everyone just paid.

When I told this story to a young cousin of mine who lives in Germany, she was surprised that nobody objected given that he hadn’t warned them about it in advance and they had brought presents. She asked me if I’d objected and I said “no”. She told me that she would. She said - “but if you were at that party and somebody had objected you’d have been grateful?”. The truth is - yes, but I wouldn’t have the courage to be the first to raise the issue.

5 e 09.27.07 at 11:15 pm

I agree with your general point, but I also agree that there can be direct pressure to spend, too.

In my case, a lot of it comes from family. A recent example: a lot of family is in town, and after the main gathering (which happened to be my wedding), we invited one wing of the family over the following night for leftovers (there were a LOT, and they would go bad otherwise - this was explicitly the invitation). They accept… but when they get there, they explain that “they don’t want to put us out by having to put all that food out” and would rather just go out. After some negotiations (”oh, well… we don’t really go out much, trying to save money and all… no, we don’t even know any nice places around here at all… you know it would be no trouble at all to get the food out, it’s just going to go to waste and we try so hard to avoid that happening…”) we lose. We go out, and they pick the place. They have much, much more money than my immediate family does, and have clearly insisted on going, so I hope that they’ll just end up paying - although we order the cheapest thing off the menu and water just to be on the safe side.

They don’t pay. It’s split European style - which means we pay for just as much of their appetizers and $40 entrees and nice bottles of wine as they do: a $200 dinner from which I go home hungry. But, it’s family I see once every 5 years or so, it’s supposed to be a happy event, they flew all the way out for my wedding (although, I *WORKED* to save every penny on that wedding, so seeing the cash flow the following night was pretty painful!)

This is an extreme example, but the pattern isn’t all that unusual. 3 of 4 siblings want to vacation together with everyone’s families in a resort. The fourth sibling, a grade school teacher, doesn’t want to lose contact with her family, but… just can’t afford it. What does she do? I go to a professional meeting for a week, and everyone goes out to lunch together. It matters for what I do that I don’t miss these networking opportunities, but, the places people go are way above what I would generally pay (or what my per diam reimbursement rate is). These things feel like they come up a lot for me.

6 KMC 09.28.07 at 5:56 am

Jennifer hits on an important point your post may have overlooked.

Regardless of what you might think at first pass, what others buy does affect you and you must often respond.

In Jennifer’s case, if her kids aren’t sent to the expensive summer camp, they may not be on the same plane as their peers (be it in sports, academics, or arts). She must spend money she doesn’t want to spend just so her kids are not left behind.

Another example is when you buy a large SUV. Because you and many others drive on the same streets I do with those heavy vehicles, my safety has just decreased. If the two of us are involved in a crash, I am more likely to be injured if I’m in a small, light car and you’re in a big, heavy one.

What you buy affects other people.

7 Kate 09.28.07 at 5:59 am

Good article. You do a nice job of picking apart the different elements that make up “social pressure” to spend.

I don’t feel much pressure to spend in my personal life, and I don’t work outside the home much at all, so I don’t have pressure to spend on a career either. But I think there are two factors that are absent in my life that allow me to circumvent much of the pressure to spend, and these are factors that many if not most other people do not avoid. These factors are television and children. I have neither.

Television is the most ubiquitous and pernicious form of advertising in our culture today. I know that asking anyone who watches TV about the ads will dismiss their influence out of hand. They hate the ads. They use advertising breaks to use the bathroom. They hit the mute button. The ads don’t influence them. But the simple fact of the matter is that advertising budgets for large companies are HUGE. And these companies spend that money because it has an effect. Television ads work, even if it’s on a subconscious level. Exposure to advertising leads to covetousness in general.

Secondly, I see the pressure to spend on children all around me. I have a nephew and a niece or nephew on the way. My husband has a niece and nephew of his own. We’ve watched their parents spend money like it’s about to expire. Even though these are not my children, we’re invited to showers and birthday parties and other made-for-spending events. The amount of superfluous gift-giving that goes on for infant children is staggering. And there’s a sense that spending money on children is beyond any rational examination. It is equivalent to wanting the best for that child.

I’ve resisted spending much money at all on these kids, but my lack of participation has been noted, and not in a positive way. I have chosen rather to involve the kids in activities that are cheap or free, such as going to parks or pools, free kids’ museum days, simple art projects, etc. Somehow, I sense, this is considered to demonstrate less love and affection than buying another toy that will end up in a landfill and generate no memories at all.

I wish the sort of social pressure to describe in the first scenario were more common and more potent, particularly among parents.

8 Andrea D. 09.28.07 at 10:24 am

For me, the indirect pressure is immense. I hear friends who are conspicuous consumers gently mocking people who don’t dress well or who are obviously unfashionable, and I feel the need to avoid that kind of behind-the-back talk. You could argue that I need new friends, I suppose.

9 silvermine 10.03.07 at 10:15 am

There is definitely social pressure about kids’ birthday parties. :P

And I think the house/car stuff often depends on where you live and where you work. In Silicon Valley, there is pressure from all sorts of places. Not even just implied, either.

But I really don’t care. ;)

10 Property Marbella 01.01.13 at 10:11 pm

Chinese is the people who suffer most from Affluenza in the world, with their fast and high tllväxt wish all Chinese people have the same status as neighbors and friends.

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