Stop trying to keep up with the Joneses — we aren’t entitled to any of it

The unfortunate sign of the times is ‘For sale by owner’.

Driving through upper Michigan this past weekend I was awestruck at the number of “for sale” signs. In this case, I’m referring not to houses, but to the items for sale parked on the front lawns of houses.

Boats, recreational vehicles, trailers, riding mowers, motorcycles, tractors, and more, were all for sale. I really wasn’t sure what would be around the next corner with a for sale sign on it, as nothing seemed off limits. (How much do you think you could ask for your spouse if he or she would stand still on the lawn for long enough?)

My mind was processing these bargains at the breakneck pace of 70 mp/h as we drove past. My first thought was, “Wow, the economy here really is hurting.” My second thought was, “Wow, I could really pick up some bargains.” My third thought was, “Wow, this is all stuff that no one really needs.”

I thought of the Joneses and how tragically so many people have tried to keep up with them. I couldn’t help but think of the debt levels that North Americans hold simply to be the “proud” owners of these “necessities.”

Therein lies the rub. The difference between needs and wants has been blurred so dramatically by salespeople, marketers, lenders, and politicians, such that only the really fiscally sound-minded or future-oriented individuals can remember the basic fundamentals of budgeting.

We used to know that we couldn’t buy what we couldn’t afford, because if we didn’t have the cash in the bank, we couldn’t pay for it, period. Now, one can hardly turn around without someone throwing a credit card in his or her direction, and this is starting at a younger and younger age.

Lured in with free loyalty points, low interest rates, and other premiums, the end result is the same: the opportunity to spend more than we have has become ubiquitous.

“Buy it, you’ll have it” has become a rallying cry, not unlike when Betty and Wilma were seen running toward a cash register on the Flintstones yelling, “Charge it!” as they waved their oversized credit cards in the air. (Perhaps if credit cards were larger and made of stone, and perhaps if people still ran, at least they’d be exercising more than their purchasing power.)

Why are people buying more stuff, bigger houses than they can really afford, and more stuff to fill those oversized houses and garages? (It seems to me that they purchased one too many things on the day that they bought into the concept that ownership of whatever they want is their Godgiven right: we don’t deserve to own whatever we desire.)

Someone has to say stop. Someone has to point out that this is a flawed state of affairs. I’ll be the big meanie.

If you are on autopilot, buying because politicians say it will help the economy, buying because you need to fill some empty space inside of you and the ads say it will make you feel better, STOP … IT WON’T HELP.

It’s time to reflect on our humility and lack of sense of community, and ask ourselves why we believe that we are owed certain things by society, our workplaces, and those around us. We aren’t entitled to anything, really.

We should be entitled to clean air, water, and soil, but even that is being fouled up by the corporations making all the stuff now sitting with “for sale” signs on front lawns across the most developed nation.

In San Francisco this summer, I visited the infamous former Alcatraz penitentiary. Inmates were given booklets of institution rules and regulations, which they were required to keep in their cells. Rule No. 5 of that 1956 handbook referred to privileges, and it read: “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege. You earn your privileges by conducting yourself properly.”

Perhaps it is time that we asked ourselves, “Am I conducting myself properly?” before we go out and buy something on credit that will only too soon be a burden to us, to our families, or to the larger community, and/or will end up on someone’s front lawn with a “for sale” sign, or worse will be dumped into a landfill before it is even paid off. Perhaps it is time that we realized that many don’t even have the “privileges” of a 1956 inmate and we should be thinking about how we could change that.

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