How Consumerism Shapes Our Lifestyles

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics: American Time Survey

As I’ve taken on the goals and idealism of Minimalist Lifestyle, the subject of consumerism has come up many times in my conversations with other minimalists.

The general mindset within the subculture of minimalism is that consumerism is the vile, manipulative, and enslaving result of mass marketing and corrupt corporations, but I want to approach the subject more objectively – at least until I’ve found a clear answer.

There’s two different definitions of the word “consumerism”:

The Economic Definition: “The protection or promotion of the interests of consumers.”

The Philosophical Definition: “The preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods.”

The research in this article revolves around the philosophical definition of consumerism.

What is Consumerism?

By the short definition given, consumerism is the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods, but what does that mean exactly, and are there flaws in this mindset?

The first questions I have are:

1. Does America and other 1st world societies have a preoccupation with money and goods?


2. Is the focus of acquiring consumer goods unhealthy?

First off, is consumerism prevalent in the 1st world nations of the modern world?

This struck me as a very interesting question because of the steps I had to take to find out the answer. The first thing I did was a general research on time. To pinpoint priorities and “preoccupations”, I had to figure out the time the average person spends in each area of life.

Average Time Spent on Weekends

This is what I came up with:

This chart shows the change between 2005 and 2010, in how people spend free time over the weekend.

Jon Peltier from created some very helpful charts that helped me better understand the amount of time the average individual spends in each category of their life:

So from these charts we can conclude that most people:

1. Spend most of their time eating out, watching movies, and with family and friends.

2. Spend more time watching movies and other forms of media than we spend with family and friends.

3. Place a surprisingly low value on hobbies (5%), but the percent is increasing.

4. Time spent with family and friends is decreasing.

That third observation is more of a personal observation by the way, it’s not really relevant to the topic.

The first two observations however, seem to show that people value the luxuries of eating out and watching movies… quite a bit – spending almost half the weekend (43%) on these activities.

This information seems to solidify the idea that consumerism is prevalent in our society, but since this study only addresses the weekend, I thought I’d have a look at time spent during the weekdays (I’m not feeling very optimistic about it, considering the number of hours I spend working…)

Average Time Spent on Workdays

 Here’s some information I found from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I was hoping for something a little bit more optimistic, but this is about what I was expecting. Clearly the majority of time is spent sleeping and working.

Conclusive Points About Consumerism in America

So there’s two conclusive points I’ve gathered from the data:

1. On the weekends the priority is entertainment and family/friends.

2. On the weekdays the priority is work (sleep is as well, but there’s no getting around the need for sleep).

From these conclusions I can only assume that people place a high value on working, social interaction, and entertainment, although the following statistics reveal that working is not a desired priority, but a necessary one:

According to Forbes, 71% of employees hate their jobs.

The question I ask myself is “why would everyone voluntarily spend the majority of their time working at jobs they hate?”

I think the answer is similar to the reason we go to war – no one wants to kill, and no one wants to die, but out of necessity (self interest) we fight and kill each other to survive. In the same way, 71% of Americans hate spending the majority of their lives working at jobs they hate, but they do out of necessity – In a previous post “Minimalist Living: The Lifestyle of Freedom” I found that the debt may be the reason many of these people have no other option but to work at jobs they hate:

  • Average credit card debt: $15,000
  • Average student loan debt: $32,000
  • Average mortgage debt: $150,000
  • Total Average Household Debt: $197,000

The more information I gather, the closer I get to the answer to the first question: Does America and other 1st world societies have a preoccupation with money and goods?

If we spend the majority of our lives working for money, it seems clear that yes, we do have a preoccupation with money. And since the time spent on days off  revolves around entertainment, which points to a preoccupation with entertainment. I wouldn’t typically think of entertainment as “goods”, but in a temporal sense they are.

So the answer is yes, America (and probably other first world nations) fits the consumerist description: “the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods”.  So what about the second question?

Is the Focus of Acquiring Consumer Goods Unhealthy?

After thinking it over, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no right answer to this question.

Everyone has a different set of values and morals.

Many people make a convincing argument for consumerism. Most of us are taught early in life that money and things don’t buy happiness, but have you ever seen a sad person riding a jet ski? (I’m pretty sure I plagiarized that by the way, I just can’t think of who said it first.)

Why do you think kids are so happy on their birthdays and on Christmas? Because of the things they get, the loot.

And what makes a parent more happy than seeing their kids play in a safe, clean neighborhood, in a big fenced in yard, and a house with all of the luxuries of first world living?

Guess what you need to get those “things”: Money.

I’ve heard these arguments, and it’s hard to deny the importance of money and goods in our lives. Personally, I see more value in relationships with friends and family, and the good news (at least for me) is that spending time building relationships is one of the highest priorities people have in their off days.

Final Observations and Conclusion

I’ve seen miserable and even suicidal rich people. And I’ve seen miserable and suicidal poor people.

I do think that money can buy at least temporary happiness, but I don’t believe that a preoccupation with money and things leads to a fulfilling lifestyle (self-actualization). 

It seems to me that for some, focusing a large amount of time acquiring things and money can be fulfilling, especially if the majority of those assets are poured into relationships and helping others.

Think about Andrew Carnegie – he spent the majority of his life working 3-4 hours a day because of his preoccupation with gaining material assets and money. The rest of his time was spent with his family and friends. The same was true for John D. Rockefeller (I think he worked a little bit more, but much less than most people do today).

And then for others, consumerism becomes an enslaving mindset that forces them to work ungodly hours at jobs they hate to hold on to the assets they’ve acquired, or pay off debt they accumulated in the acquisition of these goods.

I think the questions we have to ask ourselves are:

1. Is consumerism healthy or unhealthy for me?

2. Do I love or hate my job?

3. Do I despise or enjoy working 8-9 hours a day?

4. Do I spend enough time with my family and friends?

5. Do I spend enough time working?

6. Does the time allocated to my activities align with my goals and aspirations?

And most importantly:

7. What activities gives me fulfillment?

That last question is the question that should be the foundation of my lifestyle decisions. Maybe there’s words that describe it better for different people. Self actualization, achievement, fruition, satisfaction, happiness, joy?

I think different words describe different things for different people, but pick a word that makes the most sense and plug it in. Does consumerism; “My preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods” give me __________?

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in Minimalist lifestyles and Consumerism isn’t your lifestyle of choice, here’s a few posts you might be interested in:

“Minimalist Living: The Lifestyle of Freedom”

“Freedom Defined: Are You a Slave to Your Lifestyle?”

“Thomas Jefferson’s Approach to Self Sufficient Living”

“7 Self Sufficiency Strategies”

“3 Steps to Become Independently Wealthy”

“Off the Grid Living: The Comfortable Way”

“Minimalist Hobbies”