Monday, December 29, 2008

We've shopped 'til we dropped - then shopped some more

I’m not certain when it was that shopping became a question of patriotic duty, but I’m guessing it was when U.S. President George Bush made it an imperative in the days after 9/11.
“Get on board,” he urged a devastated American public struggling to come to grips with the bombing of the World Trade Centre.
“Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
Fast-forward seven years and the bombs are more metaphorical, this time tearing apart the world’s financial markets instead of New York City’s twin towers. But shopping is still the “cure,” apparently, as evidenced by our own federal government’s recent fit of pique with the country’s big banks over whether they’re doing enough to provide Canadians with easy credit.
I get the theory of it - that everything depends on everything at times like these, and that economic stability hinges on us all just sticking to what we’ve always done and continuing to spend. But is that really a solution anymore now that we know where such habits get us?
I lost track of the endless times this Christmas season that the media featured stories speculating on whether all of us would/wouldn’t be shopping in our usual excessive way this season.
The shopping theme is always popular this time of year. But the level of coverage was truly extraordinary this season, given the natural tie-in with the global recession. Radio and on-line polls jumped in with the tough questions: Are you shopping yet? How much do you think you’ll spend? Is that more or less than usual?
I doubt the media intended their scrutiny to effectively come across as an exhortation to shop. But that’s what it ended up feeling like to me. Was I going to be letting down the national economy if I didn’t get out there and do more spending?
I’ve got nothing against shopping. I did my share this Christmas, albeit not always happily. (I like the idea of exchanging gifts with people you love, but find the current tradition has morphed into some kind of nutso mutant that burns through a ton of money and stresses everybody out.)
But shouldn’t we be reconsidering everything to do with the way we manage money right now in light of what’s going on with the world economy? Not to oversimplify a complex situation, but the lesson I’ll be taking away from this period in history is about what happens on a global level when we all get used to spending money we don’t have.
Bring the big concepts down to the individual level, and it’s not far off of a typical North American Christmas shopping experience.
I understand the potential for economic disaster were we to ever stop shopping. Our spending habits drive business and industry in Canada and around the globe, and employ legions of people whose jobs depend on our willingness to continue to shop, shop, shop.
In Canada, we keep almost as many people working through a single month of crazy Christmas spending as the country’s manufacturing industry provides in an entire year. We spend close to $30 billion annually just in December.
But do we want to? Can we afford to? Those are important questions to ask.
Every January I talk a good game about spending less on the next Christmas, but inevitably find myself jammed into the stores 11 months later spending more than I wanted to. Judging by the number of grim-faced shoppers on auto-pilot I passed by in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I’m not alone with this problem.
Those who long for a return to the true meaning of Christmas lament the shopping frenzy that surrounds the season. A pleasant tradition of sharing small gifts has grown into six weeks of frantic buying, little of which has anything to do with Jesus.
My complaints are more secular. I just think we’re losing touch with the fact that the bill always comes due, whether we’re talking about our Christmas spending or the global financial crisis.
Lenders, investors, traders, venture capitalists, regulators - they all have had a hand in the crisis that’s rocking world markets. But at the root of the sub-prime collapse that triggered much of the economic mayhem are individual consumers who were in over their heads. They shopped when they should have been saving.
A tip for surviving economic downturns: Learn to live within your means, whatever the season. The only thing mindless spending gets you is more of the same.

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