What’s wrong with consumerism?

Every holiday season I come across a bunch of articles that decry gift-buying madness and the general culture of consumption. The authors seem to think that the habit of purchasing material goods somehow interferes with one’s family time and spiritual well-being.

Though I agree that hoarding and the holiday gift rush are not good things, I think that consumerism in general is a healthy part of the free market exchange of products and services. In fact, you have to engage in consumption if you want to both live efficiently and productively and to have the time to spend with your family and kids.

Some people spend all their time working and making money and don’t get to enjoy much of a family time and other nonmaterial things. Other people quit the money-making rat race, stay at home and engage in homesteading and the DIY (do-it-yourself) lifestyle. I see these as two opposite extremes.

Those who spend all their time at work are indeed missing out on life. They may justify it by saying that they love their jobs or that they need to pay for their kids’ private school, but the truth remains: nothing is more important than spending time with your family and raising your kids by yourself instead of outsourcing parenting to strangers. Work is important because it allows you to earn money and provide your family with a comfortable living, but excessive work is detrimental to the well-being of your family and to your own spiritual and physical health.

The other extreme is when people condemn the culture of consumption and view those who work full-time as slaves of consumerism. Such people advocate off-the-grid living and self-sustaining lifestyle. However, I see two problems with this approach:

1. It’s counterproductive and inefficient. If everyone maintained such lifestyle, we would have never progressed far beyond a primitive society. We would not have enjoyed many technological innovations and scientific discoveries because scientists and entrepreneurs would have been busy maintaining their homes and growing their own food. Exchange of talents and services makes a lot of economic sense. You will earn more money and deliver a greater benefit to society if you focus on your professional expertise rather than spend the time doing mundane things to support your physical living. Would you be happy if your doctor grew his food and fixed his roof? Shouldn’t the doctor rather hire other people to do these things, and instead spend his time catching up on the latest medical research?

2. It doesn’t fit into our parenting approach. I don’t think that growing my own food and doing my own home maintenance is conducive to a quality family time. I’d much rather spend some time earning money which will allow me to buy products and services, thus freeing my time to do interesting things with my kids such as playing, reading, talking walks, or going on road trips.

What am I going to achieve if I grow my own food? My time that I would have otherwise spent relaxing or playing with the kids will be wasted, I will lose the money I would have otherwise earned if I worked, and no one will benefit from it. If I rather spend the money to buy nonGMO pesticide-free food, it will save me time and it will support the organic farmer who has grown my food for me. Instead of washing cloth diapers, I’d much rather buy a bunch of disposables. Instead of vacuuming and mopping floors, I’d rather outsource house cleaning. Instead of cooking from scratch, which we now do a lot, I’d rather hire someone to help with cooking (some day!). I’d rather outsource mundane things and concentrate on things that are really meaningful: my family. Money can’t buy happiness, but money can help buy time, and time is the best gift we can ever get.

Work smarter, not longer

One can argue that you need to work to have the money to buy goods and services, but there is a difference between working and overworking. If you live a frugal and debt-free lifestyle you don’t need to overwork and sacrifice your family time to make enough money to cover your needs, but you can make enough money to live comfortably and to be able to buy time and convenience. It’s also good to have skills that will allow you to work efficiently and to scale your income without having to put in more time.

What we tell the kids

Our homeschooling doesn’t focus on DIY things like farming, knitting, or carpentry. I do want my kids to be able to do small emergency fixes like changing a light bulb or sewing a button, but I wouldn’t teach anything beyond that. Carpentry or knitting are fine as hobbies or as business ventures, but if you knit your sweaters to save money or to make a point for self-sufficiency, this is where it becomes counterproductive. Its better to buy the sweater and use your free time to spend with your family or on other meaningful and productive things. And if you don’t have the money, I think that rather than knitting to save money the attitude should be to dedicate your time to professional development and to acquire skills that will bring you enough income, to buy any sweaters you need, now and in the future.

So I want to direct my kids towards learning skills that will help them work efficiently and scale their earnings. I want to inspire my kids to start scalable businesses, so they can have flexible schedules and expand their operations without taking on a lot of additional workload. Eventually, the goal for my kids will be to have efficient and scalable businesses and to make enough money to buy time-saving products and to hire help, so they can have free time to spend on their families and on other important things that really matter in life.