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The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, And The New Consumer Hardcover – April 26, 1998

4 out of 5 stars 81 customer reviews

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Based on seven years of reporting from over a dozen countries, writer Tom Wainwright takes you on an extraordinary journey into the business of being a drug lord. Learn more.

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

If getting and spending define our lives, then Juliet Schor now has us covered. Six years ago, her book The Overworked American scrutinized the getting part. It focused public attention on the disappearance of leisure and the harmful effects thereof on families and society. It sparked a debate over whether Americans really work as much as we proudly claim. (If so, how to explain the audience for Monday Night Football?) Nevertheless, Schor can take credit for helping push Congress into passing the Family Leave Act in 1993.

Now she is back with a critique of our spending. Schor notes that, despite rising wealth and incomes, Americans do not feel any better off. In fact, we tell pollsters we do not have enough money to buy everything we need. And we are almost as likely to say so if we make $85,000 a year as we are if we make $35,000. Schor believes that "keeping up with the Joneses" is no longer enough for today's media-savvy office workers. We set our sights on the lifestyles of those higher up the organizational chart. We seek to emulate characters on TV. For teenagers, "enough" is the idle splendor that hardly exists outside of what MTV un-ironically calls The Real World. Schor offers an original and provocative analysis of why many Americans feel driven and unhappy despite our success. As an alternative, she profiles several "downshifters" who've taken up voluntary simplicity in search of a more satisfying way of life. No policy solutions suggest themselves this time, only a change of heart. --Barry Mitzman

From Publishers Weekly

Whereas Schor's 1992 bestseller, The Overworked American, touched a nerve among all classes of American society, her latest study is geared to middle- and upper-middle-class consumers who, in her diagnosis, are participating in a national orgy of overspending and living beyond their means. She traces this competitive, status-conscious consumption to the diverging income distribution and growing inequality beginning in the 1980s, as increasingly overworked, insecure, dissatisfied consumers, pressured by advertising and television imagery, sought to emulate the upscale lifestyle of the most affluent. An economist and director of women's studies at Harvard, Schor presents her arguable conclusion that the more TV a person watches, the more he or she is likely to spend. In counterbalance, she also reports on her nationwide survey of "downshifters," people who deliberately reduce their hours on the job in exchange for more leisure, time with family or other pursuits. In self-help fashion, she outlines nine steps individuals can take to break free of the cycle of compulsive spending. Although Schor's jeremiad lacks the impact of her earlier book, it offers trenchant commentary on Americans' overspending lifestyle and lack of savings.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1st edition (April 26, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465060560
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465060566
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,039,663 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Juliet B. Schor's research has focused on the economics of work, spending, environment, and the consumer culture. She is the author of Born to Buy, The Overworked American, and The Overspent American. Schor is a professor of sociology at Boston College, a former member of the Harvard economics department, and a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient. She is also a cofounder of the Center for a New American Dream, an organization devoted to ecologically and socially sustainable lifestyles.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This book is an exploration into our motivations for acquiring mountains of stuff. The book also includes brief descriptions of some groups of people who have managed to get off the acquisitions bandwagon. Schor takes us through some of the classic literature on class and consumption patterns, noting that we make use of lifestyles as a form of social communication. We show our status or place in the hierarchy of society by the goods we own and display. Others may judge us according to our display of goods, or they may choose to challenge our status by some acquisitive one-ups-manship.

As an example of such social communication, Schor cites some research she did on cosmetic brands. Of all the types of cosmetics, lipstick is the one most likely to be applied in public. Schor found that women will often choose an expensive brand of lipstick to carry in their purses, especially if they are going to apply it in public where others will see and recognize the tube. But in blind tests, it was found that lipsticks are all more or less equivalent in quality, so women pay extra just for the visible tube. In contrast, facial cleansers are almost always used in private, and women make their choices between facial cleansers based on what works best, not brand name.

This brand consciousness pervades all of our purchasing behavior, whether we are aware of it or not. Think of your living room- -are there furniture brands or types of furniture some people display in their living rooms, but you would not even consider putting in yours because of what it would say about your taste? What statement does your wrist watch say about you?
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As a young professional who is lucky enough to make more than most people my age, I was perpetually frustrated by my inability to save. When I whine about the vicious work-and-spend way I was living my life, most of my friends would tell me to just shut the hell up because they simply don't understand how someone with my income could have a difficult time "just keeping up."
And then I read "the Overspent American." Now everything is starting to come together. I'm no different than most people in my situation. Apparently, the more you make, the more you spend (because those with money are generally more status-oriented, and "status" requires money...lots and lots of money). Couple this with one's general dissatisfaction in the workplace, and spending goes even higher because people with means buy more things to distract themselves from the general unhappiness that is their life.
'Lest you think this is a "bleeding heart" book that doesn't put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the irresponsible consumer, let me assure you that this book makes no excuses for our society's poor consumer choices. Like any well-documented social science project, this book merely explains the new consumerism, based on Schor's studies and interviews with downshifters and overspent consumers. It passes no judgment, but it does not give irresponsible consumers an easy scapegoat for their problems either.
On the contrary, I felt like this book was a wake-up call. First, it made me feel better simply to know I wasn't the lone idiot who couldn't get my finances together. But second, and more importantly, this book gave me hope. It talks about downshifters and other individuals who have successfully managed to get their consumerism under control.
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Harvard professor Juliet Schor has written a timely and convincing work. Schor's argument is that people are actually happier when they are not obsessed with craving material luxuries.
Schor's perspective is balanced, realistic, and moderate. Unlike books that offer advice on money management, Schor cuts to the quick and goes to the heart of the problem: we buy not because we need but because we attempt to find identity, status, or security through our purchases.
The volume is divided into seven chapters. The first is titled, "Introduction," but is not really merely an introduction. It is a chapter in the fullest sense and might better be titled, "overview." Let me share one of numerous quotables from this section: "American consumers are often not conscious of being motivated by social status and are far more likely to attribute such motives to others than to themselves. We live with high levels of psychological denial about the connection between our buying habits and the social statements they make."
The second chapter, "Communicating With Commodities" discusses how people crave the standard of living portrayed by television sitcoms. The American majority is frustrated (and sometimes desperate to attain such a standard) because they compare themselves to these fictious upper middle classed lifestyles. Shcor illustrates where this can lead by referring to the "sneaker murders" where people were actually killed for their shoes (of the "proper" brand, of course).
The third chapter, "The Visible Lifestyle" emphasizes the sub-conscious quest for status. In her typically well-balanced perspective, she distinguishes between, "the desire [for] social status [and]...trying to avoid social humiliation." This is a GREAT chapter.
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