Mal Fletcher
Binge Buying

Binge buying can be just as injurious to your health and family life as binge drinking.

This is a lesson that, it seems, many Britons will learn the hard way over the next few months.

Recession or not, research has revealed that UK shoppers spent more on debit and credit cards from December 19 to December 31 than they did in the same period last year.

People spent an estimated one billion pounds online during the three days immediately after Christmas Eve. Apparently, people were still spending big on Christmas Day.

Over the New Year holidays, many major stores in London and regional centres recorded increases of up to five times their sales compared to the same period last year.

A couple of days back, my wife and I took a trip to one of Britain's leading shopping malls. It's an outdoor, year-round clearance venue for major brands. We went with a very specific goal: to replace a small bag which an airline had thoughtfully lost on a recent flight.

We arrived just before the stores opened, did our shopping quickly and then just wandered around for the exercise, watching other people shop. I was amazed to see, just half an hour after the stores opened, whole swathes of people walking around with armloads of bags stuffed to the brim.

Call me sceptical, but I can't believe that those bags were filled with necessities, or that the prices were just too good to pass up. After all, if an item is at the top of its price range to begin with, knocking it down by thirty or even fifty percent still won't mean you're getting a bargain.

 In any case, a bargain is not a bargain if you don't really need it, or if you're relying on credit to cover the purchase.

Just prior to Christmas, economic indicators seemed to suggest that Brits were becoming better savers, squirreling away their hard earned cash in the face of this nation's worst recession in 30 years.

Yet post-Christmas sales reveal that the consumption lifestyle of the past decade still has a powerful grip on many people.

Some shoppers, of course, are buying with a carefully laid out plan, having held off on that much needed purchase until the sales hit. Many more, though, are buying things just because they're on sale.

If we're to steer ourselves and our families through this recession - and, more importantly, avoid similar problems in future - we need to make spending frugally more of a lifestyle choice. We need to become more disciplined about our consumption.

One of the gloomiest recurring news stories of 2009, in most industrialized countries, centred on the burgeoning size of national deficits and borrowing levels. The US owes two trillion dollars, much of it to that rapidly emerging behemoth, China. In the UK, general government debt stood at £796 billion at the end of March 2009.

Most of us find the rapid, seemingly unstoppable increase in national debt disturbing. What kind of inheritance are we leaving to future generations?

Yet this tendency to run up debt while living on the never-never starts at a much more personal level. People get the governments they deserve, it's said. That's true: democratically elected governments tend to reflect the priorities of those who placed them in power to begin with.

 If we can't see beyond a consumption lifestyle, if we can't recognize the benefits of frugality, we'll never vote for politicians who have the willpower needed to keep consumption or debt in check on a national scale.

There are two factors at work in our fondness for spending, and especially spending on credit. The first is the digital revolution, which affects everything from music and video files to money.

Digital money has many advantages, but it has two major downsides: it is an easier target for fraudsters and it has no weight, no substance; you can't tell when you've exhausted it.

Oh for the days when people would spend only as long as they had cash in their pockets. Back then - and it wasn't long ago - you could tell when the money was running out because your wallet was getting lighter by the minute.

Money that's reduced to the ones and zeros of binary code is ethereal and much easier to lose track of.

Our second problem is the strong existentialist streak running through our postmodern culture.

The highest good we can achieve in life, says existentialism, is to enjoy as many good experiences as we can before we die.

Now whatever you think of Jean Paul Sartre and his friends, this is not a philosophy well known for producing long-term thinkers, or people who strategically plan for the future.

Entranced by this live-for-the-now thinking, many of us seem to believe there may be a kind of fairy godmother solution to problems with personal debt. If we can just put off the day of reckoning long enough, and stretch our moment of pleasure to the max, someone else will come to our rescue.

I can't help feeling that this was one of the factors behind the remarkable rise of Barack Obama, who rode to his presidency not on the back of his experience as a legislator as much as his ability to embody a promise; a pledge to solve big problems with a minimum of turmoil or fuss.

Time will tell how well he's able to deliver, but I doubt he'll ever live up to the hype that surrounded his election - nobody could.

There are no fairy godmothers. Good fortune alone will not turn things around no matter how positive our attitude or how much we 'keep believing.'

Whether on a national or a personal level we all have to pay the piper sooner or later. There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

It's time we learned how to say 'no' a little more often, to delay gratification knowing that monetary value is often only momentary value, that there's more to our personal value than our ability to spend money.

In his seminal book Affluenza, Oliver James warns that a virus is spreading through our materialistic, consumerist culture; a virus which is at the root of most of our personal and social distress.

 The Affluenza virus, as he calls it, is a pandemic arising from our obsession with having more - money, status, fame - at the expense of being more.

Because of the Affluenza virus, says James, we're insecure, constantly comparing our lot with that of others, especially those who have more than we do.

We're also alienated, because we keep many people at a distance in the pursuit of career. The virus leaves us feeling incompetent, too, because, however successful we become it never seems enough; we try harder and harder to climb a ladder which has no end.

While the New Year sales-rush is at its peak, homeless charities in London and other major cities report a rise in middle-class homelessness.

In the midst of relationship breakdowns, unemployment or both, even professional middle-class people can quickly use up their savings, max out their credit cards and, when friends and family no longer offer help, find themselves without a fixed abode.

Homelessness is an extreme situation and one that won't affect the majority of us any time soon, but it does point out the insecurity inherent in living, or spending, as if there is no tomorrow.

Recession or not, it seems we still have some learning to do.

Oh yes, my wife and I bought a small bag and we got a very good price. It took us just a few minutes, because we knew what we were looking for. Then we had a meal and left the mall, just as the crowds were starting to build.

We breathed a sigh of relief as we drove from the car park, while other drivers circled endlessly look for a space. It was nice to leave with our sanity and our finances still relatively intact

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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