Conspicuous vs. Inconspicuous Consumption

Warning: It’s about to get nerdy all up in here.

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I haven’t finished this book yet, but I need to start processing it already. First, we need to define some terms:

Conspicuous consumption: the purchase of tangible items to show off wealth, like jewelry, cars, or name-branded clothing.

Inconspicuous consumption: the purchase of  items or services that aren’t as showy but represent certain cultural knowledge or priorities, such as yoga classes, organic groceries, or private school tuition.

As we’ve been talking about how Matt and I approached money when it was severely lacking, this book is really fascinating, starting with this gem from page 21:

“[T]he democratization of conspicuous consumption has provided many more material goods to the middle class, but this change is to their detriment. As they spend more on material status symbols, they are spending less on those things that would pave the way to greater intergenerational upward mobility.”

On the flip side, those who are looking to climb the status ladder, termed the “aspirational class” in this book, eschew these visible markers for less readily noticed ones that often appear noble because they are centered around productivity, like sport-oriented summer camps or family exercise classes. But page 22 shows that there’s a problem here, too:

“[T]hey shore up their and their children’s distinct sociocultural (and often economic) position of privilege, leaving everyone else out. The aspirational class members’ self-assurance with their decisions and seeming deservedness of their social position allows them to ignore the growing inequality all around them.”

There is no life in stuff and there is no life in chasing status. I wouldn’t have learned this lesson nearly as well unless our early years unfolded the way we did. Having little and having to think carefully about how to use it was an immense lesson in stewardship–of money, time, and effort.

In time, I want to dive into what this means for Christians: how do we use our resources well? How do we care for and raise our children without stomping on others’ children and their shot at rising above? How do we live in a cultural milieu while still putting the gospel first, living in but not of the world?

There is so much more to unpack in this topic, but I think this is enough for the day: whatever class we find ourselves in–whether by birth or circumstance–there will be idols and temptations of idols. Whether our hearts lean toward conspicuous consumption of things or inconspicuous consumption of a certain lifestyle, we (and I mean I) must guard against anything motivating us more than loving and serving the Lord.

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