Fighting North American Over-Consumerism

Store in Phoenix… I want it allll!

I pride myself on being able to travel on a budget. I mean, I’m not one of those people that brags about being able to live on 3 dollars a day while eating dry noodles every day. I believe it spending money reasonably while travelling to get the most out of it. I believe that there is little reason to spend hundreds of dollars a day on a vacation, and that there is always a way to travel cheap while still getting a great experience. I managed to travel French Guiana for about $30 a day while I was told that the cheapest I could do it was about $80 a day, and I tend to make the claim that one can travel basically anywhere in the world for $45 a day if they make the right decisions and put forward a little bit of extra effort.

However, since being in North America, I am failing miserably at my own game.

It’s not that it’s not possible. I have found, surprisingly, that North America, and especially the US has been quite cheap. Flights between cities won’t ever cost you much more than $100 and if you book a number of flights together you can get them much cheaper. Food is inexpensive too as long as you’re ok with not going to the fanciest restaurants. It’s not like accommodation is all that expensive either as the average hostel bed costs between $15-25 (and as cheap as $11) in Las Vegas. And even if you’re driving, the cost of fuel is unbelievably cheap at about $0.75-0.85 a litre. So how have I managed to spend double my usual budget? Simple. I have been taken by the powers of consumerism.

America has a way of telling you that you really want something, even if you don’t need it. We are so pushed towards new, better, more efficient items that using what we currently have is made to feel insufficient. For example, I don’t own a cell phone. Whenever I tell someone this I am looked like an alien. Sure, having a cell phone is great, and someday if I settle down I’ll get one. But in America the issue isn’t that people have cell phones, it’s that they always need to buy a new one. Seriously, who would ever want an iPhone 4 when you can have an iPhone 4S?? A slightly better item is meant to make you feel like the old model will hardly even work.

We have a basketball.. but we don’t have a Suns basketball!

Also, the amount of options makes it difficult to chose only one item. For example, walk into a McDonald’s in New York City and order any meal. Then walk over to the soda machine to choose your drink. You will be presented with over 100 options of different sodas. Who really needs that many options? It’s only human nature to want to try more than one when you have so many choices in front of you. The same goes for nearly all products and before you know it your house if full of different types of ab machines said to get you ripped in just 10 minutes a day.  And you can’t just buy shoes can you? You also need socks, shoe shiner, in soles, and a spray that makes them magically impermeable to water.

While living abroad I was rarely persuaded by my shopping daemon to buy 5 different pairs of basketball shoes. But while in a mall or Best Buy in North America, all of a sudden I caught myself saying “oh ya, I need….” over and over again. The idea of need somehow became lost on me despite my teachings abroad.

So as my time in America comes to a close, I can’t can help but feel guilty for my wasteful spending since I’ve been here. I don’t blame the system, I blame myself for not being able to control my urges. Sometimes it takes a bunch of mistakes to realize a lesson, and hopefully I’ve learned mine since I’ve been back.

I’ve been to places in the world that have challenged me in nearly every single way imaginable, and I’m sure my future destinations will as well. However, there has never been an obstacle I’ve encountered that I’ve not been able to beat; while, not until I met up with an old foe: North American consumerism.

Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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  1. But you should blame the system, rather than yourself, because the system IS the problem.

    The worst thing about capitalism is that it exploits our human survival instincts. The quest for food and shelter has been largely replaced by the quest for the newest and best material thing: not because we are stupid, but because we are being eternally indoctrinated. Capitalism treats us like a bunch of suckers and then blames us for being suckers.

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    • @Melissa – I was always taught to take responsibility for my own actions. It you are a strong person you shouldn’t have to blame anyone or anything. We are in control of our own body and mind. Blame does nothing except keeping you from learning a lesson.

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  2. P.S. I noticed you’ve been drinking more lately, and that’s another thing capitalism does: promote overconsumption to kill the stress and pain caused by other forms of overconsumption. It’s like a nightmare merry-go-round and you can’t get off, unless you escape the country altogether.

    I must say I’m a lot happier now that I live somewhere much less corporate-colonized than the U.S., where I can’t even understand what they’re advertising.

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  3. Great insight, Brendan. I’ve wondered if that’s something I’ll have to deal with as I return to the U.S. periodically over the next several years. I tell myself there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to continue to live frugally and within my budget when here, but I know the power of this consumer-based society. It looks like I’m going to really have to be alert and strong! 🙂

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    • @Peggy – I was really good at first, and then it just started wearing on me over the past couple weeks. It’s just really easy to buy things… haha

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  4. I totally feel you on this one. Its always a choice between experiance and possesions or contributing to others. I find contributing and experiance make me much happier but still struggle not buy things I dont need!

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    • @Justin – Exactly!

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  5. I’m guilty of being suckered into the capitalism as much as I tell myself I am not.

    When I got my Droid Charge I wasn’t pleased with the phone as it had a feature I had never seen any other phone use and then everybody kept telling me that’s a new feature every new phone has and I kept saying its not and it was stupid. Needless to say, it was a problem for me and my vision so the phone company wouldn’t replace it with a different model because of my disability so I cancelled my contract and got a new phone and it had to be the latest which I am 90% happy with :).

    What did I just say? I’m 90% happy with, at least this will keep me from buying another phone but another phone just like it came out 2 months after I got mine and I would have rather had that than this one ;).

    My consumerism is mostly in electronics more so than clothing so I don’t have 10 different pairs of shoes (although I have 4 different coats ;)). The other day I was looking at the new HP e-Print printers and I saw how handy it would be to be able to print my travel plans from anywhere I had internet access anywhere on the globe right to a printer at home so someone knew where I was at all time YET I can’t justify getting a new printer when the one I have works just fine and is very capable (except lacking remote printing features).

    I have a strange need for things that are hard to get, I purchased a 2nd Android phone as my first phone (the one I mentioned above) doesn’t work outside the USA while its an OK phone I’m still looking for a better one which I can’t find, its funny I desire the latest (that’s a want) yet I need a large screen I’m convulsed into self conflicts /sigh

    So I ask myself, do I go buy the printer anyway? Do I hunt down this elusive phone GSM capable phone with a 4″ screen with a decent size memory? I can’t stand those 10″ tablets, what about an 8″ tablet (yes I pre ordered one!).

    When I travel I might not be so compelled to look at electronics because I won’t hav any means of carrying around extra useless ones 😛

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    • @Shannon – It’s mostly electronics with me too. I think it’s because they’re so shinny.

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  6. Brendan – Acknowledging that there are forces greater than oneself is not weakness.

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  7. One of the big changes I made in my life a few years ago was to reduce my consumption. I stopped buying fewer clothes, shoes, decorative items…. junk. That is one of the reasons I was able to save money for my current travel sabbatical and get rid of most of my stuff.

    I hope that when I return I do not freak out and want to buy everything in sight because I’ve been living out of a backpack for so long.

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    • Steph – I really think that was part of it. When I got back to North America my eyes just lit up with all the things I hadn’t seen in a while… or ever. I wanted to try them all!

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  8. I can hardly disagree that we Americans live in a consumption-driven society. However, I applaud you for taking responsibility for your purchases rather than blaming it on the system. Many of us do manage to live somewhat modestly here.

    How nice that you posted pictures from Phoenix! That’s where I’ve lived for the past seven years. Enjoy the remainder of your time in the United States!

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    • @Curt – It’s not only Americans though. In Canada we are nearly as bad… I saw the same sort of thing in Brazil as well with the people that could afford it. Time to chill out on my spending… here’s to hoping this was a lesson learned.

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  9. Don’t feel so bad about it. The bootstrappers are the ones that don’t have a choice mate. If I had some extra cash to burn I’d probably be a bit more frivolous.

    I call myself a minimalist mainly because I’m piss poor and saying that kind of justifies it. But in truth do I really believe it?

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    • @Will – That’s true mate, but if you looked at my bank account today you’d know that I’m a bootstrapper too haha. Like I always say, I cover budget travel because it’s the only way I can do it.

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