July 20, 2012

Not Buying The Rat Race

American garages have become oversized junk drawers -
only 25% have space for a car photo: J. Arnold/CELF

A growing legion of people are turning away from over-the-top consumer lifestyles and the perpetual busyness that one has to enter to support the pursuit of money and materialism. Fed up, stressed out, and in debt, they are raising the white flag and retiring from the rat race.

It is no wonder we feel burnt out on consumerism - it is an unbalanced way to live. It is uncomfortable, and our natural tendency is toward regaining balance. And we are very unbalanced in most industrialized nations.

A recent study by a group of social scientists looking at duel income American middle class families found that most are stressed out from managing overwhelming clutter, and frustrated by a lack of time. 

This hardly comes as a surprise for most families today, but in their book "Life At Home In The Twenty-first Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors", the scientists confirm our suspicions:

  • 3 out of 4 garages are so crammed with stuff that there is no room for a car.
  • people are too busy for family meals, even though they consider them important to family life.
  • adults AND children spent very little time outdoors, and felt too busy to go into their own backyards.
  • managing mountains of stuff increased stress hormones.
  • most families rely heavily on convenience foods, even though they actually save little time.
  • leisure time is spent in front of the TV or computer.
  • America has 3.1% of the world's kids, and 40% of its toys.

The study's lead author said she admired the way families coped with their busy lives, but described the general situation for most of them as "disheartening".

Occasionally we hear from NBA readers disheartened with keeping up with the Jones'.

Take for example the family of three from Santa Cruz, California that could have been part of the Life At Home study, which was conducted in Los Angeles. They emailed us to let us in on their not buying anything project that they started this summer.

"We started in part for the environment, in part to get out of debt, and in part because of feeling too busy with this thing called life."

They go on to describe a sensation that Linda and I have become familiar with over the years as we continue to simplify:

"I haven't felt this sure of things in a long time."

The rat race is optional after all, and many are not buying it in order to restore balance to their bank books, their lives, and the earth.


  1. Anonymous7/21/2012

    It's so simple yet profound: Stuff does not make us happy. It shouldn't be the barometer by which individual happiness or a country's well being is measured. If anyone is hesitating, take the leap! Life is better without the mental and physical clutter. I don't miss anything that I've given away.

    1. People are starting to catch on to such simple truths. Awareness is building, and things are changing. Take the leap, indeed!

      The United Nations Human Development Index measures happiness in different countries based on factors such as income, education, health, life expectancy, economy, gender equality and sustainability.

      Reports can be found here:


      It is interesting to see where countries rate on happiness rather than just on economic measures.

  2. It sometimes feels like we are on auto-pilot so that we don't even realize we don't HAVE TO participate in the rat race. And yes, people may get defensive and angry at someone who decided to get out of it, because they still feel trapped in it and like they have no choice. Or they want to continue and feel like their life style is being criticized. But I'd bet that anyone who turns their back on consumerism and the rat race for more money and stuff, will never regret it for a minute. It just needs to begin with a realization that there is a different way and it's up to us to change.

    1. The auto-pilot idea is familiar. It is as if we are charmed, mesmerized, hypnotized, tricked by the slight of hand by a magician.

      It is all pretty tantalizing when you consider all the promises that come with consumeristic lifestyles. But the promises are soon revealed to be empty.

      Joining the rat race is like having kids for most people - it is just something you HAVE to do. But you don't.

      You just have to be willing to go against accepted "wisdom", and do what feels right for you. Because we have free will, it IS up to us to change.

      We have the power!

  3. e.a.f.7/23/2012

    when friends of mine cleared out their garage to sell their home they took two cube vans to the sally ann & a couple tons to the dump. They weren't aware they had that much stuff.

    The garages of today are what cellars & then attics once where. However cellars & attics were usually difficult to get into, double garages attached to homes, not so much. It is soooo easy to "just put it in the garage". It would be better though to either give it away or send it to the recycler.

    If we stopped purchasing so much many of us wuold be in much better financial situations. How many toys does one kid need?

    I find it very interesting watching home buying shows. Most families want a place for the kids to play & keep their toys. They want a whole room just for that. Each child should be able to keep their toys in their bedrooms. Sending children to another room to play really isn't good for growing children. They are seperated from their parents.

    It is the same when you see people wanting a "refuge" from the kids & want a "master suite". If you need to get away from your kids, you need to look at what is wrong. If you think prior to having children, you might want to "get away" from them, don't have kids. Saves the planet.

    1. There is a lot of pressure to have kids, and most people do... whether they want them or not.

      Kids are great, but having your own is only one way to contribute to the next generation.

      Linda and I chose to be child-free, but we both spent a lot of time helping kids while I was a teacher.

      There are more children and young adults waiting for a significant adult in their lives than there are volunteers in many cases.

  4. Anonymous7/25/2012

    Now if only grandparents could get on board with this sentiment. I agree that full time parenting would do everyone in the world a favor. But if grandma showed up with $500 to help with the grocery bill, or mortgage, instead of $500 in crappy plastic toys a few times a year when she visits. I think my household would be a much happier place.

    1. Make it known that you prefer practical gifts, or no gifts.

      Brightly packaged toys may be more exciting to give than broccoli, but you have to store them somewhere, and you can't eat them.


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