I’m a Victim of Consumerism. Are You?

By James Wong

I would be in trouble if I hadn’t realised this earlier. But I think there are many more out there who haven’t, and who are continually spending more and more money. Consumerism has become the economic engine of the world, but it is also a problem that might not have a turnaround if we don’t chart a course for its remedy. So what does this have to do with cars, you may ask. Actually, the car world is one of the biggest expressions of consumerism.

Just a few weeks ago, my dad took delivery of his new car. We were pondering for at least a few months whether we even needed this new car, because we were actually pretty happy with what we already had. However, driven by the itch to spend on something, and the desire to attain something of a higher status, we made the plunge and invested heavily in a new car. The decision felt like a good one when we were about to make it, but after making it and taking delivery, a tinge of ‘Why did we buy it?’ started to creep up inside me. Sure, it is a nice car and it does its job well… But what can it do that a car half its price cannot? Nothing much actually.

So that got me thinking about chasing the latest and increasingly more expensive cars. We aren’t alone in this. There are probably only a few other places in the world as good as Singapore in showing that people are indeed chasing for the latest and greatest things in a scary way. Technology uptake in Singapore is massive; you see a BlackBerry or an iPhone almost everywhere you turn on the street, when just 1-2 years ago, nobody was using them. But perhaps even more amazing is the car market. Ridiculously overpriced by at least more than double the market value, cars are still being bought as if they are a necessity.

I read a post earlier in the day on a forum saying that 20-30 years ago, a BMW coupe was a rare thing in Singapore. Now, seeing a Ferrari and a Lamborghini on the road is commonplace. You may credit this to progress and a general increase in wealth, but I’m sure more people than not are buying these cars on credit. In fact, if you were to walk into any showroom today in town, the salesman eager to close your transaction will be surprised you are not buying the car on credit but rather with your hard-earned cash. Loans have become part-and-parcel of the car business, and paying by cash has become a rarity. Yet, people still live beyond their means and buy cars that they can’t actually afford to pay for, except with borrowed money. I don’t know about you, but I find it strange that people are now burdening themselves with hefty loan payments with the latest BMW, Audi or Mercedes cars when they don’t have the money to buy them.

Also I find with great regret that people do not see the value of older cars. Yes, the latest offerings on the market may be more technologically advanced and probably more efficient, but in the mindless pursuit for new things people have forgotten that there are still gems to be found in the used car market. Is there really a need to buy that new car with the chintzy LED daytime running lights or the new 8-speed gearbox when the old stuff works just as well? People no longer have the patience nor the desire to own an older car when it is only more ‘hassle.’ As a consequence, they pay top dollar for the shiny new car. The funny thing is, nowadays cars do not feel as sturdy and long-lasting as they did in prior years. This may be a sweeping statement, but there is some truth to it. The durability and reliability of the parts used are becoming questionable, as are manufacturing standards. Just look at the huge recalls that are being issued now and then by established manufacturers. New cars just don’t seem to be able to last that long anymore. Maybe that is one of the reasons why people are changing their cars more often.

Materialism, conspicuous consumption, consumerism, they all point to the same thing. A ticking time bomb that could potentially wreak havoc in the near future if we don’t do something about it. I am not saying that we should go back to our cheap budget cars and to stop ourselves from buying nice cars. But perhaps we should take a step back to really ponder what we are spending our money on, and whether it’s really necessary. And, if it’s necessary, whether we can afford it in the first place. The word ‘affordability’ works in a very strange way now, as it has come to mean whether your loan will be approved for your purchase, and not whether you have enough money to pay for it. And, we also need to switch off the marketing spiel sometimes. Car manufacturers are increasingly reliant on advertisement to make you desire something, and they run marketing campaigns that tug on your emotional heartstrings rather than your rational thinking. Instead, buy a car because you have done your research till the wee hours of the morning and are sure you want it, because you’ve finally saved up enough money to fund your dream car, and most importantly, because you love the car. And not because you buy it to have the newest or most impressive to impress your neighbour.

Just look at the world today. Countries are competing to build the tallest skyscrapers in the world, or the grandest project in the region, or the biggest, most luxurious, most impressive thing. There is so much waste, so much spending when money could be used so much more wisely. Just remember not to be so caught up in this rat race that you forget what is life and make a mess out of it. There are dreams of prosperity, respect, reputation and image – but remember that there is more to life than those things.

Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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8 Comments

  1. Interesting comments. I have an older VW Golf, it works just fine. I bought it when i had less money than i do now. My peer co-workers are all shiny in their new this and that, I continue on with the VW. I can see that they are annoyed with me, poking fun at me for driving such a car when I’m supposed to have a car like their’s. I cannot say that I am not affected by their comments – I think of a shiny new thing too. I doubt that I succumb – I will only buy with cash (I hope). Interesting, I like cars, I like to drive – the VW is fun, and I like it. But somehow, I feel at a loss.
    Am I strong enough and secure enough to resist this peer pressure? I hope so.

  2. Amen to that!! Until people in this world are not dying daily of starvation and simple, preventable diseases, then luxury cars perhaps shouldn’t be considered a necessity!

  3. Great article. I strongly agree to the fact that alot of people are splashing lots of money on loans to live up to their “status”. However, little do they know that they are victims in the marketing world.

    Sales people used to be tempted by potential buyers with cold hard cash, but it has turned history for now.

    I have been a happy used car user for many years. It feels really satifying after I calculate how much the first owners have lost after they sold the cars that I own then.

  4. The claim that newer cars last longer than older cars seems more a matter of perspective.

    As recent as the 1980s carburetors and automatic transmissions required frequent rebuilds. Brake lines and exhaust systems corroded through. Distributor caps, ignition rotors, spark and plugs and wires needed constant replacement. Early fuel injectors (even those made by Bosch) constantly clogged up or developed circuit shorts. Air conditioning hardware constantly leaked. So did power steering systems. Windshield wiper arm motors failed without warning in the worst rainstorms. Suspension bushings would fail early and often. Up until the mid-1990s in the Northern U.S., where road salt was a winter staple, cars corroded severely.

    Back then consumers were conditioned to accept these issues and to expend finances to perform maintenance.

    Thanks partly to the consumer protection and environmental protection movement of the 1980s consumers became conditioned to expect vehicles with few flaws and requiring vastly less maintenance or service.

    Personal vehicles are gravitating to propulsion systems with fewer moving components which are near impervious to ordinary mechanical failure. In spite of that the automotive industry doesn’t see a change in consumers’ preference for short-term relationships with consumer goods.

    Automobile manufacturers simply cater to that type of consumer thinking and those type of consumer tastes.

    See http://www.narcissismepidemic.com/

  5. Consumerism dates from long long time ago, I spotted this vintage Chevy commercial on Youtube when they released a then all-new 1959 model when a kid persuaded his parents to replace the old car
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSo-hlDK8sQ

    Also, there was an episode of the tv series “The Wonder Years” when someone buy a new car, it can be the “king of the block” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSo-hlDK8sQ

  6. I bought my last new car in 2002. It was a Chevy Trailblazer @ $30K. Total with finance once I paid it off was about $40Kish. I sold it with 100,000 miles for $6K. So that 100,000 miles cost me $34K, or $9K per year. New cars make no economic sense. You are financing depreciation. The SUV lost 10k in the first year and I got the privilege of paying interest on that lost money.

  7. Completely agree with George. I work in a supplier for major european and american car companies, and i assure you that the materials used are increasingly better and better. I belive that publicity given to defects is much greater now, and standards of quality are the highest ever. That has led to manufacturers taking seriously quality issues and making a big effort to eliminate them. Time between services are the longest ever. The only place i find a slight backwards step is in interiors plastic quality

    regards

  8. Dear Mr. Wong

    Thank you for putting into words what many of us have observed with a heavy heart. Your insightful prose shines a light into a possibly dark place for many of us caught up in such mindless chasing… As Pagani muses, when Art meets Science, there will be beauty. Perhaps when man become masters of their possessions instead of slaves to it, we’ll see more happy families instead of overworked adults slaving over a job to pay their car loans.

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