If you’ve ever spent time in Los Angeles, the city may have seemed like an inside joke: you end up scratching your head, wondering why you just don’t get it. “How did LA end up like this?” It’s so unlike many other places.

One thing there, though, is easy to grasp: its car culture. You are what you drive, basically. And if you’ve got it, you flaunt it. You put your best shiny rim forward.

Are we becoming the next LA? This past weekend, after driving through Auckland and seeing two Ferrari supercars on the road in as many hours, I wondered just that.

At least we’ll never get to LA’s level of gridlock, no matter how bad our traffic might seem.

Shopping because it’s just “what we do”

I’m also optimistic that we’ll never reach LA’s level of consumerism. Because just as we are not what we drive, or the job we do, we are also not what we buy. We don’t need to shop to be ourselves.

If there’s one thing that can get in the way of sorting out our finances and getting ahead, it’s consumerism – shopping because it’s “what we do”, or in order to feel good about ourselves, or to impress all the Joneses out there.

So click your heels together and say it with me now: “We are not what we buy. We are not what we buy.” We’re much more than that.

Unfortunately it can sometimes seem like “I shop, therefore I am”. We’ve been conditioned to have the latest, greatest stuff. What would happen if we didn’t?

When mobile phones expire

There are no expiry dates printed on mobiles, yet my children’s smartphones have become obsolete – one got turned off the other day when a network got upgraded; the other’s software can no longer stay in step with the latest updates.

They’re practically disposable.

Part of this is due to progress, to the march of technology. I get that. But some of it is due to what’s called “planned obsolescence” – when manufacturers make it so their products wear out, run out or go out of style much quicker than necessary.

Together with advertising, obsolescence keeps us “needing” the latest stuff, the latest model.

Now contrast that phone with a leather glove for softball or baseball. This summer I witnessed two different parents hand down their circa 30-year-old mitts to their children who were playing for the first time. Classic. Those gloves actually get better with age.

As I was fixing a glove for one of them – good as new or, I should say, better – I realised that that mitt could probably go another couple of decades of play. I wish we could get that much use out of our smartphones!

What makes us “us”?

Still, like I said, I’m an optimist that we can avoid consumerism and make better money choices for ourselves. Instead of everyone else’s ideas of what we should spend on, it’s about having our own plan for our money.

But if we’re not what we buy, what are we? What makes us “us”?

The great Pearl S Buck wrote that the “test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members”. So perhaps if we’re not what we buy, what makes us who we are is how well we take care of our own.

Now there’s something worth spending money on.

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