Conspicuous Consumption and Personal Finance: Do You Work To Want Things?


Daniel Gross, a columnist at Newsweek and Slate, published a recent article in the NY Times Book Review that argued that today’s über rich are essentially leisure-less tycoons who need to work around the clock.  Gross goes on to argue that, “among Type-A, self-made members of the leisure class (read ultra wealthy), there’s a sort of reverse prestige associated with leisure.”

The idea that leisure is bad and that “conspicuous consumption”, or spending only to build prestige, should be avoided comes out of Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 classic, “Theory of the Leisure Class”.  For Veblen, writing during the peak years for Standard Oil and U.S Steel (the first billion dollar corporation), the rise of a social class concerned only with consumption wasn’t a sign of progress it was, as Gross states, “a relic of barbarism, and evolutionary step from feudalism, and hence, un-American.”  
Veblen saw the equivalent of today’s Bill Gates and Warren Buffet as individuals who contributed very little to society and who were focused more on acquiring wealth and leading a lavish lifestyle than giving money back to society, for example (of course both Gates and Buffet give away much of the their wealth).  
The Theory of the Leisure Class also raises many interesting questions in relation to personal finance such as:
1. How much money is enough to lead a good life?  And if we all achieve personal finance freedom (i.e., no debt, adequate cash savings, a comfortable home, steady income streams, etc.), then what truly comes next (golf and a martini every day or running your own charity)?

2. Is it bad to chase money, acquire material things (things that truly have no utility, such as luxury vehicles, multiple homes, etc.), and not truly contribute to the community, and society, at large?

3. If your personal financial situation is negative what got you into that position in the first place?  Did you think that consumption would make you happy and did you have a warped sense of what capitalism can truly offer, you, the individual?
Personal finance, at the end of the day, is as much about personal lifestyle (and views about consumption) as it is about saving money and leading a frugal life.  In many parts of the world, a large home with all of the material side dishes isn’t a goal (including advanced countries with well off citizens like Sweden and Norway), rather happiness and quality of life seem to supersede materialism and consumption.     
How do you view consumption, working hard, and personal finance?  Do you work to save in order to gain independence or do you aspire to, privately or publicly, to live like the good old American tycoons of the past?


  1. Interesting questions Vin. I think independence is definately an aspiration for me. Some of these themes were discussed I think in the novel The Great Gatsby. I guess I question whether after a certain point in attaining financial wealth whether this brings further happiness but I really don’t know; I have not attained that level of lifestyle to know whether it brings happiness or not.

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