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The Disposable Society: An Expensive Place To Live

We live in an age where everything gets thrown away. From disposable cameras to disposable diapers, few products marketed to consumers are made to last. But what many consumers don't realize is that this throw-away world was largely made by design. Manufacturers call it "planned obsolescence". Find out how this trend affects not only your pocketbook, but also the environment.

Not Meant to Last
Creating products that aren't meant to last is a very viable business strategy as this means that consumers will need to buy replacement products. Consider the straight razor that your great grandfather used or the cloth diapers that your great grandmother probably made for her children. If you can find it and sharpen it, that razor can still be used today and those diapers were probably used for multiple children and then put to further use sopping up spilled milk or scrubbing floors. In more recent years, those long-lived products have become bad news for companies that need to sell more products this year than last year to keep their stock prices high.

In a more modern context, consider videogames. Old games, like Pong, could be played over and over again. Today's games, like the popular Grand Theft Auto series, have a beginning and an end. Once you "beat the game" you need to buy the next installment in the series. The same concept applies to computer software. If you call Microsoft and try to get support for Windows 98, a once expensive product that still works just fine on many computers, you'll be told that it is no longer supported. It's not that the product doesn't work, it's that the company wants you to buy the latest and greatest version of whatever they're selling.

More durable goods, such as automobiles and cellular telephones, present a bigger challenge to manufacturers. While new cars may not seem to be built to last like cars were in the 1950s, improving warranties at least conveys the impression of quality. But even if the quality of newer cars is comparable, manufacturers still try to tempt drivers into buying new cars by coming out with new styles every few years. Cell phones follow the same script. If you don't have newest, thinnest, most feature-packed model, advertisers tell you that you are hopelessly out of style. To keep up with the Joneses, you need to replace your existing model - regardless of whether it still works - with a new one.

Building low quality products also results in higher profit margins for manufacturers. Using throw-away materials not only guarantees a repurchase of the same item (in a new model, with more features, at a higher price), but the cost savings also end up being pure profit for the manufacturer.

Most consumers are so acclimated to the process that they don't even think about it. After all, advertising has taught us that new is good and that old isn't. So, we spend, spend and spend some more until, in the worst case scenario, even our creditors won't let us buy anything else.

The Cost
This "out with the old, in with the new" lifestyle has a tremendous cost. Not only is your wallet continuously emptied as your limited supply of dollars chases an endless supply of new and updated products, but many people fall victim to making their purchases on credit once they run out of available cash. Unfortunately, using credits cards is an easy way to put a serious dent in your finances.

Personal finances aside, there is also an environmental price to pay for consumerism. Constant manufacturing of new and unnecessary products uses up raw materials and contributes to pollution, impacting the quality of the water we drink and the air we breathe. The products themselves end up in landfills, taking up space that is often at a premium.

Voluntary Simplicity
Combating the costs of our disposable society is a major challenge, but there are ways to fight back. The Amish, often noticed for their style of dress and lack of focus on material goods, are the most visible representatives of the modern-day voluntary simplicity movement. They eschew modern conveniences and luxury items in favor of a simpler way of living.

While nobody expects you to ride around in a horse and buggy, there are steps you can take to minimize your participation in our consumer-focused society and, in the process, bolster your personal financial situation.

A few of these easy methods include:

  • Buy durable goods whenever possible.
  • Ignore or stop style-driven purchases. If it's a choice between cheap stuff that will need to be replaced or better items that will last, spend the extra dollars in the short term to save money over the long run. From a style perspective, wearing your grandmother's hand-me-downs may not be practical, but trading in your cell phone or MP3 player for no better reason than that it is new is not only unnecessary, it's also expensive
  • Recycle whenever possible. To reduce your personal impact on the environment, recycle. Everything from newspaper to toner cartridges can be reused. Also, be sure to donate old eyeglasses, cell phones and computers instead of throwing them away. Speaking of reusable items, take your own reusable, cloth bag with you when you go to the grocery store (many stores now charge a small fee for each plastic bag you use) or, at the very least, choose paper over plastic, and then recycle the paper.
  • Grow your own garden. This will cut down on your trips to the grocery store, saving money on both gas and food.
  • Make your home green. Using low-flow shower heads, compact fluorescent light bulbs and other energy-efficient devices will help your budget in addition to the environment.
  • Use public transportation when possible. If you must drive, consider a fuel-efficient car. Carpooling is another good way to reduce both the financial and environmental impacts of traveling.
  • Downsize where you can. You may like the souped-up 4x4 gas-guzzling monster you've been driving to the mall, and you may like the convenience of buying precooked dinners in bulk, but the excess money and material costs going into these purchases will have a huge impact on your bottom line. In this respect, the biggest one-time choice you can make is to downsize your home.
Get Started Today
Ignore the siren song of runaway spending. Forget about owning the latest styles, biggest houses or flashiest cars. Instead, make your financial situation your top priority. Your pocket book will breathe a sigh of relief when you make the effort - and you may be able to reduce your impact on the environment in the process.

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