We could order people to stop spending, as an Orwellian edict. This would be similar to the case of my third group of students, for whom the deadline was dictated by me. But are there cleverer ways to get people to monitor their own spending? A few years ago, for instance, I heard about the “ice glass” method for reducing credit card spending. It’s a home remedy for impulsive spending. You put your credit card into a glass of water and put the glass in the freezer. Then, when you impulsively decide to make a purchase, you must first wait for the ice to thaw before extracting the card. By then, your compulsion to purchase has subsided. (You can’t just put the card in the microwave, of course, because then you’d destroy the magnetic strip.) But here’s another approach that is arguably better, and certainly more up-to-date. John Leland wrote a very interesting article in the New York Times in which he described a growing trend of self-shame: “When a woman who calls herself Tricia discovered last week that she owed $22,302 on her credit cards, she could not wait to spread the news. Tricia, 29, does not talk to her family or friends about her finances and says she is ashamed of her personal debt. Yet from the laundry room of her home in northern Michigan, Tricia does something that would have been unthinkable and impossible a generation ago:
The American scene, populated by big homes, big cars, and big-screen plasma televisions, comes another big phenomenon: the biggest decline in the personal savings rate since the Great Depression. Go back 25 years, and double-digit savings rates were the norm. As recently as 1994 the savings rate was nearly five percent. But by 2006 the savings rate had fallen below zero—to negative one percent. Americans were not only not saving; they were spending more than they earned. Europeans do a lot better—they save an average of 20 percent. Japan’s rate is 25 percent. China’s is 50 percent. So what’s up with America? I suppose one answer is that Americans have succumbed to rampant consumerism.
You are at your mother-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving Dinner, and what a sumptuous spread she has put on the table for you! The turkey is roasted to a golden brown; the stuffing is homemade and exactly the way you like it. Your kids are delighted: the sweet potatoes are crowned with marshmallows. And your wife is flattered: her favorite recipe for pumpkin pie has been chosen for dessert. The festivities continue into the late afternoon. You loosen your belt and sip a glass of wine. Gazing fondly across the table at your mother-in-law, you rise to your feet and pull out your wallet. “Mom, for all the love you’ve put into this, how much do I owe you?” you say sincerely. As silence descends on the gathering, you wave a handful of bills. “Do you think three hundred dollars will do it? No, wait, I should give you four hundred!” This is not a picture that Norman Rockwell would have painted. A glass of wine falls over; your mother-in-law stands up red-faced; your sister-in-law shoots you an angry look; and your niece bursts into tears. Next year’s Thanksgiving celebration, it seems, may be a frozen dinner in front of the television set.
Have you ever grabbed for a coupon offering a FREE! package of coffee beans—even though you don’t drink coffee and don’t even have a machine with which to brew it? What about all those FREE! extra helpings you piled on your plate at a buffet, even though your stomach had already started to ache from all the food you had consumed? And what about the worthless FREE! stuff you’ve accumulated— the promotional T-shirt from the radio station, the teddy bear that came with the box of Valentine chocolates, the magnetic calendar your insurance agent sends you each year? It’s no secret that getting something free feels very good.
At the onset of World War II, an Italian diamond dealer, James Assael, fled Europe for Cuba. There, he found a new livelihood: the American army needed waterproof watches, and Assael, through his contacts in Switzerland, was able to fill the demand. When the war ended, Assael’s deal with the U.S. government dried up, and he was left with thousands of Swiss watches. The Japanese needed watches, of course. But they didn’t have any money. They did have pearls, though—many thousands of them. Before long, Assael had taught his son how to barter Swiss watches for Japanese pearls. The business blossomed, and shortly thereafter, the son, Salvador Assael, became known as the “pearl king.” The pearl king had moored his yacht at Saint-Tropez one day in 1973, when a dashing young Frenchman, Jean-Claude Brouillet, came aboard from an adjacent yacht. Brouillet had just sold his air-freight business and with the proceeds had purchased an atoll in French Polynesia—a blue lagoon paradise for himself and his young Tahitian wife. Brouillet explained that its turquoise waters abounded with black-lipped oysters, Pinctada mar gar it fera. And from the black lips of those oysters came something of note: black pearls.