Wild, conspicuous, unrestrained consumption seems to have become as unfashionable as fleece clothing. It’s partly a sign of the times: jobs are uncertain and home values are plummeting. But it’s as much about a corresponding subtle shift in values, a reconsideration of just how much consumerism is culturally appropriate in this leaner new world, even for those who can still afford as much as ever.
Suddenly, big spending seems a little vulgar. The über-wealthy aren’t splashing out on multi-million dollar renos, sports cars, or overtly designer items. And ordinary folk want more bang for each buck.
The shift is a relief to me, frankly, in a strange, selfish way. I’m not a purist: all that “getting and spending,” that Wordsworth criticized a couple of centuries ago as being a “waste” of our real power, can sometimes be mildly euphoric. But consumerism seems to have whirled into a particular frenzy in the recent decade-long boom cycle. When I think back to 10 years ago, I seemed to have much more time for other things when I was spending less. Granted, I was in university and had no disposable income to spend even if I’d wanted to, but even so, I seem to remember having more hours for, well, fun.
What’s struck me lately are several conversations I’ve had about how the recession’s silver lining has been quick to replace luxury’s supposedly golden glow.
“Urban riding makes me feel like Mad Max,” says Michael Eckford, host of Shaw TV’s talk show, Urban Rush. A few months ago, he started riding his bike to work to pocket the daily $17 parking charge. He recently got a “sweet new bike,” made by a Canadian company, which looks like a racing bike, but is made to endure rougher terrain. “It feels fast even when I’m not,” he says. And even though Eckford likes it for lessening his environmental footprint and all, he really sticks with it for the thrill – not to mention the $350 he pockets in parking change every month.
Dining at home is another facet of this new spend-less-yet-have-more-fun trend. “We are going to start throwing potlucks once a week,” says Jeremy Crowle, a Vancouver-based artist and the co-owner of Change Creative Group. He thinks he and his girlfriend will start with some food and decor themes, like subcultures or countries, but acknowledges those probably won’t last.
They love going out for dinner, and Crowle says visiting someone else’s house can give you the same feeling, but with better conversation. “Generally, it’s more fun and costs less,” he says. Plus, he adds, the food is better since most people he knows tend to use local ingredients when they cook at home.
There’s the added benefit for the guest that it satisfies the innate human curiosity about how other people live and cook in their own homes, and, for the host, that “you’re sharing yourself a bit when you bring food.”
Another type of sharing that’s going on in the city is at clothing swaps, where people get together to exchange their own used clothes. Christine Choquette, a local restaurant owner and musician, has been to several swaps over the last couple of years, but since the recession hit, has noticed she’s been invited to about twice as many.
“A store clerk recently told me I should expect to pay $1,000 for a good coat. I don’t know many people who could afford that, or who would want to pay that this year even if they could,” said Choquette, explaining the appeal of swapping over shopping.
Choquette says a good swap is all about the guest list. To start with, she only goes to friends’ parties now, not advertised ones, since most of a swap’s draw, for her, is the fun, food and wine that go along with it, but also because that way she knows about the quality and style of clothing that’ll be there. One swap she went to was full of “tattered, ripped clothes. It’s like they just brought their husbands’ old sweatpants. Ew.” The other key is that there needs to be at least one person there you don’t know, “so you can wear their clothes without everyone always recognizing them.”
Around Vancouver, the thrill of thrift is very much in vogue