People spend and spend in the hope of having a joyous Christmas. But their big spending has year-round consequences. What does rampant consumer spending say about us and about our nations? Is there a better way?
Christmas has come and gone, but for countless millions it left behind a powerful reminder—year-round consumer debt. Last December's "Joy to the World" is today's joy to VISA or MasterCard or American Express.
The complete results are not in yet, but it looks like Americans loaded up on holiday personal debt at a record pace in 2005. According to one newsmagazine: "Despite a devastating hurricane season and worries about rising home utility bills, American consumers spent heartily for the holidays—8.7 percent more than in 2004 according to a study by SpendingPulse" (Newsweek,Jan. 4, 2006).
The Newsweek article reports that much of the spending was done with credit cards. As 2005 ended, a Visa USA report revealed that its cardholders spent $32.2 billion in the final week before Christmas and Hanukkah. That was a whopping 26.9 percent increase over the final shopping week in 2004.
It may have been a deliriously merry Christmas in Canada, but the Retail Council of Canada reports that the average Canadian spent nearly $2,000 last year on Christmas-related items. As in the United States, much of that amount was put on credit cards.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, early 2006 financial reports show that the British spent even more lavishly—U.K. credit card spending hit a record £29 billion in December. Personal debt in the U.K.—the highest in Europe—has increased by 41 percent, from £2,151 to £3,034 per person, in the past five years.
Not only is individual debt growing; national debt is also increasing. The CIA World Factbook reports that worldwide debt reached $12.7 trillion in 2004. The U.S. makes up the largest share of that debt, whichtopped $1.4 trillion as far back as 2001.
Holiday shopping binges certainly add to huge personal debt, but the sad truth is that much indebtedness is fueled by year-round spending beyond our means, with that extra "hol iday" kick thrown in.
While worried experts point to out-of-control "consumerism"—people buying things—we must ask the obvious questions: What drives this insatiable appetite for material possessions? Why are we never satisfied with what we have? Why do we continue to strive for even more?
The Great God of the Universe has given us laws to live by. If kept, these laws would bring total satisfaction to our lives. In rejecting these laws, human beings have given themselves over to unrestrained desire for things. What we do not have, we covet. The Apostle James wrote of this nagging hunger: "Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures" (James 4:1–3).
Put simply, this means breaking God's tenth commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's" (Exodus 20:17).
Life is more than the accumulation of things. It is more than the shallow saying, "He who dies with the most toys wins." The Bible cautions us to keep our minds on the things of God, not on wealth, power or physical possessions: "Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist. When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven" (Proverbs 23:4–5, NRSV).
God's way brings the gift of true wealth—the only wealth that will last.