As the Christmas season draws nearer, our already consumerist society is whipped into a frenzy of selling and buying. The message from advertisers is aggressive and relentless: buy our products this Christmas and you and your family will be well-dressed, well-fed and loved by all. The technology might have been upgraded and the accessories changed, but the fantasy remains unchanged year after year – a golden, spice-scented, glittering Christmas if you’ll only spend just a little bit more.
But as wages stagnate and families’ finances are stretched ever-tighter, what about those that can’t afford this vision of Christmas perfection? Our consumerist society has just the thing: debt!
It seems that over the past few years, debt has been repackaged as something normal, positive and freeing, and has extended to everyday items rather than big purchases. In recent years we’ve seen the rise of pay-weekly stores, which claim to offer freedom from the costs of Christmas. Retailers such as Littlewoods and Bright House offer consumers the chance to have what they can’t afford by paying for items in weekly instalments, with varying levels of interest. You can pay weekly for anything, from large items such as appliances and televisions, to clothing, make-up and DVDs. For instance, you might not be able to spend £150 on this season’s must-have party dress, but at Littlewoods it could be yours for the tiny sum of £1.55 a week. Read the small print, however, to find you’ll be paying it off for three years, and in the end it will cost you over £240. In reality, this isn’t freedom at all.
But who would go into debt for a party dress? Frustratingly, it’s the poorest in society who are most vulnerable to this form of irresponsible marketing. Consumerism sets the poorest up to lose – by promoting an unattainable lifestyle, then manipulating people to go into debt to live up to standards which were impossible in the first place, then trapping them in a cycle of debt which is often impossible to escape from. Pay-weekly retailers claim to have solved a problem by making the ideal lifestyle more accessible, when in reality it’s the notion of the “ideal lifestyle” itself that needs to be challenged. Otherwise the cycle goes on, with many still paying off the debts of last Christmas by the time the next one comes around, many going into debt simply to make ends meet.
Pay-weekly retailers are just one symptom of the consumerism that pervades our society. When examined carefully, we see that this system is unsustainable and desperately harmful to society. As Christians, it can be hard to know how to respond. It’s not just a problem that’s “out there” in society for other people to deal with – whether people of any faith or none, we are all tempted to spend more than we have on things we don’t need. How can we distinguish ourselves from a system which is so pervasive?
The Bible has an alternative view on what brings satisfaction, and it doesn’t involve chasing after possessions and wealth, or exploiting the poor. We are called to be content with what we have, and, furthermore, to be generous to those who have less than us. It’s such a simple message, but so refreshingly radical in a world which always wants more. In the words of Paul, “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (1 Timothy 6:6-8).
As Christians, we must never stop challenging and questioning the consumerism in our society, especially when we hold the keys to an alternative which offers so much hope. And we mustn’t forget that many don’t have enough food and clothing, let alone enough to buy into the consumerist fantasy. By practising contentment and generosity and turning to God to fulfil our needs, particularly at Christmas when the temptation to spend reaches fever pitch, we can show that there is another way to live which brings us the true freedom that consumerism can never satisfy.
If you want to find out more about biblical thinking on debt, we’ve recently published a 2000-word guide called “Thinking Biblically About Debt and Interest”, which is available here.