Spend Like Santa, Save Like Scrooge

I noticed today that next semester’s textbooks are starting to arrive at the college bookstore on campus.  I had considered buying them from Amazon–mostly because I wasn’t sure if the texts would be available before Christmas, but also because I could, in some cases, save up to 50% of the cover price by purchasing through Amazon.

I stuck my nose in a conversation after class yesterday. Two students were discussing the campus bookstore and various other campus business matters.  Business issues generally do not interest me in the slightest, but in the course of this conversation it occurred to me that fundamentally there is no difference between the independent bookstore and the big-box bookstores like Chapters/Indigo (or Borders or Barnes & Noble) or online retailers like Amazon. There is fundamentally no difference between them insofar as they are all businesses seeking a profit.  They are businesses and they want your money.*

And yet we tend to feel guilty about buying our books from Amazon or Chapters.  They are the big, bad retailers who buy at special bulk rates, which allows them to undercut their competition.  (“Competition” is an odd term for an independent bookstore relative to the big boxers, isn’t it?)  This kind of cut-throat competition gives me, as a Christian, pause: how do the commands play out in the business world? What does it mean to love your neighbour at a corporate level?  I don’t know the answer to that, although I’m tempted to think that it means absolutely nothing at the corporate level.  This is the capitalist, market economy, folks; that’s simply the way it goes. It’s the Darwinism of Wall Street: survival of the biggest and cheapest. It’s just business.

Our incredulity (even if it’s only in theory) is bit disingenuous, though. After all, if the independent local bookstore somehow managed to undercut the big-box retailers, no one would think worse of them.

But beyond that, I wonder if perhaps our finger-pointing at the big-box stores is too…finger…pointing…y.  The big-box stores may be offering lower prices than the independent store can afford, but the big-box store is simply offering what we desire (and what the independent store would presumably like to be able to do). We are obsessed with saving money on our purchases, but ultimately saving money is done by many of us simply to acquire more.

Many years ago, Canadian Tire ran an annual yuletide ad campaign with the mantra, “Spend Like Santa, Save Like Scrooge.”  The message was that you could get more stuff for less at Canadian Tire.  The irony that is often lost on us, however, is that our response is generally not to buy what we need and pocket the savings, but to simply buy more stuff and technically not save anything.  Christians tend to be consumerist creatures just as much as anyone.  Saving is good because it allows us to buy more.  We buy because we have the disposable income, not because we need something.  We buy because it’s on sale, not because we need it.

I often say something that drives Dixie nuts.  She’ll justify a purchase by saying, “It was 40% off!  I saved $30!”  And then I’ll respond with, “Yes, but if you hadn’t bought that item, you would have saved 100%”.

I don’t want to suggest that I always take the anti-consumerist high road.  I am as consumerist as your next person.  But that isn’t good and it is bothering me more and more these days.

My point in all this is that perhaps questioning what we purchase and from where can be a transformative experience, rather than an accusatory one.  Perhaps it would be more beneficial to me to not buy from a big-box store not because of their questionable business ethics, but because of my own questionable consumerist mindset.  Savings aren’t everything.  “A penny saved is a penny earned,” as the saying goes. The question is, earned for what?

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*There is therefore little reason, if any, for a Christian to purchase from a retailer who happens to be Christian rather than one who happens to not be.

**I do think there are legitimate reasons to purchase from online retailers, but I’m beginning to realize that there are fewer reasons than I might think.  Instant access, for one, is generally not a good reason. Patience is a virtue nearly lost in the western world.

7 thoughts on “Spend Like Santa, Save Like Scrooge

  1. Mark

    Hey Mark,
    I too have felt the Amazon vs Prov bookstore dilemma. I decided that while nice to support Prov, I also want to get the best deal I can. Like you said, if the Prov bookstore could get those sweet bulk discount prices they would – so I don’t feel bad using Amazon. I don’t think the reason or motive matters too much for saving – it’s not sinful after all to buy from Amazon vs Prov Bookstore. Welsley did say “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”

  2. Kylee-Anne

    Have you ever read Ruskin’s Unto This Last? Not that you need more reading, obviously, but it’s a fascinating nineteenth-century perspective on the issue of consumerism and thinking about the people behind the products you purchase. Gandhi was a big fan of it.

  3. Marc Post author

    Mark: But what’s the motivation behind getting “the best deal”? “Save all you can” for what? I would wager that most people don’t turn their savings into giving.

  4. Marc Post author

    Kylee-Anne: I have never even heard of that book. I’ll have to look it up. There’s also Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, which I haven’t read yet, but comes highly recommended. I read one of Cavanaugh’s essays and was impressed.

  5. Jay

    Interesting thoughts, Marc. My thoughts are on the value of buying locally. I understand the value of the service provided by Sobey’s and Safeway versus Superstore. Go to the first two and your groceries will be bagged and there will be ample staff to help you find things or go to Superstore and you will save money on the same product. Of course, the quality of the produce is often an exception but let’s use dry goods for consistency of argument.

    I remember clearly that Canadian Tire campaign. One that bothers me now is for J. And H. Builders. Their commercial goes something like, “do you have a trusted friend in the windows and doors business? Why not let J. and H. being a trusted friend?” We are a Christian owned company, closed on Sundays and the whole 9 yards. However, I have gone there before and though the service was adequate it was not outstanding. I do not think I would go there and say, “Hey there old buddy, old friend! How’s about installing some windows for me?” Maybe if I shop there enough you could establish a relationship but that attempt to form some sort of a familiarity with other businesses in the city resulted in disappointment for my efforts.

    I have come to the conclusion that gas is not free, shipping is becoming more affordable and I’m quite prepared to save money by shopping online for a growing number of products. Perhaps ignorance of unethical practices is bliss.

    As for the penny saved for what purpose I won’t even begin to comment because I completely agree with you, Marc. Any money that I might save is likely not going to the poor but to a fancy supper fund for myself and Angie.

  6. Jay

    Sorry, forgot to say one thing. I am considering purchasing a Pentax K-7 online since you have no problems getting your K10D online and the price difference is about $300. I will be waiting until probably my birthday or Christmas next year to make the purchase (unless they increase the sync speed from 1/180″ to 1/250″ in the K-8) but at that time I will be looking at all opportunities. In that case I will be seeking to see what is involved in sending it in for warranty if necessary because with my current body I did need to send it in and it was nice to have it sent for free by the local store where I bought it. One of those cost versus benefit things. $300 could ship that body in a few times.

  7. Marc

    Part of the problem with saving in order to give is that it implies that if I haven’t been able to save, I won’t give. In my opinion a person should simply budget for giving. Saving to give means, in a way, that giving comes last: after I’ve spent my money on what I need or want, only then will I think about giving.

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