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Waste not, spend not or spend a lot
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Debt-level acceptance
One thing seems clear -- people are more willing to be in debt today than previously. Shannon Surly, 34, of Waterloo, Iowa, says, "I am baffled to see people in my age bracket who are able to go out and buy a new car every year, who go out and buy $250,000 houses. I think they're in debt up to their eyeballs."

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They probably are. Paul Laviola, a certified financial planner with Financial Planning Solutions Inc., in Media, Pa., says, "A big problem is the easy access to credit and credit cards. With the previous generation, getting credit was difficult. Today it's a matter of filling out a credit card form or going on the Internet. People are in an unimaginable amount of debt. And not just low-income people but wealthy people, too. All along the spectrum. And I think it's the easy access to credit that's the driver. Before you didn't have that."

In fact, in the United States consumer debt is at an all-time high. Certified financial planner Stacy Francis of Francis Financial says, "The savings rate is actually negative. I know it sounds odd. How can a savings rate be negative? But it's actually because a lot of people are spending more than they're earning. And the real question is: Why are we doing this? Why are we buying things we can't necessarily afford?"

Francis thinks two major factors lead to overspending -- power and happiness. "I think there's a real problem with the misconception that having the power of spending equals your value. There's almost an equation that having money plus spending it equals power. What people can buy also really impacts their confidence."

Who, after all, hasn't gone shopping to celebrate a good day ... or a bad one?

Second, says Francis, people still think money can buy happiness. "The more money you have, the more you can spend, the happier you'll be. And that's something that is definitely not true."

Francis cites a study conducted by economist Richard Easterlin at the University of Southern California. He found that the amount of money people needed to make them happy was $40,000 a year. Once basic needs were met, increased money didn't really change how happy people actually were.

Needs change
At one time, needs -- versus wants -- were relatively simple: shelter, food and water.

As more and more goods were produced, "needs" became more complicated and included things like telephones, hot and cold running water, TVs and today, cell phones, iPods, high-speed Internet and two cars. Not just a chicken in every pot, but a high-definition, flat-panel TV with surround sound in every room. Society changed and so did our needs, or at least our perceived needs.

"When I grew up it was, 'What did you need?'" says Carol Noreen, 52, of Madison, Wis. "Now [young adults] need a computer and they need a cell phone and they need digital cable access. Where did this concept come from that these things aren't luxuries anymore, that they're things you need to exist in society?"

"How did we do it before having a cell phone?" says Laviola. "I can't imagine it today. And it seems like we're going down that slippery slope of: We need to have a cell phone. I couldn't imagine watching TV on a black-and-white 19-inch. Can you?"

 
 
Next: We perceive buying things as gauges of our self-worth
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Money: A tool or yardstick for happiness?
Younger Americans going deeper into debt
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