February 22, 2013 7:28 pm

Spend, spend, spend

Confessions from a (new) consumer addict
A boy writing down his dream list, illustration by Lucas Varela©Lucas Varela

Until four years ago my dreams were, in order of priority: to have cable TV in my home; to indulge in the unparalleled pleasure of broadband internet (mine was dial-up); and to have more than three pairs of trainers in my closet.

Also, God (or former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) willing, I wanted to buy a car with a 1.6 litre engine (not the gutless 1.0 litre motor commonly offered in cheap cars in Brazil) – with leather seats, central locking and electric windows.

Today, with my recently acquired new middle-class status – that is, as someone who has risen out of poverty and studied at a private university with a government grant – I can easily buy all of these things in my own neighbourhood and with my own money.

In my street in the periferia, or outer suburbs, of Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, there was once just a Catholic church and a cemetery. Now we have a branch of a large fast-food chain, supermarkets (two), car showrooms (three), department stores (three), evangelical churches (four) and gyms (three). It’s ironic. Only a few years ago, big companies avoided the outer suburbs of São Paulo. It took two years to get broadband – and then only if someone else quit the service and left a line free. Today, my class – the so-called “C Class” – is targeted by carmakers, banks, private universities, TV networks, internet vendors, airlines and tourist agencies, telecom and technology companies … all pleading for just one minute of my attention.

Now I don’t even need to leave the neighbourhood to buy that 1.6 litre car. Yesterday, in fact, I bought a hatchback in instalments with no upfront payment and a tax reduction – an incentive offered by the government precisely so that I and my fellow C-classmates can keep buying and buying to shore up the national economy. Much of this spending has been made possible by that magic wand, the credit card. To have easy access to credit is just wonderful. You can eat in good restaurants every week, buy flights for R$80 and wear jeans from famous brands. That’s as long as you can keep up with the interminable monthly payments.

I was not a consumerist from birth. I was born in 1989 and always knew, from my mother, a petista, as followers of Lula’s once leftist Workers’ Party (PT) are known, that to buy stuff like a madman won’t make you happy, it will only make you even crazier. The only problem is that my mother changed, petismo changed (the PT is now seen as centre-left) and I now find myself asking in all seriousness whether my life will be better with a Galaxy Note or the latest iPad.

Of course, I still have to endure some of the hardships of the past: water shortages combined with summer floods, for instance, and the fact that the rubbish truck does not always come.

Also, no one bothered to work out that I and all the other 268,000 inhabitants of my suburb who now have cars in their garages would have to sit in 40-minute traffic jams on the same access road. This has never been widened, is only 2km long and is now clogged with vehicles.

Even so, I prefer to confront the daily traffic drama in my new hatchback than endure even worse chaos on the city’s public transport system. The public minibuses that ply the suburbs take more than an hour to come and the packed commuter trains look like modern-day slave ships. Each passenger trapped inside is dreaming of the same thing: a new car.

But I’m an optimist and that’s probably my weakness. Today I’ve been stuck here in the traffic for 30 minutes with a tropical storm looming, thinking about the deluge that’s about to be unleashed and flood my neighbourhood. But hey. I’ve only got 500m to go to reach my house, where I will make a sandwich and watch the Super Bowl on my 50in plasma TV.

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Leandro Machado is a reporter at Brazil’s Folha de S.Paulo newspaper and editor of Folha’s Mural blog

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