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Kelly Dilworth

Are millennials less materialistic or just cash poor?

For a while, I was sure we were part of a larger trend.

Over the past couple of years, my husband and I have both become stubbornly thrifty. Nearly every piece of furniture in our new home, for example, was either handed down to us from family members who were trying to get rid of the junk or was found at a thrift store and repurposed.

Instead of being embarrassed by the dinged wood and slightly mismatched secondhand furniture that crowds our modest house, however, we've been proud to show it off.

Thanks to design blogs and Pinterest boards that celebrate DIY projects and artfully repurposed thrift shop finds (as well as small homes and backyard vegetable gardens), we haven't felt pressured to spend more of our cash on shiny new things.

Among our circle of friends and millennial-aged acquaintances, frugal, purposeful living is in. (Never mind that most of us wouldn't be able to afford a more lavish lifestyle.) Is our society becoming less materialistic?

There are a number of studies that show that we're not the only ones who feel this way. In a New York Times column posted June 14, Alina Tugend cites one of the most recent surveys, published by American Express in May, that found that more people these days claim to care less about acquiring money and material things and more about improving their relationships and health.

Just 27 percent of respondents to the survey of 2,184 adults, for example, said that having a fat bank account is an important marker of success. Eighty-one percent of respondents, by contrast, said that successfully balancing work with a rich home life is an important achievement.

Seventy-three percent of respondents, meanwhile, claim to judge other people's success on nonmonetary factors. (Just 27 percent admit that they judge people's success based on their wealth.)

Most respondents to the survey (72 percent) also say that they care less about material things and would rather spend their extra cash on experiences (which is a key recommendation of most happiness experts these days).

According to the authors of the American Express study, who cite in their report the multidecade survey of consumer behavior known as the U.S. Yankelovich Monitor, Americans' apparent conversion to anti-materialism is part of a long-term trend.

"Data tracked since the 1980s suggests that America has shifted from a culture that primarily judged success based on external displays of wealth to a society that now places greater weight on less tangible measures like life experiences and happiness when defining their own success and the success of others," wrote researchers in the report. "For example, U.S. Yankelovich Monitor research from 1988 to 2012 shows a substantial decrease in the number of people who believe money is the only real meaningful measure of success, and an even more substantial increase in the number of people who view life satisfaction as a sign of success."

The New York Times' Alina Tugend suggests that this latest crop of research could mean people really are moving away from consumerism and toward a more conscientious, less materialistic way of life.

Citing the American Express study and a celebrity-hosted conference she recently attended, Tugend writes: "The Third Metric conference and the American Express study demonstrate a trend -- or maybe the hope of a trend -- that we can reinterpret success beyond the traditional signposts of wealth and concrete achievement."

Tugend's suggestion is appealing. But when I posed it to my editor, he reminded me that generations of Americans have a long history of showing signs that they're shifting away from caring about money and materialistic visions of success, particularly when they're young.

But, often, those predictions that they'll become less materialistic for the long haul don't pan out. (The baby boomers, for example, were once portrayed in a Washington Post article published in 1989 as beacons of socially enlightened do-gooders who increasingly said they cared more about intangible values than material goods.)

It's possible that Americans today have been touched deeply enough by the Great Recession that our aspirations toward a simpler, more meaningful way of life will prove to be more than just a mirage. But the economy has yet to recover enough to give us a chance to show that even if we do have the money to spend, we'll use it on something other than bigger houses, new furniture and flashier cars.

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