Buy Less: Take the Fear and Compulsion Out of Shopping

by Lori Deschene

“Throw moderation to the winds, and the greatest pleasures bring the greatest pains.” ~Democritus

Around the holidays we tend to talk more about consumerism. Especially knowing that Black Friday started even earlier than usual this year (on Thursday night), a lot of us feel that our consumption has gotten out of hand.

Many people I know have suggested we should curb our impulse to buy and only purchase necessities, but I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the solution is less about extremism and more about moderation.

Making a drastic change can seem appealing when we’re frustrated or overwhelmed with the way things are, but going from one extreme to another rarely provides a viable long-term solution.

The problem isn’t that we buy things we don’t need; it’s that we buy lots of things we don’t need to fill our assorted emotional voids.

Does anyone need a piece of jewelry? Or a painting? Or an app?

No—but good, talented people create these things. So long as we don’t mistakenly attach our happiness to them, we can both support those people and enjoy the fruits of their labor by purchasing their creations, when we’re financially able.

No one goes into debt for occasionally treating themselves to something they would appreciate wearing, displaying, or using. We only run into issues when we spend compulsively and beyond our means.

And buying gifts for other people—this can provide a lot of joy for the buyer and the giver, if we don’t pressure ourselves to spend extravagantly.

Every year, each of my family members spend five dollars on stocking stuffers for the other four, so that we each end up with twenty dollars of stuff. None of us need the gum, combs, and magazines we get, but it’s fun and easily doable.

The problem isn’t that we live in a consumer culture. It’s that we’re not always mindful of how and why we each consume.

In much the same way, advertising itself isn’t fundamentally bad; everyone who supports themselves sells something, whether it’s a product, a course, or a service; that requires them to promote it.

What’s dangerous is psychologically manipulative advertising that plays off our fears and creates new ones.

I remember when I lived in New York and earned $350 weekly as a part-time telemarketer.

I didn’t own a TV then, so I rarely saw a commercial, but I spent a lot of time in the Internet Café, where pop-up ads reminded me daily that happiness was a shoe, face cream, or gadget away.

Piled on top of my loneliness, professional dissatisfaction, and overall sense of despondency, that influence made it awfully compelling to pull out my credit card—which only created more problems and more reasons to feel overwhelmed by life.

I’ve since learned that I have a say in what I internalize. As frustrating as it may be that advertising often targets our fears, we each need to be responsible for what we think, believe, and do.

For the most part I now take the middle path with spending, allowing myself occasional splurges without falling into compulsive behavior—or draining my bank account.

If you’re also trying to buy less, you may find it helpful to ask yourself these questions when considering a purchase:

  • Am I trying to fill some type of emotional void?
  • Is there something I can do to proactively address whatever it is I’m feeling?
  • Is this an impulse purchase that I’ll later regret?
  • Am I buying this because of psychologically manipulative advertising that makes me feel that I somehow need this to be happy?
  • Which action or choice would actually increase my happiness?
  • Could using this item help me increase my happiness in a meaningful way?
  • Is there something else I could do with this money that I would enjoy more?
  • Will the value I receive (in enjoyment, in number of uses) justify the cost?
  • Will buying this impact my ability to meet my financial responsibilities?
  • Will I need to use credit to buy this? If so, do I feel confident I can pay it off before the bill comes to avoid accruing interest?
  • Will I support someone I appreciate in making this purchase, and benefit from his/her creation?
  • Does the process used to create and distribute this product align with my personal values?

And now, some questions, holiday-style:

  • Am I pressuring myself to spend more than I can on a gift because I don’t want the receiver to think I don’t care?
  • Could I show them I care through a thoughtful gesture instead of spending more than I reasonably should?
  • Do I feel like I have to spend as much as the other person does?
  • Can I drop that pressure and focus instead on giving them something meaningful that they’ll enjoy?
  • Is my ego getting in the way, making it seem like spending more makes me look better?
  • Can I focus on doing something good with my intentions instead of trying to look good through my financial generosity?
  • How can I provide value to a person, regardless of the financial value of my gift?
  • If money is an issue, is there something I can create that they would appreciate?
  • Can I get more value for my dollar by financing a shared experience (creating more joy and connection) instead of a physical product?
  • Do I really think the people who love me will change their opinion of me based on how much I spend on a gift?

These are just a handful of questions that can help us develop awareness of how and when we buy so that we can find the path of moderation—in everyday life and during the holiday season.

It may be hard at times to answer some of these, particularly because certain advertisers will continue to employ fear tactics in their pursuit of ever-increasing profits.

But knowledge is power—and if we question what’s going on internally, we can learn to change our external choices. We can learn to spend responsibly and mindfully, supporting each other as we're financially able, and enjoying each other's creations.

Photo here

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha's Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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  • Kathy –

    Hi Lori – good ideas to avoid the traps of consumerism. I like the idea of buying, giving and sharing experiences as well as donating on behalf of someone (especially those who have lots already). I try to limit the majority of my spending to buying different things when I travel or do something special so that the purchases I make bring back the memories of good times and places – sentimental purchasing I guess.

  • ooooh these are good! I’ve been trying to accept minimalism into my life since being in Costa Rica, and although it’s been difficult to change my shopping habits I think I’ve actually done really well. However, these questions will make it WAY easier for me because I’ll have a solid reason in my mind (rather than just “I should save my money instead of buying this”). It will get down to the core of why I’m feeling the pressure/need/impulse to buy something, which obviously helps me learn more about myself 🙂

  • Lori:

    is a wonderful, balanced piece. Really good advice. Excellent!



  • M Sonnier

    This comes at such a good time because I’m planning on doing my Christmas shopping this weekend. I’m on a pretty tight budget this year (a lot tighter than I thought actually), and I just realized that I’ve been putting pressure on myself to buy “good enough” gifts for the people I love. I have this fear that people will think I’m cheap if I keep it too simple. Of course, that’s just my negative internal dialogue.

    This post made me realize that I can still show how much I care in other ways—And that the people who love me won’t think less of me if I don’t buy as much this year.

    Thank you!! <3

    ~ Madison

  • lv2terp

    Beautifully said!!! 🙂 Great questions to be more mindful, and I really enjoy the deeper level of appreciating/supporting the creator of the item for purchase! 🙂 Thank you Lori, happy holidays!!!

  • Kim Forbes-Gayton

    For me, I ask: “Do I really want/need this?” If I want need/it do I need it now, or can I get it at a better bargain? I see I appreciate the thing more if I buy it at a bargain. In my “bigger picture” I am doing both, de-cluttering what I don’t need/want and buying something else that I could use and enjoy. I am finding (though the aforementioned seems paradoxical), less IS more!

  • I’m the same way, with bargains! I love knowing I’ve been smart with my spending and that I’ve saved money. Also, I never really considered myself a minimalist, but I’m just happier when there’s less stuff around me. Clutter creates a claustrophobic feeling for me. When I have less, I feel free!

  • Thanks so much, and happy holidays to you too! =)

  • I’m glad this was helpful to you Madison! I’m about to do my Christmas shopping too, and I’m trying to think of items that are thoughtful/meaningful, but not over the top cost-wise. I think the thought really is what counts.

    My sister wrote me a poem one year. Considering the evolution of our relationship, her words meant so much to me. It actually brought tears to my eyes. It was worth far more than any expensive item anyone had ever bought me!

    Happy holidays =)

    <3 Lori

  • Thank you David!

  • I’m glad you found this helpful! I think traveling provides a wonderful opportunity to embrace minimalism. I remember when I used to tour for work, I never had more than I could fit in a suitcase and two carry-on-sized bags. I loved the freedom I felt, being less weighed down by stuff. I’ll be getting back into that mindset again next year, and I’m looking forward to it. =)

  • I’m with you there Kathy! I prefer spending on things that will be meaningful and memorable. That’s a great idea, about donating on someone’s behalf. My grandmother used to do that. Such a thoughtful, kind thing to do. =)

  • I was sitting in a park today with my two beautiful dogs, it is a hot day and I am surrounded by trees and nature. I realise how happy I am in that moment, without all this “Stuff” needed..
    So many people attach their happiness and self esteem to the objects that they own – those objects end up owning them.
    Love this piece x

  • That sounds beautiful. =) That’s partly why I love living in LA. When I’m outside, in nature, and it’s a beautiful, sunny day, I feel at peace.

  • Rational thought in a season of insanity. thank you!

  • You’re most welcome! =)

  • commentgal8

    Wisdom. I’m short on $ and time this year, and this really refocused me on enjoying what I already have, doing what I can for the people I love, and not wasting my energies or money on people/things that add no joy or value to my life. Thanks!

  • You’re most welcome! =)