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.