Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Piece of Advice #59: Opt out of consumerism

A very simple experiment: take your credit card statement from one year ago, run through the charges, and see if you can remember what items you purchased for the money you spent.  Then ask yourself if any of those purchases added even a teeny bit to your happiness today.  I'd be willing to bet whatever sum of money you still owe from that month's credit revolution, that it hasn't.

Stuff won't make you happy.

Yes, spending money can be fun.  It can be an entertaining way to while away the hours or give yourself a momentary boost, but outside of the temporary buying high, it will not add anything to your contentment in life.

Additionally, the little upgrades we all crave - the newer car, the bigger house, the better wardrobe - will not affect your happiness either, because human beings tend toward dissatisfaction, a trait advertising manipulates to amazing effect.  Let's say you want a new purse, and you do the smart thing and save your money over time and buy it when you can afford it.  You will have that initial excitement of the purchase and the satisfied feeling of having something of value, but in a week or two, after you've carried it around with you and slammed it in your car door or spilled a drink on it - or your friend gets an even nicer one - it'll just be another something you own, and you will find that your real happiness has not changed a bit.  Because we are or aren't happy - independently of what we own.

My ancestry is, in significant part, Scottish and Dutch, so thriftiness comes naturally to me.  I think about what I'm buying and whether or not it will end up in a closet a year from now, and in the Goodwill bin in two.  I buy used if possible.  I never go to the mall.  I do have a weakness for two things: books and fabric.  The extraneous book and fabric stashes in my basement will testify, however, that they have not made me any happier when I gave into temptation and splurged.  I now have piles of books and fabric I feel I must read or use because I spent good money to own them.

You can make yourself unhappy by comparing your stuff to the better stuff others have, so it's best to not go there.  Also realize that you don't know how financially healthy your conspicuously consumptive friends are.  All that glitters is not gold.  It's better to live in a small house you can afford and be able to sleep at night than to be drowning in debt to impress your friends and neighbors.

Recently I reminded myself of the above advice.  One of my little daydreams is to someday own an older farmhouse with a little land.  Something charming with a porch swing and a barn and garden space.  My sister found a house like this nearby where she lives, and we drove out to see it.  It was lovely.  The house was a brick Victorian surrounded by mature walnut trees and neatly trimmed lawn.  There was a garden and a tire swing and a big red barn.  It reminded me of my grandparents' house and, oh, I could see myself there puttering around the lawn, putting in a flower garden in summer and adding a log to the woodstove in winter.  It had a pantry I'd kill for.  I made up a whole little story about the life I could live there and how great it would be.  Then we did the math, and even given dropping home prices, it was still out of our reach without a sudden inheritance.  I had to take out a figurative eraser and rub out the little story I'd mentally written.  The end.

But, you know, the thing is, no matter how great that story was, it was still just a story.  The things that irritate me about my house  now - the toy clutter, the dirty dishes, the dog hair, the stuff that breaks and needs repair - would all be present at my new house.  The background image would be different, and the joys and annoyances would change a bit, but my overall happiness is dependent on me - on whether I can be satisfied and grateful with what I have now.  And I can.  So I don't need a new house.

Our society runs on product consumption, and the messages thrown at you say you will be happier, thinner, richer, sexier, if you buy, buy, buy - but if you skip the retail therapy and opt out of keeping up with the Joneses, you might find you are just as happy.  Your finances will be easier to manage as well.


  1. About five years ago I went through my credit card statements for a whole year to better understand my spending habits. I was stunned to realize I had spent $3,000 on books during the year. Some of that was gifts, but still! I think I'd justified my impulsive spending on hardbacks by reassuring myself that reading is beneficial, even virtuous.

    The next day I went and got intimately acquainted with my public library. I now go at least once a week, request all my books online, and actually enjoy the experience of visiting. In particular, I like the smell of books, and also the sense of community among readers, even if we don't speak.

    I still purchase books as gifts, but probably don't buy myself more than a couple of books per year.

  2. What a great post, and oh, so true!

    Love the part about the story we wrap around the things we think we need. I'm a great one for the story thing, but you're right, erase the story and life won't really change.

  3. I'm bad with books too, but now I buy them used via amazon. Actually most are really new, just bought via the used section. My biggest reason for resisting using this feature was... I didn't want to admit I had been throwing away money buying them the normal way. How could I possibly justify all of those past dumb choices? Luckily I got over it and now just pay $2-$3 total for most books with shipping. The better the book, the more likely lots of others read it and then returned it to their local used book store. So better books tend to be cheaper ($0.01).

    I think I'd justified my impulsive spending on hardbacks by reassuring myself that reading is beneficial, even virtuous.

    Good insight. The lies we tell ourselves are the most dangerous! Another good one I've caught myself using: "But I deserve it!"

    I'd suggest checking out the Table of Contents of Ben Stein's "How to Ruin Your Financial Life". I haven't read the book but the chapter titles alone are pretty funny stuff and make excellent points.

  4. One other killer on our budget is eating out. Compared to most people we know we rarely eat out, but it is still a killer. The thing is, after a while you stop really enjoying it anyway, you just feel entitled.

    We have one regular restaurant we go to lunch at once a month. Then we make it a point not to go out more than once in any given week. The thing is, we enjoy it so much more because it still feels like a treat.

  5. Excellent post, grerp.

    @Susan- As a fellow bookworm, may I also suggest you check out book sales at your local library. You will be amazed at the prices and selection there. Thanks to the library and book sales, we've cut our reading splurges to around $100/yr. At 50 cents a piece for a book sale book, this makes for a lot of reading material for the three of us! :)

  6. I have pretty much stopped buying books as I am in a major reading slump. Pre-apocalyptic reading slump, however, I got most of my books at used bookstores, cheap at Amazon or, via Bookmooch, a book swapping site, or at the library. We had a GREAT local library cooperative system in place about 5 years ago, and I could get almost anything delivered to my local library. Gov. Granholm axed most of the funds allocated for library cooperatives, however, and it's been dialed back significantly. I can still check out materials from libraries in 4 counties, but I have to drive there and drive back to return them. Depending on the material, I can probably get much of it cheaper online. We still have a state-wide catalog interloan program, but I'm sure that will get chopped soon.

    dalrock - you are right. I appreciate eating out much more when it is an occasional treat. It can easily ruin a budget too.

  7. Oh - and Hestia's right. Library book sales are great. I've gotten a ton of books at them for my son and some for me as well - all very cheap.

  8. Also - welcome to karenranney!

  9. I buy quite a few books (though fewer than before there was so much interesting stuff to read on the Internet), but do much of my book-buying at used book stores, where I frequently discover books and authors that I wouldn't have known about otherwise.

    On the larger topic, good post. I saw a survey somewhere recently claiming the average woman thinks about *buying something* about *once a minute*, on the average. The survey was of Cosmopolitan readers, IIRC, which probably skews the result, but even in their case I hope it isn't true. Once per *minute*?

  10. If karma gets me by giving me a baby daughter, I'm going to drop her off at your doorstep.

    I also buy a ton of books, but mostly textbooks. I only need about half the textbooks I buy though, the rest are just out of interest/desire.
    My other big expense is clothes. I have all my suits custom made in Latin America to save money, but other items I buy retail in the states.

  11. David - I can't imagine. Once per minute? What all is there to buy for once per minute?

    Vincent - if a baby girl shows up on my doorstep in a basket, I will ask no questions. I would love to have a daughter, and yours would probably be cute as a bug.

  12. Vincent - you just jinxed yourself. I'm the last breeding male in my family and I have 2 daughters. The wife and I are most likely done. Perhaps one of the daughters will fight the patriarchy by keeping our last name, which is a fine old name, but I would honestly prefer she doesn't.

    Take solace in the fact that daughters are really underrated. Daughters love daddy. When you discipline them (based on my experience with one old enough to be disciplined, FWIW), they appreciate it and love you that much more. Plus you get to give them a ballast such that they defeat players everywhere. It's a different form of beating the competition.

  13. I think Vincent is suggesting it would be karmic for him to have to worry about a daughter after what he has done with the daughters of others. grerp would be the one best equipped to raise a girl to avoid guys like him.

    Vincent: Am I close?

  14. Many good books in electronic text format and in audio format are available for free through Project Gutenberg ( and LibriVox ( among other sites.

    Great blog! I've been lurking here since Post #4 and you have built an insightful library of advice for many young women who might yet escape the chains of intolerance and hate that bind some of the posters you removed recently.

    I truly pity them and their narrow, brittle, bigoted views on life and humanity. It's unfortunate, but one simply cannot reason with those who have never learned how to reason. I too support you keeping your own house in good order and in a state you choose, regardless of outside opinion.

  15. Disagree with much of this. If you have the money to spend, why not use it on stuff if you enjoy it? I love sitting in my luxury car, going on yacht trips and vacations to islands, lounging on my expensive furniture in my new condo, eating in beautiful restaurants with well-presented food, and wearing designer labels. It does make me happier and I enjoy every second of it.

    This doesn't mean I don't have a great relationship and enjoy family and friends. I don't see why you can't do both.

    To be quite honest, this blog entry reminds me of that scene from Liar Liar where the kid says "my teacher says beauty is on the inside" and Jim Carey says, "that's only what ugly people say." I feel like this blog is what poor people say to make themselves feel better that they're missing out. Sorry, but I call it how I see it.

  16. Anonymous 1 - thank you for your kind comments. Feel free to delurk any time.

    Anonymous 2 - My point was not that money is evil and enjoying it is bad. My point was that my target audience is unlikely to have loads of extraneous cash - especially during a recession when many young people are strapped or looking for employment. Simulating a wealthy lifestyle without the wealth to back it up will lead to misery and thinking that stuff you buy will make you happy when you are unhappy is not true. I've been around people with money who have spent significant amounts of money doing this and that. If they weren't happy already, they didn't become happy via spending. That doesn't mean that having money can't make some things easier or be enjoyable to spend.

  17. Sorry, but I call it how I see it.

    You have to admire a bold stance from an anonymous poster.

  18. @dalrock: My name is alex. Does that make you happier now that I'm not anonymous? No one really knows anything about anyone online. Do I know your personal information or who you are in person? No. Does it make much of a difference at all? No. I have no idea how you having my name could make what I have to say on the internet more or less relevant.

  19. @ Anon Rich and Famous
    Disagree with much of this. If you have the money to spend, why not use it on stuff if you enjoy it?

    This is the core argument of the post. Make sure whatever you spend your money on is something you actually enjoy. Just like anything else, there will always be someone with more money, better looking, etc. Learning to be happy with what you have (or doing the work needed to change your reality) is one of the keys to enjoying life. I'm sure there is something Donald Trump has his eye on if he could just make that next few hundred million. The same basic premise applies with the prettiest woman in the room. Unless she is happily married chances are there is a guy somewhere who's head she wishes she could turn.

    The other option is to deny reality and live in a fantasy world. Credit cards and other forms of debt make this seem feasible for a short period of time, but in the end you pay a very steep price for your delusion. The internet is probably a better outlet for delusion, which is why it is so often pointed out that so many people online are rich, beautiful, successful, and happy.

  20. In the past dozen years or so there have been a number of studies done on happiness. This year I've read several of them. For what it's worth, the correlation between happiness and unhappiness peaks at about $15,000 over the meeting of your basic needs. I was surprised that it was so low.
    Money is just money. Things are just things. They can and do bring you temporary pleasure, but finding your nitch in the world, your family and your job and doing it well probably will bring as much happiness as anything you'll ever buy. And yes, I do have enough money and considerably more than my $15,000.

  21. @Alex
    dalrock: My name is alex.

    Hi Alex!

    I have no idea how you having my name could make what I have to say on the internet more or less relevant.

    It doesn't. I was just pointing out the irony of anonymous bravado.

    Also, at least if you have a screen name you create some sense of continuity. I think you will find it helps you connect better with others on the web.

  22. This is one of the best posts so far! I think so many of us, especially in America get such little meaning from life (drudging work, suburb anomie, don't know your neighbors, poor food options, no exercise, no community) that material possessions seem like a quick fix...and of course our corporatist overlords are more than willing to oblige.

  23. I performed the same exercise a few years ago after stumbling onto a pile of one-year-old restaurant receipts. I remembered maybe three or four out of more than 15: the ones that were important, meaningful occasions, and the really, really nice restaurant outings. Heck, what's the value of an experience if you're just going to forget all about it?

    PS: Stumbled onto your blog for the first time today and spent an enjoyable afternoon reading dozens of posts... please keep doing what you're doing here!!

    Dan @ Casual Kitchen