This is a guest post from Betsy Teutsch, who writes about socially responsible investing, savvy consuming, and sustainable living at Money Changes Things.

Advertisers spend billions of dollars honing techniques to urge us to buy stuff; it certainly behooves us to be self-analytical and better understand the many triggers behind shopping. Here are some of the main reasons we buy things:

Meeting needs
The most basic reason we buy things is simple: need. We need food, shelter, and clothing. However, we do not need to eat at The Four Seasons, own 4,000 square feet McMansions, or have as many shoes as Imelda Marcos. While we might choose to be frugal, to live is to consume. It’s not like we can stop buying things altogether (though some people do give themselves a moratorium through “buy nothing” days or “The Compact”).

Solving problems
Problem solving is perhaps the most straightforward motivation for purchases. You need a place to eat your at-home meals, so you acquire a table. You need a place to sleep, so you buy a bed. You need a place to put your clothing, so in comes a dresser. If we didn’t have access to tables, beds, or dressers, we might invent other solutions to these problems. But when readymade solutions are there, waiting to be purchased, it makes sense to avail ourselves of them.

Frequently this ignites a chain reaction: You bought a table, so now you need table linens; for the bed, bedding. You acquire a pet, and pretty soon you’ve made six trips to Petco. As any new parent can tell you, must-have infant items have proliferated. (The fact that previous generations managed without them is hard to believe!) You take up skiing, and pretty soon your garage is full of of equipment you decide to purchase instead of rent. And on it goes.

Fulfilling fantasies
Wishful thinking and fantasy are also powerful drivers of consumption. Luxuries are marketed as lifestyle purchases. Since we don’t need diamond necklaces or alpaca shawls, the need has to be created. We know when we buy an upscale car, a sexy date does not actually come along with the vehicle, but a lifetime of exposure to tens of thousands of commercials reinforcing the connection between sex appeal and most everything has reformatted our brains.

We see images of fit, energetic, athletic bodies; if we buy a Nordic Track, we will become thin and athletic, too. If we buy a recipe file, we will file our recipes. To avoid these types of purchases, we need to discipline ourselves to think clearly and separate the marketer-created fantasy from the likely reality.

Saving by spending
Affordability is another factor fueling high consumption. For today’s families the costs of big items like health care, housing, and college continue to spiral upward while the cost of many consumer goods has spiraled downwards. Our globalized economy is delivering clothing, electronics, and housewares at ever cheaper prices. (In fact, America is producing a world glut of used clothes.) Between discounters, outlets, wholesale clubs, constant sales, on-line stores, and incessant catalogues, we are continually exposed to inexpensive merchandise.

For many of us it takes a lot of discipline to resist these tempting prices and not over-buy. One of the classic jokes is the person who comes home laden with items bought on clearance, pleased because he (or she) has “saved” so much. With electronics, since they continually provide more power for less money, we are never done upgrading.

Short-term happiness
Shopping can temporarily fill psychological needs. We are continually told we “deserve” cashmere sweaters, fine cigars, etc. We begin to believe that these things will make us happy. If we are bored or depressed, the novelty of acquiring something new provides a pick-me-up. Shopping is considered by many in our culture a perfectly respectable recreational activity; for some, it is actually a hobby.

Shopping is stimulating to the senses. If we’re feeling lonely in a culture ever more privatized, going shopping is a way to connect to the outside world. Advertisers may convince us to treat ourselves to luxuries, but we are the ones who pay! (And if you’re paying off credit card debt, you’re paying twice…)

Seeking style
Many of us feel a need to be in style, although we might differ on which style we embrace. Our professional image may require it, but just as often it is our own insecurity that fuels shopping.

Alan Durning, author of This Place on Earth writes, “Fashion is an insidious form of planned obsolescence: things become useless long before they wear out.” Branding is more and more a strategy of marketing. We are all suckers together. My husband always wonders why consumers pay for logo clothing; the designers should be paying the customers to walk around looking like billboards.

Getting a grip
For those trying to cut back on shopping, consider the following strategies:

  • Restructure your life with fewer shopping opportunities, and voila! less stuff finds its way through your threshold.
  • Keep a budget.
  • Cancel all the mail-order catalogs which flood your house.
  • Cultivate new interests and hobbies to supplant recreational shopping trips.
  • Try borrowing things you need, or find them used through freecycle or Craig’s List.
  • Postpone purchases.
  • If you’re on the fence, give yourself a day or a week to decide. Often the craving will have passed.

Shopper, know thyself!

Teutsch previously told GRS readers about the pros and cons of working at home.

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