Why We Shop: Getting a Grip on Consumerism

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.

More about...Psychology

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BPT - MoneyChangesThings
BPT - MoneyChangesThings
12 years ago

Great to be on GRS!
I neglected to mention that http://www.catalogchoice.org is a free service to cut off catalogs. You pick which ones you want to stop receiving.
I wrote about my experiences here:
http://moneychangesthings.blogspot.com/2007/11/junk-mail-reduction-updates.html
I started quite a few months ago and now receive may 3-5 catalogs per week, mostly from stores where I buy things. An enormous lightening of my catalog load.

escapee
escapee
12 years ago

The #1 way that I have encouraged myself not to shop is by not watching TV and cutting out cable altogether.

HollyP
HollyP
12 years ago

Her first and fourth tips really worked for me. In my early 20s I remember shopping was my primary recreational activity. As I filled in my time with other activites I spent less time at the mall, and less money too.

I really need help with seeking style though. I’d love to hear any suggestions others have successfully used. I’m just starting to re-fashion clothes, but I’d love other tips.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

I know that I certainly used to spend for “short-term happiness”. I got a little buzz whenever I bought something, even if I couldn’t afford it.

While Betsy’s tips are great for fighting the urge to splurge (or at least mitigating the urge), I found that the best thing for me to do was to address the underlying issues. What was it that was causing me to spend? Once I came to terms with my need to possess Stuff, I was in much better shape to handle my consumerism.

Steve
Steve
12 years ago

The most powerful technique for reducing unneeded spending is a simple rhetorical question:

What will happen if I don’t buy this?

Emily H.
Emily H.
12 years ago

Sometimes when I feel spendy I write out everything I feel like buying with columns for “What problem does this solve?” and “How much of a problem is this?”

Because sometimes I buy things I don’t really need, or based on a fantasy, but at other times I’m reluctant to spend any money at all — like, it was really hard to convince myself to get an electric blanket, even though I was too cold to sleep.

Becky@FamilyandFinances
12 years ago

I’m with escapee. I’ve never been a big tv watcher, but now that our tv only gets one fuzzy channel, we don’t ever watch it.

I don’t get tempted by the “must have” items because I don’t even know they exist! In this area of my life, ignorance really is bliss 🙂

Jeffeb3
Jeffeb3
12 years ago

Just last night on NPR (all things considered, I think) there was an interview with someone who had performed a psychological study on the correlation between sadness and shopping. They made half the people watch a sad video, then half watch a neutral video. They then asked them to write an essay, and they said “That part of the survey is over, how much would you pay for this water bottle?” The people who watch the sad video were willing to pay 300% of what the neutral ones were. They also claimed that the effect was greater for the people… Read more »

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
12 years ago

Another strategy: Never go shopping with friends. Just last weekend I went to a discount mall with a friend, after a 5K walk for charity. Feeling mellow and resonating off my pal, I bought not one, not two, not three, but FOUR pairs of shoes! Yipe. Now, I did need shoes, since most of mine are about worn out–I only buy shoes about once every 18 months to two years. And it is true I got three pair of Clarks and one pair of (extremely cute! pink!! wow!!!) Rockports for what I would normally pay for one pair of shoes.… Read more »

Lucy
Lucy
12 years ago

Here is an informative video that puts shopping for more “stuff” in perspective:

http://www.storyofstuff.com/

elisabeth
elisabeth
12 years ago

I am currently having a problem about electronics (it happens almost every Thursday/Friday when the NYTimes runs its tech articles), especially since I live in a college town. On the one hand, we’re doing fine with two imacs and dsl, on the other hand, I feel guilty that I don’t have a digital camera, don’t even know how to use the camera on my cell phone (that I never use, it’s just for emergencies), and that I’m not “up to date” on and using other electronic and programs etc etc — at one point I was an early adopter, had… Read more »

Jason S
Jason S
12 years ago

“Saving by spending” reminds me of Calvin Trillin’s “Law of Compensatory Cashflow,” whose discovery he attributes to Alice, his wife. The classical definition is “any money not spent on a luxury you can’t afford is the equivalent of windfall income.” A typical example might be how spending $500 on a tv versus $800 for the one you want will free $300 for, say, a new table saw. The sacrifice of buying the cheaper model justifies spending the difference elsewhere.

This doesn’t apply to just big-ticket items, either: I know that I’ve rationalized expensive beer by way of store-brand pretzels.

Sara
Sara
12 years ago

I started my quest for spending less in may of last year, First couple of months i did not do so well, however, as the price of gas grew,and went threw the roof, groceries, and everything else went up, I cut my land line phone,and a whole array of thing, went back to working two jobs, I kow now it isn’t what you buy that makes you happy. You must be happy with who you are not what you have or don’t have.

jmv
jmv
12 years ago

Taking up a new hobby(s) helped get my wife and I out of the malls on the weekends.

But new hobbies often need a lot of ‘stuff’ to go with them, so I don’t think we are saving any money (yet.)

Finally Frugal
Finally Frugal
12 years ago

Thanks for this post! I started my new frugal habits last November, and have been somewhat successful. I’ve had a few setbacks (like spending some of the tax refund on travel and shoes, when it was supposed to go to debt repayment). My former shopping buddy is coming to my city for a visit at the end of the month, and I’m searching for ways I can avoid spending money on things I don’t need, just because shopping will probably be one of the main features of our weekend. In addition to avoiding Target, malls, and Banana Republic on a… Read more »

merd
merd
12 years ago

I try not going to SuperWalMart… without a shopping list that I strictly adhere to. It’s too dangerous. A major pitfall for me is buying more because it’s cheaper. Sure, some of you scorn me for using WalMart at all. Yes, it is the Devil. However, it is very close to my house and I get things cheaper like dog food (save a couple bucks or more on a 40 lb bag from places like Pet Smart)… cilantro 50cents a bundle instead of 1.19… eggs at a fraction of the cost for 6 more eggs (18 packs)… stuff like that.… Read more »

Jennifer A
Jennifer A
12 years ago

Thanks for the post JD. I’ve finally started to take my finances seriously and am now tracking my spending (keeping receipts and logging them onto a spreadsheet religiously). I was in shock at how much shopping I do. Most of which are impulse. And for a while, I was in denial on how much I spent (thinking that I was spending beneath my means). After several months of tracking my spending, I realize that whether or not I’ve alloted a shopping budget, I would still shop anyway. Meaning, there is a pattern on my spending. Since I cannot go cold… Read more »

JenK
JenK
12 years ago

My newest example of fulfilling wants in a less-expensive way. Last year I bought new carpeted floor mats. Why? Because I felt my car (purchased in 2001) was getting totally ratty. Why? Because every time I’d get into it, the floor looked ratty. Why? Dirty, carpet-worn-away floor mats. I could’ve fixed this with a new car. Instead I fixed it with new floor mats. For that matter, I recently realized that the reason I vacuum and clean the inside of my car (dash, controls, etc) 2-3 times a month is to serve the same perceived need. A clean car, to… Read more »

tracy ho
tracy ho
12 years ago

Great to read on tips you had posted ,

thanks ,

tracy ho
wisdomgettingloaded

mike
mike
12 years ago

i dated a girl with like 60 pairs of shoes. why on earth would you NEED 60 pairs of shoes? I have 10 that I heavily use.

Jason L
Jason L
12 years ago

Good one, Mike!

Jolly Green Girl
Jolly Green Girl
12 years ago

I really love this post. It goes more indepth into why and how we spend. I do have to agree that having TV is a way to increase your spending. I can’t believe the amount of food commercials there are.. no wonder we are getting bigger and spending more. I didn’t have cable for 8 months and loved it. I just got it turned back on but want to cut it off already. Also consuming less is not only good for your budget but also good for the environment. That’s the whole motto of sustainable living and so I think… Read more »

Shana
Shana
12 years ago

While I think all of these points are valid, the one thing I take issue with is that it’s seemingly only ok to spend money on necessities (e.g. place to live or the table for your kitchen), but it’s not ok to buy something non-essential that you simply like. I take issue with all non-essential spending as being labelled as “bad” — and that’s how I read this article. There’s nothing in this article that says it’s Ok to be a consumer [for anything non-essential]. Personally, I don’t like having just the bare minimum of what I need, and I… Read more »

allen
allen
12 years ago

Oh wow, do i agree with the author’s husband’s statement about wearing branded-cloths:

If you want me to wear a shirt with “Nike” on it, Nike better damn well pay ME! 😀

@Shana:
I think the problem really is that too many people are buying too much of what they don’t need, and ignoring/hurting what they DO need. Example: The person who buys a new pair of shoes every weekend, instead of investing in their retirement. If you are funding your emergency fund, have no debt, and are well on your way to your retirement: Buy those cloths!

Anitra
Anitra
12 years ago

Hahaha. As someone who is normally very frugal, but is now pregnant, some of this really struck a chord with me. I constantly find myself turning around to new maternity/baby stuff that I “have to have”. So far I haven’t bought anything, but I will need to eventually. I’m trying to separate the NEEDS (a few work-appropriate maternity clothes, a crib, a carseat, some kind of carrier, SOME baby clothes, diapers) from the WANTS (lots more baby clothes, “fun” maternity clothes I can’t wear to work, all sorts of baby-oriented furniture, toys, carriers, etc.) It’s fine to buy a few… Read more »

BPT - MoneyChangesThings
BPT - MoneyChangesThings
12 years ago

Re: being a grinch. I work every year at an annual clothing swap and it’s incredible how much clothing comes in – lots of it MINE. So even if you’re a careful shopper, you’re bound to make a lot of mistakes. What I was trying to encourage people to think about it is simply smart shopping, not so much random shopping. Believe me, there is nothing more fun than scoring – finding something you really want and really love. It’s just good not to do what I used to do – not find anything I liked so heading to the… Read more »

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