Confronting Consumerism from the Inside Out

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It’s a paradox: the objective evidence says we have more material wealth than at any time in history and yet we feel as though what we have is not enough and can never be enough. If the antidote to “never enough” isn’t more stuff, then what is it?

Consumers or Consumed?

Consumerism, as the word is popularly used, is born of craving I use craving in a very specific sense. Craving happens when we see something we want to possess: a house, a car or an electronic gadget, and we go for it primarily based on the impulse. By scratching the itch to buy, own and consume again and again, in big ways and small, we end up with crushing career demands, no free time, oversized houses, maxed-out credit cards, more cars than garages, yet none of the cars fit in the garages because the garages are full of unused clothes, gadgets, and costly but worthless junk.

Missing the Big Picture

An absence of long-term thinking also colludes with the impulse to commit, acquire, and consume. Without pausing between craving and acquisition, we lose the opportunity to ask important questions.

Perhaps the most important question to ask is “what emotional need does this purchase meet?” This question is not about minimizing or invalidating emotional needs. We all have them; they’re not going away. And sometimes you really can use money to quench an emotional thirst. It is okay to do that. Once the need is identified, the follow-up question is: “is this a good way to meet this need or not?” If you live in a neighborhood that scares you, and you have the opportunity to move to one that feels safer, then over and above the objective improvement in your physical safety, the feeling of safety could be worth money, potentially a lot of it.

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Knowing what satisfies you and what does not is a complex and important question. Answers can come from your own experience (you felt great when you bought your new car, but for how long did that feeling remain?) We can also look to research on happiness to find “good bets” and “bad bets” for how to meet our emotional needs with material goods. Recent research suggests a dollar spent buying experiences (trips, dinners out) are more enjoyable than the same dollar spent on possessions.

Counting Costs

Having worked the benefits side of the equation, now consider costs. Advertisers and salespeople do their best to keep us from even considering the total financial cost of a purchase. Phrases like “three easy payments” or “no interest until July” disguise the true nature of the deal. Even if we don’t do the math up front, the financial costs will still be there waiting for us down the line.

Having an accurate picture of our financial lives is so painful that many people would just rather not know. Unfortunately, making purchases without this information is akin to driving with our eyes closed: do it for long enough and we’re sure to crash. Easy financing and credit cards give us the illusion that we can ignore this reality. And we can…until the bills come due.

I would argue that the up-front costs of any purchase needs to be just part of the discussion, and maybe not even the predominant one. Marketers know to “give ’em the razor, sell the blades,” or more recently, “give them the printer, soak them for replacement ink.” Cars need insurance, gas and oil. Houses need repair, renovation, and upkeep. Knowing these costs up-front is the only defense against unpleasant surprises down the road.

And yet money is only one dimension of cost. For those of us short on time and closet space, how did we get there? Chances are, it happened because we didn’t consider the time and space demands of our purchases. In Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk writes “the things you used to own, now they own you.” In a world where self-storage is a $220 billion dollar business in the US alone, this has never been more true. Even if we can buy a bigger closet, we can’t buy a longer day. No wonder we’re over-scheduled when we add demands to our lives without a full accounting of where our time goes.

Initial cost is easy to count, though we may be tempted not to keep track. Time is more subtle. But most subtle of all is the psychic cost of ownership. If we own nice cars, we may feel anxiety parking them in the bad side of town. A new dent on a ten-year-old junker means almost nothing to most people. A tiny scratch on the door of a brand-new Lexus feels completely different. If you’ve bought a better house to keep up with the Joneses, then the Joneses move somewhere even better, now what are you going to do?

Down Payment on a Solution

The first step to solving any problem is recognizing that there is a problem. For so many people I meet, both therapeutically and socially, enormous stress comes from at first buying in, and then feeling trapped by this “never enough” consumer lifestyle. I’ve tried to call out not just the problem, but the emotional pitfalls and cognitive errors we all make to keep the scam going. Undermining any part of the process can begin to undo the damage.

Thinking long term, identifying emotional needs, and accounting for our time and money commitments go a certain distance to stopping the damage. Yet I feel there is a need for a new framework to supplant the old pattern, one that is not anti-material, nor anti-wealth, nor anti-pleasure, but pro-sanity, pro-health, and pro-stability. I’m calling this framework the “baker’s dozen lifestyle” and I’ll be writing about it in depth in a future blog post.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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