Financial Planning for Geeks

Is Consumerism Even Fun Anymore?

- Potpourri

How did we get here and what do we want to do about it, if anything?

Drawing of two men and a woman in extremely fancy 1700s attire, dancing at a ball.
Understated as ever, Ethel.

In the spirit of Frugal February, I’d like to focus on consumerism this month. I’m sure you’re fully aware of what consumerism is, but it generally refers to buying more than we need. All developed countries struggle with overconsumption to some degree, but it’s particularly severe in the US. According to Net Impact, people in the US only make up 5% of the world’s population but consume 17% of its energy. We also eat more calories and produce more greenhouse gases and waste than almost any other country. Egad.

Overconsumption and consumerism happen in a variety of arenas, including food, clothing, shoes, technology, jewelry, pet accoutrements, and personal care. The latest craze to hit us here in the US is Stanley cups (no, it has nothing to do with hockey), and you might also remember popular water bottles like Hydroflask and S’Well. Our history is full of trendy collectibles like Beanie Babies, Pokémon cards, and my personal favorite: Precious Moments (look them up, I dare you).

How did we get here? These are not our beautiful houses. These are not our beautiful wives. Well, it certainly didn’t start with us. People have loved showing off their wealth since there was wealth to show off. The only thing that kept us from overconsumption back in the day was that it was so difficult and expensive to get stuff. Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution, cheap shipping and goods, and eventually the advent of Amazon. We can have ANYthing we want ANYtime we want it.

Some of the reasons for consumerism and overconsumption are about us as humans, and some are about industrial societies as a whole. Let’s run through them:

As humans:

1.      We feel pressure to keep up with the latest trends and the Joneses next door. There is a fundamental human desire to belong to a cohort, get respect and admiration, and perhaps even to be better than other humans. Overconsumption starts with our feelings of greed, envy, and FOMO. Products and services stand in for admirable human qualities like honesty and generosity.

2.      We consume to fill the empty, gaping maw of our existence. OK, that may be a bleak way of stating it, but it’s like eating our feelings. In fact, one example of overconsumption IS eating our feelings, but we also buy to soothe our feelings of boredom, inadequacy, isolation, sadness, and stress.

3.      We believe at some level that it’s good for our economy. Yes, consumerism is also a theory which says if we consume a lot of goods and services we will all be better off economically. Fact check below.

4.      Or, heck, we just got lazy and fell into it because it’s what we’re used to. It’s easy to fall asleep on ourselves and not realize our consumption continues to grow until it’s spiraling out of control. It’s especially easy when everyone around us is doing the same thing.

As industrial societies:

1.      It just got easier and cheaper to create and ship goods. I mentioned this one above. We never had the opportunity to lay our hands on all this stuff until after the Industrial Revolution. Since then, we’ve become better and better at manufacturing and shipping until there are now over 2,000 listings on Amazon for fidget spinners. I am NOT making this up. It takes just one click for me to get that rainbow butterfly fidget spinner today.

2.      Advertising and media kicked in. I hardly need tell you that marketers and advertisers have been manipulating people into believing they need full-body deodorant and Coca-Cola with real cocaine since Day 1. Slap a cartoon camel on those cigarettes and ship ‘em to the babies, baby!

3.      Manufacturers got “smart.” The people who make stuff are no longer content with making items which are classic and durable. Why not make things that fall apart so they can sell us a replacement? And another and another and another? Why not make special editions and collections to convince us to buy multiples? But we don’t need another Everlasting Gobstopper: for many items, “Everybody has had one, and one is enough for anybody.”

4.      More and more people had disposable income. With the rise of industrialism, people moved off the farms and into the factories, which in part drove the rise of the middle class. Along with their asbestos-related cancers and limb avulsions came a bit of extra money, which could then feed the engine of production and consumerism in a “glorious” circle.

If you’re reading this, you probably care at least a little about the effects of overconsumption and consumerism. But just in case, I put together a list of all the reasons we might want to care about these issues:

1.      It’s harming our planet: We’re using up all of our planet’s resources and polluting our skies and rivers just to feed this never-ending cycle. Then all that extra stuff ends up in oceans and landfills, or just chucked away at the side of the road. In the process, we’re killing off the habitats and species which make up our world by using up all of the Earth’s resources and causing climate change, among other things.

2.      It’s harming our economies and our people: All that overconsumption leads to demand, which leads to production, which leads to overproduction. Farms and factories ramp up to deliver more, prices go down, people get laid off, demand goes down, prices go down, and then we start the whole cycle again. To what end?

3.      It’s a lot of pressure to keep up with the Joneses. And are we really better than someone else because of the car we drive? I hope that’s a rhetorical question.

4.      It takes a toll on our finances, and then we’re stuck working for money longer than we would prefer to, just to support our avalanche of belongings.

5.      It’s hard to manage, fix, and care for all that stuff. It takes time away from what we really enjoy, like hobbies and relationships.

6.      It takes a toll on our mental health, by making it hard to focus and leading to procrastination. Research also shows that clutter negatively impacts our relationships and adds to the stress we already experience in our daily lives. In general, clutter reduces our ability to control our impulses, lowers our quality of life, and decreases our feelings of well-being.

7.      It takes a lot of time and effort to find those great deals or that perfect item in the sea of available options. Money with Katie calls it “Choresumption”: consumption isn’t even fun anymore. It’s another job, another task on the list, made even worse by the plethora of options to sort through.

8.      AND after all the work and stress and environmental destruction, we’re still not fulfilled. Why not? Because it turns out that stuff doesn’t make us happy. The research is in, and it turns out that what really makes us happy is social connection, mindfulness, and gratitude.

OK, we admit we have a problem and want to change. What can we do to let go of consumerism and be happier?

First, there are actions we can take to address our consumerism:

1.      Set a limit on how often we will shop and how much we will buy. We can put a cap on discretionary spending.

2.      Declutter, and keep decluttering every so often.

3.      Unsubscribe from all the marketing emails and stop watching manipulative content as much as we can. Turn it into a game: find the manipulative marketing message. You win back the money you might have spent on that item or service!

4.      Repair and reuse: We can fix, upcycle, and reuse what we already have.

5.      Thrift: We can buy used items, so no new resources are used to produce some of the things we need.

Second, there are mental practices we can adopt to fill the gaps where our stuff used to live:

1.      Have a laugh and let it go: When I look at this issue at arm’s length, I have a strange desire to laugh. What complicated, nuanced, silly, wonderful creatures we are! See the ridiculousness of this situation and leave it behind.

2.      Get into a habit of mindful spending: We can take a few days to think over our discretionary purchases before we make them. We can ask ourselves if we truly need that item or service, and whether it truly brings us value.

3.      Get into the habit of valuing quality over quantity: We can focus on buying fewer things of higher quality, so we can repair and reuse them. It costs more, but it saves money and the planet in the long run.

4.      Do something else with our feelings: If we’re feeling lonely, empty, or directionless, we can get up and do something about it. We can make friends, give time to others, and figure out what truly makes our own, individual lives meaningful. Instead of using a sneaker to show we’re good people, we can just be good people.

5.      Be grateful for what we have: Practicing gratitude is a great way to take the power out of our consumerism. When we realize all the ways in which we ARE fortunate, we don’t need to buy things to prove it.

Consumerism is everywhere and it can be tough to resist. I hope this post has shone a light on the topic for you, and given you some ideas you can put into practice today to address it.  

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Penny Farthing

I, Penny Farthing (non-wizarding name Kerry Read ), actually have a day job in the world of finance. This blog came into being because of my deep and abiding love for geeks and Personal Finance.