Why we buy stuff…and how we can stop

courtesy of flickr user *Saffy*

I heard an interview on NPR the other day with neuroscientist Dean Buonomano, author of the new book Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives.  One cognitive bias he discussed stuck out in my mind in particular: our bias towards immediate gratification.  Buonomano argues that this is hard-wired into us, and that we are powerless to resist.

While I was mulling that one, I read an article on Copyblogger (okay, so I’m a tech geek) that talks about ways to convert blog visits to sales of your product (e-book, consulting, whatever).  The author answers the question of why people buy things thusly:

Very few of the things we buy are truly necessary.

Everything else we buy is used as a way of telling the story of who we are, what we believe, and what we aspire to be.

As someone who is currently getting much more serious about simplifying, I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two ideas.  On the one hand, our brains are hard-wired to want what we want when we want it, and on the other hand the advertising and marketing industries have become very good at convincing us that if we buy this thing, it will enhance our deepest selves and help us communicate that self to others.

Is it any wonder that voluntary simplicity is so difficult?  Or that so many people have put themselves so deeply into debt buying stuff?

Yes, self-control is key.  But I’ve found that I also have to be much smarter about the environments in which I choose to place myself.  If I find myself where the options are many and arrayed in such a way to make me want them, then my self-control will wane rather quickly and I will impulsively purchase something that I don’t really want.

So, here are some strategies I have developed for buying less:

1.  Don’t go shopping!  If I can possibly help it, I avoid going to stores.  I prefer to get food wholesale or at the farmer’s market.  I don’t like buying clothing, especially for myself, but if I must, I like to go to consignment stores.  Impulse buying is definitely not as much of a threat there, since you often have to spend time sifting through things to find one or two garments you actually want to buy!  Otherwise, try to borrow, or go to garage sales, or Freecycle, or at least Internet shop.

2.  Always shop from a list.  If I do go to a grocery store, I always bring a list.  I find that having a list (and a menu for the week planned out ahead of time) makes me much less likely to impulse buy.  I also have a wish list of bigger things (like cookware or furniture) so I can keep an eye out for them at garage sales and the like, and also so I can have time to think.  Many things get put on the list but then are crossed off when I change my mind a day or a month later.

3.  Don’t shop with your kids, if you can avoid it.  ‘Nuff said.  If you must, try to have something fun planned afterwards so you have the distraction factor on your side.  And make sure they are well-fed and well-rested before you go, to minimize the likelihood that their complaining will wear down your resolve.

4.  Examine your language and thinking.  I recently came across a blog called Penniless Parenting, which includes a weekly Needs vs. Wants post that examines the difference between what we actually NEED (i.e. food/water, shelter, and clothing) versus what we say we need but which is actually a WANT.  Electricity, hot running water, disposable toilet paper – all wants, really.  Perhaps luxuries that we would rather not live without, but in terms of survival they are not actually necessary.  Personally, I am unwilling to live without any of the above at this time, but simply by changing the way we think about things helps to change our relationship with Stuff.

What are your tips for living simply?

Don’t Read Twitter at Bedtime

courtesy of flickr user velvetart

Much better to cross-stitch or maybe play some Scrabble, methinks.

I was checking TweetDeck the other night, and here is the exchange to which I was treated:

@thegoodhuman BINGO! RT@DMansini: @thegoodhuman @Matt_SF @EverydayFinance i advocate a tax credit for the CHILDLESS – we use far less resources

@thegoodhuman Absolutely. Should not be reward for having kids RT @Matt_SF @EverydayFinance what if we remove child/dependent tax credit? $3650/kid adds up

@Matt_SF @pcdunham: @Matt_SF @EddieBraverman there should be competency & income requirements to have kids, not fucking incentives


Where to even start?  Maybe that there should also be competency requirements to Tweet?

Too snarky?

Maybe I’ll start here:  Basic math dictates that two people use more resources than one, and fewer resources that three.  However, the world does not work on the principles of arithmetic.  Certainly, some childless people use fewer resources than families with children.  However, I know quite a few families with children who have made huge efforts to decrease their consumption of goods and services, and some even came to the path of simplicity because of their children.  Sometimes this is a choice made to leave a more sustainable and healthy world to our children or perhaps to allow parents to work less, earn less, and spend more time with their children.  Sometimes consumption is reduced out of necessity because children are expensive – and by the by, anyone who thinks $3,650 per child is a REWARD or INCENTIVE is out of touch with the cost of raising a child, to put it mildly.  Either way, parenthood dictates to many families that we use up, make do, or do without.

On the other hand, I know plenty of single people or couples without children who use well more than their fair share, jet-setting around the globe on lavish vacations, driving multiple gas-guzzling luxury cars, rushing out to purchase the latest gadget, standing in front of a closet full of brand new and barely worn clothes, shoes and accessories each day, and basically using their disposable income to ensure that they have everything they could possibly want at their fingertips.  To generalize that childless people use fewer resources than families with children….that may be true on the whole, I don’t know, but it certainly doesn’t jive with my personal experience.

And in the end, the whole conversation just baffles me.  Even though I have two biological children, I am sympathetic to the idea of limiting population size as a huge component of environmental stewardship.  But that’s ultimately not what we’re talking about here.  We are simply talking about the cost, in dollars and cents, of giving tax rebates to parents, and the effect that removing that rebate would have on our current budget crisis.  Whatever your political/environmental/human rights position on procreation, to suggest that the way to cut costs is to take money out of the pockets of lower- and middle-class parents while refusing to ask the wealthy to bear more responsibility…..seriously?  And what should the income requirement for parents be, anyway?  And how would that guarantee good parenting?  Or are we just interested in low-cost parenting?

Baffled.  Just.  Baffled.