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?

  • Brynne

    Its funny…I find it so much easier to resist such urges down here in Mexico where people seem to be more content with what they have. But as soon as I step off the plane back home, I can hardly wait to get to Whole Foods and end up spending a fortune every single time. Its almost as if up North the birds are whispering ‘buy, buy, buy’:) Great post. Important stuff here! Well done!

    • http://ahimsamama.com Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

      Maybe they are – I don’t speak bird that well. ;) That’s a great point though, when you are surrounded by other people who are also living the simple life it’s that much easier. I should have added “Find a supportive community” to the list!

  • http://gypsyroxylee.wordpress.com/ Bella

    These are great strategies–some of which I thankfully, already employ! For me, the best thing to avoid doing is shopping. I only shop when necessary and when I do, like you, I stick to my list. I’m glad you mentioned the “want” versus “need” since this is something I’m constantly harping on with my family. Wants get put on a list, ie a wish list! :) Great post!

    • http://ahimsamama.com Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

      Thanks for the comment! My husband and I also have vastly different ideas of what is a “want” and what is a “need”….

      BTW, I am NOT brave enough to wear a two piece bathing suit, and the white cat in your blog looks just like my cat! ;)

  • Kari O’Driscoll

    I agree with the “don’t go shopping” rule, for sure. I actually dislike shopping, so that’s fairly simple for me. I also find it makes my life easier (and the grocery bill cheaper) to have food delivered. We belong to a local CSA that delivers fresh, organic produce to our door once a week. I use other delivery services for staples (except meat) so I don’t get tempted by stuff in the store. I make my list, shop online, and get what I ordered.

    I also try to short-circuit the instant gratification thing as much as possible by walking around for a while after I see something I like. I put it down, walk away, and go do something else. Generally, by the time I’ve made it to the other end of the store or mall, I don’t feel like going all the way back to get it. If it is a stronger pull, I go away for a day or two. Rarely do I ever feel like getting back into the car to go get that thing.

    • http://ahimsamama.com Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

      That is a good idea. I always think – I’ll probably forget it, if I’m still thinking about it a few days later then maybe it warrants further consideration. Thanks!

  • http://www.simplehumble.com Pea

    Disposable toilet paper is a want in 2011 in a city??!! :0 Interesting… I must check out this blog!

    I would have to concur with your list Kelly. Going casual shopping without a list whilst already in debt is a bit like regularly visiting in a drug den and saying that you want to give up drugs.

    I suppose my simple tip would be to spend plenty of time getting to really know who you are. (i.e switch off electronic distractions and let your brain work the way it was built to work). Read, meditate, play music, spend quiet time. This way you get to strengthen your sense of self and know what you really want or need, not what you are told you want or need.

    • Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

      Pea, that’s an awesome point. If we remove ourselves from the business, and take the time to focus on what we *really* want, then we are less likely to be sucked into the consumer mindset.