Why Is It So Hard to Stop Buying Stuff?

About six years ago I was 22 years old, a year out of college, and had a stable job. I was making enough money to cover my living expenses, make minimum student loan payments, and save a few extra dollars in the bank. Despite owing $90,000 in student loans, I still had this inner urge to consume and spend those few extra dollars I saved each paycheck. At first, I wanted to buy a jet ski. How cool would it be to spend the weekends exploring the outdoor waters? How much fun would it be to jump boat waves and dock my jet ski at waterfront restaurants? And, how nice would it be to always have something to do? Seriously, it sounds amazing. And so, I spent weeks researching jet skis. I spent so much time researching that I knew more about jet skis than most people selling them. But then I took a step back. I took a deep breath. And I visualized exactly what my life would be like if I had a jet ski. I’d add another $15,000 onto my already steep debt pile. I’d add another item to my life which required time to transport, use, and maintain. And I’d likely use it much less than I imagined. I mean I didn’t even have any friends that also had a jet ski or boat. So, after some long hard analytical, non-emotional thought, I decided my life was fine without a jet ski.

But after I made that decision, I immediately went on to something else. Maybe not a jet ski, but golf! I still had a few extra hours a week and few dollars in my pocket. I still had a desire to do something fun and I love sports. It only made sense that being a member of a country club was the right choice for me. And I went through the same exact process again of researching every course within a 30-minute radius of me. Only after finding the perfect course and receiving a $10,000 quote for joining the club with $5,000 in annual fees, did I finally step back again and think about it. And again, the cost, time, and expectations-vs-reality were just not worth it. And again, I decided my life was fine without a membership to a country club. I look back at times like these and realize how difficult it was to make good decisions in the moment. It seemed like I would be so much happier with a jet ski or a golf club membership. But now looking back six years later, being debt-free, without the stress of maintaining a jet ski, and without wondering how to cancel my golf club membership, I know I made the right decisions. I’ve found ways to save my extra money for long-term goals and invest my time in important relationships and projects. But what is it that constantly entices me, and all of us to consume? What is it that tempts us to spend every extra penny we earn? And what is it that drives us to schedule every extra minute we have?

I think it comes down to two things.

Search for External Happiness

One: We all have a natural tendency to look for something that will elevate our level of happiness. This isn’t a terrible thing, but happiness cannot be found externally, and this is the problem. Sure, a new jet ski would bring some thrills into my life. And yes, being a member at a county club may provide momentary excitement but these external sources of thrill and excitement come and go. Happiness on the other hand is found internally through contentment and gratitude. And these two differences can easily be confused. Whether you’re buying new clothes, a car or even a house, they may bring thrill and excitement. But this thrill and excitement wears off quickly. This concept is known as hedonic adaptation. Hedonic adaptation says that humans quickly return to their set level of happiness regardless of extremely positive or negative events in their life. Therefore, as hard as it may be to grasp, buying things will not make us happier. They’ll only bring us temporary thrills and excitement which can also be achieved without spending money and obtaining objects.

Scarcity Mindset Rewards Abundance

Two: We have evolved as humans from hunter-gatherers with a scarcity mindset to civilized members of society with an abundance of food, products, and services. For most of the time that we (humans) have existed, we’ve been hunter-gatherers. We’ve had to fight and claw for food and survival every day. And if we fought hard enough, we might have enough food to last multiple days. This scarcity of resources led us to develop a mental system that rewarded us for collecting more than we immediately needed. For example, if we can hunt and gather enough food today for the week, then we have the rest of the week to build shelter and stay safe. We were rewarded for having more. But, in a civilized society, there isn’t a scarcity of resources. We have enough food to last us months and our homes provide us shelter that’ll last years. This has all happened in a brief period of time and our brains have not adjusted for the abundance of things we now have. Our brains still reward us for more food, more clothes, more toys, more everything whether we need it or not. Our scarcity mindset has not evolved for the new abundance of resources available today.

Ramifications of Consumerism

This search for external happiness that is rewarded by our under evolved brains causes us to spend. It causes us to buy more things than we need and feel temporarily good about it. The problem with this is that the temporary thrill fades and we’re left with less money, more physical objects, and a desire to buy something else to replace the lost thrill. This is the process that drives the average American to spend $18,000 per year on nonessential items. It’s what has driven the average American to rack up $38,000 in personal debt. It’s what has caused us to seek larger homes, nicer cars, fancier vacations and more storage space. It’s also what has caused us to lose time in our schedules for important activities like sleep, family time and idle time. Clearly, our desire for more is causing trouble. Arguably, more trouble than the reward. This is why I believe it’s important to put strategies in place to control our desire for more.

3 Strategies to Stop Buying Stuff

Here are the three strategies I now use to control my spending:

1. Visualize its Usage

Visualization is a major component. When I visualized what it was like to own a jet ski, I made sure to visualize every aspect of it. After I bought the jet ski, I’d have to transport it. This would require a trailer I don’t yet have. Once I’ve transported it somewhere, I’d need to store it. Do I keep it on the trailer at my parent’s house or rent docking space? If I rent space, that’s another cost. If I keep it at my parents’ house, then I must spend an extra 30 minutes each time I want to use the jet ski just to bring it to water and back. And where do I keep it in the winter? Also, how much of a time commitment is it to go jet skiing? I’d imagine at least 4 hours per trip depending on what I was going to do. And then there’s gas payments and maintenance. And so much more to consider… After thinking about all the extra money and time required to live this dream, I realized it was more of a hassle than a pleasure. And so, it’s visualizations like these that really help me put things into perspective. It’s this visualization that allows me to see things as they are without the emotional excitement and thrill. It’s this visualization that helps prevent me from making poor purchasing decisions.

2. Think Big Picture

Another component for me is thinking big picture. I knew I had goals of becoming debt free, buying a house, and supporting a family. But when I was thinking about becoming a member of a country club, the only thing I was thinking about was filling extra time I had after work with a few extra dollars I had saved. This didn’t meet my big picture goals. Why would I want to add a $10,000 golf membership to my already poor financial position? Why would I want to fill most of my days with golf if I was planning to find a partner and start a family? When I thought about the big picture, a country club membership just wasn’t right for me. It may have made sense in that moment in time, but not in a year or two. And so, when I looked at the big picture, a country club wouldn’t help me achieve my long-term goals. Therefore, I believe thinking big picture is extremely useful. Whether I’m buying new shoes, a new TV, or even a subscription service, I find it important to ask myself if it fits into my big picture goals. Will this help me achieve my long-term goals or set me back further?

3. Avoid Buyer Environments

The last component for me is avoiding buyer environments. This is difficult now as our lives have turned digital and the entire web is a buyer’s environment. But it’s important to recognize that the main objective for sellers is to convince us that we’re better off with their product or service. And the more time we spend looking at their advertisements, products, services, websites, or stores, the more likely we’ll get convinced that our lives will be better with their product or service. Eventually, we will start drinking the Kool-Aid and make a purchase that we were likely fine without. This is why I’ve found it beneficial to avoid environments that encourage buying. For example, I use ad blockers on my web browsers. I avoid websites with ads or that are designed for shopping. I also rarely visit malls or shopping centers. The more I avoid environments that are trying to convince me to buy things, the more satisfied I feel with my life. And the less desire I have to purchase a product or service.

Final Thoughts

This isn’t to say that buying products and services is bad. There are many products and services that can be used as a tool to improve our situations or bring us health and joy. And for some people, a jet ski or country club membership may make perfect sense. But for me, in my situation it was not. And with Americans spending around $18,000 per year on nonessential items all while being $38,000 in personal debt, purchases like these are much more a problem than a solution. On top of the financial aspect, we don’t have the physical space to store everything we’re buying or the time necessary to utilize all our purchases. This is causing a burden on us mentally that’s decreasing our health and happiness. That’s why I feel it’s important to learn and implement strategies for controlling our spending. Whatever it is you have a desire to buy, what’s the reality of the purchase once you visualize its entire lifecycle? Does it fit in with your long-term, big picture goals? And are you being sold on it because you’re spending too much time in front of a seller convincing you that your life isn’t ideal without it? These are important questions to consider when making buying decisions. They’re questions that have helped me avoid traps on my journey to long-term journey to health and happiness.

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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe

Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient, and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognitive Health, Financial Independence and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.


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