Please Buy Literally Everything

It’s that time of year again—Please Buy Literally Everything season—and as such I’ve been thinking about consumption and marketing and all the other ingredients that when whisked together, make this an especially frantic, expensive couple of months for many of us.

Some thoughts on this:

There’s nothing wrong with buying things, but it’s far less ideal to buy things just to buy things.

You don’t get bonus points for owning more stuff, and many people make purchases because it feels good in the moment only to eventually regret what they’ve previously purchased.

You also don’t get points for owning nothing: the trick is finding your personal equilibrium of owning precisely the right things and nothing more.

Extremes in either direction are casually easy, balance requires thought and intentionality. Your possession parity point will change over time, but such harmony is worth working for.

Marketing is packed to the brim with manipulative techniques that drag us around by our desire for security, well-being, fulfillment, self-expression, and other deep-set needs. Be suspicious of claims that a product will solve problems inherent to the human condition.

Also be wary of messages that rely on finitude to grab our attention.

We’re biologically wired to worry about scarcity, so when we’re told a sale will only last a short period of time or there will only be a small number of whatevers available at a reduced price, this is an attempt to manipulate us into feeling scarcity-related stress.

Our bodies and brains go into an elevated, fight-or-flight mode in response to potential resource insufficiency, and these messages prime us to feel deficient while implying the only (or best, or simplest) way to salve that stress is to buy whatever they’re selling. It’s clever and effective messaging, but also very manipulative.

We’re prone to comparing sale prices to original prices, and this distorts our perception of value.

If I see a TV on sale for $300 and it’s usually $500, that seems pretty good! But this doesn’t take into account normal pricing (maybe it’s got a theoretical, MSRP shelf-value of $500 but usually sells for around $400) and it doesn’t put the money spent into larger context (do I need a new TV? How does this one compare to my other options? And might I spend that $300 on something else entirely, like plane tickets or rent or the guitar I was thinking about buying?).

The hype surrounding shopping seasons can also influence our perception of what we’re buying and the value it might add to our lives.

When everything in our environment is telling us to buy buy buy, and everyone around us is preparing to do exactly that, we’re socially incentivized to go with the flow and participate in this popular tribal activity so we can partake in a shared experience (which feels good).

Engaging in collective experiences can be psychologically beneficial, but an awareness of what we’re being nudged to do as we participate in such rites can help us distinguish between feeling fulfilled at a concert and filling up our shopping carts (physical or digital) just because everyone around us seems to be doing so (and to adjust our behaviors accordingly).

If you do actually need to make some purchases, consider buying locally or opting for used/refurbished/open box options.

This can reduce the amount of emissions and waste associated with the sale, adds more life to products that might otherwise end up in landfills, and can help sustain small businesses and independent business owners.

A rule of thumb I’ve found to be useful when deciding whether or not I should buy something I’ve been going back and forth on is asking myself whether the object in question helps me create or consume.

If the former, it’s more likely to serve me as an asset, but if the latter it’s more likely to pull me away from the things I’m actually keen to do and thus might become a liability: something that keeps me from the creative work I’d prefer to prioritize.

It can also be helpful to put a time-delay on purchases: some people do this by price (wait a day for every $10 on the price tag) while others use a standard, default period (wait a week before making any non-essential purchase).

This can help dilute the frenzy marketers love to incite in potential customers, which can in turn allow us to more rationally assess whether we actually want the thing in question; whether it’s the best use of our money (which is earned with our ever-so-finite time, energy, and attention).

Have you ever bought something and then had it just sit on the shelf or in a closet, serving no purpose beyond gathering dust?

I have. And I try to remind myself of those things every time I consider buying something new.

Will I use this thing? But really, will I? Or will it just end up on the shelf, in the closet, lost in a drawer—a tangible void into which I chucked money I could have spent on absolutely anything else? Will I ultimately regret this purchase in the same way I’ve come to regret other purchases?

Finally, remember that these entities doing their best to make us feel like we should buy stuff aren’t evil, nor are the people dragging us around by our emotions and biological reflexes; they’re acting in accordance with incentives native to our contemporary economic circumstances.

These incentives often require they sell as much as possible to as many people as possible, no matter the consequences of those sales. In other words, they’re acting in their own self-interest when they rile us up into a “must buy everything” state.

It’s important that we understand our own buying stuff-related self-interest and act in it as often as possible.

If you found some value in this essay, consider supporting my work by buying me a coffee :)

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