Challenging Consumerism on a Budget
Spending less than we earn, or living below our means is no small feat—especially living in the United States, or in any consumer culture. Advertising is the best it’s ever been, with never-ending new techniques. We have the technology to impulsively click “buy” when we feel the desire. Others’ highlight reels are literally at our fingertips via social media on our smart phones.
All of this (sometimes overt, sometimes crafty) pressure can influence our self-perception. It can drive us to compare ourselves to others in ways that have unhelpful results.
How Does This Happen?
In a simple way, these pressures can make us feel we need something to make our lives easier, better (or better than someone else’s), more comfortable, etc. They can allow for uncharitable and harsh behavior toward others (think judging someone’s choice for insert whatever here). Or we can turn the criticism inward and indulge in self-deprecating talk. These negative attitudes toward ourselves can take root and become an internalized new “truth”.
At times it may feel like we are swinging on a pendulum. We oscillate between feeling justifiably superior to others, or feeling inferior, and that our lives are less than what they could or should be.
Unfortunately, a seemingly quick-fix to the external messages we receive, is to buy something. Buy that nicer car, the “right” clothes, jet-set to an exotic locale, pick up a trendy new hobby, pick up fast food on the way home—anything to give relief and just feel better. Treat yo’ self!
Arguably, even people who wouldn’t normally identify themselves as “emotional” are susceptible to making purchases based on their feelings. After all, no matter how logical we are, we all have feelings. There is some motivation behind every choice we make, no matter how ordinary it is. How we choose to spend our money is no exception.
Paula Pant, of Afford Anything, made the fantastic proposition that “We don’t buy things. We buy stories.” Whether it be clothes, transportation, or even our food, she argues we are buying stories, feelings and identities.
Now, I am not sure we can truly separate our purchases from whatever identity or story we are trying to create. I don’t know that we have to. The challenge is to ask, what story are we trying to buy for ourselves?
When I started my Financial Stability journey, I began by designing a budget for myself and attempted to live by it. At the oddest times I found myself more challenged than others, which allowed me to learn what kind of story I was trying to tell myself (and others).
One example readily comes to mind. I had only been at a new job for about four months and I hated it. I already accrued some PTO so I called in sick and immediately felt guilty. The day was spent in a way any reasonable person would spend a day off—Netflix and online shopping. Understand, this was contrary to everything I was working toward at the time—a little debt payoff, an attempt at budgeting, living within my means—all of it.
As self-indulgent as it may seem, I have always been curious about myself, my brain, and why I do what I do. This curiosity is more like an expression of self-love. It translates into curiosity about people in general and is part of why I think life is such a fascinating adventure. This life, our existence in earth, can be quite enthralling!
A self-admitted perfectionist, I have intentionally worked toward leaning inward, without judgement. On that day, when I blew an ungodly amount of money on random online items, despite my conscious decision to not spend on non-budgeted things, I turned inward.
What story was I trying to tell myself?
I felt guilty for calling into work when I wasn’t really sick and that was an uncomfortable emotion. More than anything, I was disappointed I wasn’t feeling successful at this new job I did not (yet) know I hated. The assumption was, there must be something wrong with me for not jiving with this new work experience, as qualified as I believed myself to be.
Without any intentional thought (other than I felt kinda lousy and restless), I purchased several hundred dollars worth of clothes online. Professional clothes! More clothes, to add to my closet full of clothes, to wear to a job I hated, because I felt incompetent. If I couldn’t feel competent, at least I could look competent.
Buying Things Does Not Equal Feeling Good
The day I bought a bunch of nonsense to squash my feelings of unrest, I was buying a story. I was spending money to get a quick feel-good. It was a short term effect that faded. In a few days, the feeling returned and I was back to not liking my job (one I had quit my previous job for). Back to feeling insecure for not fitting in like I expected myself to. I was buying time (ha! puns!), trying to avoid the tough question: was this job for me, or should I take the risk and try again elsewhere?
(Spoiler alert: I chose to go part-time and began my self-employment journey. Eventually I quit the job entirely and established my LLC that I operate today.)
This example may not translate for everyone, which is fine. However, I hope the sentiment I am attempting to express is relatable enough. I have found myself signing up for memberships, buying clothes or household items, purchasing gifts for others, all for varying motivations.
Get Curious About Consumerism
Some intentions have been more noble than others, but ultimately I just wanted to feel good. Whether it is an item for myself I think will make my life easier or better (and sometimes it actually does), or a hefty donation to a charitable organization, I would like to feel like I am doing this life thing right.
Rather than feeling downtrodden or cynical about the pressures of consumerism, we can take this as an opportunity to get interested in ourselves and our underlying wants. I’ll keep meandering through this wild experience we call living, and I’ll keep being curious about myself and asking myself hard questions.
Will this purchase bring me joy or relief, or am I trying to bury something uncomfortable? At the very least, if I find myself stepping outside my budget, rather than it being an impulsive escape, it can be a thoughtful choice. Life is meant to be enjoyed—yup, I said it! I want to allow my budget to be flexible so I can make decisions which truly benefit myself and others around me.
What questions do you ask yourself before you make a purchase? How do you resist the bombardment of consumerism? Comment below, and let me know what you think!