Learning the value of money can be a long process. I only realised its real value very recently.
Growing up in a low-income family, I have always dreamt of a lavish life of spending as per the consumerism ideal; a life where money wasn’t an issue and where I could afford any item or experience I desired.
After securing my first job, I went a bit crazy. I entered a long period of overspending and overindulging.
I bought brand name clothes, ate at the top restaurants, purchased a brand new German car, went on luxurious holidays, rented apartments in trendy neighborhoods, etc…
The money I was earning was spent very quickly. I even spent money I did not have, taking out loans and taking on credit.
Consumerism as a Way of Life
It seemed like a natural progression: I could afford more, so I bought more. My entire life, I had been waiting for the moment when I could buy the things that the advertisements promised would enhance the quality of my life.
I’d been socialized – in school, by reading books, through popular culture – that materialistic things bring pleasure. Consumerism advocates that “Money is there to be spent”. More money means more spending.
There is plenty of social pressure to “keep up with the Joneses”. You want to outpace and outspend your peers. You want people to notice your flashy new watch and your cool outfit. You want others to acknowledge that you’ve made it.
Wealth and the indicators of wealth signal to people that you are valuable and should be valued. Of course, if you do not follow this trend, there are repercussions. You’ll be seen as someone who is stingy and/or doesn’t know how to enjoy life. No one wants that.
Sadly, that is how modern consumerism society functions. We are encouraged to swap our wardrobe every few years, not because our clothes are worn out but because they have become unfashionable.
Have you ever thought about what being unfashionable actually means? It means that you don’t buy into the idea that big fashion houses can tell you what they think you should wear.
Similarly, electronics evolve extremely quickly. Nowadays there are yearly releases or updates that encourage you to purchase new products. The mobile phone is a case in point. We find it normal to upgrade our phones every couple of years, even if they are still in perfect working order. When is the last time you did that with your landline telephone?
Companies are shortening their product life cycles on purpose using a strategy called planned obsolescence – They are trying to entice you to spend. Why? Because there is no need for you to buy these clothes or that technology.
That means corporations have to create a desire. That desire is created through the idea of fashion and materiality. These notions suggest that enjoying – even living – life means being able to afford the most expensive and most exclusive things.
Happiness is measured by the amount of money and assets you have. Thus, the only way to secure happiness is by accumulating wealth.
Does Consumerism Make You Happy?
The answer to this question is actually very subjective. What will make you happy depends on your core values, personality, education and life experience.
In psychology, there is a concept called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a basic theory of human motivation, which I think is helpful in this context. Maslow placed human needs in a hierarchy, with some seen as more and others as less important.
He suggests that needs are pyramidal, building on one another. Only once our most basic physiological needs are met (food, shelter and warmth), we can start to satisfy more complex needs (safety, love, and self-esteem).
When a need is met, we strive to meet the next need, until we reach a state of self-actualization or self-fullfillment. But barriers in life mean that only few people ever reach this stage; they continue to be motivated by lower-level needs.
This is similar to the way our spending works. We first try to cover all of our vital needs: We put food on the table and make sure we have safe housing. Thus, people who have little money tend to spend most of that money on food and living costs.
As we move up the wealth ladder, we develop new needs for comfort and practicality. Our spending becomes more liberal. Most families take it for granted that they will have new clothes for the start of the school year, go on an annual vacation, support numerous hobbies, and have a family car.
This matches the idea of lifestyle inflation I introduced earlier. We adapt our lifestyle in line with our income. The more we earn, the more we want!
I have gone through the highs and lows of consumerism; craving a specific gadget, finally being able to buy it, and then quickly getting bored of it. This is something you have to experience yourself. Because, until you buy your dream object and realise that it does not bring you the happiness you envision, you will find it hard to follow Monkeyism.
I have gone on lavish spending sprees, seeking fulfilment, but still felt incomplete. But rather than realising that I needed something different, I desired new objects, always trying to figure out how to fund my next big purchase. It was a never-ending cycle in which I was always left disappointed.
If shiny things and new toys make you happy, then you don’t need to engage with the challenges of Monkeyism. For most people, however, money can’t buy happiness.
Will Monkeyism Make You Happy?
I had an epiphany one day. I recognized that I was caught in a never-ending cycle of consumption, continuously being tempted into my next purchase. These things weren’t bringing me happiness and I didn’t need them, but somehow I still craved them.
I realized that I had to break the cycle and reprogram my mind. I had to stop seeing these things as desirable. I started to understand that I would only be happy once I had everything I could wish for.
The key was redefining what I wished for! If you have a short but meaningful wishlist, you have a clear focus and it is easier to meet your needs, easier to become happy.
However, if you have a long and growing wishlist, it will be hard for you to ever meet your needs, ever be satisfied, and ever reach true happiness.
Just as I was having these thoughts, I remembered the hierarchy of needs. And it fit. In most Western societies, food, shelter, health or safety are taken-for-granted, basic human rights. For most of us, those vital needs are met and we have to spend little time worrying about them.
We thus focus on other aspects; we expect more and that means we need more to be happy! I started thinking about and challenging that idea.
How much more do you really need to be happy? Refugees come here with nothing and find their dreams – Just by being safe and fed. We have the Western disease. We have forgotten how lucky we are and how much we already have.
Once you realise that you don’t need more, the temptation to spend money slowly fades. If you can convince yourself that leading a simple life is a smart choice and not a sacrifice, then happiness becomes the status quo because you already have everything you could wish for!
Thinking this way will also help you save money. Especially once you realise that putting these ideas into practice will facilitate early retirement. You are now saving money to buy your time, to regain your freedom.
Escaping consumerism and spending less is liberating – It becomes a virtuous cycle. You need less, so you spend less. That means you are less dependent on salary and that removes some of the pressure of working. Monkeyism is a beautiful thing. It will set you free!