Since the industrial revolution, our society and economy increasingly rely on manufactured goods. We now live in a world of convenience, where many products and technologies exist to facilitate ease. Those items, although often branded “must-haves”, are actually “nice-to-haves”.
Of course many of these products do save you time or enable you to do things. However, you may not always want to do things quickly or you might waste a lot of time doing new things you didn’t previously do (and didn’t need to do!). We need to remember why these products exist and who they really benefit.
When someone is selling you a product, it certainly isn’t to improve your quality or ease of life. No, they want you to spend money so they can make money! Spending is what underpins our whole economic system and, under capitalism, consumerism is thus the engine of the economy. With each sale, the government earn sales tax and corporate tax. It is thus in their interest to facilitate your purchases and explains why everyone want you to buy more stuff.
However, spending more than you need, can also have significant drawbacks. In order for you to make an informed decision about how you want to spend your money, you need to understand how the system works. If you know how the system works, you can make the system work for you!
Marketing campaigns are designed by professionals to try to create a sense of longing. They instill a desire for a specific product or service in you that makes you feel that you need to have this item. The main arguments they use to try to convince you to buy something is convenience, productivity gain, entertainment, and status symbol.
Marketing and consumerism go hand in hand. Marketeers are good at their jobs and they get paid a large amount of money for succesful campaigns. They work up their campaigns using the most recent research in business, psychology, and sociology. It’s thus not surprising that we positively respond to their ads and want the things they try to sell.
In fact, if you don’t find their ads appealing, you’re one of the few! So, don’t blame yourself for liking their campaigns. The key is to stay strong and make sure that you don’t make impulse purchases. Rationally think about the product or service, and whether it is really something that you need or want, and then carefully weigh up the pros and cons.
One good way to get around the emotive appeal of an ad or a product is to make a “couple of months” rule. Wait a few months before you decide on a purchase. If you still want the product after that time has lapsed, and you have a good reason for making the purchase, then go for it!
These days, technologies are increasingly advanced and complex. They are also pretty pricey! The higher-end the product, the higher-end the prices! Think carefully about whether the higher priced items are necessary or whether lower priced items may deliver similar functionality. Always ask yourself whether the price difference is justifiable.
Let’s use a television as an example: There are a multitude of options across different brands, different screen sizes, resolution, type of display, colours, novelty features, etc. Consequently, the prices range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The purpose, however, is the same: To offer you access to television programming and entertainment.
The same principles apply to cars. Their main purpose is to take us from Point A to Point B, but the prices fluctuate vastly based on design, brand, features, and fittings. Similar arguments could be made for almost any product – So think about why you are purchasing a product and make sure you focus on that purpose. Try not to get distracted by the shiny extras!
We’re also seeing an increasing trend toward professional products. Cameras are the perfect example. We are led to believe that we need high-end professional equipment in order to capture our memories with the vividity they deserve. As a consequence, there are lots of people out there with SLR cameras, with multiple lenses and filters, that end up taking a picture not much better than what their smartphone might produce.
In fact, this equipment doesn’t make you a better photographer. You still need to know how to use it. Unsurprisingly, the more features you have, the more difficult it is to use. Thus, most of us actually take better pictures with “point and shoot” devices that do much of the work for us.
Don’t feel bad if it sounds like I’m describing you at the moment – I also fell for it and bought a professional SLR with dedicated lenses for different purposes. The problem is that my pictures didn’t get much better! I’m not such a bad photographer but the improvements I got were just not worth the higher camera price difference. So think about whether such high-end purchases work for you or against you, and make an informed decision based on the reality, not the ideal.
Planned obsolescence is a well-known commercial strategy that many firms pursue. It is a major contributor of consumerism. It means that manufacturers purposely design products with short lifecycles, using cheap production material or limited functional capacity. Planned obsolescence works well for companies as it generate recurrent income with every new product release.
The items are built to last only for a specific amount of time to ensure the need for regular replacement (and continuous demand). Electronics are one such item – They are built with a short lifecycle to facilitate new purchases. Did you notice those iPhone batteries and buttons keep breaking once you’ve passed the 2 years mark and have to renew your phone contract? It’s not coincidence.
It’s difficult to find products that are “made to last”. You’ve probably heard that old saying: “They don’t make them like this anymore!” It’s anecdotal but true; products don’t last like they used to. Furniture responds to design trends rather than functional need or use period. Take Ikea as a great example. They build useful furniture from materials, often pressed wood, whereas 50 years ago most furniture would have come from carpenters and been made of solid wood.
This goes hand-in-hand with another consumer trend: We update our furniture to follow fashion trends, rather than thinking about how long a product can last and whether there is an actual replacement need. Not so for our parents or grandparents! My grandparents still have the solid oak cupboard they bought 50 years ago. I don’t expect any of my furniture to last that long.
Of course our lifestyle has also changed – We live in big cities, we’re increasingly mobile, and we have access to lots of communication channels. That means two things. First, our goods have to adapt to our lifestyle. If we are moving houses every two years, we need furniture that is adaptable or disposable! Secondly, we are more exposed to advertisements and social pressure than ever. We are continuously bombarded with images of things that we should want, things that appeal to us, and things that are hard to resist.
Remember that fashion is by definition meant to become obsolete. A particular fashion can only be popular for a finite amount of time, even if there is some opportunity for it to reappear. For instance, most people change clothes regularly, not because they are worn out but because they don’t look good anymore. If you don’t update your wardrobe, people will know and quickly begin to accuse you of “not looking after yourself”.
The irony is that the more fashionable clothes are, the more expensive they will be and the quicker they will go out of fashion. If you buy a regular pair of jeans without any of the fashion traps – flares, holes, bright colours,etc – you are likely to be able to keep them longer. Choosing plain clothes (“the basics”) that do not rigorously follow fashion will make them last longer.
Become Less Materialistic
The first step to escaping consumerism is to rid yourself of all the things you don’t need. The television is a prime example. It’s a notorious time-wasting device and doesn’t enhance your quality of life in any way. Yet, somehow, we are all oddly attached to that square box!
I never thought I could sell my TV, seeing as I grew up with television. As an only child, I have quite fond memories of it, using it to keep me company when my parents had to work late. I had my television set turned on pretty much every waking minute. Then, a few months ago, I took the plunge and sold my TV. I thought it was going to be really hard, but it turns out that I don’t miss it.
Television sucks you in and you often end up watching programs you aren’t interested in. On top of that, you are bombarded by a stream of advertisements. And there is a reason for advertisements – They work! Of course selling your TV doesn’t mean that you have to stop watching all your favourite programs – You can watch most of them online for free and the online streams tend to be much less prone to advertisements.
Recently, in order to declutter our life and moving from consumerism to monkeyism, we have gone through a period of reselling superfluous items we had but didn’t use. Pretty much anything can be sold on eBay, Craigslist or Gumtree. There is always someone who will need what you have to offer. We’ve put up ads for items that we never thought anyone would be interested in (e.g. frying pans, garbage cans, books, old computer equipment, etc…). It all sold!
So as we declutter our home, we are also earning money from the items that were consuming our space. Many people just end up buying larger houses with extra bedrooms and garage space to store junk they hardly use and should get rid of. Don’t let that happen to you! It’s not always easy to move toward a more minimalist life, but once you sold a couple of items, you will see that it doesn’t materially affect your life … And you will keep selling.
Another thing you can do in order to save money in the long-term is to replace items that break with more durable models. You may end up paying a higher price initially, but assuming that you actually need this item and will use it often for a long period of time, it is a good investment.
Great examples are higher-end kitchen knives (e.g. Henckels or WMF) that remain sharp and don’t need to be replaced if cared for properly. At present we are doing just that – We are reducing the number of objects we own, focusing on the most important and functional objects, and replacing them with high quality durable products. Of course we still have nice things; but we have nice things that are useful!