You are strapped to a treadmill. It’s the same treadmill most of us can’t escape. It’s the hedonic treadmill — the observation that even though we keep chasing money, rainbows, and unicorns, believing that these things will make us happy, we’ll instead quickly adapt to any life changes, returning to our baseline of happiness.
This means that buying new things won’t make you happier. And you know that. I mean, it’s not as if you never crossed something off your wish list.
It’s happened to you before. You’ve longed for a new phone, gadget, garment, whatever, watched unboxing video after unboxing video, read reviews and opinions, fantasized about it, and then — when you couldn’t resist any longer — you bought it. But what happened to that shiny, that brilliant, that sparkling thing after it ended up in your hands?
It stopped twinkling. It’s glow faded. It just became a thing. It joined your pile of stuff. At best it’s now something lying around somewhere in your home that you occasionally use. At worst, you don’t even know where it is. It might even be broken by now.
But you don’t care. You’re not thinking about it. Instead, you’re busy stomping away on that treadmill, like we all are, chasing the next thing to join your sad pile of stuff.
If you’re lucky, at one point in your life you’ll find someone who will shout at you, who will yell at you, who will scream at you to “Get off that freaking treadmill!”
For me that someone was Stoic philosophy, which teaches you that nothing matters, except becoming a virtuous person: to be kind, fair, and courageous, to do your best to navigate the complexities of life in the wisest way possible, and to stop obsessing with everything else — especially material possessions.
And yet, I still have the occasional urge to buy stuff I don’t need, to waste my money in senseless ways.
But I found ways to shut that urge up.
So, if you’re anything like me and are a little fed up with that inner consumerist within you, I have a few tips that will help you break that vicious cycle of always wanting to buy more. And if you break the cycle, you’ll be happier and you’ll gain freedom: you’ll have fewer things to worry about, extra money for things that matter, and fewer things in your home and on your mind that drain your energy and waste your time.
So let’s get started with tip number one.
1. Don’t let yourself be manipulated
Have you ever thought about what the purpose of an ad is? Of course you have! It’s to make you buy stuff, right? Sure. But do you know how the ad industry achieves that? Well, if you think about it, they achieve that by making you unhappy with what you have. They repeatedly tell you that your home, your car, your phone, your clothes, your furniture, your shampoo, your soap — even your freaking toilet paper — just all aren’t good enough. You yourself aren’t good enough either. Neither are your spouse nor your children.
If you think about it that way, I’m sure you get pissed off. And that’s good. If you’re pissed off with someone, they’ll have a hard time convincing you to buy their crap.
So understand what the purpose of an ad is. It’s not to show you things that will improve your life and make you happy. It’s the exact opposite. It’s to make you wretchedly unhappy and keep you that way so that you keep buying stuff.
This has even been shown experimentally. A study that looked into the pernicious effects of consumer cues concluded:
Merely viewing desirable consumer goods resulted in increases in materialistic concerns and led to heightened negative affect and reduced social involvement.
Here “negative affect” means unhappy and “reduced social involvement” means selfish. That’s right, what the researchers are saying is that ads make you unhappy and selfish.
And don’t think it matters if everything you own is perfectly fine. Ads will convince you that whatever you have is old, out of style, and that you need to replace it. Otherwise your friends and neighbors will laugh at you. This is called perceived obsolescence, a type of planned obsolescence, and it’s one of the main motors of consumerism.
Luckily, understanding how ads work can inoculate you against their attempts to manipulate your hopes, wishes, and desires. But like any vaccine, it’s not 100 percent effective. And that’s a problem. We are subjected to such an onslaught of TV ads, Facebook ads, Google ads, print ads, billboards ads, in-app ads, product placement ads, and celebrity endorsements that it’s really hard to resist everything. Anywhere you look, you see an ad or some corporation’s logo, which is its own form of advertising.
Estimates on the number of ads the average person sees per day vary. Some sources say the numbers are somewhere between 4000 and 10,000 ads per day per person, but they’re also counting brand exposures and being just in the mere proximity of logos and ads. A more sensible study from 2014 only counts real ads and has lower estimates: “the number of ads that adults are now exposed to across all five media (TV, radio, Internet, newspapers and magazines) is about 360 per day; of these, only 150–155 are even noted.”
In any case, the exact numbers don’t really matter. What matters is that there’s no arguing that you’re exposed to hundreds of ads every day, all trying to convince you that you need one more thing in your life. And they’re succeeding. That’s why you have that shopping urge in the first place.
But you can do your part in showing those ads your middle finger. How? Well, at the very least you can install ad blockers in your web browser, disable personalized ads on Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc., and turn on “Do Not Track” in Chrome, Firefox, or whatever web browser you’re using. The less targeted ads you see, the better you’ll be able to resist their temptations. You can also choose to go with ad-free services, such as subscription services, whenever they’re available.
Besides that, unless you’re willing to live off-grid in the wilderness, there’s not much more you can do to reduce the number of ads you see. But remember, what you can do is understand the obnoxious effects ads have, make it a habit to watch out for their manipulations, and pity instead of envy people who have been duped by them. All that should help you keep your shopping impulses under control.
2. Give a f*ck
To shut up that urge to buy new stuff, learn to care — not only about your wallet and a clutter free home — but also about the environment, the climate, and the exploitation of people.
Remind yourself that wasting money on unnecessary things is contributing to the ravaging of forests, the extermination of species, the dumping of toxic chemicals, the depletion of fresh water, the plundering of ecosystems, the heating of the climate, and all the other awful stuff that’s going on that you usually prefer not to think about.
As Dr. Ivanova, lead author of a study on the environmental impact of household consumption, put it:
We all like to put the blame on someone else, the government, or businesses. […] But between 60–80 per cent of the impacts on the planet come from household consumption. If we change our consumption habits, this would have a drastic effect on our environmental footprint as well.
Yeah, it’s our consumption that’s killing the planet. So let’s stop putting all the blame on others.
Realize that whenever you replace something that is perfectly fine with something else just because of the way it looks, you’re harming the planet for no real reason whatsoever.
And it’s not just nature that’s suffering. People suffer too.
Everyone’s heard of sweatshops, so let’s not delve on that. But did you know that North Korea employs slave miners to dig out one-billion-dollars-worth of coal every year that is then sold to China? And why does China need so much coal? Among others, of course, to power the industries that produce the consumer goods we so insatiably demand.
Or did you know that the lithium-ion batteries in the electronics you’re lusting after are tainted by the exploitation of people? They contain cobalt and more than 60% of the world’s cobalt is produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The problem? That cobalt is being dug out by children as young as six under slave-like conditions in toxic mines. And yeah, children die in those mines.
I don’t know about you, but bringing to mind the blood soaked minerals that are found in modern consumer electronics certainly dampens my urge to buy them.
3. Make a list
Roy F. Baumeister, one of the world’s most eminent psychologists on self-control and self-defeating behaviors, pointed out in one of his studies published in the Journal of Consumer Research that “When people lose track of their behavior, self-control breaks down.” This explains drunken behavior and it also explains our behavior as consumers. As Baumeister notes, “Monitoring is likely to be relevant to consumer behavior as well. When people keep careful track of their money and expenditures, impulsive purchases are less likely.”
What he’s saying is that if you have no idea how much you’ve spent on useless things, you’re more likely to put down your hard-earned cash for yet another thing you don’t need.
Luckily, this also means that the solution is easy. All you need to do to stop purchases that stem from a lack of awareness is realize how much money you’ve already wasted. And since you can’t write something down without thinking about it, one of the best ways to do that is by making a list.
So take a piece of paper and on it write down the following:
- everything you regret buying,
- everything you bought that ended up broken,
- everything you bought that you stopped caring about, and
- everything you wanted to buy in the past that you’re now glad you didn’t buy.
Try to be as comprehensive as possible.
For extra effect, remember to also write down an estimate of what each item on your list cost.
Now, whenever you feel the urge to buy something, let’s say, the newest oh-so-amazing gadget, read through your list. This will make you aware of how often you’ve already wasted your money and it will immediately make you second guess the decision to buy one more thing.
But don’t stop there. Instead, once you’ve read through the list, add that thing you’re desiring to the list, under the section “things you wanted to buy,” and follow it by at least five reasons why you shouldn’t buy it. Don’t try to come up with reasons to justify the purchase. List only cons, not pros. You want to be fixated on the negatives since this consumer society is already bombarding you with reasons to consume and you don’t need to add to them.
If you do that, you’ll quickly realize that this newest desire of yours, like most things you’ve bought in the past, will soon end up broken or forgotten, and cluttering your home. You’ll realize that the urge to buy is temporary and that there are good reasons not to waste any further money on yet another thing. You will have squashed that consumerist urge.
4. Break your stuff
You read that right. Break your stuff. Not literally. Just visualize your stuff being broken. This is a form of Stoic negative visualization, also known as premeditatio malorum.
For instance, spend a minute imagining that your laptop, phone, or tablet broke. Imagine there’s no way of turning it on again. It’s dead. Now imagine how that would suck: you would surely lose some data that you forgot to back up, you would have to spend time finding a replacement, buy that replacement, spend your money on it, and then spend a frustrating afternoon configuring and setting up the new device.
Now come back from your imagination and realize that nothing’s broken. Everything is still working. You didn’t lose any data, you don’t have to spend any money, you don’t have to waste time researching and ordering a replacement. All you have to do is turn your device on and it works! Phew, what a relief, right?
Do the same for your car, your stove, your fridge, your TV, etc.
This technique relies on the fact that reflecting on losses enhances gratitude and that gratitude, in turn, makes you less materialistic and thus less likely to splurge on unnecessary purchases. As the authors of a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology put it:
focusing on the potential loss of anything might enhance one’s awareness that this thing ‘might not be’, and thus enhance one’s appreciation for that which they formerly took for granted.
Appreciation and gratitude, in turn, makes you less materialistic:
An empirical relationship has been documented between gratitude and materialism, such that stronger feelings of gratitude are associated with lower materialism.
And since materialism implies an interest in ‘getting and spending,’ being less materialistic reduces the desire to buy new things.
So make it a habit to reflect on potential losses. Your appreciation for the things you own will grow and you won’t be as seduced by newer alternatives. You’ll be happier with what you have and less inclined to buy something new.
5. Put your stuff away
If you have a poor imagination and just imagining your stuff being broken doesn’t work for you, you can go one step further and deliberately prevent yourself from using your favorite toys.
For instance, put away your car keys for a few days and instead rely on public transportation, a bicycle, or your two feet. Or when you leave home in the morning, decide not to take your phone with you. Or abstain from using the water heater and only take cold showers for a day. Or unplug the Internet at home. Or spend an afternoon and evening without electricity, heating, or AC.
Exercises like these are known among Stoics as voluntary discomfort and they have many benefits, such as boosting your willpower and your confidence to endure hardships. But the one that’s most relevant for quieting the urge to buy stuff is that they remind you of the luxury we’re all living in — two centuries ago not even the most powerful men in the world had access to the things you take for granted.
This reminder of how privileged you are will help appease your inner consumerist.
6. Talk to your things
Okay, I’ll admit this one is a little wacky and I came up with it myself. But it works for me: literally say thank you to your stuff when you use it. If you’re out in the cold wearing a jacket, say “Thank you jacket for keeping me warm;” if you’re taking food out of the fridge, say “Thank you fridge for preventing my food from spoiling;” if you’re filling a glass with tap water, say “Thank you faucet for giving me water;” if you’re going to bed at night, say “Thank you house for protecting and sheltering me from wind, rain, and cold;” if you’re having a hot shower, say… Well, you get the idea.
Now, don’t be a fool and say those things out loud in public. It’s enough that I embarrassed myself. Do what I do now: just say thank you in your head. But try it, seriously.
This mental exercise will cultivate a sense of gratitude within you. Each time you use your jacket, your fridge, your faucet, your bed, your shower, your whatever, and you say the magical thank-you words, it’ll make you realize that in another time, life, or universe you could be freezing, eating rotten food, dying of thirst, or sleeping exposed to predators and harsh weather. Indeed, for each of these conditions there is someone out there right now suffering from them. Bringing that to mind makes you grateful and if you’re grateful for what you have, you’re more satisfied with your life, which in turn decreases your urge to buy new shiny objects.
Of course you don’t need to say thank you all the time. Just do so occasionally, perhaps a handful of times a day. That’s already enough to be an effective way of practicing gratitude.
If you’re wondering whether you can’t do something normal, like keep a gratitude journal, my answer is sure, of course you can. And you should definitely try gratitude journaling if you never have. But for some reason I’m just unwilling to stick to such a journaling habit. Maybe it’s because I find it a bit too cheesy to write something like “I am grateful for these shoes. I am grateful that they protect my feet from sharp objects and keep them warm in the winter.” But simply saying “Thanks shoes for protecting my feet and keeping them warm” is efficient and fun and doesn’t take any time away from other things.
7. Embrace your inner minimalist
This last tip is not a quick fix. We all have a little greedy consumerist within us that’s been nurtured since the day we were born, both by society at large and the ad industry in particular. This materialist is insatiable and the one who’s tempting you to go on shopping sprees. But there’s a way to take control back from that spoiled brat and that’s by replacing this ungrateful want-it-all with an inner minimalist.
This is a mental shift that takes time. It involves beginning to self identify as a person who is proud of owning little, who rejects consumerist values and replaces them with a different set of values, such as cherishing one’s character way above any material possessions. But once that mental shift is complete, you’re pretty much immune to consumerism.
As an analogy, consider this example. If you self identify as a decent human being, you wouldn’t buy a fur coat made of bludgeoned baby seals that had been skinned alive, no matter how many ads or celebrity endorsements I show you and no matter how many of your neighbors wear such coats. Doing so would simply go against your values.
In the same way, once you begin to self identify as a minimalist, random shopping just doesn’t have much of an appeal anymore. Instead of associating purchases with status, happiness, and prosperity, you’ll start associating them with clutter, vanity, lack of self-control, greediness, pollution, exploitation, and other negative attributes.
And don’t worry about missing out if you become a minimalist. There’s no reason to envy people who remain materialistic. As studies have shown, materialistic people have “lower levels of mental and physical well-being,” “lower levels of psychological adjustment and social functioning,” “higher levels of anxiety and unhappiness,” and “lower-quality social relationships.” In light of that, you should pity materialists instead of envying them.
And when you do end up buying something as a minimalist, you’ll enjoy it much more than the average person who can’t keep their spending habits under control. As a study in the Journal of Happiness Studies put it
[M]aterialistic persons reported higher levels of unpleasant emotional experience after spending than did less materialistic individuals.
We live in a throwaway culture that’s telling us over and over to consume. So it’s no wonder you have that urge to buy stuff. But you don’t have to go along with that.
There are steps you can take to resist and they all boil down to one thing: awareness. It’s much easier to say no if you understand that a purchase won’t make you happy, that the shopping urge stems from an ad that’s been manipulating you, that every thing you buy contributes to the destruction of the planet and the exploitation of people, and that always wanting more is the exact opposite of being grateful for what you have.
Invest in non material possessions such as family bonds, friendships, knowledge, character, and life experiences. Unless you possess very little, it’s the better route towards happiness.
And if after doing all the above, you still want to buy something, consider at least waiting a few days. Then, if you still really want it, go ahead and buy it. The goal is not to become an ascetic. The goal is to liberate yourself from consumerism.
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