We all have stuff we don’t need. Why do we buy these things in the first place?
We all have basic needs: shelter, food, security, warmth. If we didn’t somehow provide for these basic needs, we probably wouldn’t live very long.
But open the cupboards of most working people and you are likely to be confronted with a heap of stuff they bought, but never use: endless white T-shirts, shoes that were on sale, clothes with price tags still on them, toys the kids don’t play with, DVDs, gadgets, small kitchen appliances, endless magazines (many of them unread) – the list goes on. And, unfortunately it doesn’t stop with small things.
Often people buy big things they don’t need, such as a huge house for only 4 people, or a second or third car. The things people used to see as luxuries, are now viewed by many people as essentials.
Technological innovations and scientific breakthroughs have changed the human experience, say Laura and Dan Cloer in an essay “Manufacturing a Consumer Culture”. They carry on to say that we have become the greatest consumers in the history of life on earth, and yet, the more we have, the less happy and more anxious we seem to become.
Nothing wipes out your ability to save money quite as much as buying things you don’t need on credit. Right, so buying things you don’t need is the enemy of any intentions you have to save money: but why do people do this?
1. We are trying to buy happiness
We are hoping that possessing certain things will make us happy, and for a short time they do, but the novelty wears off quickly, and then we are onto the next thing. Real, lasting happiness comes from good and meaningful relationships, stimulating and fulfilling lives, friendships, enjoyable activities – and none of these can be bought. We can buy temporary comfort, some stimulation and a bit of excitement, but these don’t last.
2. Our consumer culture is persuasive
As much as we scoff at the power of advertising and our susceptibility to it, it does seep into our consciousness. Everywhere we look are ads telling us that we would look better, feel better, be more respected and happier if we bought a certain product. Few people are strong enough in themselves to withstand this onslaught of marketing companies. Also, people have a penchant for novelty, and advertisers are quick to exploit this.
3. We think possessions give us security
To an extent they do – having a roof over your head and a decent car certainly adds to your wellbeing and safety. But having more than you need won’t necessary make you more secure. Once your basic needs are catered for, having more of the same could actually add to your stress and diminish your feeling of security. Imagine having to maintain five cars, for example.
4. We think what we have says something about who we are
We hope that other people will look at our possessions and be impressed with us. We are buying things for esteem-related reasons. We are trying to display our wealth and our financial success, and we do it by buying and showing off expensive things we don’t really need or use. The really wealthy often don’t need to show off their money.
5. We constantly compare ourselves with others
It is difficult to hold out if all your friends or colleagues have bought a particular item, or lead a particular lifestyle. We are made to feel that we don’t make the grade unless we do the same. In his book “Status Anxiety”, Alain de Botton observes that we tend to measure ourselves largely according to our peers and what they have, rather than some wealthy stranger about who we don’t really care much one way or another.
6. We are trying to cover up emotional issues
If we’re feeling lonely, unsuccessful, broken-hearted or just insecure, we think buying stuff might gloss over these feelings and make us feel better. Unfortunately it doesn’t work. Buying stuff because you’re feeling depressed, is like drinking water when you’re hungry.
7. We have become quite self-centred
This is not new – think of rulers from the olden days. They surrounded themselves with tokens of their wealth, and were prepared to stop at nothing to add to their stash of loot. Our society encourages us to self-centred and to consume and acquire more and more as a token of our worth. Buying stuff has become a way in which we reward ourselves on an ongoing basis. Within reason, this can be good, but it can quickly get out of hand.