Several years ago I took my two young daughters and my mother (code name: Grandma) to Disneyland. Those three really wanted to go, and they had a wonderful time.
I hated it.
I broke down into tears the first afternoon we went into the park and got swallowed up by the crowds. There were, it turned out, many reasons for my distaste for the park. (Really? I can’t find a single fresh vegetable anywhere inside the park?)
One thing that persistently tugged at my subconscious—sometimes peeking up into my ever-suffering consciousness—was the tremendous creativity on display. Yes, Disney Corp. is all about Making Money and Lots Of It, but you gotta admit, they do so in part by creating amazing things! Movies and characters and rides and buildings and stories. We’ve even had at least one client who wanted to “grow up to be” a Disney Imagineer.
So there I was, surrounded by such abundant and impressive creativity. Yet what was my role in it? 100% consumption.
I didn’t create a single damn thing throughout my entire time there. I consumed. I consumed an endless stream of fried foods. I consumed, at breakneck speed, a Long Island Iced Tea on that fateful first afternoon when I had what was probably a panic attack. I consumed the sights, sounds, tastes, and experiences created by someone else.
And I felt all the more horrible for it. (As if churros hadn’t already done enough in the “making me feel bad” department.)
I have many feelings about consumption. The fact that it squeezes out creation is a big one. We are a consumerist culture, and while consumption is the fuel of our economy, I think the way we practice it is generally bad for us.
I thought I’d finally try to collect many of my “finest thoughts” about consumption in one place. I hope you enjoy or find them thought-provoking.
Because I know that the financial advice industry (being represented here by yours truly) can be condescending and blind to other people’s experiences, let me offer a couple disclaimers:
- These are Meg’s musings. My opinions, my outlook, etc. This isn’t the truth (as much as I’d like to think I’m right about everything). I try very hard to recognize that this is my lens on the world and that it’s not my place to judge other people’s lenses.
- I’m a hypocrite. Just because I write below about how we should consume doesn’t mean I don’t violate my own “rules” all the time.
And lastly, when I say “consumption,” I don’t mean just “buying.” And I definitely don’t mean just “buying stuff.” I mean consumption of all sorts: buying products, buying experiences, consuming social media, reading books or watching TV, and probably it extends to food, too, though I haven’t thought much about that specifically.
Let’s Create More
This is one of my biggest challenges. I like to rationalize that I’m a mid-40s woman with two small children, a business with employees, and lots of other responsibilities. The fact that I still eat well and exercise most days is a freaking miracle. When do I have time to create? But the real question is: What would I create?
My husband, on the other hand, just seems to have it in his blood. He thinks nothing of creating stuff—photography projects, weird ass Halloween decorations for the local park—and thankfully is passing that down to our daughters, who paint things, sew clothes for their stuffies, and generally rig up crazy shit (as many children do).
I think most of us have creation beaten out of us as we age. I know I certainly don’t feel any facility in creating…really anything. The best I can get is that I write these blogs. And that feels a bit like a cheat.
Early in the year, we asked our clients what they spent money on that brought them joy, and a surprising number of them said “pottery classes.” I love that! I’ve certainly observed a desire in our tech industry clients to create things with their hands, which makes sense considering they spend their days at a keyboard and screen. If you don’t have any faith in your ability to create (read: me), maybe you can take a class to kick start your skills and your confidence.
We Consume As the People Around Us Consume. You Okay With That?
I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, and lots of studies have shown it, but peer pressure—even when unintended—is powerful.
Want to eat healthier? Hang out with people who eat healthy. Want to save more money? Hang out with people who save money. Want to learn how to camp? Hang out with people who camp. (An example of particular relevance to my 23-year-old self.)
So, look around: How do your peers, friends, and family (the ones you hang out with, that is) consume? Blindly or intentionally? With delight or anxiety? Conspicuously or inconspicuously? A lot? A little? What do they consume?
All of those things you observe: Does that fit well with your system of values, with what you want in your life, and also with your financial situation? Do you want to consume in that way, too?
Your Consumption Doesn’t Affect Just You
There are many admirable voices out there teaching people to have healthier relationships to money, including spending. I particularly like the Kinder Institute (where I was trained as a financial life planner) and Ramit Sethi (with his “I Will Teach You to Be Rich” empire).
But I notice that the guidance is self-centered. Does “your rich life” involve flying a plane all over the world? Building 2 homes? Go for it! Even the FIRE movement, which is keen on spending less doesn’t seem to focus much on consuming less.
From where I sit, though, maybe we (affluent people in a rich country) should constrain our consumption even if we can afford it. Consumption uses up natural resources, burns fossil fuels, creates pollution, and fills landfills (or, worse, the sea).
Seriously, Stop Rationalizing Amazon
You could even consider, as one colleague suggested on Twitter, not having an Amazon account at all. I know, right? That way lies insanity.
Maybe I’m just cranky and idiosyncratic, but man, Amazon seems to occupy a special carve-out in the thinking of people who otherwise might want to reduce consumption. They know they consume a lot from Amazon, but kinda don’t seem compelled to try to change that. Maybe it’s socially acceptable? Or even some sort of weird badge of honor, how many cardboard boxes arrive at your home every week?
Think about not being able to shop on Amazon anymore.
How do you feel?
I’m guessing for many of you, the feeling is one of mild panic or anxiety or burden. Now, how do you feel about feeling that way about being disconnected from the world’s biggest consumption machine? Is it interesting? Depressing? Eye-opening?
Go look at your Amazon purchase history. How do you feel about all the stuff you’ve purchased in the past year? Did you need all that? Do you still use all that stuff and feel good about it? Do you feel good about all the cardboard packaging and shipping involved in getting all those products to your front doorstep?
Make your own decisions.
The More Stuff You Own, the More Stuff Owns You
I feel like I’m venturing a bit into useless, pablum-spouting, self-help territory here, so I’ll keep it short.
Any of you out there who buy a home, who have children…you have experienced it first hand. You gradually (or maybe not so gradually) get surrounded by stuff. You spend your time not only acquiring it, but also picking it up, cleaning it, fixing it (or throwing it away), putting it away, remembering where you left it, acquiring new shelving units to hold it, maybe renting a storage unit, definitely packing and unpacking it when you move.
There’s a reason the Minimalism movement is so appealing.
How much of your time, energy, anxiety, and wealth is wrapped up in stuff? How many of your decisions are dictated by or constrained by stuff?
Experiences Aren’t Magically More Virtuous than Stuff
We have learned that spending money on experiences makes us happier than spending money on stuff. And it’s true, as far as I can tell from all the articles and books about the phenomenon.
Sometimes people interpret this observation as carte blanche to buy experiences whenever they want.
Spending money on experiences doesn’t magically make it virtuous, however. You can still spend more money than you should on experiences. You can still hurt the environment even if your consumption doesn’t involve bubble wrap.
“Habits, Habits, Habits”
I asked on Twitter what challenges people had in changing how they consume. One colleague responded: “Habits, habits, habits.”
Changing habits of any sort is difficult. (Just check out the subtitle of one of my favorite books: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.)
But it’s impossible if we don’t first pay attention to them. If you simply pay attention, say, every day for a week, to how you consume—how you spend money, how you eat, what products you use, what services you use—what do you learn?
Consume Less, not Better
I have a long history of “Buy organic, not conventional!” “Buy from this store, not that store!” “Look for this label!” You can’t blame me…I spent my formative early adult years in the Bay Area, and then ultimately moved to Bellingham, WA. I think it’s actually in the water.
I believe that generally we’re all looking for ways to not change anything meaningful about how we consume…just add some superficial tweaks to make us feel better about continuing to do the same thing we’ve always done.
Sure, you can buy the t-shirt or tote bag made from organic cotton. Or shoes from the company who gives away a free pair to those in need for every pair you buy. And maybe those are better than the alternative.
What would happen if you just didn’t buy them…at all?
How to Consume Less, and More Intentionally
If you do think you consume too much and what to consume less, here is a hodge podge of ideas, some from me, some from others:
- Buy your stuff from local stores. By design, this is more effort than tapping buttons on a keyboard to make things show up at my front door. If I’m willing to get in my car/on my bike to go to the store, then I know I probably genuinely want it.
- Shopping online? After you decide you want to buy something, wait 72 hours before doing so. The Sketch Guy at The New York Times had this great article about putting time between the “impulse” (to buy) and the “action” (of buying). He specifically recommends, if you shop at Amazon, putting items in the cart and then coming back three days later.
- Switch to a dumb phone from a smart phone. Ha ha! No…really.
- Have a smaller home.
- Have only one car.
- Start the new year by going on a spending fast for a few weeks. What is a spending fast? Pay all your bills early, then withdraw enough money for fresh groceries, any emergency or gas, and that’s it. (suggested by a colleague on Twitter)
If you want to think deep thoughts that possibly go nowhere but it sure is satisfying to think through them, reach out and schedule a free consultation or send us an email.
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