We live an an era which encourage us to consume ever more products, always looking for what would be better than what we have. I strive to be content with adequate shelter, clothing, and food and grateful for the material possessions which grace my life. One of the ways I fight against the drum beat of rampant consumerism is by going on a shopping diet. The idea of a shopping diet has been around for awhile. Two example of this were NYT articles Shoppers on a ‘Diet’ Tame the Urge to Buy and My Year of No Shopping.
A shopping diet is when you choose to stop purchasing anything that isn’t essential for a period of time. Think of this as intermittent fasting applied to purchasing. Most people seem to diet for between 3 months to a year. My definition of essential is food, household consumables like cleaning supplies, paper for the printer, razor blades, and items that regularly wear out like tires for my bike. I do permit myself to purchase gifts for others, items that are to be given away such school supplies for under-resourced students, and household goods my wife asks me to pick-up for one of her projects (typically something for the garden).
In the middle of 2016 I did my first diet. I didn’t purchase anything for myself in the next year except to replace (1:1) items that wore out or broke. I would buy food, pay for activities, and I let myself purchase kindle books whose price had dropped to below $2. I was amazed at how much of an impact the shopping diet had on my time and focus. I started to experience that “owning less is good, wanting less is better”. I was able to resist many impulses to buy things just by reminded myself I was on a shopping diet. If the temptation was particularly strong I would place the item on a wishlist. When I took a break from the shopping diet I reviewed the items. My first break was much like each successive break with three outcomes for the items on my wishlist:
- 70-80% of the items were no longer desired. If I would have given into my impulse the item would likely have been used briefly and then put on a shelf. I move the items from my “Maybe” wishlist to a “Rejected” list.
- 10-20% of the items I don’t have an immediate need for of, but are still desired. Those get moved to my public “Stuff” or “Home” wishlists that my family uses when they want to purchase a present I would appreciate or I might revisit the next time I take a break from my shopping diet.
- 0-10% of the items on my wishlist are purchased.
After a year I ended my diet. I thought it had provided a good reset to my consumer behaviors, but I found shopping started to take more of my time and energy after several months, so toward the end of 2017 I restart my shopping diet as a lifestyle. I am on the shopping diet for six months, take a short brief, and then restart the diet. During the break I review the previous six months to see if there are any lessons I need to learn. During the break I permit myself to purchase items, but only items that have accumulated on my wishlist. This has resulted is me avoiding more than 90% of my impulse purchases.
This post was written at the end of my second shopping diet. The lessons I have learned:
- “technology news” and “social media” is increasingly covert advertising
- many of my impulses to purchase items are short lived
- my shopping and purchasing desires are often driven by ego rather than need
- I over optimize for the “perfect”
After several years I wrote up an additional shopping diet retro 2020 because after several years of being fairly compliant with my shopping diet I repeated violated my diet in a six month period of time. I learned when stressed I can fall for the allure of retail therapy and the “therapy” wasn’t very helpful. Note to self: when I find myself doing a lot of product research and shopping, I need to ask the questions “What is stressing me? What feels out of control? How am I having trouble trusting God?”
Tech News and Social Media is Advertising
It seems that many of the news outlets, blogs, twitter feeds etc which used to feature information seem to be filled with “reviews” and “news” which promotes consumer products. For example, in a recent week almost 1/3 of the articles in lifehacker were about products which are now on sale. Maybe it’s always been that way and I am just noticing this trend but I think this is a trend of advertising appearing as content. For example, why is there articles about the 2018 Miata getting a boast in horsepower in a blog about computer technology?! I am sure several of the articles I see now see are paid “product placement”. Even if I didn’t ultimately purchase one of these items, it ended up taking time as I researched the deal and spent time wondering if this was something I might need. Now I just ignore any “deals” I see. In the next few months I am going to see if I can modify my news sources and filtering rules to be more about important ideas and technologies, and less about new consumer products that someone thinks I should buy.
Desire is Often Short Lived
I have found a shopping diet very liberating. It seems I am often exposed to “great deals”, “must have products”, etc which would often have me considering purchasing an item which I had no idea I needed or desired minutes before I saw the advertisement or read the “news” story. During the shopping diet I was committed to not purchasing things, so it was much easier to ignore these bids for my attention, especially sales that ran for a limited time.
Sometimes I wasn’t able to just dismiss the appeal of an item. Rather than break my diet, or spend lots of time researching it, I would drop the item into a wishlist and then put it out of my mind. This week I finished my diet and looked at the wishlist accumulated over the last six months. I immediately was able to dismiss nearly 70% the items on the list. A “cooling off” period from my initial purchase impulse allowed me to I realized that I had no need or lasting desire. Around 10% of the items I decided to purchase because they were still desirable and I would immediately put them to use. The last 20% were still desirable, but I wouldn’t immediately use. I left them on the list for future consideration.
Shopping can be Drive by Ego
One item on the wishlist I dismissed was the very pricy shure kse1500 electrostatic headphone system. Finding this on my wishlist surprised me. A few years ago I decided that a pair of Sennheiser H800 headphones driven by a Chord Mojo DAC was my “end-game” headphone system. [Since then I downsides to a pair of AirPod Pros.] Great headphones are a waste because I would rather use speakers so Jackie and I can enjoy the music together. Why was I tempted to purchase some pricy headphones that I wouldn’t use that much?
The first reason I considered purchased these headphone was driven by my curiosity. I was interested to see if these headphones were as wonderful as reviews suggested, and how my perceptions compared to the people who wrote such positive reviews. Second, I was experiencing a bit of FOMA… what if these reviews were correct? Maybe I was missing out of some amazing sounding headphones which could bring me musical bliss. Third, these appealed to an imagined future life which allowed me to have superior sound quality while having great freedom of movement. Unfortunately, while all three of these reasons made purchasing these headphone attractive, that was an even stronger reason these headphones had ended up on my shopping list. I wanted to be an expert consumer.
I realize I take a fair bit of my identity from having good taste and from having a comprehensive knowledge of a product space. I felt compelled to find “the very best” items. Ugh. This is about ego and identity. That I know what is world class.
When I think about the legacy I want to leave, it’s not that I am an expert consumer, it’s that I have made this world a better place and had a positive impact on people I encounter. Being an expert consumer is not something that significantly advances either of these things. I don’t want to spend my time refining my ability to be a good consumer. I don’t want to invest countless hours creating and then maintaining web pages about products that people consume. Going forward I want to minimize or eliminate time writing product reviews or maintaining product lists. I want to spend my time investing in people.
I Over Optimize for the “Perfect”
I am rarely content if something is just “getting the job done”. I generally want to use things which are “perfect”. While I keep the total number of object I own down, it doesn’t guarantee that I am not being driven by materialistic hunger or that my mind is focus on better things. I can obsess over whether I have selected exactly the right item. If I am not 100% happy with something I am willing to continue to search for the perfect item. Sometimes this means that I continue to purchase a type of product even after I have one that is getting the job done. If I have something that is better, I eBay or gift my existing items to someone who could make good use of this.
An example of the behavior is I have a backpack which I have been using since 2009. It works fine. There are a few things that could be improved. In the following 10 years I have likely tried 5-6 packs to see if I could find one that I like better. So far, nothing has been sufficiently better that it made sense to change to a new pack. This is exacerbated if I have some bit adventure planned. My first instinct is to ask “How should I optimize my gear?” I am striving to be content if my gear will “get the job done”. I am seeing progress… I don’t immediately go out and purchase new gear for a new adventure, but it’s still a strong inclination.
A Less Radical Approach?
In the minimalist community it common to hear people talk about the “one item in, one item out.” Another variance of this for people who have a gear heavy hobby is that changing gear has to be financially neutral. This is often implemented by having all hobby related purchases (and profits from ebay) going through a paypal account. These practices do stop the ever growing pile of stuff, and lead to more mindful consumption. I would suggest that we don’t want to be more mindful consumers… we want to be creators and producers. A shopping diet is a complete reframing rather than a way to limit excesses.
Another approach is to ask 7 simple questions before buying something.
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.I Timothy 6:17-19