Retro on from my Shopping Diet

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. Years ago there was a nice NYT article entitled Shoppers on a ‘Diet’ Tame the Urge to Buy.

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 used regularly but wore out like the tires on my bike. I do permit myself to purchase gifts for others or items that are to given away such as a drive to provide school supplies to under-resourced students.

This post is being written as I am finishing my second, one year long shopping diet. The lessons I learned during this diet:

  1. many of my impulses to purchase items are short lived
  2. my shopping and purchasing desires are often driven by ego rather than need
  3. I over optimize for the “perfect”
  4. “technology news” is increasingly covert advertising

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, 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 year.  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 15% of the items I decided to purchase because they were still desirable and I would immediately put them to use. The last 15% 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 part of AirPod Pros.] I have listened to, and owned better sounding headphone systems, but the sound quality didn’t justify the investment given how often infrequently I used headphones.  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? I realized there were several reasons.

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. Over the years I have created a number of web pages which included a survey of well regard products where I share what I have learned.  I tell myself I am making these lists  to help others, but I think it’s primarily driven by ego. A way to show how smart I am. To demonstrate I have good taste and 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 plan of avoiding spending my time writing product reviews or maintaining product lists, and instead 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.

Tech News is Advertising

This experience has also made me see how insidious advertising has become.  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”. 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.

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.

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

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