Why We Buy Stuff

Growing up, we have a certain notion of success. For instance, we might think making x amount of money will make us feel successful, which is something I wrote about previously. In that piece, I wrote that success is more of a mindset, and is a hugely personal metric. When making a certain amount of money doesn’t make us feel successful, we buy “stuff” (such as expensive clothes, fancy cars, gadgets, etc.) to fill the gaping void in our lives.

We buy stuff for many reasons, such as (mistakenly) believing it will make us happy or in a misguided attempt to keep up with the Joneses. To quote Tyler Durden, we buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. We buy stuff to avoid the real problems in our lives (if only for a short while), and we are happy living in denial as it’s much harder to face the reality. But, we forget we’ll have to face it eventually, so we are only avoiding the inevitable.

While having more stuff may make us appear successful to the outside world, we know that we are miserable inside. There is no shortage of people who are financially successful (even famous) and unhappy at the same time. While we do need money to cover our basic expenses (to pay our bills) and then some (some disposable income and some future savings for emergencies), making more money beyond a certain point doesn’t increase our well-being all that much. I think that figure may vary between $75,000-$100,000 per year depending on where you live. So, if having more money or stuff isn’t the answer, then what is?

I love this quote from Jim Carrey:

I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.

When the person who I loved so much walked out on me saying they would never come back, I became depressed for some time. Even though I knew buying things wouldn’t help much to salvage the relationship (well, duh!), I still bought a few things to feel good about myself. While those things were useful to me (and didn’t seem excessive by any means; besides, I was going to get those things at some point anyway), it didn’t make any difference in terms of how I felt about my relationship (!). Not long after that, I became ill and was hospitalized followed by weeks of requiring medical attention. It was during this time in my life that I looked inwards. I stumbled upon Stoicism, which helped me deal with my situation at the time, but that is a story for another day.

Here’s an everyday example that comes to mind. There is a new smartphone (or insert your favorite new shiny object) out every year from your beloved fruit company, and as an early adopter you want to be the first to get it. While the phone we have now fully satisfies our needs, we still want the latest and greatest. This is the perfect example of how we think that getting new stuff will make us happy, but it never does. We buy things for emotional, irrational reasons (despite what we might say or believe), and then we justify our decision rationally by citing the product features. In fact, buying those things is a way of avoiding our real problems, which we are often in denial of, but more on that below.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with those who buy the latest device. Some might even have a legitimate need of getting that thing as it might have X or Y feature that they might truly need for use in their personal or work life, but that is an anomaly rather than the standard. More often, it’s a question of want, not need. We lust after these products like there’s no tomorrow. We don’t rush out to buy a new fridge or television every time a new one is released. Why should it be any different with our smartphones and other devices?

Most of all, we forget that there is a hidden cost to getting all that stuff. Besides the obvious financial cost, there is also the physical and mental cost involved. Nothing is free. That thing takes up space in your home and/or in your head. Then, there are the less-obvious environmental costs — buying more stuff in the short term is unhealthy and unsustainable for our planet in the long run. Do we need companies to release a new phone or car (or whatever shiny object) every year? Maybe not. Ultimately, it’s our choice whether we buy stuff or not, but companies could also be more mindful about releasing things less often, but of higher quality (and value), for which they can surely charge a premium. Producing fewer items over a period of time with higher quality (rather than producing cheaper disposable items that don’t last anyway) can be a Win-Win-Win situation — for the organization, for the consumer, and most importantly, for our planet.

Here’s the thing. We can’t buy our way to happiness, which is not what we want in life anyway, but which we get as a byproduct of other things. We also cannot keep up with the Joneses forever, so why even try? Deep down, we all want to do good work and feel fulfilled, be useful to others, and make a difference. We want to give more than we take from our planet.

We need to look within when we are looking outside. The problem is not with consumption per se, but with compulsive (and impulsive) consumption. For instance, you might get great value from reading lots of books, but having more books would still be an example of conscious consumption, and not a compulsive one, as long as you’re not simply reading and keeping every book. If you’re going to be using it for reference later, then it makes sense to keep; otherwise, you should discard it.

Here are some reasons why we should have and use less stuff.

The things we own can end up owning us. Contrary to what we typically believe, the things we own are not our assets, but liabilities. They prevent us from doing so much more with our lives. They are essentially distractions that we let in our way, keeping us from focusing on what’s truly important.

Having more stuff often gets in the way of our health, work, relationships, and our growth, which are the most important things in our lives. It distracts us from living our true lives. Having more stuff results in more stress, clutter, anxiety, and discontent. This compulsion to constantly get more things doesn’t fill the void, but only increases the gap between who we are and who we want to become because we are looking in the wrong place.

The more we consume, the more waste we produce. The inverse is also true — less stuff would mean less waste. We need to consume less so we can live more. As Joshua and Ryan have famously said, use things and love people because the opposite never works.

When we have/use less stuff, it creates space for other things in our lives such as our health, our ability to do great work and understand others better in our relationships, and in our overall growth in terms of living to our potential.

Having less stuff in that sense can be quite freeing. It also helps in reducing stress and being calmer than we would be otherwise. Simplifying our lives can make room for deeper conversations and, ultimately, our growth.

So what does it mean to have less stuff? Having less stuff is not about having less stuff, but what it enables you to do with your life. It’s not about putting everything you own in a backpack and globetrotting. It also doesn’t mean hoarding things. It means having everything you need and nothing you don’t. It’s about asking yourself if the things you have add value to your life. It’s about making conscious choices on what you want to spend your time and money on. It’s not about living with less (or more), but living with enough. It’s more than a “lifestyle choice”. It’s a way of life in everything you do.

Don’t let the world tell you what you need and what you don’t. Use your own judgement mindfully. If you’re familiar with the Pareto principle, we use only 20% of our stuff 80% of the time (in the context of stuff). Go through your closet and your home (and workplace). Look at every single thing you have and ask yourself if it adds value to your life. If so, when was the last time you used it? If it’s been more than a couple of months, you’re likely not going to use it in the future. In that case, better to give it away, sell it, or throw it away.

As the Fight Club quote suggests:

The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.

Alternatively, put everything you own inside boxes. Then take things out only as and when you need them. This can be applied not only to physical stuff but also digital stuff. I used this idea not too long ago by putting all the apps on my tablet in a folder. Then, I dragged out only those apps that I actually needed to use while the rest remained in the folder. This same idea can also be used with your phone.

As a best practice, repeat this process once every quarter to make sure you only have what is truly essential. Now, use the heck out of the stuff that survived this process.

When it comes to getting stuff, invest in quality instead of quantity. Invest in things you truly need. It’s always better to have fewer things of higher quality than to have many things of low quality. Few things of high quality can last you a lifetime if you care for it. There is a German saying, and I quote, “I have no money for cheap things,” which couldn’t be more consistent with our approach.

Stuff can last for a long time when we keep it well (electronic devices notwithstanding). For instance, I still have my clipboard and pencil sharpener from high school (among other things) that work great to this day. And it’s not like I spend hours cleaning them or keeping them well. Ditto with my umbrella and my Bluetooth speaker that I’ve also had for many years.

Have sensible defaults and make final choices about things. For instance, I’ve been using the same grooming products for a few years now because they work. Unless the company that makes them shuts down (I hope not!), I have no reason to look for an alternative or something better unless, of course, I discover a better one by chance.

Be grateful for what you have (stuff/people/experiences), while you pursue all you want. Simplify your life to its essence. For instance, read my piece on how I get work done. You’ll see that life gets very simple when you turn pro.

I wrote in my draft on simplifying your life:

The answer lies not in having bigger, better, and more things; it’s about having (and doing) more with less. It’s about reducing your life to the essentials, and that means spending most of your time doing the important (and non-urgent). The only things relevant in the end are the results you’ve gotten (and how it has helped others) and the relationships you’ve sustained over the years.

Leading a simple life removes the need for depending on external things. It means that you’re not relying on things as a means of escape. You don’t need things outside of you because you’re content with yourself and with all you have because you have everything you need and nothing you don’t. You’re content with yourself while you pursue all you want.

Most importantly:

Living a simple life means adding to your life by taking things away from it — by hacking away at the nonessential. Our lives are like a piece of sculpture, and we’re the artists responsible for designing a sculpture by chiseling away until all that remains is the essence. We distill ourselves down to the core. That is who we are.

When we have less stuff, it frees us to do things we want. We can then focus on our health, work, relationships, and give enough attention and be totally present with each of those areas in our life.

Having more stuff out of compulsion is never the right answer. Invest in experiences, not stuff.

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