Fighting Consumerism Without Giving Up on Life

It’s not something we think about often, but it’s a truth worth addressing: we are constantly pressured to spend money. In turn, most of us with jobs and careers pressure other people to spend as well. I never want to aggressively ask people to pay for my service, but I still advertise and use various outreach methods. That’s just the reality of commerce.

Even though money swapping is a cornerstone of our society, we don’t have to always bow to these pressures. If you don’t have the money to spend on a new car, you shouldn’t do it. If you have reservations about paying for a subscription or a membership, you shouldn’t feel compelled to spend against your better judgement.

Unfortunately, too many people see this as a black or white issue. The choices are to spend a lot or become a hermit, and there’s nothing in between. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Since I help all types of people figure out their finances, I’ve seen firsthand that anyone can enjoy life without overpaying.

If you want to save money without cutting back on everything you hold near and dear, you need to start by changing your mindset. Fighting consumerism isn’t as much about resisting urges as it is adjusting your habits. Naturally, this means different things to different people; you have to address where your biggest spending occurs, and how much of that spending is necessary.

Let’s break this down into categories and come up with some ways to save money without putting your life on hold.

1. Eating Out

It’s wild to watch someone start tracking their finances for the first time and see how much money is spent dining out. Restaurants get a massive portion of our paychecks for many reasons - meetings are scheduled over lunch, commuters are forced to eat in transit, some food can only be found at certain spots and sometimes we just don’t want to cook.

In most cases, the buck stops at food when people are trying to fight against overspending. Let me assure you that it’s possible to dine out while also cutting back. You’ll have to shake things up and might even find your stomach growling in the first few weeks, but most of us can stand to take in fewer calories anyway.

Start by budgeting and actually seeing where your money gets spent. Are morning pastries your weakness, or do you go big on weekly steak dinners? Do you bring a lunch to work and then cave as soon as a colleague invites you to go get sandwiches? Figure out your habits so you know what you’re up against, then you can begin to make some slight alterations.

Remember that we get tricked into spending a lot of money on food. Billboards, TV commercials, even restaurant reviews from friends convince us to spend money on things we don’t need. In the heat of the moment (read: when we’re really hungry), it’s hard to differentiate between a want and a need. That’s why identifying spending habits is so important.

Let’s say you pinpoint lunch as the meal you spend too much on. Two or three days a week you go to a restaurant and you get a sandwich or a salad, which is harmless enough. But at $10 a pop, plus a drink and tax, you’re suddenly out $40-50 a week, $200 a month, and $2,400 a year. Over $2,000 dollars spent - ON LUNCH.

If you kick that habit, by either going with a cheaper restaurant or making food at home, you free up a lot of money. Once you make the decision to save money on casual lunches, you might not have to adjust the rest of your social dining at all. You can still go out with friends and feel good about it because you’re saving so much in another area of your food budget.

Stop pretending that eating out less means never hanging out with friends. If the socializing is important to you, cut back on lonely visits to the coffee shop. Just because there’s a Starbucks on every corner doesn’t mean you have to stop in.  

2. Holidays

Perhaps the biggest success of consumerism is seen in our holidays. These special days and family gatherings are incredibly important, and there is no shortage of companies telling us exactly how to have the scariest Halloween or the merriest Christmas.

In 2017, Americans spent somewhere around $18 billion on Valentine’s Day gifts, meals and experiences. How much of that money went to extraneous purchases like new outfits, cards for acquaintances, and boxes of chocolate for people who don’t even eat sweets? I’m guessing a lot. In fact, I’d bet over half of that money, a mere $9 billion, went to gestures that weren’t particularly romantic and certainly weren’t necessary.

And this is just Valentine’s Day! We still haven’t spent one penny on the big ones:

● Christmas

● Birthdays

● Easter

● Fourth of July

We don’t need to be told what holidays and traditions are important to us. We also shouldn’t need someone telling us how to celebrate those days and what we need to buy for our loved ones.

I’m not ruling out gift giving. For one, my wife and kids would never allow it. Also, I’d be pretty upset if I stopped getting presents from my family. Sometimes a nicely wrapped package is the best way to show you care. So where do you cut spending if you don’t ditch the holiday present exchange?

For starters, all the accessories. Bulky, singing cards and disposable decorations are one-time things that hold their value for about a minute. If you have kids and feel very strongly about holiday decorations, I feel very strongly you should make some of those decorations with your children instead of paying top dollar.

Holiday parties and meals also drain wallets quickly, and while you certainly aren’t going to cancel Thanksgiving, adjusting the menu or skipping the shopping madness of Black Friday can make a big difference. Don’t go shopping because prices are down - go shopping because there are things you have to buy. Holiday campaigns train us to think money must be spent, and that doesn’t have to be the case.

How and where you reduce holiday spending is a personal thing, dependent on everything from what you celebrate to where you live. As you make personal choices about your traditions and festivities, try to separate the expenses that are uniquely yours from the habitual spending that started back when you saw Christmas commercial in 1996.

3. Shopping

We need shoes. We need clothes and we need bedsheets and towels and tools and books and soap. We also need much, much less of everything.

I can remember countless times in my life when I’ve gone to the kitchen to find something to eat, looked through the fridge and the cupboards, and concluded that my house was completely devoid of food. With a little insight provided by my wife, I realized I had everything needed to make a perfectly balanced meal, I just had to spend a couple minutes putting that meal together.

I can also think of plenty of moments looking into my closet and not seeing the right sweater or jacket to wear with whatever pants I had on. My instinct was to go buy new clothes, but it should have been to look in the hamper and perhaps do some laundry.

These examples are endless, and I think you see the point. More often than not, we don’t actually need the thing we think we need. You might really want a new pair of sneakers, and it feels like you need them, but the ones tucked under the bed are perfectly good and you can save $70 by wearing them. That’s a really, really easy way to save money.

Advertising agencies do their job incredibly well. Not only do they present new products in a glamorous way, but they manage to blur the line between want and need. Without a new phone, the pictures you take won’t look good. If you don’t buy a sedan with this feature, you’ll be putting your life at risk every time you drive. If you don’t drink this exact beer, you might spark a global catastrophe.

Not only do advertisers encourage us to shop constantly, they inspire us to replace instead of fix. We don’t buy things second hand because we’re conditioned to think refurbished items are broken, and we don’t trust ourselves to make do with what we have. The only solution is to buy a replacement and hope it lasts.

This part of the fight against consumerism is the hardest, because you may actually have to abandon some expenses you’ve come to accept as ordinary. It could be that your wardrobe needs to shrink, or you don’t get every new video game as soon as it’s released. Some people love having the latest iPhone, but that’s much more of a luxury than a need.

For many, shopping becomes a hobby. Whether it’s at a clothing store or an actual hobby shop, the perusing and purchasing carry the same importance as the actual ownership of whatever gets bought. If this sounds familiar, it might be time to look into other hobbies. Spending time enjoyably without spending money isn’t always easy, but it’s certainly doable.

4. Entertainment

I’ve read a lot of articles about how to have fun for free. Most of them make me laugh, as some of the suggestions are things like, “write songs in your head about whatever you see.” If that works for you, knock yourself out. Lots of us need a more active form of entertainment.

Again, the commercial powers that be have us right where they want us, inundated with reviews of new movies, commercials for exciting rides at theme parks, discounted plane tickets to exotic locations, and on and on and on. If we weren’t constantly made aware of the fun we’re missing, I imagine a lot fewer lottery tickets would be sold as fewer people would care about becoming millionaires.

If you want to save money and still have fun, you have to tune out a lot of the noise. How much money can you set aside for entertainment? What is it you like to do during the week and on the weekends to unwind? You don’t need a catalog full of material possessions to answer these questions. You just have to decide what sounds fun. Think about some of the ways you can spend your time:

● Being active

● Watching television/movies

● Reading/writing

● Building/crafting

There’s a world in which you do all of these things and spend very little money. Playing sports or hiking with friends should cost next to nothing; going to the movies isn’t free but a matinee without a bucket of popcorn or a trough of soda shouldn’t break the bank; books can be acquired at little to no cost; being creative with recycled materials can be free and may actually bring in a little extra spending money.

We entertain ourselves to get our minds off of business and stressful matters, and the easiest and quickest way to do that is often just to swipe a credit card. In my experience, that usually isn’t the most fulfilling. If you can branch out and attend free workshops and seminars, put together a dinner group or a book club, or take up an artistic hobby, you might stumble on a whole new aspect of life that you fall completely in love with. You might find yourself saving money on all sorts of things because you spend so much time on your new, free source of entertainment.

Do not be tricked into thinking everything that’s fun costs money. Throwing a frisbee is fun. Walking shelter dogs on a Saturday morning is fun. Planting a winter garden can be fun, even if you fail to keep your vegetables alive. These are all fun ways to fight consumerism and live an exciting and full life.

You aren’t going to stop spending money. As you get older and your income grows, you’ll almost definitely spend more of it. However, if you can find areas to save and identify your unnecessary spending habits, you can make your dollars go a lot further in the places that actually matter to you. At that point, you’ll be wealthier and happier, and you will have bested the monster that is excessive consumerism.

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