Henry David Thoreau
We would all most likely agree we have too much stuff, so why do we consistently want more?
It’s a particularly resonant question for me, because whilst I have a good awareness of why I shouldn’t be lured into buying more things – I know buying stuff won’t make me any happier! – impulse purchases and addictive online shopping are still something I struggle with on my journey towards minimalism.
I remember when my brother was little, there was one Christmas when he used the box from a big present to pretend he was driving around the living room in a fire engine. Everyone took this very well considering the amount they’d spent on the actual present. But it’s certainly interesting to think back to a simpler time when stuff didn’t have such power over us. When our imagination and a cardboard box could keep us entertained for hours.
It’s not long though before well-meaning adults introduce you to the world of consumerism, treating you to those Adidas trainers you’ve been badgering them about because all your friends wear them. Taking this logic into your adulthood, you crave the status of a new car, designer handbag and the latest iPhone. You obsess over your image in the world and whether in society’s eyes you’re ‘successful’.
Am I okay? Do people think I’m a worthy human being? Am I enough?
These are the primary underlying feelings you’re experiencing, and I’d question anyone who’s never used stuff to validate themselves at some point in their life, or been plagued by a crippling need to keep up with the Jones.
Brands Are Manipulating Your Desires
Capitalism means there is more stuff in the world than ever before. All of it is vying for your attention and trying to convince you that it is essential for your well-being and happiness. In an age of social media, you are bombarded from all angles 24/7 with adverts; daily emails from fast fashion companies promising an extra 10% off sale (and free next-day delivery!), with Facebook reminding you about that waffle maker you added to your Amazon Prime shopping cart (I know, this really will revolutionise your breakfast routine!).
And this is the thing – brands are not just selling ‘things’ anymore. Brands understand on a psychological and subconscious level that they are selling feelings. When you purchase from a brand – from the TV advert down to the perfect packaging – you’re buying into a promised lifestyle as much as the thing itself.
Remember that marketers are paying billions a year to manipulate you into wanting new things. And not just wanting new things, but craving new things as the solution to all your problems.
I’m going to be straight with you: that waffle maker will not change your life (sorry, that was crushing!). A clothing haul from your favourite brand may give you a fleeting hour of euphoria, but can you honestly still say in the long run that even your favourite item of clothing in your wardrobe still excites you the way it did when you bought it?
Whilst you may know all these things on a rational level when you’re one step removed from your shopping habit and reading this article, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult in the moment when you’re being suckered into a great deal for something you ACTUALLY NEED RIGHT THIS SECOND! We start to realise that the kindly phrase ‘retail therapy’ translates into the slightly more alarming ‘shopping addiction’ or ‘coping mechanism’.
Building a More Sustainable World
On a more serious note, and stretching much further than our own limited and egotistical perspectives, the amount of stuff being produced in the world right now is not sustainable. We have to go beyond ourselves and understand how our mindless shopping habits have a bigger impact on our people and planet. As The Minimalists say:
Progressive research points to the idea that in order to change the world – truly – we must look towards a more minimal way of life. The earth simply can’t support a world full of overflowing walk-in closets and new trends for every season.
Similarly to factory farming, we are so far removed from the ethics of supply chains, the welfare of workers in different parts of the world, and the impact of different materials on the environment, that it’s easy to be blissfully ignorant of the problem. The truth is, we all have a duty of care and responsibility towards future generations. Buying new things only perpetuates a bigger societal problem with an endlessly destructive cycle of mindless consumerism, waste and landfill.
I’m not saying that you can’t buy anything made in China or third-world countries. The reality of buying UK-made products is that we aren’t geared up for manufacturing. However, I have been to China on sourcing trips and it is certainly an eye-opening experience.
When you pick up an item from a shop, you don’t stop to think about the journey it has made to get there. It is most likely the product of poor working conditions, long hours, with thousands of air or sea miles from halfway across the world.
You have to ask yourself at this point: Is this a world I’m proud to be a part of? Do I want to keep fuelling this culture? If you’re buying something, just remember that you’re usually buying into an expensive story. Branding may be beautiful but it’s always deceptive. Everything is made in a factory.
Whilst many brands are making their ethics and sustainability policies more visible, be wary of green-washing and be critical of what you read. If you want to see change in the world, be the change you want to see!
A 7 Step Guide To Buying Less Stuff
Now I’m going to share my simple 7 step process that has helped me go from living pay cheque to pay cheque (blowing all my money on fast fashion, trendy kitchen gadgets I never used, and a cosy throw collection to rival Dunelm’s stock room), to decluttering and living a mostly minimalist lifestyle. If I can do it, then you can do it too! This guide will help you to have the self-awareness to question impulse purchases, develop the self-control to budget with monthly savings goals, and, most importantly, feel more content with who you are and what you already have. You will also be contributing to building a healthier and more sustainable world.
Do the inner work
The first step is to identify the root cause of the problem. At this point, you probably expect me to show you a miracle spreadsheet to fix your out-of-control spending habits. It’s tempting to think that it’s all down to maths, with a logical explanation and solution.
But this is about behaviour change and your relationship towards stuff, which is entirely psychological and requires self-awareness at a deep and often uncomfortable level. This is something we only develop by looking inwards, and identifying voids we may be trying to fill by buying more.
Think about the last time you made an impulse purchase, and try to critically examine the feeling behind the purchase or the negative emotions you have been trying to push down with stuff.
Is your credit card bill the result of feeling jealous about what someone else has? Were you feeling that it would fix something within you? Or were you simply feeling bored?
I know that a lot of my impulse buys came from a desire to look like I was a successful and put-together adult, whilst under the surface, I felt bored and unfulfilled, with little direction or goals to pull me forwards in life. Once I understood this, it became less about fixing a spending habit, and more about identifying my core values so that I had the solid foundations in place to make better decisions in the future.
Know your why
It is important to do the inner work of identifying your values so that you can assess where your motivation for wanting things is coming from. If you are clear on this, you can become far more intentional with your spending habits.
I would advise that it is always best to try and shift your happiness as much as possible towards your long-term values rather than instant gratification. For example, one of my core values is looking after my health, so I enjoy buying healthy plant-based food on my weekly grocery shop, and I invest in a gym subscription because it’s important to me to stay fit and active.
It’s worth noting that there are very few quick fixes in this life, but it’s amazing how often we fall for them! So next time you’re hovering over the ‘buy now’ button, don’t be blinkered by an advertising campaign that promises to solve all your problems in a bottle of self-tan! Your motivation for purchasing anything should be intrinsically motivated more often than it is extrinsically motivated, i.e. it should come from within.
Try to move your mindset towards personal development, and how you can invest in yourself through books, courses and experiences. Building a life which fulfils your purpose and passion goes a long way to making you feel whole.
And it feels cheesy to say, but we often forget that some of the best things in life are free. For example, going for a long walk in the countryside on a sunny day with your dog, or chilling out with your partner in front of a feel-good Sunday film. Building a fulfilling daily routine can do a lot to fill the voids you’re seeking to fill with stuff.
I can’t stress how crucial it is to carry out the first two steps of this process before you start to think about budgeting and your own financial goals. Inner work is the key to change!
Set a budget to achieve financial goals
Once you’re clearer on your why, it’s time to assess your financial goals and set a monthly budget.
This may seem like a daunting task, and something which you don’t want to look at in too much detail for fear of what you might find. But the best policy is to face it head-on, so that you can see where your money is going and make the necessary changes.
Are you blowing all your money on eating out? Takeaways? Beauty products that are promising you the earth and never delivering? Clothes which never quite fulfil their promise of making you feel attractive enough?
Once you’ve taken a good look at your outgoings and identified your problem areas, work out how much money you have coming in every month after tax, and how much needs to be set aside for fixed costs like bills and utilities. You can then decide on your fun spend, house spend, clothes spend, etc, and most importantly, what you want to save every month. Remember: you set your budget, so think about what works best for you and your lifestyle.
Whether it’s a new home, a new car or a holiday, think about a larger purchase you can start putting money away for, and work towards your savings goal. Your future self will thank you for it!
New online bank accounts like Monzo or Starling are great for being able to separate your money, so that you can see how much you’re spending within your set budgets. For example, in Monzo, you have different ‘pots’ and can pay transactions out of these to keep you accountable to your spending goals.
It can actually be a relief to work within this kind of disciplined structure, so that you know exactly what money you do or don’t have to spend!
Take stock & declutter
A great way to get behind your budget is to take inventory of all the stuff you have in your home. We are creatures of habit and often buy the same thing over and over again in a bid to feel good, so whether it’s ten little black dresses in your wardrobe, or cupboards full of beauty products when you only really use 5% of them, it’s helpful to bring this awareness to your home and surroundings.
Work on decluttering all the stuff you’ve purchased in the past that no longer serves you. Marie Kondo’s Kon Mari was the method I first used for decluttering, but it can feel overwhelming, so be gentle with yourself. You will probably feel very guilty about getting rid of things you spent your hard-earned money on, and it can be hard to admit to yourself that you made bad decisions with sunk investments. Consider selling, gifting or donating unwanted items to someone who is going to benefit from them.
Not only will you have less clutter in your home, but psychologically you will feel lighter and more purposeful with less stuff. It will also make you more conscious about what you are bringing into your home going forwards. It will be easier to say ‘no’ to that new waffle maker when you’ve just thrown out a load of kitchen appliances you never used.
Control your environmental cues
After this, if you know you still struggle with your shopping habits and impulse control in the moment, the best way to curb your impulse spending is to control your environmental cues.
Disconnect as much as possible by taking a digital detox. Unsubscribe from anything and everything in your inbox which tempts you to make impulse online purchases. This may mean purging some of your favourite stores (goodbye, ASOS). You should also consider watching less TV and setting limits on your daily screen time. If you know that late nights are a weakness for you, create healthier habits before bed, like reading a good book.
Similarly, it’s not just online habits we should be wary of. Don’t go shopping to browse aimlessly, and be surprised when you come back with a designer bag from five different stores you didn’t plan on spending money in. My own personal weakness is a day trip to IKEA – even if I don’t need anything, I can still make it home with a thirty-six-piece dining set, new bedding, and three hanging pot plants.
The truth of it is that there are far more interesting and fulfilling ways to spend your spare time than shopping (I think we all know this on a deeper level). So try to think of more interesting and fulfilling ways to spend your weekends and days off, like going for a bike ride, or visiting a historical place.
Practice delayed gratification
If you are considering making a purchase, then hopefully by now you have a much better level of self-awareness. But it’s not to say we’ll never want or need new things, or that we can’t buy things ever again. So when faced with a potential purchase, how do we know whether we really want it for the right reasons?
The first thing to do is assess how you’re feeling. If you’re stressed, panicked, or can’t take your time to make the purchase, this is probably a sign that you are being guided by impulse and should take a step away.
Marketing emails are very good at creating a sense of urgency around limited-time offers and sales, which make you feel as though you simply have to make the purchase, or you’ll miss out. This FOMO is easy for brands to capitalise on, so if you see any kind of language like ‘Hurry!’ ‘Quick!’ or ‘Don’t miss out!’, alongside emojis like sand timers or clocks, then have an awareness that companies are literally creating urgency where there isn’t any! Most brands have new discounts launching every week, so you probably won’t be missing out on that much in reality.
Before any new purchase, follow the simple rule of resisting temptation for twenty-four hours. If you’re not still thinking about it so desperately tomorrow, it probably isn’t something you need to go ahead and buy right now. During this time, ask yourself a few questions to try and gain more clarity:
- Did you buy something similar in the past; if so, how do you feel about it now and how often do you use it?
- Would you have bought it at full price if it is in the sale?
- Is it something you’ve wanted for a long time, or something you want now you’ve just seen it?
- How often will you realistically use it and how will it improve your life on a daily basis?
- Is it worth the maintenance, upkeep and mental energy, on top of the physical storage?
- Is the motivation intrinsic or extrinsic, i.e. will it align you with your personal values?
If you’re still not sure whether to go ahead, I would encourage you to make a wish list. This is a brain dump for everything you want, no matter how big or small. Sometimes, just getting it out of your head and onto paper/screen is enough to put your mind to rest. If it’s something you still want in a month or so’s time, then go ahead within your budget and make the purchase.
Keep a daily gratitude journal
The final step in this process is to learn to be more thankful for what you already have. If you can practice gratitude and develop this into a daily habit, you will genuinely find yourself wanting less and being content with the small things in life.
Being grateful for what we have brings us a greater sense of wholeness and well-being, leading us out of a feeling of lack and scarcity, and reminding us how lucky we are to have the people, relationships and things we already have in our lives.
Try to write down three things you are grateful for each day, and watch your outlook shift. A happier life often has to do more with your own perspective and reframing the stories you tell yourself, rather than any physical material changes.
An attitude of gratitude requires grace and humility, and by adopting these traits you can be sure to see abundance reflected to you. A happier life is usually a simpler life.
Remember that as with any new behaviour, change takes time and it may take a while for the lessons to sink in and become embedded.
If you are in serious debt, or your spending is out of control in a way which is affecting your mental health, then do seek financial advice so that you can make the necessary changes, and get back in control of your money.
For more ideas, check out my post 33 Practical Ways to Simplify Your Life or 100 Things to Do Instead of Shopping. And to get tips on how to buy less stuff when it comes to your wardrobe, read my post A Beginner’s Guide to Creating a Capsule Wardrobe.
When you do come to make a purchase, make sure it’s a brand which is doing good. Read my post 12 Ethical (+ Affordable!) Fashion Brands in the UK to find out more.