I worked hard to save for a pair of shoes. Now, I finally have that pair of shoes. What for? Just to have that pair of shoes.
Brands give us the impression that, if we acquire a product, we get a step closer to our fantasy self, a perfect version of us. Therefore, we are often caught buying things not for the thing itself, but for the feeling it gives us. A feeling that is often very fleeting.
We should buy things that help us to lead a better life in a very concrete way - shoes that allow us to walk miles without tiring our feet; things that will be useful. Purely beautiful things can be useful too, just for the joy they give. But we need to ask - do we need this? Am I chasing an impossible dream?
Perfection seems to be everywhere. Wherever I look, I see glimpses of an unattainable happiness. On social media, people flash their exotic holidays, their fun days out, their perfect children, their eternal love for their partners. I hear podcasts about folks who followed their dreams and were rewarded with a meaningful, exciting and extremely well paid career. Self-help books, lifestyle coaches, articles, blogs, all holding the key to the promised land. Billboards with happy people wearing happy clothes, using happy phones, going to their perfect homes.
The world seems determined to highlight the imperfection of our lives. It is a well crafted machine - we feel imperfect, and therefore buy services and products that make us feel better. Most of the times, that doesn’t work - buying that expensive pair of shoes will only give you blisters. However, now we are all trapped. We need money to buy things we don’t need, so we go to jobs we don’t like.
When we don’t like our jobs, we use our money to make us feel better. Whether it is the CEO of a big company going to a fancy restaurant by the end of a stressful week, or the exhausted cleaner who needs his Sky subscription so he can watch a bit of telly on the weekend, we are all in the same boat - and that boat is sinking.
I don’t know the answer to this dilemma, but I do know a little trick that does help.
Buy to live, don’t live to buy.
Why do very rich people go in debt? Why do we see movie stars go bankrupt? Because their affluence leads to a more expensive lifestyle, and things that are a luxury to us become essentials to them. We do the same. We are trapped into considering certain things essential, even if they are not - even if they don’t even bring us happiness. Humans are social people, so we are likely to copy the consumer habits of our peers. If all your friends spend a large amount of money on clothes and dinners out, so will you. If most people you know waste their savings on booze, you are likely to copy them too.
A good rule of thumb is - be mindful. Before buying something, I try to ask myself the following questions:
1. Is this purchase going to help me pursuing an artistic mind?
I am looking at a brand new notebook, creamy and textured pages, beautiful leather cover. I see that this notebook will make the experience of drawing even more joyful, the pleasure of drawing combined with the pleasure of using such a beautiful object. Plus, the hard wearing cover will allow me to take it with me everywhere, and I will have the chance to draw more often. I buy it.
2 - Do I like what I am about to buy, or do I like the shop?
I am inside a shop that sells bath products. The smell of jasmine fills my nostrils, the polished timber of the furniture gives me the feeling of everlasting luxury. The colourful bottles line up picturesquely, promising relaxing bubble bath breaks and a jet setter lifestyle. I think how nice it would be to have that in my life. A high rise flat overlooking the city, with a bath inside the glazed bedroom. I imagine myself pouring the precious liquid into the water, filling the air with the fragrances of orange blossom and bergamot.
Smell the bath gel.
Actually, it is a lot like the one I can get for a couple of quid at the drugstore.
Buying something in this beautiful shop won’t make me any closer to this fantasy version of myself.
I leave the store empty-handed. Win-win.
3 - Is it worth it?
I am heading to the same restaurant - again. It isn’t even a treat anymore - I am not sure I like those pizzas as much as I used to. We just keep coming here, whenever we meet. It is just a chain restaurant, but it ends up being quite an expensive bill, once you add all the beers and the cheesy starters.
I have the feeling that this restaurant is the only thing keeping me and my friend together. It isn’t the best restaurant, but it is very convenient for both of us. I cherish this time we spend together, every week. We’ve tried going to each other’s homes, but we end up not meeting, because the other person has to travel all the way back home at the end of dinner.
This restaurant is in the perfect location. For now - until we find another place that suits us both - I will keep coming here. My friendship is worth it.
4 - How much do I need this?
A crisp white shirt that looks pristine. I came with my friend to help her find a jumper, but since I am here… I like the look of this new shirt. I have several other white shirts, but it is so nice to have something new! Plus, I am bored. Buying a new shirt might just improve my mood.
Once it’s been worn, won’t this crisp white shirt look exactly like the other ones I already have?
Do I even use white shirts all that often?
I put it back.
5 - Is there an alternative?
I am in this big fancy bookshop, looking at this brand new book. I love the feeling, look and smell of a new book. I love being surrounded by books. I would like to buy this one.
I know my shelves are overflowing with books I haven't read yet.
But I still want to read this book now. I feel the story is just right for this time of my life
Do I have a library nearby? Yes.
Do I love going to the library? Yes.
I leave the bookshop, and head to the library instead. I'm sure they'll have that book there.
Finally, I will finish my point with the most pressing question of our times:
6. Is it harmful?
Globalisation has its wonderful pros, but it also puts us further away from where things are produced. It is almost impossible to be 100% sure we are making an ethical purchase, with every brand trying to make themselves look as ethical as they can, and all the horror stories scattered around the internet. Doing research online may be so frustrating and difficult, that we may well giving up our efforts all together, after finding out that every single thing we buy is evil.
I am not suggesting a radical change of lifestyle here. I am suggesting a simple principle, as old as time:
Avoid buying more than you need
Everything that is produced has a tool on the planet. Even if you are buying something for a charity, consider giving the money directly. When you buy a product, try to buy something that lasts as long as possible, so you don’t have to buy again. Recycle, reuse, reduce. This single principle is still the most important thing you can do for the planet today.
I hope you find these guidelines useful. Since I started having this approach, a couple of years ago, I have less clutter, less guilty feelings, and a bit more savings at the end of the month. I also have more time and resources to spend on my writing and my drawings.
It isn’t always easy, and sometimes I indulge on a bit of a shopping spree. But it is definitely worth a try.