Why We Buy Stuff



I would like to weigh in on a hot topic.  My friend at Budgets Are Sexy posted an article on why we buy stuff.  J. Money’s piece emphasizes that buying makes us feel good.  Clearly true.  However, there are more reasons to explain why we possess compulsive spending habits.

The Sophistication of Marketing

I just read in Investor’s Business Daily that 7% of adults think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows.  7% is a small percentage of the population, but it’s hard to conceive that anyone believes that.  With that level of gullibility, no wonder marketers have brainwashed us into giving up our paychecks to endlessly buy things.

One of my favorite books is Born To Buy by Juliet Schor.  It not only reports on the sophistication of marketing but chronicles the stealth methods used to convert children into lifelong buying robots.  Given that the book was printed in 2004, and the author’s study subjects are adult age by now, most millennials have already been transformed into consumer zombies.

How Marketers Prey On Us

The author notes that marketers use the word “target” to refer to consumers.  I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel victimized. The unveiling reported in Ms. Schor’s books informs us that the human population is categorized into every imaginable segment.  The research would blow your mind.  Entire bodies of knowledge have been created to determine how best to provoke each cross-section of the population to part with their money.  No one is left out: every characteristic of life has its own annual conference.  Children’s products are no longer broken down by boy vs. girl.  There’s baby, toddler, teen, tween, black, white, Hispanic.  Maybe even mom-haters or dad-haters.

Advertisers play on our emotions and pinch at the core of our inner needs, generating feelings of lack.  Lack of social status, lack of fitting in, lack of beauty, lack of a good time, lack, lack, lack.  By creating ads with poignant undertones, the “targets” imagine a world of excitement or fantasy that would be theirs if they own a certain product.  Usually a second-guessing of self-worth is served up.  I once read that offering a perfume product is selling hope.  Our desire for hope is so strong that it perpetuates the perfume industry to the tune of 6 billion dollars a year.  Who knew?

Cultural Shifts

Marketers exploit or promote cultural shifts.  A catch-phrase of the 80’s was, Whoever Has The Most Toys Wins.  That context tilts your thinking to never having enough, that you’re not a “winner” if you don’t keep accumulating toys.

Television has probably been the most profound societal transformation.  Think about how television has influenced your life.  C’mon now, own up.  I’ll admit that the way I dressed (when I made money to buy my own clothes), was based on what I envied on my favorite TV shows.  Advertisers are all over this as studies have shown that watching more TV results in buying more products.  Now, with every website having mobile capabilities and people glued to their phones, this is a free-for-all for advertisers.  There is no limit to the ways they can reach out and grab your attention.

Speaking of cultural influences, how about those Kardashians?  It bends my brain just writing the name.  Humble isn’t in their vocabulary.  They’ve created a new sport in brandishing their wealth and life of leisure.  With their ostentatious display of glamour and consumerism, they’re causing their watchers to feel nothing less than wanting.  Then while we’re not paying attention, they’re promoting products like perfume, clothing, and lip kits, and selling them on state of mind alone.

The availability of credit is another cultural transition.  Decades ago, most families didn’t have credit cards.  Now, wallets are exploding.  I guess it’s easy to ignore debt because it’s invisible.  I’m amazed at how people can wear a happy face when they’re tethered to a ridiculous amount of debt.  I would have to fake my death and change my identity.

The most shocking point I took from Born To Buy was that modern marketing has figured out ways to define us.  By showing us what we want or could have, they have designed lifestyles while provoking buy-in.  This is some serious manipulation.  Pharmaceutical companies have even made their drugs sound good, despite the 150 serious side effects that they’re required to disclose.

Combine all that with the constant bombardment of advertising.  I sense a tsunami of ads from the second I open my eyes and feel like I’m being virtually followed.  Even when buying in stores, they ask for your email address so that they can email you for the rest of your life.

Never Having Enough

All of the above has created a sad cycle of never-achievable satiation where happiness is always out-of-reach.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for having nice things.  When I first bought my house, I filled it up, just like George Carlin’s monologue.  “Your house is just a place for your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.”  No one ever thought of it that way until, in unmatched comedic fashion, he opened our eyes to this truth.  I continued buying bedding and furnishings until I had no more space to store my summer stuff in the winter and my winter stuff in the summer.  Thankfully, I have a small home and reached a saturation point.  Now, I only buy things when something breaks.

Let’s Just Be Happy

I’m so sick of being told there’s something wrong with me, aren’t you?  Let’s stop thinking that we’re not good enough the way we are.  Let’s stop thinking that we need all kinds of things to make us happy.  Let’s decide to see through what the marketers are shoving down our throats.  Let’s buy what we need and stop lining their pockets.   Let’s be defined by our unique beautiful qualities, not by what we own.

There’s the explanation for why people can’t stop buying. It’s not their fault.


Don’t you feel better now?



4 Replies to “Why We Buy Stuff”

  1. What do they call it – hedonic adaptation? The idea, that no matter how good something makes us feel, it will eventually lose its luster and we fall into a state of dissatisfaction, leading to wanting more.

    My wife and I are guilty of falling prey to these marketing ploys. A coupon in the mail for $100 off a case of wine, window signs that say 30% all Summer wear, 3-for-1 Pez dispensers at the check counter (<=ok, that was my fault the other day, not my wife's).

    I was proud of us, a month or so ago, it was restaurant week in NYC. Instead of being lured in, we made dinner at home and packed it up to eat in Battery Park on the water. We wouldn't have been convinced until we tried it, but it was such a better experience than the restaurant. Not sitting on top of the next table so the restaurant can max out their capacity (translating into more $$$), we were able to speak and actually hear one another vs. shouting, and the overall environment made the whole experience stress-free. We didn't know that we were looking for this experience. It made us re-think how we approach other things in our lives.

    1. Great spending creativity!

      I get carried away with the coupons too, but I figured out how to tame my impulses. I make a list of what I need. If I can use the coupon in that time frame, then I nailed a great deal. If not, it can wait until the next coupon promotion.

  2. I can’t wait until there is a filter on my TV/internet browser that can allow me to filter out these obnoxious celebrities. I would be fine if I never heard again from the Kardashians and what they were doing. It’s sad with all the technology today that I can’t do that but then again marketers have no incentive 🙁

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for checking in.
      I share your feelings on blocking out the plastic fantastic world of celebrities. What I’ve come to realize is that their drama-centered, selfie behavior is what makes them good at being a celebrity/rock star/socialite. However, once they melt through their layers of make-up, they have to face their human issues the same as all of us. There is no reality in reality shows and anyone who thinks so is lying to themselves.
      We can’t block the Kardashians from the news or TV, but we can make choices and find diversions. It’s good to remember that we see them at their best time of the day, after their glamour team has worked on them for several hours, not when they’re looking or feeling like a rag. If I work hard enough at it, I can make people envious of my life.
      The real attraction is the hopefulness of the life that we aspire to. If that feeling is developed into action, not just mindless binge-watching, then it’s productive energy.

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