The Problem of Plenty

Posted: November 5, 2010 in Latest Rants

Why we can’t seem to stop buying crap we don’t need.

You know that euphoria that rolls around every payday: that of knowing that the bank account has been replenished and you can finally buy that shirt (or shoes, or bag, or camera, or etc) you have been eyeing for weeks? Happens to me more often than I’d like to admit. I joke with friends that I usually end up spending my paycheck even before I earn it – perpetually keeping a mental tab of what I must aspire to owning next. This seemingly harmless habit is one hundreds, if not thousands, of us have – and it is certainly not a healthy one.

Recently I began to question the gratification that comes with shopping. It is an awesome feeling, I must admit, browsing the isles of a super-hip fashion store, with shiny marble floors, edgy music, waif-like sales people and rows and rows of clothes that promise to change your life. I also have very near and dear friends who live to shop: and will usually frown upon any sentence that has both “shopping” and either “Walmart, Payless, Target or even Sears” in it. For them, it is nothing but the best. Okay – for me too.

But then when we think about this gratification, it is usually momentary. For me, the celebration stops the second I leave the store. I now own this particular item. It is mine. Whoopeeeeeeee… Um, not! For me, it is about this feeling of ownership – once it is mine, I don’t want it that much anymore. Clothes, on a side note, usually don’t look all that great once separated from their beautiful neighbors on the racks anyway – the second I get home, I pull out the receipt and read up on the return policy. For most people – the hassle of taking it back usually means that it will lie in the back of the closet once it has served its purpose (that date, that event, that meeting, that party) forever.

So why do we buy? The impulse purchases and the need for instant gratification is a big one – and highly symptomatic of living in a society of plenty: we are surrounded with beautiful things – why wouldn’t we want to own them? There is also shopping as a way to pass time and to fill in the gaps that a lifestyle without a strong communal way of life brings. Think about it: for teenagers today, the best thing to do with their hang of friends is to parade around malls. When I was a teen, an afternoon at the swimming pool followed by a bag of chips and a bottle of Coke was the stuff dreams were made of. We don’t sit around the table twice a day with our families, nor do we have neighbors visiting or friends calling 3-4 times a day. Believe it or not, that leaves a void as we most definitely are social animals. A void that consumerism fills.

Then there is also the coercion we experience by media and other social messengers around us. We see Drew Barrymore clutching a cup of Starbucks: suddenly the measley coffee maker at home doesn’t seem as hip. We see a Kardashian sister waltzing out of a store with more shopping bags than she has thoughts in a day: suddenly the image of carrying glossy bags full of goodies is in. We open magazines, drive down a road lined with billboards, turn on the tv, turn on the radio, speak to our loved ones: messages luring us to buy are EVERYWHERE. How many of us have been coyly told by that beloved about what s/he wants this Christmas already???

My personal love affair with shopping roots from a rather deprived childhood (okay not deprived in an Oprah kind of way where I’ll claim to play with dolls made of corn cobs and toothpicks, but rather, fiscally controlled). I had those parents with a tight purse who believed that kids must be raised in a thrifty environment where they will learn the value of money, the hard work it takes to earn it, and to save lots of it when they grow up. I have news for my parents: it doesn’t work that way! It only leaves you with a life-long craving to buy, buy, buy – own, own, own. Now I wish that I had learned about the importance of saving another way during my youth.

Luckily, however, I am at a point in my life where – finally- saving is starting to become more fun than spending. I reached this point by repeatedly running out of money before the month was out and being stuck with piles of junk that I eventually had to donate, sell or throw away every time I moved. Slowly, I have become very detached from my belongings. Now, about the fun in saving… Think about it this way: remember that euphoria of pay day? Where you know the account is re-charged and you can buy whatever you want? Now prolong that feeling to days, weeks, months and then years. It only grows as you save more. Believe me – that feeling of security and of the knowledge that you have the ability to buy, anyday, anything you want – is priceless. Just like the only secret to losing weight is eating less and moving more – the ONLY secret to riches is saving, saving, saving (and eventually, investing wisely).

I read somewhere that the richest 1/5 of the world’s population consume about 70% of its resources in finished products. Does this mean that the remaining 4/5 are miserable because they cannot own all the fancy stuff we have? Hardly! Growing up in Africa, I saw a lot of poverty around me – but I also saw some of the happiest people I have ever encountered. Even the people I come across in North America: with their fancy cars, houses, clothes and restaurant dinners are barely that happy. That happiness comes from being around people you love, a strong community with a killer sense of humor and an acknowledgement that life is short: it is therefore not about buying it all – but rather, living it all. Living each moment to the fullest – making it one heck of a life.

So the next time you reach for that credit card to buy your 40th scarf, pause and ask yourself: Do I really need this crap?

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