The Psychology of Stuff: Consumerism & Debt

You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you. ~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

What is it about ‘stuff’ ?  How is it that some silly new object – a couch, an outfit, drapes, a power tool – can turn an adult woman into a giddy school girl and a grown man into … well lets be honest … the same child he always is?  Are we hard wired to feel a rush at the acquisition of some new possession?  Does our obsession with ‘stuff’ represent some essentially human quality, perhaps even something that served us well from an evolutionary perspective, to constantly feel a need to accumulate newer and better things? 

And while Tyler Durden and Mr Palahniuk  enthusiastically crucify our culture of consumerism and address an interesting existential question about our obsession with ‘stuff’ (do we control it or does it conrol us), I’m more concerned with the actual cost of all this stuff when it comes to your household finances (let Tyler and Chuck worry about your souls).  

But how do we know ‘stuff’ has become a finanical problem?

Some quick stats:

  • About 43% of American families spend more than they earn each year.
  • Average households carry some $8,000 in credit card debt.
  • Personal bankruptcies have doubled in the past decade.

That’s what today’s financial landscape looks like.   But what’s on those credit cards?  What’s causing those bankruptcies?  What are we spending more than we earn on? 

The obvious culprit – STUFF!  And if you’re unwilling to come to the conclusion that your ‘stuff’ might own you, perhaps you’re willing to consider the fact that your debt does? 

What does the burden of overwhelming credit card debt, the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, or the threat of bankruptcy feel like?  That new couch, the drapes you had to have, the $10,000 mattress from that convincing infomercial, and the new china set for ‘entertaining’ … it can all be a heavy burden to carry (literally and figuratively).   Is it all necessary?  Is it worth it?  The true cost of our obsession with stuff often seems to go beyond dollar and cents: we often pay a steep, interest rate inflated actual cost for our ‘stuff’, but a true cost of our addiction need to factor in the  additional fees we’re charged on a daily basis that exist in the form of stress, worry, and fear.  

Instead, we helplessly point to the credit card company, the unreasonable bank, and anybody else that has fed our addiction to ‘stuff’.  We have convinced ourselve that “they” are the problem! 

Or is it you ?

Or your inability to say “No”? 

Are you the obese child that can’t exercise the self-conrol required to keep your fat little fingers out of the cookie jar? 

Or maybe it’s your false sense of pride and need to convince yourself that you’re a tremendous success – “But look world, I have all this stuff!  I went out and bought it all, showed it to my family, bragged about it to my friends, flaunted it to lesser consumers, and the sense of  temporary validation it gave me was tremendous.  Look at me … I AM success!”

I know that’s me sometimes.  Is it you?

So how about  a new set of rules for managing our obsession with ‘stuff’:

The Enough Stuff Club

1. The First Rule of Enough Stuff Club is you have to talk about Enough Stuff Club.  Sit down and talk to your family, your spouse, your friends and discuss what ‘stuff’ is important to you, what ‘stuff’ you could do without, the true cost of your ‘stuff’, and strategies for ending your addiction to ‘stuff’. 

2.  The Second Rule of Enough Stuff Club is you have to talk about Enough Stuff Club.  What are your financial priorities?  Do they revolve around financial security?  Status?   Things? Do you enjoy running in the hamster wheel of replacing old stuff with new stuff (which by the way will become old stuff sooner rather than later)? 

3.  If your credit cards are maxed out, your retirements funds are underfunded, your credit score is poor, your living paycheck to paycheck, or your life is being controlled by your lack of financial discipline … your obesession with purchasing, accumulating and burying yourself in ‘stuff’ needs to end.  You must fight in Enough Stuff Club. 

4.  It’s your entire household to a fight.  Your wife, your husband, the kids, and anybody else living with you must participate in Enough Stuff Club.  This means each fighter will have to come up with a list of ‘stuff’ they no longer need and agree to purchase only ‘must have’ stuff in the future. 

5.  Fight your obsession with ‘stuff’ one day at a time.  This means looking for alternatives to your usual and more costly ‘stuff’ routines.  Consider buying things second hand – thrift shops, garage sales, Craigslist.  Learn useful household skills – sew instead of toss, repair instead of curb, rehab instead of junk.  Realize that in the world of financial fitness, function is more important than status.  If the couch works, keep it.  If the car runs, drive it.  If your clothes fit, wear them.  The fight against ‘stuff’ requires daily discipline.  I like new music, books, and movies – I just happen to get mine from the public library for FREE!   Remember we’re dealing with an addiction … so as the  saying goes, “One Day At A Time”.  

6. Buying New is the enemy of Enough Stuff Club.  Look around your house.  You are likely buried in ‘stuff’.  Chances are you have rooms whose sole function is simply to store ‘stuff’ you don’t use.  Stop it!  If it’s not socks or underwear, give second hand clothes a consideration.  I’ve furnished entire rooms with free furniture off of Craigslist.  Since most people are obsessed with accumulating ‘stuff’, there is a tremendous amount of good used ‘stuff’ available at a fraction of the price! 

7.  Think outside the stuff.  When we’re bored we usually like to distract ourselves with ‘stuff’.  I can’t tell you how many new hobbies I’ve thought about starting over the year that never panned out: I’ve got a room filled with painting supplies, origami books, bonsai tree kits, shirts I’ve worn once, yoga mats, Introduction to Piano books, a wood carving kit, brand new unopened fishing tackle, a once used kayak in the garage, and so on.  Sound familiar?  But I no longer feed boredom or the need to distract myself with new ‘stuff’.  Find less costly outlets for your boredom … like reading this blog.

8.  This fight needs to go on as long as you are serious about maintaining a financially  fit household.  Relapsing into your ‘stuff’ addiction can have serious consequences.   It doesn’t do you any good to live frugally for 11 months of the year only to destroy your efforts with a huge end of the year splurge: “I don’t spend enough time with the kids … time to spend thousands of dollars on Christmas presents”, “I’ve been discplined all year and my car is making a weird noise … plus that government incentive on the Chevy Volt makes it a sensible purchase”, or “John Smith’s wife just redid her living room and he makes less than you do.  If they can afford new stuff, so can we!”  Living free from ‘stuff’ requires a permanent change in your thinking and you’ve got to really buy into the less is more philosophy. 

The Home Stretch

But hey, if your addiction to ‘stuff’ is working for you – god bless.  If it’s not, maybe it’s time to try something new.  Regardless, the intention of this post is to get us thinking about why we purchase what we purchase?  Is it out of necessity?  Boredom?  Did daddy love you too much or not enough?  The kids picked on you at school?  The TV made you do it? 

If we’re not considering these questions and are simply going through the motions of consumerism … the question must be asked: What’s the point?  Is stuff the goal OR is it an obstacle to our goals? 

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy sh*t we don’t need.  ~From the movie Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk