It is embarrassing to admit that, from time to time, I have been buying things I don’t need, even things that I never use.
Yet, there are times when, despite the disorienting forces of egoic wanting, I managed to stop myself from buying. Here are questions that I find helpful:
Is it really me who is making this buying decision?
Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan asks this question on freedom of choice: How do you know you want what you want? It is deeply important because adverts do not just give information, they change our decisions.
And they keep getting better. Now, instead of just sponsoring athletes, they pay social media celebrities to wear or use their products. Instead of putting adverts on the right side of the screen, they now embed adverts in between your friends’ posts, so you have to see them as you scroll down.
Effective adverts seem harmless because they rarely tell us to buy stuff. They simply ‘help’ us to choose.
First, they trigger insecurities: Our skin is too dark or ugly, our phone makes us look outdated, twelve clothes are not enough, our car makes us look poor and unsuccessful, our lives are boring and unhappy.
Then, they ‘give us the freedom’ to choose whether we want to lessen the spiritual pains; to make us look modern and sophisticated, or young and pretty; to take away the pain of boredom; to make us happy — at least until they get the next product line ready.
Only when we are aware of what’s going on that we have any chance of stopping our buying impulses.
We regain self-independence. We feel insulted that random strangers are trying to manipulate us. We tend to stop wanting when we realise that we don’t really want what we think we want.
When facing the buying urge, breathe, and ask:
- ‘What is the spiritual pain that I want to deal with here?
- ‘Is it really me who want this, or is it elicited by an advert?’
- ‘How is my life already great without buying this? What am I grateful about?’
How much time value do I give up for this?
Another tactic is to outplay my ego by emphasising how much it truly costs in terms of time.
For example, you can figure out in advance what is your Actual Hourly Salary:
1. Calculate your Yearly Salary.
2. Calculate your Yearly Work-related Spending.
Approximate how much you spend on fuels to work, car maintenance, work items of clothing, business lunches, daycare, etc.
(I know it’s hard to get it accurate. The point here isn’t precision, it’s self-reflection. Do your best. Try apps like Goodbudget to help you.)
3. Calculate: Yearly Salary – Yearly Work-related Spending = Actual Yearly Salary
4. Estimate your Actual Yearly Working Hours.
How many hours do you spend on work and work-related activities? Include, for example, the hours you’re stuck in traffic from work, or when you’re working at home.
5. Actual Yearly Salary/Actual Yearly Working Hours = Actual Hourly Salary
That number is a vital psychological reference. If your Actual Hourly Salary is $10, you are, in a sense, trading 1 hour of your life just to get $10.
(Yes, after doing this, it’s shocking to realise that you don’t actually earn as much as you thought.)
Now, when you are about to click ‘buy’ for a shopping cart totalling $100 (10 hours of work), breathe, and ask:
- ‘Many people die earlier than they expect. I am going to die too. So am I proud to trade 10 hours of my life for these?’
- ‘What if I don’t buy these, and find ways to spend fewer hours working, and use the time for something more meaningful?’
How am I more than a consumer?
It is true there are ethical and spiritually-awakened companies. They responsibly improve lives and generate profits as part of their commercial nature.
Yet others are driven by darker motives. Their god is the key performance indicator, typically the number of sales. They are willing to employ any psychological methods to serve that god. It matters little if it ‘accidentally’ buries you and your family in the dark hole of debt.
Often, when we reflect on this, our reaction is righteous indignation. Disappointment too. We probably go and watch YouTube videos on how they manipulate the politics, the media, and how they poison the environment.
And then, we realise they are so omnipresent. In fact, our own family and ourselves have been supporting them with our money.
We feel disgusted. There is a pain that comes from the inconsistency between what we believe and what we do. To suppress that pain, we may unconsciously decide to not think about it anymore. We might instead seek mindless entertainments as anaesthetics.
If others bring it up, the pain comes back, and we reacted to them, ‘You are not better! You also buy stuff from them. So stop talking about it, hypocrites.’
We feel helpless.
Except, we are not.
The thing is, the economy is artificial. It is not natural like the sunrise or asteroids hurtling across space. The economy is a collective human activity. And unless you are a cat adorably reading this, you are part of that collective.
You are casting your vote every time you click that ‘buy’ button, every time you stand at that cash register.
Sometimes, your ego notices when you do the right thing while others around you don’t, and it asks you to point it out, so that it feels morally superior. But it is wasteful to burden yourself with other people’s choices. Focus that energy on improving your own.
Maybe others won’t notice your change, maybe they will. If they do, it encourages them to think, ‘Why are they choosing differently?’ That is a seed of change.
Confronting others directly is generally unhelpful because it triggers their psychological pain. The gentler option is counter-advertising, which can be as simple as sharing blog entries, social media posts, or videos that carry this message.
True, our message seems small compared to the corporate empires’ seductions to be ‘one who squanders and wastes’.
But it won’t be the first time empires fall, defeated by resistance initiated by small rebels. We gave them power by buying from them, and we can also, slowly and imperfectly, take that power away.
Maybe, just maybe, we too can be part of the rebellion.