My Top Shopping Hack

What if ads showed the true landscape of over-consumption?

We all know ads tell lies to twist us into spending. Yet their manipulative power is hard to resist. A useful frugal hack is picturing a new purchase in your home, rather than the sleek, minimalist settings depicted in ads. That stuff is not coming home to a vacuum. There’s nothing sleek or minimalistic about buying stuff you don’t need, and no matter how pretty something appears in a display, it’s not going to make your home look like a Williams Sonoma spread.

I find it immensely ironic that ads portray sparse and immaculate scenes, when over-consumption only creates cluttered chaos. No one gets rid of all their equivalent possessions as soon as a new purchase crosses their threshold. Advertising sells the double lie that more stuff will improve your environment when it’s more likely to over-crowd it.

Here’s the Kohl’s ad that triggered this tirade:

Those two plush toys look so cute, simple, and minimal here. But who in the world has only two plush toys, one book, and one blanket on their kids’ shelf?  These toys almost look like they put themselves away. Believe me, they didn’t.

Of course if you want or need something, buy it! I’m on a shopping-ban ban. But surely we don’t need to let these ads fool us into thinking that buying more crap is going to somehow make our homes look better–more orderly, organized, or peaceful. More stuff has just the opposite effect, just as buying a new outfit isn’t going to magically shrink your waistline to match that of its Photoshopped model.

More stuff doesn’t make you or your home skinnier. It just adds to the madness. This is why the minimalists are minimizing. So let’s just have fun critiquing a few ads:

Who the heck has a White Couch? If I bought a white couch, it’d stay that color for about 5 seconds. Especially next to a honey wand! Worst idea ever.

Staccato Dinnerware

I don’t have a cream pitcher (or whatever those things are called). Will the one pictured make my table this pretty? Not a chance. We’re still working around the Thomas & Friends placemat. And am I the only one with multi-chromatic possessions? Maybe that’s why none of my shit matches.

DEWALT 20-Volt Max Lithium-Ion 1/2 in. Cordless Drill/Driver Kit

The ad shows the drill literally in a vacuum. I guess that makes sense. It’s the only reason I can imagine why the pieces are all in the same place. I know nothing about drills, except that their habitats typically look more like chaos of my garage, in which any given tool can rarely be found when needed.

New electronics are also pictured in a blank white space, without the maze of cords, cords, and more cords emanating from my existing electronics.

Where are the cords?! That should be considered false advertising. Also not shown is this sleek machine’s dusty future with the loosely curated collection of antiquated computers drawn by an unseen force into my basement. It just seems wrong to add to this disaster:


Guess what’s under that box of cords? Another box of cords.

Much of frugality is about simply not buying when you don’t need to. I’m comfortable with purchasing well-thought-out wants as well. But getting a handle on why you shop, and how to resist the million and one ads we’re assaulted with daily, goes a long way toward spending less than you earn. And that is the secret sauce to gaining financial flexibility. It’s much of what we mean by pretending to be poor—living below your means to leave room for options like saving, investing, giving, traveling, and volunteering.

Next time you’re faced with a decision over a purchase, look beyond the ad and visualize your own home. Will that purchase solve a legitimate and ongoing problem? Or will it add to existing problems like debt, clutter, and distraction? Only you can answer that, but I encourage you to ask.

I hope I haven’t tempted anyone with those marketing masterpieces above. Hopefully that last image scared any consumer lust right back out of you.

What are some other lies ads sling? Do you have a trick or mantra that helps you resist over-spending?

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39 Responses to “My Top Shopping Hack”

  1. Julie at HappinessSavouredHot says :

    Ha, I avoid ads like the plague. I don’t buy magazines, I almost never watch TV, and the rest of the time, I close my eyes! LOL Heck, I don’t even go to stores. Which has served me well this year on my minimalist project.

  2. Holly says :

    White furniture and carpet is for people who obviously don’t have kids!

  3. Hannah says :

    You absolutely have to check out this website…

    A look into the lives of the people who live in your catalogs.

    As far as tools go, we have started buying tool bags whenever we purchase new tools because it drives me insane to have Target bags filled with bits (and also bits of wood) that I never know if I have to throw out or guard as treasured possesions.

    • Kalie says :

      Interesting link; thanks for sharing.

      I hate the plastic bags of mystery bits and pieces. I never know what to do with them, either. Tool bags are a good idea. We have a couple extra small tool boxes Neil recovered from the trash.

  4. Kathryn says :

    Love this post! It’s true how ads are set up so inaccurately – and then like puppets we get sucked into the fantasy and buy their crap. Then of course when it gets home it never looks like the ad does. But by some miracle if you HAPPEN to achieve that amazing feat, it last no more than 2.5 seconds because your kids break it or your dog barfs on it.

    It’s a hamster wheel and it pisses me off. Deep down I think we are trying to replace joy and contentment that we only truly can get from God with outside stuff that we THINK brings us satisfaction, but it doesn’t. It makes us more unhappy (research backs this up), yet we keep chasing the fantasy….

    • Kalie says :

      The dog barfs on it–that made me laugh!

      I agree that we are seeking something much more substantial and permanent, a joy that can only be found in Christ. It can be hard to recognize this in the moment, unfortunately.

  5. Kristin says :

    Ha, I just saw that giraffe at Kohls and thought it was too cute, lol. I flipped the switch a few years ago and shopping isn’t an issue for me – I’m a minimalist. I have no problem purchasing something that I absolutely love (and it takes me forever to pull the trigger) but it’s rare for me to make an impulse buy. And fyi, I didn’t buy the giraffe (or anything else) at Kohls 🙂

    • Kalie says :

      The giraffe is adorable! Good job resisting 🙂

      I never thought of expressing it like you did, but I feel like a flip switched in my brain a while back, too. I’m now trying to pinpoint the details of that change to share with others. That’s great you’re so in control of your spending now!

  6. Mark says :

    Pieces! I decide what to get my kids by how many pieces it involves because we’ll inevitably find them literally everywhere.

  7. Abigail says :

    Thank you for the point about the white couch! I remember getting increasingly angry each time I saw an ad for Chase Mobile banking. The conceit was that the woman didn’t have time to go anywhere because she’d just had a baby. Meanwhile, there was an unstained white carpet with no toys to be seen on the couch, floor, etc. AND she was wearing white pants. Uh… no. A thousand, spit-upy times no.

    So yeah, now when I think about buying something I just try to picture where it will go. That usually leads to an image of more clutter, which is a great deterrent.

  8. DC YAM says :

    Great hack! I can totally relate to this, too -> “I know nothing about drills, except that their habitats typically look more like chaos of my garage, in which any given tool can rarely be found when needed.” It drives me crazy! I already use a version of your hack and honestly it has led to buying less stuff. I think about how I would rather invest money into things that improve our home than more “stuff” to put in our home. It helps not having a big house, as you are naturally limited. My wife and I typically get rid of one thing (or at least put it in storage) each time we accumulate something new. This becomes a necessity in a small kitchen!

  9. Laurie Frugalfarmer says :

    Awesome post!! I’ve honestly never thought about a purchase that way before, and although we’re not buying much these days, I’ll definitely use this when the next tempting opportunity comes around. 🙂

  10. Cat says :

    I love this post! You are absolutely right, the ads never depict the way things really are. With the beans running around we’d never be able to keep that couch clean either.

  11. Luke Fitzgerald says :

    Great idea! Advertising is playing with a stacked deck. What they do is get us to imagine what our lives would be like with X, Y and Z. Luckily for them, our imaginations are very unreliable. We are terrible at it. We leave out so many details, and those details are what make up our reality. And reality is cords in a box. Who would have ever imagined that!?!? 🙂

    Hmm – I guess our main trick to prevent overspendign is the envelope system.

    • Kalie says :

      We are terrible at imagining the difference between the ads and our lives. That’s a great way to put it.

      Envelope systems are a great strategy, too.

  12. Prudence Debtfree says :

    This is great, Kalie! I got some chuckles – and it’s 5:17 am. I don’t think I ever realized what you point out: that ads always feature a serene minimalism. So ironic! This little nugget of awareness is going to help me. Thanks! (And your chaos looks a lot like mine. How refreshing to see someone else’s : )

  13. Anne says :

    This one made me chuckle. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at an ad and thought the same thing!

  14. Kristi with Femme Frugality says :

    Ha! Great post idea! I loved reading this, and I totally agree. I love my white dishes, and I actually own that drill, but the rest is ridiculous. My kids have probably hundreds of stuffed animals shoved into a “zoo” in the corner, and as much as I weed them out they seem to reproduce like rabbits.

    • Kalie says :

      Obviously we all need dishes and drills–but they never look the same in our homes.

      So true and funny about the stuffed animals seeming to replicate on their own!

  15. Our Next Life says :

    I’ve never thought about it this way before, but you’re totally right. Same as they show clothes on super fit models out in interesting settings, rather than showing the clothes trying to fit into an already bursting closet. I’m definitely going to use this tip from now on, when I feel tempted — thanks!

    • Kalie says :

      For some reason it’s easier to spot this fallacy on the 6 ft, 0% body fat model than the serene home setting. At least for me.

  16. fehmeen says :

    Advertising is so misleading these day, it’s kind of off-putting. They just encourage to to buy, buy and buy without thinking about the financial implications or whether you even need it and in this area, children’s advertising is the worst because children are pretty easy to influence. I like your observation about the missing chord on the drill machine! It is such a hassle arranging one of those, and there should be an indication of how menacingly loud it is, and that you need to have a suitable extension because the place you need to drill is ALWAYS too far away from the nearest socket!

    • Kalie says :

      I guess ads are a necessary evil in our society, but they can definitely get on my nerves. At least we can enjoy making fun of them.

  17. Amy says :

    SO TRUE!!! In fact, whenever my husband has jokingly suggested I get some skimpy piece of lingerie, I tell him, “You know that the model’s body doesn’t come with it, right?!” However, I’d never made the connection when looking at home catalogs and ads. You’re so right, though!

  18. Tim says :

    I’ve been reading some of your posts to my kids as I really think you have a lot of wisdom to share to young people. I know the s-bomb you dropped helped make a point, but wish you would have used “crap” instead…

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