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.
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.
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:
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?
Many news stories are featuring families that follow shopping bans for a year or more. I applaud anyone who makes a major change to improve their finances, and the sentiment has strengthened my resolve to resist needless spending. I’ve encouraged those looking to break a recreational or therapeutic shopping habit to try this tool. That said, I’ve refused to jump on the shopping ban bandwagon. Shopping bans are banned from the Pretend to Be Poor household. Here’s why they aren’t for me:
- Rules are made to be broken. The very nature of the human heart rebels against rules, and imposing extra, unnecessary rules might not be the best way to stimulate financial self-improvement. As soon as I’m not allowed to have lattes, what am I thinking about? LATTE LATTE LATTE LATTE! But if you need to, ban lattes till the cows come home.
- Goals are more motivating than rules. Finding a positive motivation, like focusing on specific financial goals like debt payoff, saving for a major purchase, investing more aggressively, or giving to a charity can be a lot more effective than a big fat NO that ultimately incites rebellion.
- I want purpose and principles to order my life. I’m not interested in reducing spontaneity or socializing because I’m so controlled by an artificial constraint. For example, one of the principles that separates effective from faux frugality is counter-intuitive: instead of budgeting how much we should spend, we strive to see how little we can spend. We don’t follow this to a tight-wad extreme, but make sure we meet our family’s needs, practice generosity, and prioritize relationships. To be ordered by purpose and principles means I’m not going to spend $4 a day on coffee because I know what that $4 a day could do in the stock market, or for an impoverished kid in a developing nation.
- The personality factor. I firmly believe there is an element of personality that affects our finances profoundly. I’m a saver, married a saver, and if anything, my tendency is to resist buying things when I should. For example, Neil has been threatening to throw out my beat-up shoes for six months now, and tries to find excuses, like the fact that I wore them when the toilet overflowed, as reasons to do so. (I sanitized them.) Small children and pets all seem drawn to my jeans’ growing knee holes, and Neil suggested I might be taking the PTBP thing a little too far. (I’m just protecting my nicer jeans from the harsh effects of motherhood.) I realize shopping bans allow for purchasing needs, but I’d rather decide what I need as I go than trying to make an all-inclusive list ahead of time. That’s just my personality though. For other temperaments, if the shoe fits, have a shoe-shopping ban.
- Having children inflicted an involuntary shopping ban on me. I remember rushing to the store to secure a “mom” bathing suit the day of a family pool party, since the (hand-me-down) string bikini top seemed downright dangerous with a nursing babe in arms. Bathing suit shopping with kids is a very relaxing experience. My son detached all the bikini straps and threw them in the aisle while yelling made-up words. Then he sneaked behind a mirror into a forbidden nook, and returned only to push said babe around in the stroller at breakneck speed.
- I’ve automated my spending to a large extent. People often imagine being frugal is super hard work. Sometimes it is (ask my husband who’s been fixing our cars), but mostly it’s easier to simply not go to stores and not buy things.
- Like certain forms of minimalism, shopping rules can be as materialistically focused as over-spending. For example, if I spend too much time thinking, talking, or writing about why I’m going to keep wearing my holey jeans till they rip right off my body, I might be just as focused on material goods or money as if I went out and shopped for new—even (gasp!) brand name—ones. I’m not saying all shopping bans are ill-focused; I’m just recognizing the extreme I’d be tempted toward.
To wrap up, I wouldn’t inflict my shopping-ban ban on anyone who needs a habit-breaking hiatus. Here are some questions to help you determine if this tool would help you:
- Do you know where your money goes each month? (I.e. do you follow a budget?)
- Do you shop or drive-thru when you’re emotional or bored? Is shopping or stopping for food/drink a hobby or habit for you?
- Have you tried to break the habit before, without much success?
- Are you saving and giving away money on a regular basis?
- Are you able to window shop or go to stores without buying anything?
- Are you able to enter a store and buy only what’s on your list?
- Do you have way more things than you need in a particular area (clothes, shoes, accessories, electronics, movies, books, tools, etc.)?
- Is your entertainment or restaurant spending significantly more than you want it to be?
If you answered yes to some of these questions, you might consider a shopping ban. If you’re not ready to go all in, here are some other ideas to try first:
- Automate errands with Amazon Subscribe & Save.
- Limit frequency of shopping trips.
- Use cash envelopes for problem budget categories.
- Budget a small amount of fun money for splurges.
- Develop a Healthy Aversion to Spending.
- Try pre-gaming restaurant dining.
- Write down your financial goals and why you want to reach them.
My next post will reveal one of my best hacks for spending less when I do shop.
Have you tried a shopping ban? How did it help? Have you banned shopping bans? Why?
What’s the difference between a frugal person and a spendthrift? Aside from how naturally uptight one is, perhaps the biggest factor is a person’s attitude toward spending. Some people love to spend. For them shopping, whether in store or online, thrift store or high-end, is recreation or even therapy. Others dread spending. They’re the type that counted the contents of their piggy banks with Scrooge-like glee. But whether you emerged from the womb a saver or spender, you can still apply some mindless austerity to your finances by developing a healthy aversion to spending. Here’s how:
1. Shop less often. Generally the less you go into stores or visit retail web sites, the less you’ll buy. Try making a grocery list that will get you through one or two weeks, including household items you’re able to purchase at your discount grocery store. If you need a run for fresh items in between just be sure to stick to your list.
Streamline shopping by working online options to your advantage. Use subscription programs that offer a discount and free shipping to get products you buy regularly delivered to your door. As long as you’re not spending much more for the convenience you’ll save time and mileage costs while avoiding all the tempting “extras” on the way to the milk & diapers. I’ll share the details of how to harness online shopping for savings in my next post.
2. Plan ahead. We already shared how planning ahead helps avoid fast food spending in particular. The principles applies to many budget categories: you plan ahead to buy items at a discount, in bulk, with online subscription discounts, etc. to streamline shopping and avoid over-spending. If you’re anticipating a one-time need, especially for a bigger-ticket item, set up a search on Craiglist or Slickdeals before you’re down to the wire. When planning a trip you can check Groupon in advance for sight-seeing discounts. Waiting till the last minute to make a purchase almost always means you’ll spend more.
Another way to plan ahead is to ask for gifts of items you need. For example, we asked for a car-top carrier for Christmas before our first camping trip with kids. Funnel relatives’ holiday generosity to meeting needs rather than building a useless Stuff collection.
3. Explore other options. Sometimes a little creativity or research can save a lot. For example, Neil’s long been admiring devices that simplify Internet-TV playing, such as the Chromecast or Fire TV Stick. Since we pay nothing for TV, using the good old bunny ears as well internet streaming, the price of $35 for one of these doodads seemed reasonable. But having developed a healthy aversion to spending, he decided to explore other options first. He figured out that the device did the same thing our laptop and an HDMI cable already could. If he didn’t have an aversion to spending he would’ve just bought it when he wanted it. See his chart below summarizing the features and price of the various internet TV streaming devices available. The plain old HDMI cable is the clear winner in most of the important categories.
|Google Chromecast||Roku Streaming Stick||Amazon Fire TV Stick||Regular Ol’ HDMI Cable|
|Physical remote control||No||Yes||Yes||Probably not|
|Phone/tablet app remote control||“Cast” apps only||iOS/Android||Android (iOS “coming soon”)||Maybe|
|Gaming support||Yes||Limited||Yes (optional $40 controller)||Yes, all you can handle|
|Voice search||Via select “cast” apps||Via remote app||Via remote app, optional physical remote ($30)||Sometimes|
|Screen mirroring||via Chrome browser or Android||via Android, Windows 8.1||via Kindle or Android (coming soon)||Yes, full HD, full screen rate|
|Wi-Fi antenna||Single-band||Dual-band/Dual antenna (MIMO)||Dual-band/Dual antenna (MIMO)||Yes|
|Works with “captive portal” Wi-Fi sign-in*||No||No||“Coming Soon”||Yep!|
See Free and Broken for other options to consider, include using something you already have, replacing disposable products with reusable ones (like diapers or napkins), or buying used items.
4. Have kids. Shopping with kids is a great way to develop an aversion to stores, since you first have to load the kids into these parental-torture devices called “car seats.” Then you have to extract them and place them in another device or drag them by hand through the store, while the little buggers snatch merchandise, hide in racks, run away, open the dressing room door, and laugh at you when you try on colored denim. While starting a family might not be the most efficient or economical way to make recreational shopping a distant memory, it may be the fastest. More on how kids don’t cost as much you think in a future post.
5. Value your time. Name your shopping weakness and there’s a whole market devoted to prying open your wallet. But when you realize the time involved in making money, shopping around, purchasing, maintaining, storing, fixing, moving, etc. many items just don’t seem worth the hassle. For example, I like Starbucks coffee. But I am too darn lazy (or value my time too much) to get in the car, drive 5-10 minutes, wait in a drive-thru line, and pay too much for a cup of brew when I’ve got two pounds of coffee sitting in my cupboard and could make it in 2 minutes for a fraction of the price. You could also think of valuing your time as learning the value of a dollar, or an hour. But my biggest motivator is what I’ll do with the time I save.
6. Get a new hobby. Instead of consuming more, why not create more? Replace shopping and Stuff-owning with some of those thrifty ideas you once didn’t make time for. Try a homemade copycat restaurant recipe, DIY a project, bake your own bread, hand-make a gift, grow a garden, or learn a handy skill like sewing, canning, or car-fixing.
If recreational shopping has become a pastime, replace it with a more frugal and fulfilling hobby. Get into jogging, biking, or hiking; dance with your kids; chop some wood. Throw a dinner party. Volunteer. Read more books, paint, learn an instrument, study a language.
People tend to think of “austerity measures” on the personal level as very time-consuming, but once you integrate these steps into your thinking and shopping, your savings are pretty much on autopilot, and if anything you’ll have more free time. Start thinking of spending money and amassing Stuff as an obstacle to more worthy endeavors. Doing what you really want with your life is much of what financial flexibility is all about.
What are your ideas for implementing mindless austerity in your finances? What would you do with a little more free time?