The blogging world is full of how I got out of debt stories and how to get out of debt blogs. It is indeed a popular subject which is pertinent to many people.
Consumerism is not much different from debt though. Unlike debt, which is associated with stress and anxiety of making payments and little happiness—it always confuses me why in the world people are crazy enough to go into debt in the first place—consumerism provide a short term burst of happiness at a long term cost, which of course makes it tremendously popular with the people and tremendously profitable to corporations. Many go through their entire lives working to create a stream of happiness bursts… which they are told they “deserve” because they work so hard.
However, what I realized was that all these bursts of happiness from unwrapping a new computer, a GPS, a light saber, posters, BB guns, my collection of knives, my camera equipment, etc. did not last more than a few months at the most. Furthermore, over time I built up a fairly large pile of stuff I was no longer using.
I realized that a couple of months after I bought something I regretted having done because I’d rather have my money back. While I was not in a situation where I owed someone $1000, I was in a situation where I had $0, yet I could have had $500 if I hadn’t spent it on stuff that was now going to waste in a box in the attic or on some experience I had practically forgotten about.
Consumerism is just one level up from being in debt. Being in debt can be thought of as generating a negative cash flow, while being a consumer can be thought of as generating a zero cash flow. What we want is a positive cash flow. Why else work?
My reason was that consuming was the only way I knew how to have fun and in many cases the only way I knew how to get by. Yes, if I needed something a simple as a door stop, I bought it. Money was essential to my happiness and survival. I was as tied down as someone in debt.
Getting out of consumerism is as simple as getting out of debt. In the latter case you stop getting further into debt and you start paying back what you owe. In the former case you stop consuming.
Initially this posed two problems.
- The source of happiness that is consumerism goes away.
- Consumerism as a problem solver is no longer a possibility.
It is clear why some would need something akin to a 12 step program to deal with this, because these problems are very similar to someone with an addiction to say smoking or drinking—and just think of what those cost.
You probably seen calculations on how much money people could have if they did not smoke and instead saved their cigarette money. Well, if people stopped their consumption habit they could save more even money than that. Think of all the never-used stuff sitting in landfills, garages, the back of closets and the bottom of drawers. This is really no different from cigarette butts representing expenses with no long term happiness.
Now, my consumer withdrawal was “painful” for 6-12 months, but eventually I found a solution which solved both problems at once.
Specifically, I tried to become more self-sufficient by creating many solutions myself. This solved problem #2. At the same time I derived a sense of competence which is very satisfying to me. This solved problem #1.
Today, I have the attitude to consumerism that recovering alcoholics seem to have to drinking or maybe what recovering crack addicts have to crack. Actually I don’t know. I’m not really that knowledgeable about drug use. So maybe it is better to explain it more directly.
It’s not that buying a consumer product would send me into a spiral of consumption. Au contraire. I find it very hard to part with my money in a retail setting. This is because I often do not need to spend money at all resorting to borrowing or swapping or because I can simply buy things used after much deliberation as to whether I will find long term enjoyment in my acquisitions.
My issues with consumerism is the temporary nature of happiness, the enormous amount of waste it generates in our landfills, and its addictive qualities. In particular that it is so addictive that people seem unable to control it and so normal that people seem to accept it and even embrace it. Indeed, if someone claims they are struggling with their finances odds are high that they are also addicted to consumerism. On a social level it pains me that some people go to jobs that they only tolerate because they can use the money they earn to comfort them—that’s like working for a drug company to do drugs. It is not necessary. Even if you love your job, is there any good reason to fill up your closet and garage with unused stuff?
It is also clear that the infinite wants of consumerism can not be supported by the finite resources on a finite planet. If a way exists to turn all that waste into fertilizer and new resources, I would not have a problem with it. Fact is, however, that we are far from that situation. Most recycling is downcycling into inferior products. I try to do some upcycling myself with my bike repair turning broken bikes into functional bikes instead of scrap metal. Similarly, I try to buy things used, because that means reducing the amount of unused items that someone else has which is a win–win solution.
Most importantly though, for me, was that I just don’t like to be on the losing end of the consumer arrangement. Realizing that I was was probably the primary motivation for quitting my addiction.