As I was driving around last night, I was listening to a story on National Public Radio in which an immigrant female who was ashamed of her past was recounting some details of her experience. Right in the middle of her monologue, she uttered that line: “Buying things lets me forget who I am for a while.”
That line hit a nerve with me, one that made me really think about why I write personal finance advice to begin with. I offer up a large amount of daily advice on how to save money, how to better plan your finances, and so on, but that comment revealed to me once again that it is only really useful if I’m able to make a fundamental connection with people who read this site, beyond that of merely putting a dollar or two in their pocket.
Reading The Simple Dollar, or reading Money Magazine, or reading a book on personal finance isn’t going to help you at all as long as your self worth is tied directly to material things. If buying things lets you forget who you are for a while, then you are directly hitching your own self-worth to buying things, because buying things can temporarily raise your self-worth, and then the feelings of your day-to-day life rush in and your self-worth collapses again.
I’m sure that there are more technical terms for this phenomenon, but I like to call it the consumerism psychology cycle, and once you’re on board, it is a very difficult cycle to escape from. Why? Because it is hugely psychologically addictive, no different than any powerful “upper” that one might take.
Before any of the advice on this site or any personal finance book or magazine can help you, you have to be willing to separate who you are from the stuff you buy and possess. This process isn’t an easy one, but once you’ve achieved a state where material goods cease to matter too much, personal finance becomes much easier to comprehend, understand, and manage.
This is a topic that is difficult to offer tangible advice on because different people have vastly different “triggers” for escaping the cycle of buying and exhilaration and guilt. Here are ten techniques to try if you believe you’re on this cycle – and if parts of this article have struck a chord with you, you probably are.
Redraw your social calendar. If you spend time with people who spend a lot of money, find ways to spend more time with people who spend less money – and learn from what they do, instead. My best friend is one of the most frugal people I know, but many of my other friends were desperately big spenders. As time went on, I began to see which friend was really setting a better example in my life – and I adjusted my social calendar accordingly.
Spend time doing every activity you know of that makes you feel good that doesn’t involve spending money. Spend an entire month rediscovering the things you enjoy doing that aren’t tied to spending money, and make it your goal to minimize every single dime you spend for the month. Read some unread books on your shelf. Listen to old CDs. Take a walk in the woods. Make food at home. Rediscover the elements of your life that bring happiness that don’t involve buying things.
Find activities that positively support who you are. If you’re ashamed of some aspect of yourself, find activities that reduce or eliminate that shame. If you’re overweight, find a group of people that can support you in making a change, such as Shape Up America and their 10,000 Steps program. If you feel like an outcast because of your ethnicity, find people who are more supportive of your ethnicity, whether it be people who are culturally curious and open (probably the best choice, as you can learn about other cultures as well) or people who are also from your culture. In the past, I became close friends with a Chinese couple who routinely fed me wonderful ethnic foods – and I was their first real American friend, which was powerful for them as well.
Learn how to deconstruct advertising. If you see an ad for a product that makes you want the product, ask yourself why that ad worked on you. I’ve found that doing this regularly removes a lot of the power that advertisements have in convincing me to buy things I don’t really need.
Do things that make you naturally feel good. Whenever you get a desire to spend, go on a walk (or a jog, depending on your fitness level) instead. Get a bit of endorphin running in your veins and you’ll experience that natural high for free instead of the high you get from throwing money away.
Destroy those things that make it easy for you to spend. Take your credit cards and cut them up, or at least put them in a place that’s not easy to access (like inside a chunk of ice in the freezer, for instance). Stop carrying your debit card with you wherever you go. Pay cash when you have to buy things, so you can actually watch the dollars and cents transform into material goods.
Keep yourself clean. I place a very high value on basic personal hygiene. This doesn’t mean expensive clothing or perfume or colognes, but simply bathing regularly and appearing clean and healthy to yourself and to others. I always feel wonderful after a nice hot shower and a fresh set of clothes – and I don’t worry too much about wearing new clothes or such things as long as I’m fresh and clean.
Reconnect with your family. Spend some time reconnecting with your parents and your siblings, as they can provide a core support structure for you no matter what you do in life. Call them up just to talk every once in a while, and be aware that even if there is some distance between you, there is a source of love and support available to you.
Alter your daily routine. My normal daily routine used to take me right by my favorite bookstore, which made it so easy to stop in and see what was new – and usually walk out with an armload of books that I didn’t need. Now, I follow a completely different route that avoids the bookstore by several miles and actually takes me fairly close to the public library instead. Just this simple routine change helped stop one aspect of the materialism cycle.
Absorb as much positive material as you can. If you’re trying to escape a consumerist cycle and want to get your finances in order, absorb as much positive material as you can. Read personal finance sites like this one. Pick up some personal finance books at the library and read them in your spare time. Actually do some of the activities suggested on this site and elsewhere. Keep the changes that you want to make fresh in your mind as much as you can.
Some of these ideas may not help you, but I am confident that at least one or two of them will make a positive difference in your life.