At the library the other day, I glanced at the New Arrivals shelf and a single title caught my eye, Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What.
I have to admit, it’s very different than I expected. Based on the title, I expected a dissection (and dressing down) of the American consumer. How we continue to buy, even during a recession, how we fail to learn our lesson from the various busts that accompany the booms, etc.
Instead, witty, wry and intellectual by turns, the author — ex-editor of Esquire, Lee Eisenberg — explores what he calls the Sell Side and the Buy Side of why we buy.
I learned some pretty weird tidbits about how retailers open us up to more spending, including piping in specific, subtle scents based on nature. I learned a little more about gender (not just sex, but masculine/feminine norms) influencing our purchasing style.
But mostly (and surprisingly) I enjoyed a holistic, non-critical, non-clinical look at buying/selling. Eisenberg doesn’t go in for marketing executives being evil, and while he doesn’t champion impulsive spending, he points out that sometimes opportunities are lost if you never, ever veer from your planned purchases.
Plus, he has great lingo: Buy Scolds (those who harangue about unnecessary purchases), splurchases (unnecessary, indulgent buys, good and bad), etc.
It’s strange that, despite blogging about/reading about personal finance and frugality, I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to the theories of buying:
- The classic “You are what you buy.” Pretty obvious, but also somewhat dubious. Are we talking only about non-essentials? Because I’m not toilet paper (no full of crap jokes, if you please) and I really doubt I’m carrots, batteries, etc. Even non-essential items would land me as a few jewelry items, the occasional new shirt or jeans, random bits of decor (often from thrift stores) and lots of stuff for Tim. Hmmm, maybe it’s more apt than I thought…
- The alternative, “You are what you don’t buy.” This is probably a good way to define a lot of frugalists. Then again, who wants to be defined by an absence of things? Not even minimalists, I bet.
- The “You buy what you want to be.” The idea that we buy to transform ourselves. We buy things that not only speak about who we are, but the kind of person we want to be. We’re all guilty of this from time to time, I think. We’re told to dress for the job we want, not the job we have. We also may buy an outfit/accessory/decor item that’s outside our normal tastes, but we like the “me” promised in it.
- The “You can buy happiness, if you know where to shop.” The idea that, while you can’t derive true contentment from shopping, you can pick up some things that make you pretty happy. All of you in love with your smartphones? They keep you organized, entertain you while you wait, give you access to documents you might need at any moment. Or how about a favorite pair of shoes? I know an otherwise very thrifty couple who indulged in a very nice, large LCD set, all the better to enjoy Mariners games on. They enjoy and benefit from their purchase with every televised game.
- The “You buy for others’ happiness.” (The one thing I think Eisenberg really missed.) While my mom is slowly learning to indulge herself once in awhile, she still buys mainly for other people. It makes her happy to send us the occasional restaurant gift card or to donate some Swagbucks Amazon GCs to help out. She was raised that you can buy mainly for others, rather than yourself. And there is something to that, so long as it doesn’t become “indulgence for others, penury for you.”
There are probably a few others, such as “You buy (with rewards points/coupons) for the thrill of free/nearly free,” I think the list is pretty thorough. That is, inclusive of the Buys that can be categorized as healthy. There are obviously other motivators: compulsive shopping, mood-lifting purchases, good ole conspicuous consumption, etc.
Like Eisenberg, though, I have trouble believing that there is one true rationale that motivates everyone. I see a little of myself in all of these. And the human psyche is far too complex to ascribe just the one driving factor, don’t you think?