Last week, I posted about how my wife and I are challenging ourselves to buy nothing for one year (with exceptions, of course). Upon hearing this, a few of my coworkers were understandably skeptical. They tell me “You make a decent amount of money. Why challenge yourself to buy nothing?” I respond with a simple “I don’t have to buy anything to make me happy.” To an outsider who doesn’t really know me, it does sound a bit strange. Especially when you consider that we live in an economy fueled by consumerism and a culture that thrives on mindless materialism, my response is out of the norm.
Look around and you’ll see people who buy unnecessary random crap. This is often due to advertisements brainwashing people into thinking that buying stuff will make them happier. Sadly, the joy associated with their purchase will quickly diminish and eventually fade away. Even worse, people will buy junk just to keep up with the Joneses (or Kardashians) because of the perceived social value of appearing cool. This is clueless consumerism and it’s ridiculous. Unfortunately, most people fail to realize that separating “happiness” from “spending money” is a reliable way to a richer and better life.
Those who know me totally get it. I don’t have to buy things to make me happy. But people remain skeptical. The followup question is typically “I understand the why, but how are you not going to buy anything? The truth is, I am inevitably going to have to buy some things. But it won’t be a lot. As I mentioned in the past, I will disclose everything we buy that is not food and provide a justifiable reason for each purchase.
Providing a “justifiable reason” does sound a bit vague though. I could easily justify every purchase by saying it will make me happier. But then I’ll be just another clueless consumer. Not me. I won’t have it. I am determined not to fall into this trap.
For the past few years, my wife and I have deliberately tried to practice the opposite of clueless consumerism. It’s all about being mindful of what you really want, knowing what makes you happy, being intentional with how you spend your money, and valuing everything you own. I call it conscious consumerism.
So how do we decide what to buy and what to bring in to our life? Below are a few considerations before we make every purchase.
1. Can we afford it?
If you don’t have the cash to buy something, then you can’t afford it. And if you can’t afford it, then don’t buy it. Simple as that. It is never a good idea to go into debt to finance something.
The only exception is buying a house because they are so darn expensive. Most people don’t have the cash to buy a house without a loan. Of course that doesn’t mean you should take out a huge loan to finance a house you really can’t afford. If the purchase price of a house is 2.5 times your annual gross income and the mortgage is more than 20% of your monthly paycheck, then you can’t comfortably afford buying that house. It would be wiser to look for a house that is less expensive.
Then there are “soft” exceptions that include other big ticket items that could potentially pay you back in the future. This includes things like taking out loans to further your education, a business loan, or purchasing investment rental properties. As always, it’s important to consider the risks, benefits, and alternatives before proceeding with such a large monetary commitment.
Because we are frugal and financially responsible, my wife and I never buy anything we can’t afford.
2. Do we need it?
My wife and I have the basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and love. Food is plentiful and we eat very well. We have more than enough clothes. We have one house, one spouse so we’re good on shelter and love. Everything else is a subjective necessity that just makes life a little bit easier.
If you already have something similar, you really don’t need it. For example, my wife had considered buying a fancy food processor a year ago. Because 80% of our meals are cooked at home, she thought it would make it easier to prepare our food. When it went on sale, she bought it. I was really excited and I wanted to try out all of its functions such as slicing, dicing, grating, and more. A few days had passed and we never took it out of the box. We eventually decided to return it because we really didn’t need it. We have a Vitamin that has some similar functions. And we really didn’t need a kitchen gadget to chop up our vegetables when we can easily do it on our own.
We are not impulsive people. We have mulled over buying plenty of things in the past; in the end, it usually results in us deciding “Nah, we don’t really need it.”
3. Will it add sustained value, happiness, and positivity in our life?
This is an important consideration. We try to purchase things only if it adds value and happiness in our life. This is why we have no problem spending money on experiences, such as travel.
Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, conducted a 20 year study and concluded that happiness is derived from experiences, not things.
Sure, I can afford a brand new Porsche. It’s a really beautiful car, it’s fast, and driving it would make me feel pretty cool. And it might make me really happy at first. However, the excitement and novelty of driving my new car will eventually start to wear out. The expensive car payments will be seen as a burden of regret. And then I’ll start to compare myself to my friend who has a Ferrari and an Aston Martin. I’ll realize I’m not so cool after all. This scenario would definitely NOT increase my overall happiness.
Experiences, on the other hand, can increase happiness. We are the sum total of our experiences, and they form our personal identity. My wife and I value experiences so much that we try to take a big trip at least two times a year. For me, the excitement in planning and anticipating a vacation is just as fun as the trip itself. And the happiness will last for a long time as we remember the unforgettable moments we shared. Traveling makes us happier and has changed our life.
4. How does it affect our health?
This one is simple and we apply it mostly to our food. We know processed meat is bad for us, so we don’t buy it. In fact, we don’t buy or consume meat, dairy, eggs, or other animal products because of the potential negative effects on our health. Same goes with overly processed food and refined sugars. No thank you. Alcohol is definitely hazardous to our health when consumed in excess so we limit consumption to red wine and craft beer on rare occasions. We try to make it a treat. Because studies consistently show that whole plant foods are good for us, we buy plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains and eat them in abundance.
Besides food, there are other products that could potentially be toxic to our health. Examples include furniture with flame retardants, anything with fragrance, BPA-containing plastics, cleaning products with harsh chemicals, personal care products with chemicals “generally regarded as safe”, and the list goes on. Some chemicals commonly found in household products can potentially cause cancer and reproductive problems.
Knowing what we know now, my wife and I try not to buy anything that contains chemicals that could potentially be toxic and harmful. We don’t want to take any chances with our health.
5. Will it subtract any negativity in my life?
I consider my wife and I to be very positive people and I can’t think of any one product that could subtract anything negative in our life. For instance, I could buy a new iPhone X. But because I was totally happy without it, buying a new phone does not subtract any negativity whatsoever.
Interestingly, we realized we can subtract negativity in our life by selling old things, not buying new ones. For instance, a few years ago my wife wanted to declutter our home by selling things we don’t use anymore. My bottles of cologne were on the top of the list of things she wanted to sell. This was totally fine with me. They were barely used, I don’t have offensive body odor to cover up, and I don’t care to smell like every other guy who wears the same cologne. Plus fragrances give my dad bad headaches and we have come to realize that the chemicals in fragrances can be toxic by disrupting our hormones. She ended up selling my cologne on eBay for $200! As a result, we subtracted negativity (toxic chemicals that cluttered our space) and gained a positive ($200).
6. Do we have the space to bring it into our life?
This consideration also relates to minimalism. Our space is limited and can be very expensive. With home prices of $300 or more per square foot (not uncommon in California), the price of storing huge things or a lot of stuff is costly. And it’s ridiculous that some people pay a lot of money to have a permanent storage unit in order to store their excess stuff.
Not only is our physical space limited, but our mental space is too. Every time something new is brought into our life, less attention is spent on the many other things that may bring us love and happiness. We consider this carefully.
Everything my wife and I decide to bring into our home must have a designated space and definitive purpose.
7. Can I see ourselves using it over an extended period of time?
Obviously this excludes consumable items like food or momentary things like experiences. In general, we try not to buy anything that is disposable or material things that we see ourselves using only once or twice for a short period of time.
For example, we are trying not to buy baby-related products because there is a very limited period of time in which we would be able to use them. After a few months, the baby is going to grow out of everything we buy. Luckily, we have friends and family who have donated everything we may potentially need including a stroller, swing, carrier, clothes, milk pump, and more.
8. Is it made well and of good quality?
This relates to #7. Because we try to buy things that we see ourselves using for a long time, we make sure that it is made well enough to sustain such long term use. In the past, I have bought cheap shirts that end up falling apart after a few washing cycles. I try not not to do that again. Some products are more expensive due to the higher perceived social value that comes with brand name marketing. We tend not to buy such things. Other products are more expensive because they are made well, of higher quality, and are built to last. We try to buy such products whenever we can. A lot of times, you get what you pay for.
9. Do I feel comfortable supporting the company that produces it?
Every time we make a purchase, we are in effect supporting the company that produces the product we are buying. If we buy something at Walmart, we are supporting Walmart. If we eat at McDonald’s, we are supporting McDonald’s. You get the idea. With every purchase, we support everything that represents that company whether good or bad. We are essentially voting with our dollar.
For example, my wife and I try to buy organic food to support local famers who grow safe and healthy food. We don’t buy animal products to reduce animal suffering in factory farms. We try to buy fair trade to fight poverty and unfair child labor practices. And of course, we try to buy nothing to show the world that we do not need stuff to make us happy ;).
Okay, so while it may not happen all of the time, in general we try not to buy products directly from companies that we do not support. But in all fairness, we do own a piece of a lot of these “not-so-good” companies through our investments with VTSAX (total stock market) and other funds that we own. To counter this, we try to donate through effective altruism and give to causes that matter the most to us such as improving animal welfare and reducing childhood poverty.
10. What is the true cost?
This is similar to #9. The true cost of what we buy isn’t really the price on the tag. The entire process, from production to consumption to waste management, places a heavy toll on our planet and pollutes our environment. The destruction of our planet is ultimately the price that we pay.
The garment industry is one of the biggest offenders. This is especially true with “fast fashion” giants like Forever 21, Zara, H&M, and Primark. Here’s a detailed example. Pesticides are used to produce genetically modified cotton in India. These chemicals are not only harmful for the farmers, they pollute the soil and rivers which then affect entire communities. Once cultivated, transportation of this cotton to Bangladesh emits a ton of carbon dioxide, which pollutes the air. Once it reaches its destination, sweat shop workers in Dhaka then work hard for little pay to make a shirt. There have been incidences in which entire factories collapse resulting in hundreds of human casualties. Working conditions are often terrible.
Then the shirts are transported (more pollution) across the world to the U.S. and Europe where marketing convinces consumers to buy the hottest trends in fashion. The quality of the shirt is often of poor quality so the product sees limited use. Or the shirt is no longer “in style” after three months, so he or she buys a different shirt, thus perpetuating the production cycle. Because the shirt is out of style or worn out, the consumer either throws it in the trash or donates it. And unfortunately 90% of donated clothes end up in the landfill anyway. Many garments are made of non-biodegradable materials, which pollutes our planet even further.
And it’s not just the fashion and garment industry. All retail manufacturing industries cause environmental pollution. It is estimated that only 1% of the materials used to produce our consumer goods are still in use after six months of sale.
Understanding the true cost of each product makes my wife and I think twice before making a purchase. It makes us more conscious and mindful of what we buy.
I know it’s a lot to think about and it can be quite overwhelming. It’s not hard for us because my wife and I have been living this way for quite some time now. It is a result of healthy habits and intentional thought processes that we have developed over the years while growing together as a couple. I certainly don’t expect everybody to live like us. But I do think it’s important to encourage others to consume responsibly and be more mindful with every purchase.