Dear Cristin: How do I stop buying so much shit?
Do you find that your house is full of questionable items that you can't find a place to sit? Do IG ads haunt your dreams? Do packages show up that you don't expect? Lean in and lend me your ear...
Hello, and welcome to Cuss Words with Cristin. I kid, I kid.
This is another edition of “Dear Cristin” (submit your question here), and today we're going to talk about how to stop buying shit. Some people might say stuff, but it really is shit, isn't it?
This question came up during a session with not one, but two of my coaching clients so I thought it would be a great topic to discuss in depth.
A lot of people I know joke about spending $100 every time they go to Target. And it's funny because it's true, but also why is it true? What about Target makes you need a new purse and a new shirt and new notebook and another pillow for the couch?
Welcome to capitalism, my friends!
I personally never gave any thought to any of this until I was going to have a tiny human. I lived in a very small apartment in New York City, that I loved very much, and it was already max capacity on stuff. I like organizing and everything was always well set up and easy to find and access, but now we had to fit another human in the apartment, and though the human would be tiny, their stuff would not be.
I knew from the beginning that I would not be able to buy all the stuff that my friends normally did for babies. I needed to think about it differently so I started by researching tiny living, tiny living with kids, city babies, and other related topics. From there, my brain had to compute that we did not actually need the thousands of items you are told you need when you're having a baby. This poked some of my longstanding conditioning, but I was mentally supported in that I already lived in the city without many of the things other folks deemed necessary. If I could do without those "necessities," I could do without some of this baby stuff, right?
Another factor, I did not want to find out the tiny human's sex in advance. Living in a patriarchy, our lives revolve around sex and gender in ways that infuriate me. I thought it would be nice for my wee human to not have outcomes determined by genitalia for at least some time of its known existence. And unfortunately, this was the only time I could give the young bean without this societal burden, but give the gift I would. That meant people could not buy me camo onesies or puffy tutus or whatever they deemed gender appropriate. But it was also very difficult to find gender-neutral items to buy the tiny in advance. This piqued my curiosity, and I learned a lot.
There's a picture of FDR from 1884 in a dress. Back then, boys wore dresses and had long hair until 6 or 7. Gendered toys premiered around the 1940's post World War II as a way to get people spending and get the economy booming. Wealthier families would buy a whole new set of things that were geared to either boys or girls. There's lots of other capitalistic changes that happened around that time to get people buying. You might notice that yourself if you're an Elder Millennial like myself and had depression-era grandparents who bought nothing and boomer parents who went ape shit crazy buying everything under the sun - twice!
But back to gendered toys, that fell away in the 1970's, possibly with second-wave feminism, but then came back with a vengeance in the 1980's. By 1995, half of all toys in the Sears catalog were gendered. And you're alive today so you know how it's going.
Attempting to stay genderless for clothes and toys and baby gear was near impossible, and ultimately, no one bought me any baby clothes so I did myself. Faced with genital mystery, people will choose not to choose!
But this got me thinking about capitalism. A lot! Because in addition to the baby stuff like swings and bouncers, and the baby items like onesies and toys, there's also all the baby experiences and the need to fill all your and the baby's time.
AND AND AND I could go on forever about all the post-baby Mama targeting from Facebook ads about my weight to MLM "friends" private messaging me about my weight and the constant need to "fix" myself, as if I could return to the version of myself that existed before.
This is a rather complicated way to say that in one year's time, I had an intense viewing of capitalism's need to market to you - poke your problem, agitate the shit out of it, and offer their paid solution. This is always happening to us all the time, but a new Mom is a ripe target, hence my experience.
Capitalism's ultimate goal is for us all to buy more and more so that profit margins are ever-increasing for shareholders. This ultimately exploits everyone. Profit is not endless and ever-increasing. To do so, capitalism must exploit the employees who build the shit we all buy, and the reason jobs moved overseas from the US in the first place is to take advantage of the lower cost of wages (increase that profit margin) and fewer regulations that took advantage of people, the environment, water supply, and climate (all to increase that profit margin). This is why economic inequality in the United States is greater now then it was in France just prior to the French Revolution. The great wealth transfer has been further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic where the world's billionaires' wealth grew by 54%, increasing by $4 trillion.
Capitalism needs you to buy, more and more, with its insatiable appetite. That's the why you're buying so much shit. It needs you too.
How about the mechanics? Is there some gremlin ordering all this stuff? Yes, that gremlin is you! Marketers in essence use your brain against you. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is a happiness or feel-good chemical that gets released in the seeking of and the receipt of a reward. And if you're having the item delivered, in the online shopping world, you actually increase your dopamine hit in anticipation of the reward. Evolutionarily, this brain-behavior kept you seeking and finding food. It kept you alive. In today's world, it keeps you poor, your home full of shit you need to clean or dust and organize, and I firmly believe, and small studies show, contributes to ongoing anxiety.
How is this all reinforced? Through white supremacy and patriarchy and classism and of course capitalism. Keeping up with the Joneses means getting a bigger car. It means going to Disney for vacation. It means owning a home instead of renting, an unpopular opinion I know. It means updating your wardrobe seasonally. It means fast fashion and clothing you can't wear after you wash the item once. It means none of your kitchen appliances or cookware can look like they've been used before. It means putting your kid in private school instead of your local school with the people who actually live around you. It means taking trips to tourism desperate areas that have to tolerate the COVID you bring with you because they cannot afford to say no to your vacation.
I recently read a blog post from David Cain that he wrote on his site Raptitude back in 2011. He had returned to work after time away, and he was somewhat surprised at his return to bad habits he had broken. He wasn't walking or working out or going to the park. He was spending money, a lot of money, more than before. Of course, he had a job so he could. But why was he? Well, because he was time-poor with commuting, the 8-hour day plus lunch, and more commuting. He made purchases because he didn't have time but also because he needed the small pick-me-ups purchases brought him. He called the piece "Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed." A section from the piece is making the rounds on social media that I'll briefly share:
"But the 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in 8 hours (the average office worker gets less than 3 hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television and commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work."
This might sound a bit over the top to you, but I literally just read a CNN piece that businesses needed employees back in office buildings, not because it was productive, not because it was good for the employees, not because it was good for companies, but because of all the businesses that depend on those office workers.
So to summarize what we've covered so far: 1) My own realization of how capitalism was manipulating my own spending, and 2) how marketing uses 'isms to push capitalism's agenda.
So what does this all mean for you - how can you stop buying so much shit?
I think it starts here. How does understanding how you're being manipulated make you feel? In Emperor's New Clothes, are you cheering on this naked human? Well, maybe you're cheering, but you're not pretending these threads are fine or you wouldn't be listening to this.
You're being manipulated! It's time to start thinking about how; we know why. What are the deep-seated issues that marketers are agitating for you? Your weight? Your need for friendship and community? Your longing for family? Your children's future? The important thing to know is that nothing, absolutely nothing you buy will bring you these things. This is manipulation of your core desired feelings.
Once you've identified what's being manipulated, think about what it makes you do. I'm uncomfortable in my body so I want new clothes that will make me feel better but I don't know my size and don't want to actually know it so I buy purses! Or shoes! Or sunglasses! Buying sunglasses doesn't help you feel comfortable in your clothes! Or maybe I'm so disorganized and I want to be organized so I buy a planner. But this one doesn't make me organized so I will buy a new one. And nope not this one, another new one. And a new one and a new one and a new one - guess what? There is no perfect planner to organize you, even though that Instagram ad says THIS ONE is.
You can look around your home to see what shit is piling up. You can look through your Amazon orders. You can look at your bank account. You can ask someone who loves you. What are you buying? Sometimes rather uncontrollably.
Figuring out the action is typically quick, that's probably why you're asking how to stop buying so much shit in the first place. The why can be harder. Dig in there. I like journaling or talking to myself to figure out what the heck I am doing. It can take some time.
Next, I recommend replacing the activity with a less dangerous one. For me, I really wanted to be a different person so I had an obsession with self-improvement. I replaced my purchasing habits with two activities: 1) Signing up and sometimes taking free classes with Coursera and edX, and 2) Downloading, putting on hold, and occasionally reading library books. Both of these were free. I did not spend any money so there was no risk if I didn't take the class or read the book. I got the same dopamine hit when a new class started or a hold library book was released (the anticipation and reward). And eventually, I weaned myself off.
Now, you do still have to buy things. How I handled this at first was having a list in my phone for needs and gift ideas. I couldn't buy things that weren't on the list. Moving to a capsule wardrobe and eventually a uniform was instrumental in this, but I'll cover that in another episode. Ultimately, I no longer need the list to control my purchasing but it was a big help in the interim.
I hope this background and these tips are helpful in stopping yourself from being a capitalist shit-collection machine. Continue the conversation here on Substack, and I'll catch you again next week.