What is consumerism? According to Wikipedia, consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts.
The definition sounds reasonable until the last couple of words, “ever-increasing amounts.”
Consumerism implies that we exponentially acquire goods even if that means going into debt, compromising health or wasting precious time while we’re still alive.
How do we avoid consumerism in a world that’s engineered to make us endlessly desire more? Well, we can’t.
I know that’s a bit of a downer answer, but it’s the truth, my friends. We must fundamentally consume to survive.
While we can’t 100% reject consumerism, we do have the power to avoid the limitless vortex of excessiveness and get some agency over our lives.
In this post, we explore 13 strategies to help you curb your consumption habits. They’ll be some things you’re already aware of (and need a friendly reminder), but there are also a bunch of unique suggestions in here, which I’m excited to share with you!
However, before we get into the juicy tips, we need to see if you’re suffering from the symptoms of excessive consumerism.
The symptoms of excessive consumerism
So you think you’ve got your consumerism under control? Below are 9 signs that you still have some work to do.
- You buy more than you planned: if you set out with a plan of what you need to purchase but consistently come back with more than you anticipated, then you’re falling in the consumerist trap.
- You run out of storage space for your stuff: sometimes it can’t be helped if you live in a tight area or you’re disorganised. But suppose you’re in a reasonable situation and things you bring in don’t have an allocated home. In that case, you’re likely living excessively.
- You rely too much on return policies: returning an item is useful. Particularly if you need to test a product for the intended purpose, be it sizing for clothes or a tool for a building project. However, suppose you’re depending on returns for purchases. In that instance, you’re not sure you need it, or if you can’t afford it, then you’re probably suffering from too much consumerism.
- You routinely seek approval for your purchases: getting feedback on purchases can be reassuring, especially if you’re indecisive. Yet, there’s a difference between picking someone’s brain before buying and looking to justify your purchase after the fact. If you’re seeking post-acquisition approval, you probably don’t need the item.
- You mistakenly buy things you already have: not much to say here. If you’re getting things only to realise you already have it, then you’re probably deep in a consumerist cycle.
- You buy things on credit: if you’re strategic and disciplined, you can buy things on credit cards to acquire points and benefits. However, if you’re like the majority of us, then you’re vulnerable to buying things you can’t afford.
- You constantly go over your budget: sometimes, you miss-forecast how much you need to spend each month. But if you set a realistic budget and find that you’re still going over, then you’re probably consuming excessively.
- You regret your purchases: the most obvious sign that you have a shopping habit is you regret things you bought. Buyers remorse is an overwhelming feeling and one we want to avoid.
- You’re hiding purchases: when I was 19, I took out a loan to buy a brand new motorcycle. I hid it in my neighbours’ garage because I was scared and embarrassed to show my parents. Did I need the bike? Nope. Could I afford the motorcycle? Nope. Was I an excessive consumer? You bet! If you’re hiding purchases from your loved ones, you undoubtedly have some consumerism issues.
How did you go? Do you have any of the above symptoms? If not, kudos to you!
But if you experience one or more of these signs, below are 13 strategies to help you avoid the trap of consumerism.
13 strategies to reduce consumerism
Here’s a breakdown of actions you can start implementing today.
1. Replace fast purchasing with slow purchasing
When we start losing control of our consumption habits, it’s usually because we’re making quick, impulsive decisions.
We reactively say yes to things we haven’t fully thought through and instead consume with our emotions.
Emotions should fuel our decisions, but our minds should be driving the car to ensure everyone makes it to the destination safely.
One way to make sure that your mind is in the driver’s seat is to slow down your buying process. The simplest way to do this is to write down a list of the things you need or want, then take the time to research the best option. Give the process space instead of acting hastily.
If you need to buy something urgently, first reflect on why you’re in an urgent situation. Is it because an event randomly came up that you couldn’t control, and you need to act swiftly? Or is it a result of your lack of planning?
If you need to make a quicker decision, still take a moment to slow it down.
For example, instead of going straight to the shops to buy an item that needs urgent replacing, research the options online, first reading reviews and watching a video or two. Even call ahead to your local outlets to see if they have the good in stock.
Another benefit to slow purchasing is you have more time to find a second-hand option or even borrow the item if it’s a temporary need. More on that later.
By slowing down your purchasing process, you’re giving the power to your mind over your emotions. You move from a reactive state of consumption to a focused and proactive mindset. When you make this shift, you reduce the chance of acquiring something you don’t need or won’t use.
2. Make the buying process inconvenient
I recognise for many of us, shopping is like a fun game. The system of consumerism is designed to be addictive, which is all part of the trap.
In the New York Times best-selling book Atomic Habits, author James Clear talks about how the best way to stop bad habits is to make them inconvenient and unattractive.
So if we want to ease up on our shopping habits, how can we make the process difficult?
One approach that’s worked incredibly well for me is to adopt a mindful consumer mindset. What this means is acquiring items that not only perform well but are also ethical and eco-friendly.
By layering on these requirements to what you consume, you instantly shrink your options. It makes the process of shopping more tedious as a result.
Do you know how hard it is to go down to your local retail department store and find clothing made from organic materials? Most of the time, the shop assistants won’t be able to give you any clarity on the supply chain of the brands they stock.
When you realise it will be challenging to find a sustainable version of what you want, you automatically slow down your purchasing process. This makes the experience of shopping a little more off-putting.
Other examples of making consumerism inconvenient include:
- Deleting any app on your phone or tablet that’s related to buying stuff. Yes, that includes your internet browsers.
- Moving to a remote area where you’re forced to plan your trips into town, and you generally have poorer access to the internet. This is an extreme example but effective nevertheless.
- Cut up your credit cards and remove them from your devices. If you remember your card number, order a replacement card before destroying it.
3. Pass the mall test
I grew up in a city with a mall (or shopping centres as we call them in Australia) in every region.
The mall was the place to hang out with my buddies, eat in the food court, and, of course, buy stuff I didn’t need.
I remember deciding to buy a Nintendo with a mate after a 20-minute conversation or buying a jacket for a “buy one get one free” deal within minutes of seeing it.
I realise malls don’t have the same allure as they used to, but they’re still a consumerist hub for many of us.
As I’ve stepped into minimalism, the mall represents an entirely different experience to me.
When I enter a shopping centre today, it feels chaotic, overwhelming, confusing and sad.
The conventional advice to reduce consumerism is to avoid going to the mall altogether. I think this is a positive start. However, it’s even better if you can go to the mall and not become susceptible to all the stimulation.
So here’s the exercise. Next time you go to the mall, think of yourself as a researcher (not a browser), take a step back, and do some people-watching.
Observe what people are contemplating buying. Listen in to their conversations (without stalking). Spend at least an hour strolling through the mall as you do your observations. It’s actually fascinating!
A pattern I’ve observed is the variety of justifications we make when considering a purchase. The conversations people have with shop assistants and/or their spouses are no different to the conversations you have in the same situations.
You’ll hear comments like:
“How long is the sale for.”
“I do need to replace x.”
“What do you think?”
“What’s your return policy?”
“Mummy, can I get this?”
These are the statements I’ve picked up, but your experience may be different.
In any case, by observing people, you start to see the mall in a completely different light. You understand the truth of the framework and how we play a role in the system.
I still believe we can enjoy the mall (if you choose to) and do some window shopping, chat with shop assistants or friends you randomly bump into. You could play some games at the arcade without cashing out your tickets on stuffed toys.
Use the mall as a measuring stick of your self-control. Do you think you can pass the test?
4. Declutter to discover the truth
You know when you’re moving house, and you’re downright horrified by how many things you have?
I experienced this a few years ago. It looked like we didn’t have much on the surface, but things kept flowing out of our storage spaces to show us the truth.
The amount of clutter you have is a reflection of your consumption habits.
This is the equivalent of checking your bank balance before making a financial plan. Or taking your body measurements before working towards a health transformation.
So instead of waiting to move houses, take the time to declutter your environment. Decluttering will reveal your behaviours and give you some extra motivation to become better at managing your consumeristic tendencies.
5. Extend the lifespan of your things
Repairing your things is not only an effective way to reduce your consumption, but it’s also beneficial to the environment.
Suppose you have the skills to knit your sweater or reinstate your coffee table. In that case, you’re probably already utilising your talents. But if you’re like me and don’t possess any special trade skills, you can seek support from your community.
Do you have a handy friend or relative? Do you have a repair cafe in your area?
Alternatively, you could pay for the services of a shoe smith or take your iPhone into the Genius Bar.
Read more: The Life Cycle of a Product
By extending the lifecycle of your things, it gives you a greater respect for everything you possess. Naturally, you become more intentional about what you bring into your life.
6. Reframe shopping as a skill
Sometimes we can take on the identity of being a crafty shopper who can find quality things at a bargain price.
We brag to our friends prompting them to guess how much we paid for a particular item.
The more we reinforce a shopper’s identity, the more time we want to spend improving the skill—thus consuming excessively.
If we’re not careful, we end up shopping for the sake of shopping, while failing to realise why we were shopping in the first place.
Try reframing shopping from an event to a mission of finding the most appropriate tool that will help you have the best experience.
For example, after being car-less for a year, my wife and I bought a 1999 Toyota Tarago despite not having any dependents.
The Tarago (which we named Maurie) was our getaway vehicle. We bought this car because it was cheap and intended to put all of the things we owned into the van as we moved states. Maurie represented change and adventure.
There was never a focus on the process of buying the vehicle. Maurie was merely playing a role in a greater experience.
When you focus on the role the thing you’re buying will play in the overall experience instead of the experience of shopping itself, you’ll be able to shift away from a consumerist mindset.
7. Avoid the trap of “free”
You receive a secret Santa gift at work.
A friend offers you their rice cooker.
The local real estate agent gives you a calendar fridge magnet.
Your child comes home from school with new toys.
Where is the downside of receiving these things for free? After all, they’re all generous acts.
If you accept free offers that’ll genuinely add value to your life, then yes, these are kind acts.
However, suppose you’re saying yes to things you know you don’t need but are trying to justify them anyway. In that case, these offers are actually burdens.
Accepting free things for the “potential” opportunity will likely result in more clutter, which means more decisions down the road.
Not only that, by continuing to say yes to various offers, you set the future expectation that you want more things that you don’t need.
So here’s the challenge. Default to no before you say yes. Start pushing back. Or at least give yourself some time to contemplate a free offer.
Sometimes receiving free things can’t be avoided, and that’s okay. You just want to get out of the habit of accepting anything and everything on the principle it was free.
8. Do the deathbed test
Not to get too dark, but if you were hypothetically on your deathbed today, and you were reflecting on your life, what would be your fondest memories? I’ll wait for you as you write down at least three memories.
I bet your answers have little to do with the things you obtained and more to do with experiences you shared with others.
The quality of our lives is generally measured by moments of “that was a good time”, not “that thing I had was awesome”.
So next time you find yourself longing to buy things to feel better, do the deathbed test to give you instant perspective.
9. Replace shopping with hobbies
According to data collected from the U.S. census, the average American over the age of 15 spends 10 hours a month shopping for consumer goods. While this number is gradually declining (allegedly from the efficiencies of the internet), it’s still a significant amount of time to be spending on shopping activities.
I get it. Shopping often feels productive, fun and exhilarating. But what if we cut our time spent on shopping in half? We would free up an extra 5 hours a month to spend with family or even pursue the hobby or side-hustle you’ve wanted to start. This is not to mention the money you’ll likely save.
To understand how much time you spend shopping, go back and review all of your consumer goods (not including groceries) you’ve purchased in the last month. Estimate how long it took to browse each purchase, including any online or offline research.
Do this exercise each month for the next 6 months. The action of tracking how much time you spend shopping will make it front of mind, and naturally, you’ll start getting those hours back to do other things.
10. Treat your things like inventory
Once you’ve decluttered and Marie Kondo’d your home, you should have allocated space for everything you own.
The goal now is to treat your things like products on shelves in a store. Practically, this means is protecting the “shelf space” for your stuff.
For example, before you decide to buy new shoes, look at your current storage situation for your shoes. Do you have a space on your shoe rack for a new pair? If not, you need to free up some space by getting rid of an existing pair before buying new ones.
The process of freeing up space for new items will add friction to acting on new purchases. It’s no longer about exponentially adding things to your storage which you can’t accommodate. You now have to be intentional about how many items you can hold at any given time.
I apply this principle to everything I own. I’m aware of how many free hangers are in my closet, how much space we have for cooking utensils, and how many shoes I have in rotation.
It’s also common for parents to use the one in, one out method for managing their kid’s toys.
Understanding your inventory makes your storage space more sacred. Therefore you’ll be more intentional about what you bring into your home, knowing that you’ll likely need to get rid of something else first.
11. Borrow or rent instead of buy
A simple method for getting your consumerism under control is to rent or borrow items instead of buying them.
Got a wedding or funeral to attend? Consider renting a dress or suit for the occasion.
Need to use a drill for building your deck? See if you can borrow one from your friends or family.
Running out of space on your bookshelf? Borrow books at your local library.
The added benefit of borrowing things is that it adds some time pressure to use them. Borrowing actually helps you overcome procrastination.
12. Turn your consumption habits into a game or challenge
If you’re someone who likes a challenge, try a no-buy period—meaning, go without purchasing a non-essential consumer good for a defined timeframe.
Get your best friend involved and see who can last the longest without buying anything. By gamifying our consumption habits, we turn what is perceived as restriction into empowerment and fun.
13. Practice minimalism
What’s the ultimate alternative to consumerism? Minimalism.
A minimalist is someone who naturally rejects consumerism and sees value in having fewer things over more things.
Minimalism is a powerful philosophy that impacts how you view material things, your relationships, commitments, and digital inventory.
By adopting a minimalist mindset, you give yourself a real chance of making sustainable positive changes to how you consume things. If you’re new to the concept of minimalism, check out my beginners guide on how to get started with minimalism.
How to avoid consumerism
Hopefully, after reading this guide, you have plenty of ideas to escape consumerism, create more time, save more money, and improve your mental health.
What about you? Do you have some of the symptoms of excessive consumerism? How have you overcome your habits?