We’ve reached a tipping point — with over half of the world’s population being middle class or wealthy.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely in the top percentage in terms of wealth and privilege. Having access to more discretionary income means you’re the most vulnerable to the trap of materialism.
Even if you think you’re not a materialist, the subtle influences of wanting to fit in and prove yourself to your peers can sneak up on you.
Most of us have the desire for status and respect. And I’m not here to tell you that’s wrong.
However, too much materialism is one of the more dystopian advents in humankind.
The contrast in priorities is surreal.
Right now, someone is trying to pick the perfect colour for a $3,650 Valentino handbag. At the same time, another person is begging for a pair of decent shoes.
Keep this perspective in mind as we work through the meaning of materialism before getting into some strategies on how to be less materialistic.
What is materialism?
Materialism is broadly considered a negative attribute, value or behaviour associated with shallowness and greed. Collins Dictionary defines materialism as the attitude of someone who attaches importance to money and wants to possess a lot of material things.
You probably know people in your life who are addicted to buying branded clothing, cars, home decor and then desperately want to show off their new things. It’s the unspoken flex that screams, “look at me, I’m successful, and I also have taste”.
What’s more, those of us who don’t have those things may develop envy towards those that do — exacerbating a cycle of more materialism.
And materialism goes far beyond our things. It also feeds our desires for improved status and respect in society’s ladder.
Materialism can manifest in what neighbourhood we want to live in, what university you attend, your job title and even how “good looking” your spouse is (even if deep down you don’t love them).
Materialism will soon exist in virtual reality as we look to prove ourselves in the virtual world with virtual possessions. I’m looking at you, Metaverse!
If you feel the need to show off your things or status, which drives you to seek “better things” for external validation, then you’re a materialist.
I’ve been there (and still battling). When I was a real estate agent, all I wanted was to make a million dollars a year and acquire property, have nice suits and drive expensive cars.
Part of my motivation was to push myself to grow, but another part of me wanted to show others how “successful” I could become — because it’s these metrics that define success in society.
It wasn’t until I came across minimalism that I flipped the equation of success on its head. To pursue less instead of more and go within, not outward to define my self-worth.
The issues with materialism
According to psychology professor Tim Kasser, materialism is associated with treating others in more competitive, manipulative and selfish ways while being less empathetic.
It’s this energy of “I’m better than you” or “accept me!” that underscores the materialistic mentality.
But where does this motivation come from?
Professor Kasser argues that people are more materialistic when exposed to messages that more is better, whether through parents, friends, society, or the media.
Another factor is folks are more materialistic when they feel insecure or threatened because of rejection, economic fears or even thoughts of mortality.
That’s a lot to digest…
Does this mean our desire for extravagant things is all bad? Not necessarily. More on that next.
The link between materialism and motivation
Good or bad materialism comes down to your motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is doing something for its inherent satisfaction, while extrinsic motivation is doing something because of an external cause like avoiding punishment or receiving a reward.
Being extrinsically motivated to acquire things and status is linked to materialism. If you purchase an expensive plate set because you want to show them off to your best friend when they come over for dinner is an example of negative materialism.
But if you buy a nice plate set because you enjoy using them in the absence of anyone else even knowing, then that’s positive materialism.
Your plate set can also be seen as a generous act where your friends and family get to enjoy using it.
Another example is buying a Lamborghini because you love nothing more than to take your car out for a drive every Sunday afternoon. It’s your passion.
In the same vein, you could buy a Lamborghini to show your buddies you have a Lamborghini; therefore, you’re “successful”.
You see your favourite musician at a concert but spend most of your time capturing footage and photos to share on social media for more likes and views instead of being present and enjoying the performance. Or, if you do capture footage, it’s to record the memories for yourself and your loved ones, not for social validation.
Some of the best moments I’ve had is when I’ve been on a long and stressful transit, and then I get to check into a nice hotel. At that moment, I couldn’t care less about impressing anyone. I just want a nice warm shower, cable TV and order room service with my wife.
As you can see, the line between whether we’re intrinsically or extrinsically motivated for material experiences is blurred. And often we have one foot in both camps.
We enjoy driving the Ferrari as much as we enjoy showing it off. As a result, we justify our negative materialistic tendencies with our positive ones. We tell ourselves we’re doing this for ourselves, while at heart, we’re also doing it to prove ourselves to others.
Another thing to consider is what is the morally appropriate level of materialism? Do famous people need mansions? What’s enough when others are struggling to survive? Frankly, I don’t know.
Yet one thing is obvious. We’re wired to be part of a community.
So it’s impractical to eradicate materialism. But we can certainly strive to be less materialistic.
Easier said than done. Let’s look at some strategies to help.
5 tips to be less materialistic
Below are actions to help you keep your materialistic tendencies at bay. Some strategies are apparent, while others are more nuanced. Either way, small and consistent changes will make significant progress over time.
1. Define how much money you need to be fulfilled
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton presented a study in 2010 arguing that money doesn’t buy happiness after a $75,000 wage.
However, a recent study in 2021 showed that high salaries are likely to lead to more happiness. The big reason is wealthier people tend to have better health which is a massive contributor to happiness.
Furthermore, the rich can afford to pay for extravagant experiences and create more free time, which significantly impacts our well-being.
But. There’s a big but here. We need to consider relative deprivation.
Relative deprivation is the perception that the desired resource (e.g., money, social status) is less than some comparative standard.
For instance, if we can maintain the same standard of living as those around us, we experience higher levels of wellbeing. But if we can’t, then we feel bad about ourselves.
The effects of relative deprivation can influence our happiness regardless of our financial situation. You could be in poverty, a scrappy college student, a well paid professional — and still feel shitty if your income and assets are not on par with those around you — an obvious symptom of materialism.
The only way forward is to define what is “enough” for you, independent of your community. This is, of course, only once you’ve made enough income to meet your basic needs.
To learn more, check out our post about how we used the concepts of minimalism to get out of debt and define our enough number.
2. Reduce (or redirect) the time you spend with materialistic people
As Jim Rohn once said, you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If you hang out with materialists, you’ll become one.
This isn’t to say you should cut meaningful relationships from your life. We’re all multi-dimensional, so see if you can redirect your interactions with your materialistic relationships to other areas of life.
For example, if one of your favourite things to do is shop online with your best friend, see if you can replace that time with taking up a fun outdoor activity together instead.
Suppose materialism has fully consumed a relationship — to the point where you’re feeling envious or competitive. In that case, it might be worth temporarily taking a step back to see how it makes you feel. Then slowly reintegrate the relationship once you’re confident in your motivations. And hey, maybe your actions will rub off on others over time.
3. Declutter your spaces
Decluttering is one of the most freeing activities you can do. Whether it’s your home, office or car, getting rid of unnecessary junk increases clarity, mental wellbeing and productivity.
But more importantly, decluttering shines a light on how much stuff you don’t need, so you’ll think twice next time you have the urge to acquire something.
With that said, decluttering isn’t a guaranteed formula to overcoming materialism. Clutter-free surfaces, i.e. the minimalist aesthetic, can be a form of materialism in itself. Again it comes down to your motivation. Are you decluttering to feel better, or are you doing it to show off an aesthetic?
If you’re interested in learning more, check out our guide on how to declutter your home.
4. Review your media consumption
Beyond who we know, the information we consume has a monumental impact on our materialistic behaviours.
Psychologists Jean M. Twenge and Tim Kasser did a study tracking how materialism changed in U.S. high school seniors over a couple of decades — linked to changes in national advertising spend.
They found that the materialistic tendencies of students were predictable based on how much the U.S. economy was spending on advertising and marketing. In other words, the more advertising in the economy, the more materialistic the youth were.
To overcome the powerful force of advertising, we need to review what type of media we consume and how often we consume it.
The media’s business model provides content for “free” then monetises the attention through advertising and sponsorships. Examples include television, radio, social media, blogs (like this one), video streaming and magazines.
Inserted ads on these platforms are highly effective. Especially if you’re considering a product or service, and it proceeds to follow you around the internet.
But even then, we’ve become pretty adept at tuning out these ads.
Perhaps the media that’s even more powerful is product placement or brand sponsorships.
This is where an influencer — think a social media personality, a famous person, YouTuber etc. endorses a product. These types of ads create an immense desire to acquire.
You look up to these people so indirectly by using a product they support; you’ll feel more connected with these folks or feel like your life more closely resembles their lives.
Knowing these triggers, we can curate what media we consume carefully. For instance, spending 2-5 hours a day watching your favourite TikToker’s and Instagramers live otherworldly lives is likely making you feel envious. And envy is a pathway to materialism.
Does this mean you shouldn’t consume any media? Of course not. But there’s something to say about reducing time spent consuming media that directly makes you more materialistic.
5. Set micro service goals (without expectations or ego)
Materialism represents selfishness, manipulation and envy. Conversely, being of service represents selflessness, honesty and generosity.
Helping others has been linked to increased self-esteem, lower stress levels, a longer life expectancy, less depression and overall happiness and satisfaction.
The solution is obvious, spend more time serving others and watch your materialistic habits go down.
This doesn’t mean overwhelming yourself with trying to solve world hunger tomorrow. Start with small service goals. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Do a 30 day no spend challenge with a friend, and the reward is to donate $50 each to your favourite charity.
- Book yourself in for a fundraising walkathon or marathon.
- Schedule every second Saturday morning to volunteer at your local animal sanctuary.
- Plant a tree in your area every quarter.
- Offer your specialised skills for free to a client in desperate need.
Being of service is an excellent way to combat materialism. However, helping others than telling people you’ve helped others in itself is a form of materialism. Again, because our motive in this context is external, not internal. It’s hard to get away from it, isn’t it?
So I challenge you that when you practice service, do it without the expectation of recognition. Over time, you’ll focus more on the people you’re trying to help and less on the people you’re trying to impress.
How to be less materialistic
Remember, when you’re feeling the itch to acquire something, check your motivation. Is it coming from a place of internal satisfaction, or does external validation drive you?
Once you’ve got a handle on your motivation, then it’s about applying the suggestions in this post. On that note, which one of the strategies resonated with you the most? What else do you do to be less materialistic? Add your voice to the conversation in the comments below.