The latest evidence is in, and it shows that buying less is good not only for the environment but also for your mental health. A recent study from the University of Arizona shows that millennials who cut down on their shopping had “higher personal well-being and lower psychological distress.”
Millennials who cut down on their shopping had “higher personal well-being and lower psychological distress.”
What’s more, study participants who had more materialistic values and tried to go sustainable by buying so-called “green” products didn’t get any of the psychological benefits of the non-shoppers. In short, buying green products doesn’t make you happier, but buying less stuff overall does.
What’s difficult about reducing your consumption, however, is that these acquisitive habits have been taught to us our whole lives, ever since the end of World War II. Notice the study didn’t ask participants to go shopping or not go shopping and measure the results. It looked at people’s culturally-ingrained attitudes, and how that affected the way they shop.
So if you want to be happier, wealthier, and save the planet, you’re going to have to really work on changing your overall attitude toward shopping in order to see the benefits. Here’s how to do it.
1. Breakup with advertisers
This is harder said than done, because advertising is what financially supports so much of the “free” content we consume. But make no mistake, you are paying by letting advertisers worm into your brain and guide you to buying their product later. It’s not just TV commercials. Though, yes, cutting TV shows out of your life will free up so much of your headspace and improve your health and happiness. (Trust me!) There are also influencers on Instagram, sponsors of podcasts, and newsletters from thought leaders who throw-in, almost as an aside, their favorite candle or gadget. Even Marie Kondo, the queen of decluttering, now sells objects on her e-commerce site.
Nothing in this life is free. The easy first step is to unsubscribe from every brand newsletter — the money you might save on sales will be outweighed by all the unnecessary stuff you’ll acquire. But the harder part is breaking up with sponsored content. The trick is to consider every piece of content you consume, and decide if the value is worth more to you than not only the time spent consuming it, but the possibility it will tempt you into purchasing something. Do you learn enough from that influencer enough to deal with her pitching you fashion and home products? Is the podcast interesting enough to hear every week about how much better you would sleep on a direct-to-consumer mattress? (Debatable.) If you realize that a piece of content is valuable to you, consider paying for the ads-free version. (That applies to a Spotify subscription as well as just buying the paperback.) More likely, you’ll realize that you’re giving away all your time in exchange for being harangued into buying stuff you don’t need.
2. Take a shopping fast.
You’ve developed a habit of: see a problem, buy a fix. Invited to a party? Buy a dress! Coffee maker broken? Buy a new one! You might need to just go cold turkey to get out of this habit. A shopping fast for a month, six months, even a year can show you how unnecessary and even toxic your shopping habits were, and pushes you to creative solutions. Can you find a used $5 laptop charger on the LetGo app? Can you borrow a dress from your friend? Can you just… survive without it? At first, you’ll find this exercise annoying, and then completely freeing.
3. Keep a list.
Every time you feel like you need something new, add it to an on-going list of items you want. It may seem counterintuitive, but this can actually help you buy fewer things. Whenever I want something, I write it down in my notes app. If there’s a certain version I want, I link to it. But sometimes it’s vague, like a pair of black slide-on shoes. This keeps me from feeling like I need to buy the thing now, lest I forget. I revisit this list every month or so, and often take things off because I’ve lost my desire for it. It’s also helpful to have a list handy when I do find myself in a thrift store or I’ve heard about a sale at a favorite brand. I can reference the list and see if the store carries something I’ve been wanting and go hunting for it. Otherwise, I might end up browsing and buying a bunch of unnecessary stuff.
4. Buy products from reputable brands.
The explosion of direct-to-consumer and Kickstarter brands has brought with it a nasty side effect: there’s a lot of products out there that are the first iteration, and are sold to you based on looks alone. You have no idea if they’re made well, if they work as advertised, how long they will last, or if some problem (like an exploding battery or allergic reaction) will crop up in a few month’s time. That leaves you with a home full of aesthetically-pleasing junk.
If you really need something, you should stick with brands that have proven their worth with thousands of other customers, provide a lifetime guarantee, and have a repair program if something goes wrong. You can find repair programs from brands ranging from outdoor gear, to kitchen items, jeans, leather goods, and more. The website Buy Me Once only features long-lasting products. Or you can do your research on the highest quality product, and then look for it used on eBay.
5. Consider downsizing your home.
Extreme? Maybe. But also incredibly effective. Take it from someone living in a 650-square-foot apartment: there’s nothing like considering buying something and realizing you literally have no place to put it, whether it’s art, clothing, kitchen gadgets, board games, books, you name it. You can also use your downsizing as a polite way to decline silly gifts from loved ones. “No gifts this year, I have no room in my apartment and everything goes straight to Goodwill!”
6. Support local small businesses.
Instead of buying something new when it breaks, or something sight unseen off the internet, consider patronizing a local business that will help you find the exact right thing and then offer repairs. From an optometrist who will repair your glasses, to a kitchen store that does knife sharpening and a bike shop who will pump your tires and fix your gears, local businesses are invested in their relationship with you, and will help you extend the life of your product. Or if they can’t repair it, they can suggest a better alternative that, from their experience, is of high quality.
7. Replace your time shopping with other activities.
It used to be that my vacations were spent shopping, or if I had extra time during errands, I would wander into a fun boutique. I would get home and pour a glass of wine and find myself shopping from my laptop. It left me feeling empty, and most of the time with things I didn’t really enjoy at all.
Now I shop only with purpose and try to efficiently find what I need, instead of browsing. There are a lot of other better ways to pass the time, by yourself or with friends. Instead of shopping when you meet up with a friend, get tea and catch up on life. Instead of hitting up the boutiques or souvenir market when you vacation, take a walking tour or cooking class. Instead of killing time in a store, grab a seat and people watch or call a friend.
All of these activities will help you spend less, help save the planet, and contribute to, rather than detract from, your relationships and mental health. If there’s a downside to buying less new stuff, I really can’t see it.