Grow Up, Green Up: How to Fight the Impulse Purchase

Written on 7/16/2008 by Sara Ost with additional reporting by Mike Sowden.

When people ask about “going green”, they’re often pleasantly surprised at how easy it is: just stop buying so much stuff. Sure, basic necessities can easily be “greened up”: think fair trade coffee and cloth napkins and efficient light bulbs.

Clothes, cars and furniture all come in eco-versions these days. But the friendliest thing you can do for the planet (and your wallet) is to learn to fight the senseless impulse purchase once and for all.

We’re talking about the singing fish on the wall.

Buying less crap: a rational proposition. Unfortunately for economics professors, human beings are not rational. (Hence the disturbing number of shoes in my closet.) If all it took to save cash and help the planet were a little logical insight, we wouldn’t be in the embarrassing predicament of far too many bagel slicers.

Which is why the typical advice for resisting junk you don’t need never really helps. When we were researching tips to bring you for fighting the urge to buy on impulse, we kept finding the same old advice over and over again and to be honest, none of it felt very inspiring. Consider:

  • The old “define what you really need before you shop” trick. (Typically: avoid wants, consider what you need to avoid starvation/homelessness/death. Well, thanks, Sherlock.)
  • The reminder to go the store with a specific goal. (This apparently assures you will never, ever get distracted.)
  • The suggestion to go home and wait a day before returning to buy. (Now this is not even eco-friendly. Think of the gas!)
  • Something about the moral perils of instant gratification. (I don’t remember because the post was really long.)
  • A recommendation for self-manipulation (hiding the credit card) or self-punishment (if I use the card again I must run the Lyon Street stairs 10 times) and other frankly ridiculous ways to stop trusting yourself to be a capable adult.
  • The trusty maxims: appreciate the simple things, treasure what you have, remember giving is better than receiving, and so on.
  • Another recurrent pearl: do not shop when you are angry, worried, tired, sad, lonely, hungry…or otherwise displaying signs that you are in fact a human being.
  • The “secret weapon”: comparison shop rather than buy the item when you first see it. (Because online discounts do not encourage rationalizing that you can actually afford the shoes item now.)
  • We finished off our quest with a big dollop of pseudo-psychology(think Maslow, affluenza and spirituality quotes from Madonna). The problem, we learned, is that you’re just not loving yourself enough!

Right. It’s called impulse purchase for a reason. Will we really change by reading a few clichéd tips? Perhaps winning the battle of the impulse purchase requires a big splash in the face to wake us up and teach us how we’ve been socially engineered. That’s right – engineered. Just when we were ready to call it quits, we stumbled onto a film that is the equivalent of a tidal wave to the noggin. Watch The Century of Self. There is no possible way you can watch this film and remain unchanged. When it comes to reining in the impulse purchase, aren’t you sick of all the shallow tricks? We all have a brain; it’s just in need of a shake up.

Maybe the reason the above tricks rarely effect lasting change is because they are working in the wrong direction. It’s not that tips aren’t useful (obviously Dumb Little Man is loaded with thousands of great tips). It’s that change has to happen on the inside first.

If tips have ever worked for you, it’s because you had already changed internally and just needed some helpful tools to move in the right direction. But for most people, especially those drowning in credit card debt and slaves to the constant striving for the latest glossy widget, real change is going to take more than a few cute maxims and hidden credit cards. Tinkering is not going to cut it. We need to start with the shake up – we need the “aha” moment that rattles the core and makes us confront ourselves. (At that point, bring on the tips.)

Otherwise…dude, you’re gettin’ a bagel slicer.

P.S. We recommend that you bookmark this post. After you’ve watched the film, come back and check out this short film called The Story of Stuff, just for the green of it.



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