How to Outsmart Consumer Culture

It’s everywhere.

In advertisements, on TV, at the supermarket. All over town, shiny new products are sitting on shelves, calling out your name, inundating you with a desire to buy.

What do we call this? In a word (or two): “consumer culture.”

Not only does buying something tickle the fancy of our desires, it tickles the receptors of our brains. When we buy something that we like, and go through the act of purchasing, we’re affected in more ways than one.

consumer spending culture

Similar to smoking, imbibing alcohol, and exercising, we respond physically and mentally to the rush of ownership, possession, or experience. The effect of consumer culture is felt equally by the person who realizes they’re getting into debt thanks to overspending, the person who gets a mortgage they can’t afford, and even the person who can’t get a loan because their credit score isn’t good enough.

But how to avoid it? The easy answer would be: “don’t shop.”

However, that answer leaves a lot to be desired because while it’s pithy it’s also largely unreasonable. Being that we can count on interacting with purchasing messages on a regular basis, it’s not a feasible solution. Unless you’re willing to live off the grid, you’ll be faced with consumer culture, or the result of it, every day of your life.

Even living on the outskirts of town won’t necessarily guarantee a non-consumer lifestyle. The act of buying, trading and consuming goods is ever-present in modern society.  If you try to run away from it, you’ll only be followed by ads for new running shoes.

Instead of outrunning it, we have to outsmart it. We have to learn how to live within consumer culture and how to adapt to it. With that in mind, here is our guide to outsmarting consumer culture in order to save money and build wealth:

1. Understand Common Marketing Techniques

One reason we’re up against tough odds when trying to save money is that marketing and sales techniques continue to evolve and companies are constantly refining their ability to create demand for their products. This is all well and good, but it puts pressure on the average consumer.

There are people whose entire 40-hour workweek revolves around researching techniques that will result in convince you to buy something next time you visit the store.

They’ll persuade you from all angles, including – and especially – your weak spots. It’s an art, it’s a science. It’s a whole bunch of different (carefully calculated, and well-studied) things – all directed towards getting you, the consumer, to buy, buy, and buy some more.

What this means is even the most seemingly inconsequential details in a store are often highly tested and optimized to increase spending. We all have felt the temptation to buy a chocolate candy bar while in the checkout line at the grocery store. Impulse purchases like that are strategically placed near the cash register to encourage you to make a snap decision in the heat of the moment – before your long-term thinking can overrule your brain’s short term response (“Chocolate tastes good… Yes, I want to buy it!”).

Such insights into human psychology are not only used by marketers within the store, but also in commercials, advertisements, “special” sales, coupons, etc. It’s imperative that you view all of these with a critical eye and try whenever possible to consciously rebuff these strategies.

As individuals, our simple money saving perspective sometimes fails to include the ‘external’ factors. When we’re faced with the option of buying something, or not buying something, we’ll often go straight to the price tag as the deciding factor. Filling the equation in (spend less on cheaper items, or sales for example), to achieve a greater savings.

But when it comes down to it, price alone isn’t really the answer. As a way to combat some of the temptation, you might consider looking at advertising tactics before you look at price tags. If you’re wary of the techniques used to attract you, or you realize that it’s the sale that hooked you rather than the actual thing – you may be a step ahead of the game. It’s easier to resist buying something when you look at what’s happening, rather than how much of a bargain you feel you’re getting.

2. Know Your Own Impulses

Another one of the most powerful ways you can improve your relationship with consumer culture is to better understand your own impulses that lead to overspending. For each one of us, it may be a different temptation that is our biggest weakness. For some, it may be the chocolate candy bar at the checkout line, for others it may be the 20% off sale at a department store. Whatever, it is, by identifying your weakness in advance you can make a plan to avoid that particular temptation.

Try to find that specific thing that really gets you. For example, maybe you enjoy a specific brand of electronics. Other things might include: clothes, food, travel, lifestyle inflation, upgrades, housing costs, or purchases to support a specific hobby. Advice to someone who might be tempted by food ads might not be helpful to someone who is more interested in spending their money on clothes. But knowing and acknowledging your temptations is an essential step in setting goals. It gives you a place to start, and and it gives guidelines to understanding your jerk reaction impulse to buy a new and improved blender – even if you already have one.

3. Track Your Habits Along With Your Spending

Most likely, you already intuitively know where you could be saving money. Much of what we purchase is beyond necessity – it’s to provide enjoyment, entertainment and even a sense of ownership and pride. And being able to support a financially independent lifestyle is great!

But if you’re looking to save a little, it can be difficult to cut back when we’re exposed to things that are just plain fun to have to to own. When we’re trying to create a budget, we often know what we need to do, but actually doing it is another matter.

make better decisions with Personal CapitalLooking at numbers can be a huge help in saving for long-term goals, but tracking your spending isn’t the only way to motivate yourself. It’s changing your habits that really impacts your relationship with finances. Pair tracking of expenses with tracking of habits.

When do you feel like you’re more likely to splurge?  Before handing over your card or cash, take just a minute to consider the factors involved in the action. Are you tired, angry, hungry, emotional? Are ads, or marketing ploys playing into any of these emotions?

Take note of what’s happening when you buy, or how you feel when you see things that interest you in the checkout line.

Sometimes, it’s about knowing what your buying triggers are, and working on adjusting how you react to them rather than simply saying no.

4. Tap Into Your Emotions

As mentioned above, there really is an emotional element to purchasing. Even if you’re not always aware of it, marketers are. Advertising campaigns are broken down according to the emotional response of the consumer, and that includes you.

And though it might be hard to recognize at first, even ones that seem heartless, or impersonal likely have a reason for appearing so. They may be purposefully trying to elicit a specific reaction. Think about what kinds of emotions might be stirred up when you’re looking a specific product. And even more intensely, seeing an ad with a story arc you relate to.

5. Begin to Deactivate Your Impulses

Once you begin to take note of the things that trigger your purchases, use that knowledge to your own benefit!  The initial urge to buy is something is undoubtedly difficult to tone down. But if you can, take a step back, and look at the situation objectively. Consider that by buying based on impulse, you’re entering into engagement with marketing deals – whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Once equipped with that knowledge – see what you can do to disengage with your impulse.

Fight marketing tactics with practiced tactics of your own. If a brand is trying to outsmart your own sense of control, use similar techniques. Analyze them. Look at their trends, habits and advertising tactics. Take a quick poll, and use your observations to empower your own decisions.

6. Sometimes A Good Price is Still Too High

Most of us know that often – in fact, almost always – you can find a cheaper option of what you’re looking to buy. For example, choosing the older version of a phone, or the generic name rather than the brand name on a product. There’s no denying that buying something that’s cheaper is a viable solution for spending less. But the trick to cheaper ‘loopholes’ might be that we’re wired to look for one to begin with. Replacing a purchase with a cheaper item is still purchasing. While not a bad thing, it’s also an easy way to default into another level of buying.

Rather than avoiding, or overcoming the urge to purchase, you may just be falling back on another – albeit cheaper – opportunity to spend. Of course finding a balance is the ultimate and reasonable goal, so it comes down to making choices. Reassess whether you’d like to buy less, or simply not buy at all. If buying the cheaper options feels like settling, you might actually be happier forgoing the purchase to begin with.

And speaking of happiness, there is an added bonus to buying fewer things less often: cutting out choices may also make us happier.

Besides forming good habits, our tendency to look for alternatives rather than just walking away might actually be causing us undue stress. Several recent studies reveal that people are often happier when faced with fewer choices. Whether or not it can be pinpointed to science, one thing is certain – anyone who’s been faced with limitless options will eventually be forced to make some sort of decision. The result of choosing? You end up making a purchase.

So if faced with a wall of decisions, take a minute to look at your reaction. Does it stress you out, are you nervous to make the wrong side? If so, you’re not alone. Be thorough in research, but also brief in your decision. Given two choices, you can go one of two ways. Or three ways, if you include walking away without opening your wallet!

Regardless of whether you consider yourself a vulnerable object of consumer research, you interact with the result of it. As social media trends continue to take-off and evolve, you’re being reached daily in more ways than ever before. With the tips included here, you’ll be prepared to outsmart consumer culture in order to achieve the financial goals you set out for yourself.

What do you think? Is it possible to outsmart consumer culture? Can we count on simply learning to live with the temptations, or are there other ways that we might break its hold on us?

photo credit: Steve Rhodes via photopin cc

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Comments | 7 Responses

  1. says

    Really great advice. Not going shopping at all doesn’t always help, we need to understand what makes us ‘tick’, prepare lists and budgets and not try to supplement our own life frustrations with expensive stuff. Not easy to do though :)

    • says

      Thanks Dojo!!

      It’s definitely a problem to be solved from the inside out. You’re right though, not always easy to do! I still struggle with it regularly, especially around the holidays…

      :)

  2. says

    We’re all suckers for the impulse buy. Trying to prevent ourselves from purchasing stuff we dont need to make ourselves feel takes great strength of character. Don’t judge me – I am weak in the face of a big red 50% sale sign.

  3. says

    Impulse buying gets so many people. There is also a definite reason why many infomercials happen at night. It’s when we are most vulnerable.

    When I traveled for work I succumbed to bargain hunting and impulse buying. I’d come home with things I didn’t need but was purchased to make me feel better about the amount of traveling I’ve done.

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