We all know keeping our wallets closed from impulsive buys is important, but changing our habits accordingly is tougher. When it comes to changing my behavior no amount of tips and tricks really sticks until I change my mentality. For example, I knew that regularly going to the gym is a healthy habit, but I didn’t know that exercising also improves our cognitive function and memory. It wasn’t until I read the book “Spark” by John Ratey that I began to learn the “why” behind exercise. It struck me that exercise isn’t a chore, but a cheat code to help me learn faster and remember better. By viewing exercise from another lens I began to think “Exercise is doing a favor for myself” instead of “Exercise is an exhausting obligation”.

Being a smart spender is no exception. Understanding why we’re spending too much is key to changing our spending habits. I believe a lot of us today are trapped in what I call the Consumer Mindset.

Ways We’re Geared Towards the Consumer Mindset

The consumer mindset is another way to describe our need to spend hard-earned bucks on things we don’t need. The lines between what we want and need are easily blurred because of how our peers and society around us have shaped how we think. Our first example looks into the perceived value of watches.

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Originally watches were a tool to help us keep track of time. Today, watches have turned into symbolic accessories that represent more than their original function. We use them as objects to show off our status and taste instead of merely keeping time. Ironically, someone wearing a Rolex watch may seem wealthy since they’re so expensive, but what we don’t know is that they might’ve broken the bank just to get their paws on one! At the end of the day if we really wanted to check the time a simple battery powered Casio watch would do. In our digital age of smartphones and screens we always have access to time and watches have become even more unnecessary. The perceived value of watches is the result of manipulative marketing and calculated social engineering to create an illusionary value! Our justifications for an expensive brand name watch despite its actual utility is a classic example of a consumer mindset.

Another manifestation of the consumer mindset is our desire fit into social settings by presenting ourselves in certain light.

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Clothes is an example of how societal norms influence us to buy more than we need. Any clothes would be appropriate to the gym, but it’s standard to have specific “gym clothes” to exercise in. Similarly, the idea of business appropriate clothing is a social construct we’ve needlessly created ourselves. Button-down collared shirts and modest dresses provide a professional image when in reality any casual outfit would do. While there’s certainly value in “dressing for success” the whole idea of wearing different outfits to match particular occasions isn’t mandatory, yet is universally accepted. Interestingly bikinis and swimming trunks are considered appropriate even though they cover as much as any other set of underwear. What we wear is largely dictated by how we want other people to perceive us.

A third value I believe most consumer orientated mindsets share is the desire to impress others.

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While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good I see this mindset run rampant particularly in New York City. NYC is one of the densest cities in the world where the richest among us share the same streets as the homeless. The irony of Manhattan is the excessive amounts of cash people spend on housing for the sake of image. Because of its density, each square foot has an inflated premium relative to the rest of the United States. The end result is Manhattanites spend more on housing compared to everywhere. Often the justification for paying for such exorbitant prices is because where you live can speak volumes about how much you earn, your level of success in life, and standard of education.

Practical Applications

Lately I’ve been focusing on spending to make myself happier instead of impressing others. It sounds obvious once you hear it, but a surprising number of my purchases were really for the sake of a certain image instead of being necessary. It isn’t until deeper investigation of an extra drink, a night out with friends, or another epic vacaction that I began to realize how fruitless the entire venture was. Taking this advice to heart and applying it to my everyday life is easier said than done and remains a constant work in progress.

Here are some techniques I’ve heard from friends or applied myself.

$20 technique: Using only cash is a known for reducing spending. There’s something about physically letting go of money that turns it from a vague number into something physical that comes out of our pocket. A friend recommended me an idea where he only used $20 dollar bills for purchases. The rest of the bill would be saved as cash. For him, $20’s became a far more valuable bill not because of it’s monetary value, but because of how many bills he had left. It made him think twice before breaking a bill. Another perk was seeing the savings in cash by the end of the month. Accumulating a large number of smaller bills felt like he saved money for an end of the month reward.

Managing credit cards: Credit card bonuses are on the other side of the spectrum. By taking advantage of sign up bonuses I’ve earned hundreds of dollars worth of credits and cash back. For example, American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card provides a 25,000 point sign-up bonus after spending $2,000 within the first three months. That amounts to $125 cash back or up to $250 worth of gift cards. However, credit cards are a double edged sword. Entering the world of cashless spending can turn purchases into numbers on a screen instead of a tangible asset. It’s easier to spend when we don’t see a $100 Benjamin leaving our wallet, but letting go of five $20’s feels a lot more painful to part with.

Practice being thankful: This last bit attempts to address the root problem of having a consumer mindset. Personally, by better appreciating the things I already have makes me less likely to desire other things. Tim Ferriss’s podcast talks about how there are two ways to achieve the point of having everything you want:

  1. You can increase the things you have
  2. You can decrease the things you want

Most of the time we want things for the wrong reasons. We want to impress others, present ourselves in a certain way, or succumb to an impulse buy for the next awesome experience we just “can’t miss out on”. Our smartphones, laptops, cars, furniture, apartment, etc. are all large purchases that are perfectly fine but could always be a bit nicer. The next hot thing is always around the corner, and the idea that there’s something out there slightly better pushes us to buy more. A reality many of us deeply know is that we’re already lucky enough to have everything we really need.

Per usual, thanks for taking the time to read BrunchBucks. If you find a typo just contact me via email! Feel free to leave a comment below or share this with friends.