Consumerism is a Cult, and We're ALL Brainwashed
Updated: Feb 22, 2019
I've always had a weakness for beautiful cars. The BMW 7 series gets me every time. The grille of a Mercedes S class makes me purr like a doped up kitten. But until I got into Financial Independence and started obsessively reading blogs like Mr. Money Mustache and Frugalwoods I never really questioned WHY I felt so attracted to shiny metal machines.
Your mileage may vary. Perhaps cars don't do it for you, but a Louis Vuitton bags sends you into paroxysms of ecstasy, or you need that newest iPhone the day it comes out. Have you ever sat down and really thought long and hard about why those shiny gee-gaws make our hearts race?
I think it's because we're all in a cult, and we just don't know it.
Truths are created by how we are brought up, the environment around us. The religion you're belong to is largely based on geography (if you were born in Saudi Arabia, odds are you'd be Muslim. If you're born in Memphis, TN, most likely you're some form of Christian). From birth, most people have had it drilled into them that in order to be a "good person" they have to follow the rules of their religion. Just like the fish that doesn't realize he's in water, because it's just what he's always known, we don't realize that the deep "truths" of our lives (what it means to be good, what the purpose of our lives are, what we should care about, that sort of thing) are created by things beyond our control: the general consensus of those who have come before us, the political systems, the religions, the geography, the myths and stories of our antecedents.
Our views of what we desire materialistically are really no different.
Consumerism and materialism surround us from birth. Videos of a kid reviewing toys, "Ryan's Toy Review" and others, are some of YouTube's most watched channels. Over $17 BILLION ($17,000,000,000) is spent each year these days advertising JUST TO CHILDREN.
My favorite satire of it comes from the best satire of everything, "South Park", in Season 3, Episode 11. The boys are suddenly obsessed with buying "Chinpokomon" dolls, but Kyle hasn't heard of them. He asks his father for money to get some, and his father, Gerald, has the following exchange:
The reason this works is that Kyle's not wrong. There is TONS of social pressure to conform to materialistic trends, even though we don't even always know why we're buying something. Society pressures us at nearly every conscious moment to BUY BUY BUY! NEWER IS BETTER, and if you don't keep up with social trends, you'll be excluded and lonely. When we're kids, we call it bullying or peer pressure, but when we're adults, we call it "Keeping up with the Joneses". It's all the same. And it has real consequences.
The vast majority of Americans won't have enough money to retire and keep their standard of living. This is especially true if the Social Security system fails, which many people are concerned about. For those of us working overseas, we might not have access to any defined benefit program like Social Security at ALL! If we allow the materialism around us to keep us buying too much stuff, nobody will be giving us any money in our retirement and then it's a life on the streets for us. We have to find a way to change how we think about spending and saving money, we have to find a way to ascribe value differently. Fortunately, there is a clear way out of our cult of materialism: Financial Independence.
Financial Independence allows us to pierce the curtain of materialism that surrounds us.
For me, FI is not just about having enough money. That's definitely a big part of it, but it's WAY more than that. If you spend more than 5 minutes reading Mr. Money Mustache, you'll understand that FI can be (and probably should be) more about our relationship to happiness and money, and how spending on shiny things is NOT the path to happiness that so many feel it is.
But it takes time, and repeated exposure to the ideas of FI before we can truly learn them and internalize them. Let me give you an example from my own recent life. Like I said above, I have long had a weakness for shiny cars. I frequently turn my head and go "ooooo, prettyyyyy" as I go by cars that cost far more than my yearly salary. It would be really easy for me to overspend on a car, just because it was "beautiful". Through articles like this one and this I've come to intellectually understand the silliness and destructiveness of our car culture and its connected materialism, but I was still checking out Ferraries and Rolls Royces and salivating, unable to overcome my own weakness.
Recently, in the past few weeks though, I find my emotional state towards expensive cars changing, for the better. Now, when I look at a car whose cost could feed a village in Africa for a year, I feel disgusted at the waste of resources. I feel sorry for the owner who sunk all that money into a depreciating asset that will only bring less and less satisfaction with every day they own it. When I see someone driving what I used to consider an "old beater" that has obviously been kept on the road for a long time, I don't scoff anymore. Now I look at them and think how smart and resourceful they are for being able to extract maximum value from a huge purchase.
I have finally been able to overcome one small aspect of my materialistic programming. But it's not easy. It has taken months of thinking and reading and talking and writing about this stuff to change a basic attitude about the connection between "beauty" and value. It's hard work, and I'm not perfect at it. I caught myself lustfully staring at a new Audi today and admiring its shiny surface, instead of looking deeper at myself and seeing my old materialistic self staring back through the silvered panels.
It takes serious work to emotionally internalize the fact that you've been bombarded by convenient lies by marketers for your whole life, lies set up to get you to buy more stuff you don't need. Lies that keep us spending, spending, spending until we have nothing left, nothing left over so we will never be free of jobs that may not satisfy us.
So What Can We Do? How Can We Deprogram Ourselves Out of the Cult of Materialism?
Minimize contact with advertisements. The more we can stay away from the messages themselves, and examine critically the ones we do come in contact with, the more space we give our brains to think clearly. This is especially important if you have kids and can control their media intake. Remember, $17 Billion marketing dollars are aimed at them every year, that HAS a deep and resounding impact. Teach them this stuff too!
Create Instead of Consume. The more time and effort we put into creating, especially creating things that make the world a more beautiful place, the less we have for spending on stuff that only provides temporary bursts of happiness. Sing a song, paint a picture, put on a play. Sometimes these turn into awesome side hustles, like my band I love so much!
Don't accept Common Narratives of Value. Actually do the math and find alternatives. Go to thrift shops instead of purchasing new. Realize that new cars are a huge money loss from depreciation and that newer used cars can be just as reliable for a lot less money. Buy the generic brand at the store.
Talk to people who are on a similar journey. FI Forums can be great for this, whether it's Mr. Money Mustache's or Bogleheads or in person. Many cities have groups for this stuff. In Dubai, SimplyFI is great and has regular meetups. A quick google will let you know what local options you have.