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Photo by Federico Beccari

Our stuff is costing us our lives.

That this is true is obvious where we indulge our desires while financially challenged. Whether it be the beautiful Audi, the Louis Vuitton bag, or the Lord of the Rings replica sword (I was a teenager… just), self-gratification disproportionate to our financial resources leads inexorably to crippling debt. Less obvious, though, is why this would be a problem when our shopping habits don’t strain our finances. To understand why this might be true, we must understand the difference between the concepts of price and cost, and what being able to afford them really means.

The concept of price is straightforward. It is simply the number on the tag, and being able to afford it means only that you can hand over the corresponding amount of money without either going into debt or foregoing any basic needs. But money has no inherent value. Its true value, and therefore the true cost of a thing, lies in what money represents. It represents your time. It represents the effort you exerted during that time, and how the experience of working made you feel. You may have been fortunate enough to have spent that time exactly as you wished, and to have loved every second. But, chances are, you can think of better things you could have been doing.

Perhaps the greatest cost of all, even greater than what you did with your time, is what you didn’t do with it – the opportunity cost. Travelling. Creative projects. Spending time with your children. Learning jiu jitsu. The dream job that you’re too “sensible” to pursue. The things we say we want to do one day, are the things we sacrifice today to buy the stuff we think will complete us. But the very things we give up are almost always the things that give our lives meaning. And it is meaning that unlocks our happiness.

“The most important things in life, aren’t things.”
Anthony J. D’Angelo

Think again about that executive saloon, designer bag, hand-crafted movie prop, or some other thing once coveted. Buying it probably felt great. But does it still really delight you every time you use it? Is it still useful enough to really improve your day? Does it add meaning to your life? When we consider how we feel about our purchases after they’ve become baked into our lives, with few exceptions, we find that most of them leave us cold. They ceased being sources of enjoyment or utility long ago, often while their packaging still lay discarded in our recycling bins. In hindsight, would you still have bought that thing given its true cost in terms of time, effort, experience and opportunity?

Where a thing does continue to add value to our lives long after purchase, it’s also worth considering whether it adds enough value to justify its true cost. Sure, sitting in that Audi is like being in your living room, and that level of comfort makes a big difference on long journeys. But, what does it take to earn the £500 a month you need to own that car? Is the extra comfort worth the time, effort and emotional investment? Could you somehow travel in comparable comfort for a lower cost? If your main use for the car were to commute to the job you work to keep up with the monthly payments, your answers to these questions might feel especially pointed.

“Real luxury is not working like a maniac to take an expensive vacation. It is living a life you enjoy every day.”
Kathy Gottberg

Of course, unless it’s a car or a house, the cost of any one thing is unlikely to have a long-term impact on your lifestyle. But things add up, and the cost of a lifestyle is the sum cost of all our stuff. And to meet that cost, many of us have to do things we don’t like. We have to work jobs we hate, with people we’d never normally choose to spend eight hours a day with, achieving things that we often find trivial or even distasteful. And as we earn more, and we buy more, we spend more time, earning more money, to keep us in the lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to. A lifestyle that satisfies our shallow material desires, but cannot quench our deepest spiritual needs. And worst of all, none of this is compulsory. Many of us are sacrificing our most precious resources to maintain a lifestyle we don’t really want, voluntarily. And, unlike money, time is a non-renewable resource. You have a finite amount of it. Once you’ve spent it, you can’t earn it back.

That might sound like insanity, but it is also understandable. We live in a consumerist society, and so we are continually being harassed into buying more and more stuff. We are exposed to thousands of adverts every day1, each of which has been designed to manipulate us into buying the product it’s selling – regardless of whether or not we need it or even wanted it the previous moment. Today, even people’s bodies have become mobile advertisements for the products they use, wear and drive, putting us under yet more pressure to keep up with the Joneses.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. When we are aware of how advertising attempting to manipulate us into believing, consciously or otherwise, that we need products to complete us, we can step outside of that narrative. We can look past our short-term desires towards our long-term aspirations, and start to think in terms of true cost instead of mere price. When we really understand the real relationship (or lack thereof) between stuff and happiness, we can make better decisions about what we buy in the first place. And when we notice behaviours or possessions that do not serve the life we want, we can let them go.

“Sell off the kingdom piece by piece, and trade it for a horse that will take you anywhere.”
Colin Wright

Once you’ve started down this road, you’ll soon notice some wonderful changes. You’ll have a lot less crap lying around, so you’ll spend less time organising and maintaining what you have. You’ll be less anxious, as the worry of maintaining your previously demanding lifestyle dissipates. You’ll notice your money going further each month. New choices will open up as your financial situation improves. You could change careers. You could do something that pays less, but that you actually love. You could embrace the autonomy of self-employment. Or you could simply work less. And, as you gain more financial, emotional and temporal freedom, you will be at liberty to craft a more meaningful life – whatever that looks like for you.

“Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly. It’s your masterpiece, after all.”
Nathan W. Morris

None of this should be surprising. When we think about it, it is obviously true that stuff cannot make us happy. And yet, this truth has been muddied by our culture of consumption, which speaks not to our intellect but to our most base instincts. As a consequence, letting go of things, and our desire for things, is difficult, and perfection is unrealistic. Fortunately, we don’t need to be perfect. We need merely to be persistent in endeavouring to live our lives according to what we know to be true, not the story sold to us by consumerism. And, unlike that story, the rewards don’t cost a thing.

If you enjoyed this essay, you can support me by sharing it with your friends. Building an audience is tough, so this really does help. Thanks in advance. JM

  1. New Research Sheds Light on Daily Ad Exposures, SJ Insights:
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