How Do You Resist Consumerism?

Photo by psyberartist

“Our primary identity has become that of being consumers – not mothers, teachers, or farmers, but of consumers!  We shop and shop and shop  . . .” — Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff

31 Days of Organizing for a Better 2010: Resist Consumerism

Throughout the month of January, Mandi of Organizing Your Way has been running a series called 31 Days of Organizing for a Better 2010Today, she is sharing her thoughts on how to resist consumerism, and she has invited me to write about what that looks like in my family as well.

Before we can know how to resist consumerism (or even if we want to resist consumerism), we need to identify what the philosophy of consumerism entails.  For those working within the discipline of economics, the term consumerism deals with a movement that seeks to protect buyers (think CPSIA).

For our purposes, however, when we talk about consumerism, we are referring to “attachment to materialistic values or possessions,” and the belief that when we buy and spend and consume more and more and more, we can find fulfillment.

In early 2008, I watched The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard, and I am not exaggerating when I say it had a profound and life-changing impact on my life.  If you have not already seen it, I highly encourage investing twenty minutes into viewing it.  The chapter on consumption motivated me to make significant changes in how much I allow the very prevalent emphasis on consuming in our culture to impact my family.

As a former football coach’s wife, I often see things in terms of defense and offense.  To take a stand against consumerism, I knew I would have to both defend myself and my family from a culture of consumption while at the same time be very proactive in embracing a lifestyle that celebrates freedom from all of that stuff.

On the defense:

1) Guard your input: It is amazing how quickly I can become convinced I need something when a new Anthropologie  catalog shows up in the mail.  What is even more alarming is the intensity my preschooler feels when she sees a commercial for Pillow Pets – she has to have one!  There is no shortage of stimulus inviting us to buy this now!

Consider carefully what you allow to come into your home, your viewing time, your listening time, and your thought patterns.  Toss catalogs in the recycling bin, choose DVDs over commercial TV, don’t renew subscriptions to magazines that incite a desire to buy things you do not need.

2) Know your triggers: I find it hard to keep consumerism in check at Target.  I love that store, and I always walk out of there with far more stuff than I intended to buy.  I have to limit my trips there to the very, very rare occasion.  Perhaps for you it is window shopping at the mall or surfing for good deals on eBay which entices you to spend money.

Do a little self-assessment to determine where, when, and how often you find yourself falling into the consumerism trap.  Once you know your triggers, set yourself up for success in avoiding them.

3) Challenge yourself: Rachel of Small Notebook creates a No Spend Month for her family every summer.  In purchasing only what is absolutely necessary, she is reminded of how often they choose want over need.

Could you challenge yourself in a similar way?  Take things slow in the beginning.  For example, for my daughter’s birthday at the end of this month, I’m challenging myself to see how little we can spend on the birthday party while still creating a fun and memorable celebration.

On the offense:

1) Shop differently: Seek out gently-used over brand new.  Choose clutter-free over clutter-full.  Prioritize experience over excess.

2) Think differently: Keep notes of affirmation handy to remind yourself of the purpose of the path you are choosing.  I am personally so motivated and inspired by asking, “what is essential?” Intentionally asking myself that question keeps my want vs. need ratio in check.

As you consider bringing something new into your home, make it pass the William Morris test:

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

In lieu of reading material that seeks to convince you to go out and spend money, fill your reading and viewing time with that which reminds you to treasure and care for that which you already possess.

3) Live differently: I will be very honest with you.  In some ways, choosing to resist consumerism is quite easy for me in this season of life.  We live in a small rural town on the southern plains.  Our little community is filled with families that are working hard just to stay above the poverty level.  I drive a Toyota with over 125,000 miles on it, and no one in our friend group gives that a second thought.  We are renting a house that is over seventy years old, and one of the many charming character quirks is its saggy foundation.  Our neighbors across the street often park cars in their yard.  (I warned you I was going to be honest!)

It’s not really all that difficult for me to take these steps to resist the shiny new stuff of the consumerism/consumption cycle because of the culture and community in which I reside.  But I know for some of you, it is a much more daring way to live life.  Some of you move in friend circles which place a pointed emphasis on new and shiny – new homes, new cars, new clothes, new gadgets, new toys.

Choosing to live differently will disturb the universe in which you travel just a little bit. Be prepared to meet resistance.  Find strength in reminding yourself that in the very, very short time you are given on this planet, you are investing not in things that get broken or outgrown, tossed in landfills, and forgotten in short measure, but rather you are investing in the intangible – a peace and contentedness that fills your life when you are able to walk joyfully in your freedom from stuff.

Where are you in your relationship with consumerism? On the defense? On the offense? What do find provides the most motivation to buy less and enjoy more?

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  1. Thank you for this inspiring article. It gets more and more important for me to defend consumerism. A little example is “Craft from your stash 2010”, a campaign I share with some other German bloggers. In addition to that I’ll call the next month a “no extra money” – month and will try to spent no money for extra things. We’ll see, if I manage it, but anyway, it is an exciting journey!

  2. I think this is one of best articles you written here Megan! It’s been a while since I’ve watched The Story of Stuff and I might need a gentle reminder – especially as I start to ooh and ahh over new baby things! We do a lot of the “defence” items that you listed and certainly a lot of offense too! One of the big things for me lately is clutter. While Dale is away I am especially ruthless about clutter because I find clutter makes life complicated. I go into a bit of survival mode where my days consist of work, the bare necessities of life and concentrating on spending every extra minute enjoying time with Nate. I don’t need much “stuff” for any of those things and each one easier the less “stuff” it involves!

    @Micha – love the Craft from your stash idea! I have been trying to do that too, but I think I will try to focus on it more.

    • Thank you, Jen. I have to say if it weren’t for you, I might never have see The Story of Stuff! Well, maybe eventually, but it was your prompting that got me to view it to begin with. Thanks for walking alongside me in our journey to embrace LESS.

  3. Love this post! Defensive and Offensive – both great strategies, and to borrow your analogy, I think both are necessary parts of a winning game plan.

    Contentment is a stumbling block for me. Right now my main motivation in resisting is getting out of debt, but that alone isn’t going to help me making it a lifelong habit. It is hard to resist when there are messages everywhere saying “indulge” – but you’ve outlined some great strategies here!

    I have to go add Story of Stuff to my movie rental que now …. thanks for this recommendation!

    • So true – there are messages EVERYWHERE encouraging indulgent. You don’t realize how deeply ingrained it becomes in your subconscious until you are consciously resisting it. (Glad you found where you can view it online!)

  4. Great article! Thanks for the insights and challenge…I started in the last year or two trying to limit the stuff in our home…and it’s always a challenge! Especially with 4 children, it can be hard to limit the amount of unnecessary things.
    .-= Gina´s last blog ..{love} sleepy boys =-.

    • I can only imagine how exponentially the clutter grows as more children are added to the family. It’s so hard with just two children! Definitely takes purposeful management, doesn’t it?

  5. Ah Hah! Just realized I can watch the video on her website – awesome!
    .-= Kara´s last blog ..Alphabet Resources =-.

  6. Great post! One way we are combating consumerism this year is by spending this week planning our year. We are planning trips to see family, camping weekends, and maybe a real road trip to Utah. No matter what we plan, the kids will be able to see events as something to look forward to, to break up the mundane trudging of daily life. Shopping is never an event for us, but bringing new playthings in to shake things up is definitely something I do. Maybe it’s a quality Waldorf-inspired toy, but it’s still, technically, something we do not need. I am hoping this planning of the year will point us more toward experiences. When the kids can see that in February they have a 4 day weekend, they can look forward to that instead of getting mentally bored and wanting stuff.
    .-= Visty´s last blog ..Haiti =-.

    • Oh, Visty. I think you make a GREAT point about the boredom. How big of a role does that play in our own draw to spending/buying/more and what impact does that have on our children? Excellent insight.

  7. One of the best ones from SK yet. I loved it because it’s true. Sometimes all it requires is some refocusing. It’s easy to slide into the default setting of buy-buy-buy so a bit of mindfulness, a reminder, helps to keep perspective. We’ve been on this journey for a few years now. Still not there in the least but it’s getting better.
    .-= Sarah@EmergingMummy´s last blog ..In which this is part of growing up together =-.

  8. A good time for me to revisit these thoughts since the arrival of two new persons into the house invites the potential arrival of every kind of unnecessary baby item… times TWO. And thanks for introducing the “defense / offense” approach. I am utterly clueless when it comes to sports metaphors. But this one is a keeper.
    .-= jill´s last blog ..The hours. =-.

    • Oh, the new baby stuff! TIMES TWO. Meh. There is a certain amount of stuff that just comes with the newest ones being introduced to the home. It’s a phase. Eventually you’ll be able to put the booger sucker thingies away, right?

  9. I think The Story of Stuff was the catalyst for my change as well. Actually it was probably the springboard to my husbands interest to the whole simple living/tiny house movement. and

    It’s amazing how much easier it is to not consume if you don’t watch tv or get catalogs! Although I don’t know if I could ever give up my Chasing Fireflies catalog. 😀 This may sound strange but the other thing that has really changed how I feel about “stuff” comes from an estate sale website. After reading the story of the people who have passed away and looked at the “stuff” left behind… and usually it’s a HUGE amount of junk it made me think… all those little nick knacks were PAID for at one time and here they are being sold for probably 1/1000 of what they actually first cost. Somebody spent part of their life away from their family working to pay for those things, probably at jobs that didn’t thrill them and in the end to be sold at an estate sale, yard sale or whatever. Such a waste. It’s almost like robbing yourself from having a life. (I know a little exaggerated but all the time you spend at work must really add up after a lifetime of it.)

    My biggest triggers now are things for my daughter. After waiting so long for her I find it REALLY hard not to want to give her things, especially books. Our house is now splitting at the seams with kid stuff so I’m groggily waking up to NOT overdoing it with her as well.

    I think in a lot of ways not consuming takes really good self esteem. In our culture we really judge each other by the things we have or don’t have. Kind of sad when you think about it. I’m going to start paying attention a little more to this and try to notice when or if I do it.

    Megan my trick to get through Target(I’ve have the exact same problem!) is take a list and if it’s not on the list I think to myself about how much I could get for whatever at my next yard sale. Then that cute little whatever doesn’t seem so cute. LoL

    Great post! Sorry my reply was so long but I’ve really been thinking a lot about this for the past year… and I’m long winded. 😉
    .-= Julia Janzen´s last blog ..The Wonderful Masterpiece, “Cranford” =-.

    • “if it’s not on the list I think to myself about how much I could get for whatever at my next yard sale.”

      Oh my goodness. This is AWESOME! Thank you for sharing that, Julia!

      I think you make an excellent point about self-esteem and just generally being comfortable with yourself and where you are in life. I’ve learned so much of that in moving to this small town. In many ways, it was the healthiest thing we have done as a family.

      Great insights, Julia. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Great post- thanks! I need some help with something on the issue though… other’s consumerism. We, as a family, work very hard on this approach. But other people, that we know and love, are HUGE consumers and buy all of us things all of the time. I know… too bad for me right 🙂 Seriously though, I don’t use half of what we are given, we donate a lot of things. But the stuff still overwhelms our home. And it’s a really tough thing to take away a long desired toy that was just given. Plus- now the givers live close by and know when we’ve given the gift away. I’ve had lots of conversations with them about all of this, but nothing that’s really made a difference. Any advice on how all of you deal with this? Thanks- Erin
    .-= Erin Long´s last blog ..MLK Day =-.

    • I completely understand and relate to the dilemma. And I think Julia gave good advice! We are trying to do the same – encouraging gifts to be lessons or memberships or other non-stuff type things.

  11. I’m quite fortunate in that I find it very simple to resist a lifestyle that focuses on consumerism. For me it’s a combination of factors. I’ve never been envious of the “stuff” other people have, shopping is not and has never been a hobby of mine, I’m frugal and would always choose an “experience” over a “thing”, I’d much rather have a “stuffed” savings account than a “stuffed” closet!
    I’m trying to pave the way for our 3 year old; no licensed products or the start of “collections”, no toy advertisement /catologues enter the house, and he watches no television commercials. Once he starts kindergarten I know I will have bigger fish to fry, but at least this is a start!

  12. Erin… Just and idea but you might start asking for “adventure gifts”. Like tickets to the zoo, movies, state fair, frozen yogurt etc.

  13. Everyone else is saying it too-this is a wonderful post! Well-written and honest, and so true. I think that where you live has a lot to do with how difficult it is to resist consumerism, but no matter where we live it’s a choice. We can live focused on “stuff” or not, and finding a balance between wants and needs is difficult. I find it fairly easy in our town, but as soon as we get into the city I can almost feel the need to consume. Whether it be actual stuff or just an image we’re trying to portray, living with a mentality that we must have more robs us of what really matters.

  14. Julia- Fabulous idea! I’ve been thinking about dance lessons for awhile and this would be a great gift idea.
    .-= Erin Long´s last blog ..MLK Day =-.

  15. Great post, some how we get so caught up in the “Must haves” … regardless if it is a need or a want… We resolved our consumer culture by staying out of the store. ( Now when I visit a store with our kids its for fun and often just to look at lovely things without buying anything – eye candy and all that, rather than a mad quest of the “Gotta get, gotta have”… I am just loving the 31 Days!!!
    .-= se7en´s last blog ..The Most Magnificent Chocolate Chip Cookies in Se7en Steps… =-.

  16. ah..i knew i liked you. now i like you even more that you shared about your sagging rent house (me too!), your car with over 100,000 miles (me too!), folks around town who park in their yards (me too!) and your weakness for target (me too!!!).

    i’ve been on a fast from shopping this month (minus necessities like milk and bread and eggs) because of the cycle of consumerism i felt myself caught up in after the christmas rush. i did a lot better at christmas than i have in the past — want, need, wear, read and lots of handmade and sustainable/long-lasting gifts — but it’s still so easy to get into the habit of shopping constantly. those clearance end caps are target are my trap.

    i really could ramble for days on this topic; i feel like God is really revealing what it means to be content with what He has blessed me with in my husband and children and family and friends. it’s a slow process. sometimes i wish i had it down pat already.

    one of the most enlightening things i’ve come to realize recently, though, is that consumerism robs me of my creativity. i am too caught up in shopping and finding “stuff” that i need that i can’t be creative with the wardrobe i ALREADY own or the wardrobe my kids ALREADY own or all of the beautiful things in my home that i ALREADY own or the craft supplies i ALREADY own. i am too caught up in shipping and finding “stuff” that i need that i can’t be creative with ways to show my love to my husband and my kids.

    in stepping away from the cash registers this month, i’ve had the chance to realize that i AM creative, that God will give me inspiration in my every day in the places where i have more than enough.

    • “consumerism robs me of my creativity.”

      BRILLIANT insight. I have never thought of it that way. So, so true!

      So funny how much we have in common! Nice to bump into a kindred spirit here in the comment section. 😉

  17. I can completely understand about how it is easy for you to live that way because of where you live. My husband and I just moved to a big city and started going to a very affluent church. It makes it so much harder to live in a frugal way when so many people around you seem to have so much. Thanks for your tips and sharing your experiences, they help me to know I’m not alone in trying to live differently and struggling to do so.

  18. I tweeted about the Steady Days book contest. The book looks so good, I will definately buy a copy if I don’t win one. I love your website. One of my fav parts of the morning!!
    .-= Stacy´s last blog ..What I’m thinking about contentment this week…. =-.

  19. We have resisted consumerism by living deliberately each day and sometimes each minute. By moving to a rural area and living off a small income derived from the work of our hands, we have eliminated the option of even thinking about going on shopping sprees. By reading and learning about the impact of stuff on ourselves, the workers, the planet, we have come to think through a purchase if one does have to be made.
    We have learned to practice gratitude. To be thankful for each dish as they are being handwashed, for each piece of wood as it is put in the woodstove, and for the beauty that surrounds us. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.
    Warm wishes, Tonya
    .-= Plain and Joyful Living´s last blog ..Incomplete faith is stupidity =-.

  20. Thank you for this thought provoking article. I think there is a stirring deep within our souls to move towards lives that have more substance and less stuff!

    I have linked to this article from my blog, hope you don’t mind.

    Warmest regards, Lindi
    .-= Lindi´s last blog ..Moving in a different direction… =-.

  21. I hope that I will always be on a path towards spending more time & resources on pepole & relationships than STUFF, but I also readily admit that my path will undoubtedly have highs & lows of contentment, which happens to be my “word of the year” (blogged about it at here:

    My latest struggle has more to do with my expectations of where I would “be” at this stage in my life, stay-at-home mom, 2 young children, small community. It has more to do with the type of home I thought I would “need” to have, even with wanting to live a simple, uncluttered lifestyle. So it’s my personal challenge to:

    * work with what I have (which is, of course, a LOT in comparison to many in the rest of the world),
    * have a spirit of thankfulness, not just for what I do have in terms of “stuff” but for the immaterial blessings in my life (family, health, community, etc.), &
    * instill a desire for contentment rather than fulfillment in my children by being a living example, both on the good & bad days!

    And I agree, Target is definitely a road-block on my path sometimes, but I make it a personal challenge every time I go: go less often & most definitely go with LIST IN HAND – the challenge is to come out of there with ONLY what I have on my list.

    Thx for the great links!


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