That One Time We Accidentally Watched Commercials (and were horrified)
Quick Babywoods update: She has yet to make her arrival, but we’ll be sure to share the news when she does :).
If we spent money only on the things we actually need and can afford, then no one would have debt or bad credit or an unhealthy relationship with money. So why don’t we do that? How have we cultivated such bizarre associations with money in our culture? Why do we spend?
Since half of Mr. Frugalwoods and my journey to financial independence is dependent upon our ability not to spend money (the other half, of course, is dependent upon on our ability to earn said money), the question of why we’re compelled to spend as a society intrigues me.
Clearly, spending has transcended the role of simply providing the goods and services we legitimately require for our survival. Indeed, it has become something entirely more profound, controlling, and even dangerous.
Commercials Are Bizarre And Terrifying
As Mr. FW and I waited around for Babywoods to make her appearance on Thanksgiving day (which, by the way, she declined to do), we participated in a very rare and unusual activity: we watched real live broadcast TV, which means we viewed actual factual commercials.
We were tuned into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which I’d never fully realized is basically one long advertisement: from broadway musicals to movies to TV shows to cars to Macy’s products themselves, it’s marketing on wheels. It was fun to watch this extravagant display (and realize how shockingly little Mr. FW and I know about mainstream pop culture), but it’s also quite alarming.
Our entire cultural heritage is essentially boiled down to our ability to consume. While there were a few college marching bands that weren’t vending anything (as a former band geek myself, these were my favorite parts of the entire pageant), the take-away from the parade is that we are a country of excess that bonds over the buying of more stuff and the consumption of entertainment. Our common cultural touchpoint is spending money.
The actual commercials betwixt the commercial spectacle conflated the concepts of familial closeness, friendship, and love with the outlay of cash. Huh. The deep psychological connection between our purchasing power as consumers and our very intrinsic happiness as people is not at all subtle in mainstream marketing.
…And They Are Pure Manipulation
Of course Mr. FW and I couldn’t just watch the parade like normal people and merely swallow all the commercialism coming our way–oh no, we had to have a lengthy discussion about it and subsequently share our thoughts with you all (aren’t you lucky?!).
Something Mr. FW noted is that each and every commercial was its own embodiment of a psychological trope cleverly designed to tempt you to make a purchase. Some commercials informed us that we have a horrible problem–bad breath, an ugly car (oh boy if they only knew), strained family relationships, or just a weird-looking face–and that our ailment could be fixed with their product. Others intoned that we live a really hard life, what with work and the kids, and that we should treat ourselves (again, by buying their wares). Another genre of commercial trumpets the old playground adage that “everyone else is doing it and so we should too” (I agree with that statement insofar as it relates to adopting greyhounds and drinking decent coffee every morning).
And then perhaps the most conniving of all are the commercials that play on nostalgia and guilt–buy this item because you had it as a kid and don’t you want your kid to have it too? Or, a variation thereof along the lines of: purchase this because your mom did and aren’t you nostalgic for those simpler times when you felt good, unlike now when you feel terrible, but buying this will make you feel good again! And let’s be honest here, no one drinks Folger’s coffee because it tastes delicious (trust me, it does not), which may be why their commercial was a particularly egregious–not to mention odd–panoply of nostalgia. Folger’s as nostalgia? Really?
Additionally disturbing–and rather unfathomable–were all of the ads for Black Friday sales that began in stores on Thanksgiving day. I can’t imagine a worse way to celebrate a day that’s intended as one of gratitude and reflection than by purchasing things! Although Mr. FW and I did agree that going to a mall would probably send me into labor. However, in the interest of not wanting to drive ourselves crazy, we didn’t test the theory. I’d rather be induced than set foot in a mall on Black Friday. Just saying.
Every commercial we saw involved some level of manipulation. I don’t have a problem with acquiring the things we need, but there wasn’t a single commercial that provided a straightforward, factual reason for procuring their product. They all felt the need to employ tricks. For example, had there been a commercial stating: “Some people have drafty doors and drafty doors cause you to use more energy heating your home. If you have this problem, we have this drafty door caulk that you can use to seal up your doors. You can buy some if you happen to need it.” Now that is a commercial I would be OK with.
And therein lay the crux of what offends my anti-consumption sensibilities the most: it’s not that marketers are trying to sell us stuff, it’s that they’re trying to hoodwink people into purchasing things that they patently do not need. I think the root of why we as a society spend so far beyond our means can largely be found in the sense of entitlement that advertisements parrot. We deserve this new toy, we need these new clothes to complete our lives, and a new car is our right.
Then We Watched The Dog Show
As I still hadn’t gone into labor (despite our rousing discussion about the manipulation of the American consumer), we then watched the national dog show, which had a great deal less marketing. My only beef there is that the greyhound didn’t win.
But other than that, watching fancifully groomed dogs prance around a ring was pretty adorable. Also, dogs with super long hair are hilarious! Frugal Hound, for her part, didn’t watch at all–she was fast asleep recovering from the morning’s “attempt-to-induce-labor” long walk. We were really pulling out all the stops to encourage Babywoods.
What Frugality Is Really About
Sure, frugal hacks and taking your lunch to work and washing your own dog are all frugality tactics, but the core of successful frugality is rooted in disrupting the psychological pleasure cycle involved with buying new things. The association we have in our culture that buying = happiness is firmly entrenched in our lizard brains. We’re told, and hence we believe, that spending money is a means to bring jubilation into our lives. So if we spend and don’t experience a resulting jolt of euphoria, then the solution must naturally be to spend more.
This approach then puts us on the never-ending treadmill of hedonic adaptation whereby we must continually increase our spending, and our acquisition of stuff, in order to commensurately increase our pleasure. When we conversely embrace the joy that comes when less is enough, we’re able to liberate ourselves from this cycle.
The most crucial component of embracing the lifestyle that’ll lead to financial independence is to investigate, understand, and upset the flawed gratification we derive from spending. Everyone’s impulse to buy is triggered by different things, but the core of overspending is often rooted in a deeper connection with where we find satisfaction in life.
Coming to this awareness is vastly more important than working at the fringes of your budget. Our very connection to spending, and our ability to joyfully embrace extreme frugality, is much more profound than simply learning “five quick frugal hacks.” It’s about fundamentally changing the way we view money and its role in our lives. Mr. Frugalwoods and I see money as a tool to get the things we need—not as a substitute for human emotion, connection, fulfillment, or success.
Why do you think we spend?
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