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What I am Learning from a Self-Imposed, 6 Month Purchasing Freeze

If I were to say I am a shopping addict, the image you might create is of a guy carrying a dozen bags on each arm walking distractedly towards the next store in a shopping mall. In reality I am more of an obsessive online spender. I’m what Malcolm Gladwell calls a maven. Purchasing is a sport, a hobby, predicated on making the very best decision based first a learning of everything you can about a product category.

I once spent 40+ hours researching a storm shell (a hyped-up rain jacket). I looked at the weights, limitations, and benefits of every breathable clothing material. I looked at the variations in seam sealing techniques of every major manufacturer. I watched online videos of jacket owners performing tests and looking for flaws in design and build. I looked for features like pocket designs, hood configurations, and adaptability.

I would feel a rush when I made my way to an REI or received a box from the one online retailer in the US selling products produced by an obscure Scandinavian manufacturer offering a slightly different design variation than that of Marmot, TNF, or other more ubiquitous US manufacturers. And I did this with survival knives, camping equipment, flashlights, cooking equipment, electronics and more. After one project was completed I was on to the next, accompanied with a sense of urgency and importance.

I have realized that my desire to learn and the excitement of the purchase (that emotional rush that comes when new packages arrive in the mail) combined into an obsessive compulsive, out of control spiraling that would infringe on my ability to focus fully or ever hope to exist in the moment. There is a sense of urgency with this type of purchasing. I would feel as though something was wrong or missing until I had discovered and owned that perfect purchase. And the longer I “researched” and obsessed, the more exciting the fulfillment would become.

Companies know this to be true. Product marketing and branding professionals place significance on products and features, each year offering a better version of the last. What came last year was good, but what we have this year is even warmer, better, safer, more breathable, more resilient, better customized for specific applications, smaller, lighter, revolutionary, cutting edge, or just plain game changing. Every year we are told our lives will be better with this unique, more improved product.

And in some cases this is true. But when I walk around in my hi-tech, rain proof jacket with storm flaps, pit zips, and a material guaranteed to keep moisture out while still remaining breathable I should remind myself that the first few individuals to climb Everest or walk to the South Pole did so with animal furs, cotton, and wool. Do I really need the latest advancement in waterproof protection to help on the walk from my car to the office? Do I really need a survival knife with just the perfect balance between length, weight, and steel? Will 1095 carbon, VG10, or 154cm really make a big difference on those 20 mile r/t backpacking or simple car camping trips on heavily populated trails (if you understand this sentence, you may too have a problem)? Will the jump from 140 to 160 lumens in a flashlight make a difference in my way of life?

But Robert, you say, this is a hobby! Sure. I get it completely. Its fun to learn and use this knowledge. But is this the best use of your time or could you possibly be filling in space that could be more useful as, say, room to breathe?

For the past five months, as part of a New Year’s resolution, I have almost entirely cut out extraneous spending from my life, and by default obsessive product researching. I have purchased only the very basics, and then only just a few items. On two separate occasions I began the process of looking for something I deemed “necessary”, my brain tricking me into old behaviors. And after feeling the obsessive and emotional inclinations pop back up, I cancelled the search. That was as or perhaps more rewarding as not purchasing in the first place.

After the first two months I began to notice an increase in the time I had available. I started going to the gym, attending a weekly meditation class, and spending time reading. I went out more often and spent time wandering around the city. Most importantly I spent time thinking critically about where I was and where I wanted to be.

Critical thinking is something that is a bit of a challenge when applied to the self. We all know the old adage about the unexamined life, but we also know how much easier it is to pick the problem out in someone else than to see the glaring error in what we do ourselves. And we also get caught in patterns of behavior rather than look at what those behaviors mean.

Throughout the last few months I have been keeping tally of my emotional impulses (what else can I do with all of this free time?). There are trends in what and how I look for purchases. Some results include:

  • I am inclined to purchase survival type equipment when I feel powerless
  • I am inclined to research vacations or travel options when I feel stuck
  • I am prone to distract myself with entertainment when I know I have something serious to consider or accomplish
  • I am inclined to purchase cooking equipment when I feel tired of what I’m doing at home

Do you see the trend? My inclination towards purchasing and distraction are directly correlated with a deficiency in my emotional well-being: aka, I have been self-medicating. My purchasing has not been meaningless. It has a cause and an effect. The cause is the set of emotions that are felt due to stressors and variables felt in my life. The effect is that I am unable to deal with the cause because I am not aware of it due to the fullness of my mind in relation to purchasing. The emotional impulses are not satisfied, they are simply brushed aside.

In the short time I have been stepping back from purchasing I have noticed small windows of growing clarity. I’m already finding that I have time for to create better boundaries, channel impulses, create opportunities, be more present in every moment, ease stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed, and develop more room to breathe and examine what is really going on in my life.

There was a study once in which researchers looked at the lives of lottery winners. They found that after their win, these new millionaires would keep purchasing more and more expensive items and adapting to a more expensive lifestyle. Essentially, what thrilled them once no longer thrilled them and they needed more and more spending to feel the enjoyment they once felt. This was termed the hedonic escalator.

Take that idea and apply to purchasing, entertainment, or anything else that is enjoyable but capable of moving into a space out of control. I joke with people that I am either spiraling upwards or downwards. I am either moving towards positive actions or negative. I cannot stay still. I know that I’m not alone. The question then becomes, what are you moving towards, and are you aware of this movement? What could you gain by taking a step back?

What I am Learning from a Self-Imposed, 6 Month Purchasing Freeze

If I were to say I am a shopping addict, the image you might create is of a guy carrying a dozen bags on each arm walking distractedly towards the next store in a shopping mall. In reality I am more of an obsessive online spender. I’m what Malcolm Gladwell calls a maven. Purchasing is a sport, a hobby, predicated on making the very best decision based first a learning of everything you can about a product category.

I once spent 40+ hours researching a storm shell (a hyped-up rain jacket). I looked at the weights, limitations, and benefits of every breathable clothing material. I looked at the variations in seam sealing techniques of every major manufacturer. I watched online videos of jacket owners performing tests and looking for flaws in design and build. I looked for features like pocket designs, hood configurations, and adaptability.

I would feel a rush when I made my way to an REI or received a box from the one online retailer in the US selling products produced by an obscure Scandinavian manufacturer offering a slightly different design variation than that of Marmot, TNF, or other more ubiquitous US manufacturers. And I did this with survival knives, camping equipment, flashlights, cooking equipment, electronics and more. After one project was completed I was on to the next, accompanied with a sense of urgency and importance.

I have realized that my desire to learn and the excitement of the purchase (that emotional rush that comes when new packages arrive in the mail) combined into an obsessive compulsive, out of control spiraling that would infringe on my ability to focus fully or ever hope to exist in the moment. There is a sense of urgency with this type of purchasing. I would feel as though something was wrong or missing until I had discovered and owned that perfect purchase. And the longer I “researched” and obsessed, the more exciting the fulfillment would become.

Companies know this to be true. Product marketing and branding professionals place significance on products and features, each year offering a better version of the last. What came last year was good, but what we have this year is even warmer, better, safer, more breathable, more resilient, better customized for specific applications, smaller, lighter, revolutionary, cutting edge, or just plain game changing. Every year we are told our lives will be better with this unique, more improved product.

And in some cases this is true. But when I walk around in my hi-tech, rain proof jacket with storm flaps, pit zips, and a material guaranteed to keep moisture out while still remaining breathable I should remind myself that the first few individuals to climb Everest or walk to the South Pole did so with animal furs, cotton, and wool. Do I really need the latest advancement in waterproof protection to help on the walk from my car to the office? Do I really need a survival knife with just the perfect balance between length, weight, and steel? Will 1095 carbon, VG10, or 154cm really make a big difference on those 20 mile r/t backpacking or simple car camping trips on heavily populated trails (if you understand this sentence, you may too have a problem)? Will the jump from 140 to 160 lumens in a flashlight make a difference in my way of life?

But Robert, you say, this is a hobby! Sure. I get it completely. Its fun to learn and use this knowledge. But is this the best use of your time or could you possibly be filling in space that could be more useful as, say, room to breathe?

For the past five months, as part of a New Year’s resolution, I have almost entirely cut out extraneous spending from my life, and by default obsessive product researching. I have purchased only the very basics, and then only just a few items. On two separate occasions I began the process of looking for something I deemed “necessary”, my brain tricking me into old behaviors. And after feeling the obsessive and emotional inclinations pop back up, I cancelled the search. That was as or perhaps more rewarding as not purchasing in the first place.

After the first two months I began to notice an increase in the time I had available. I started going to the gym, attending a weekly meditation class, and spending time reading. I went out more often and spent time wandering around the city. Most importantly I spent time thinking critically about where I was and where I wanted to be.

Critical thinking is something that is a bit of a challenge when applied to the self. We all know the old adage about the unexamined life, but we also know how much easier it is to pick the problem out in someone else than to see the glaring error in what we do ourselves. And we also get caught in patterns of behavior rather than look at what those behaviors mean.

Throughout the last few months I have been keeping tally of my emotional impulses (what else can I do with all of this free time?). There are trends in what and how I look for purchases. Some results include:

  • I am inclined to purchase survival type equipment when I feel powerless
  • I am inclined to research vacations or travel options when I feel stuck
  • I am prone to distract myself with entertainment when I know I have something serious to consider or accomplish
  • I am inclined to purchase cooking equipment when I feel tired of what I’m doing at home

Do you see the trend? My inclination towards purchasing and distraction are directly correlated with a deficiency in my emotional well-being: aka, I have been self-medicating. My purchasing has not been meaningless. It has a cause and an effect. The cause is the set of emotions that are felt due to stressors and variables felt in my life. The effect is that I am unable to deal with the cause because I am not aware of it due to the fullness of my mind in relation to purchasing. The emotional impulses are not satisfied, they are simply brushed aside.

In the short time I have been stepping back from purchasing I have noticed small windows of growing clarity. I’m already finding that I have time for to create better boundaries, channel impulses, create opportunities, be more present in every moment, ease stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed, and develop more room to breathe and examine what is really going on in my life.

There was a study once in which researchers looked at the lives of lottery winners. They found that after their win, these new millionaires would keep purchasing more and more expensive items and adapting to a more expensive lifestyle. Essentially, what thrilled them once no longer thrilled them and they needed more and more spending to feel the enjoyment they once felt. This was termed the hedonic escalator.

Take that idea and apply to purchasing, entertainment, or anything else that is enjoyable but capable of moving into a space out of control. I joke with people that I am either spiraling upwards or downwards. I am either moving towards positive actions or negative. I cannot stay still. I know that I’m not alone. The question then becomes, what are you moving towards, and are you aware of this movement? What could you gain by taking a step back?

ramurphy

ramurphy

I’m a married, 30 something living in San Francisco. I spend my time eating well, getting together with friends, exploring new ideas and places, and reading wide into a variety of subjects. I love to learn and consider new ideas.

20 Comments

Chet

7 January , 2014 at 2:15 pm

This is like reading my own biography. I too had the same exact spending habits and impulses. This year, I have dedicated myself back to school, stopped making purchases and focus on my life. It is amazing the freedom that I have now that I am not searching for the next big item to come along. Great article and good luck.

ramurphy

8 January , 2014 at 6:20 am

Glad you were both able to connect with the article and progress your life forward! That's huge, Chet. I think a lot about the next step in life. Its great to hear from people who have taken the leap into the next stage. I was just telling my wife earlier tonight about how much more free I have felt this last year. With all these purchases and obsessions we are like Jacob Marley carrying these heavy chains, keeping us from being truly free. Thanks for the inspiration.

Anthony

7 January , 2014 at 2:35 pm

I used to partake in this behavior as well, constantly using retail therapy as a way to temporarily soothe my unhappiness. I broke the cycle by going traveling for a year, and I realized how little I actually needed to be happy and how much society tried to brainwash me into thinking I needed things to be happy to fund its endless cycle of consumerism. Brilliant article.

ramurphy

8 January , 2014 at 6:16 am

Thanks for your honesty. What a great story. How cool that you were able to learn so many things and travel the world. I think you are completely right, though I believe you have a better handle on it. We truly need very, very little. The rest is just stuff, isn't it?

Aaron

7 January , 2014 at 3:01 pm

Great article and I believe I am going through the same thing (especially the gear obsession). I think you nailed it noting that feeling stuck perpetuates the need for survival gear, as that seems to be my predicament. I'm going to follow your advice on a hiatus. Thank you for the perspective.

ramurphy

8 January , 2014 at 6:14 am

Sorry you are going through that but I get how you feel. Being stuck is a terrible feeling. It seems like there is no end relief. Survival represents a fantasy that escape from the doldrums of 9-5, or whatever it is, that is constraining our emotions is possible. Looking at a new sleeping bag and the like I can envision the desire for adventure that is not being satisfied now. I think it was John Muir who spoke of the over-civilized people starving for something real. What we miss in sitting in a desk chair, living out adventures vicariously through actors on a screen, and spending evenings staring at devices will never be satisfied, only brushed aside. What we need is survival from the monotony of daily living. So in that sense, you could actually be in survival mode... IMHO

wife of an online shopping addict

7 January , 2014 at 11:44 pm

Thank you for your insights! As a new wife, I've been on the sidelines watching this happen, seeing and feeling the same stresses and aching for the chance that the laptop will close, the smart phone will be placed aside and we can face what is really going on together. That we will be able to help each other face whatever challenges are really happening, like car repairs, tight budgets, and plain old dreary winter days and find ways to enjoy the many good things we have... this can only be done when you live in the present (and interesting enough you seem to have more time to prepare and deal) I can only hope my stressed researching/shopping addict will come out of the haze and have a shopping freeze of his own.

ramurphy

8 January , 2014 at 6:07 am

Thank you for thoughtful response. I'm sure my wife would comment that she had been there and sometimes still is there. Its interesting how much this whole internet thing occupies our lives. We have the potential to be engaged in something specific and focused 24/7. Worst of all it comes with this total feeling of urgency. Its as though I need to find out this point or else... something, I don't know what, will happen. I HAVE to find it out. And it's a lie. But its as though we all have ADD. Having been in your husbands shoes its not fun for him either. Feeling a compulsion is often exhausting, overwhelming, and frustrating. And all along I felt that I was missing something. But that took time to put together. While in the middle of it you just feel like you are on a quest and can't quit. For me something was missing and I had to get it fixed. Its tough to treat the symptoms, though sometimes the symptoms get in the way of real healing. This is not easy to go through for anyone. But know that you are not alone. If anything has become clear for me through writing this simple confession, it's that there are MANY people out there also either feeling similarly out of control or with someone who is.

Ian

8 January , 2014 at 3:35 am

What storm shell did you end up getting? Arcteryx? Fjall Raven?

ramurphy

8 January , 2014 at 5:57 am

:) I got a Norrona in the end... And then it started leaking (facepalm). Great fitting jacket, but after hours of work I still needed a rain jacket. I ended up returning it and buying something half the price that works just fine. Lesson learned...

Brandon

8 January , 2014 at 7:03 am

Just wanted to say thank you for plainly explaining the problem I didn't realize I had. Or at least I couldn't put a finger on it. I hope your article changes other people's lives the same way that it's already changed mine. The first step is realizing there's a problem.

Tom

10 January , 2014 at 11:12 pm

Thanks - i also thought you were writing about me (an adventure gear hound IT guy full with lots of nordic gortex and pro cooking equipment!) - I also instantly knew you were talking about Norrona as I have a lot of it too and miled - amazing gear for those of us not built like line-backers! :) North66 and and Fjallraven too! oops better stop. What did you do with all your extra gear? if you only need a couple icebreaker shirts, Norrona jackets, and some swiss boots to go with the nordic gortex? sell on ebay give to your buddies and take them hiking? Did you travel more with the money saved too?

Karen J

13 January , 2014 at 1:39 am

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you! While your "addiction tally" of emotional impulses is specific to you, the concept is surely universal - "There are trends in what and how I (fill in the blank). Some results include: I am inclined to purchase [X] when I feel powerless I am inclined to research [Y] when I feel stuck I am prone to distract myself with [Z] when I know I have something serious to consider or accomplish I am inclined to purchase [something] when I feel tired of what I’m doing at home..." - I tend to get stuck in a card game, when either I really *want to* unravel my mind about something or I really *don't want to* think about something! You've shown me a great way to dig into "what that's all about" - and then into changing it! (with a HatTip to LifeHack!)

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