Parents Talk Back

Why We Buy Things We Don't Need

It was one of those days. The house was upside-down, and the kids -- ages 5 and 3 at the time -- wouldn't listen. My list of things to do kept getting longer. Deadlines loomed. I was tired, stressed and felt resentment and self-pity building.

All of a sudden, my most pressing problem became that I had nothing to wear to an upcoming event.

I piled the children in the car and headed to a sale at a favorite boutique. I yelled at them nearly the entire 15 minutes we were in the car. By the time I had them in the double stroller, the youngest had fallen asleep.

I started piling clothes in my arms. We headed to a dressing room. Nearly two hours later, I had bought a purse, a pair of shoes, a top, a pair of pants and two bracelets. And I felt so much better.

I was calmer. I was happier. I was nicer to my sweet children, ready to face dinner, bedtime battles and a late night of working.

It was retail therapy at its worst. I knew the guilt would hit soon enough.

Even though I live within my means and refuse to carry a credit card balance, I'm haunted by my impulse to accumulate more stuff. I hate how much I enjoy buying.

A year and a half ago, I came face-to-face with my dueling inner demons. I swore off buying anything new for myself for an entire year. I told all my friends that I was on a consumption diet and not to call me when they went shopping.

They thought I was nuts. My consumption diet lasted a few months -- until the week before we left for vacation. My outward excuse was that I had nothing appropriate for Florida weather, but I suspect the real reason I binged at Target was because the week before a trip is pure hell for most working parents. You're trying to get extra work done so you're not so far behind when you come back, along with setting up travel logistics, getting the kids packed and making other arrangements. You're exhausted before you arrive at your destination.

There's a documented connection between our emotions and how much we spend. If we are sad, feeling sorry for ourselves or stressed, we shop more. We ignore the other, more responsible voices in our head: Is this stuff made with any consideration for Earth's limited resources? Are the workers paid a fair, living wage? How long before it ends up in a landfill?

Like any temporary, euphoric fix, we are trying to fill a void.

Even before I watched the viral anti-stuff video at storyofstuff.org, I knew I wanted to break this cycle. Intellectually, we know it's a false notion that things can sustain happiness. Lives today are filled with more things than ever, and less happiness. We're filling the world with stuff and throwing fuel on a raging consumption fire.

To anyone who feels the pain of this economy, I don't believe we can spend our way out of this one. We are told that individual consumers keep the economy chugging, and we have internalized that message -- our national spending far outpaces our saving.

I have plans to restart my consumption diet. It's best to take it day by day, week by week. I will consider this list of things that make me happy and don't require a trip to the mall: my children's laughter, a favorite song, a well-told story, a nap, a brisk walk, a conversation with a friend or family member. I vow to think about the consequences beyond limited closet space.

This is a time to invest in experiences, not things.

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