Why do I keep buying things I don’t need? How to minimize the lure of the ‘new’

Why do I keep buying things I don’t need? How to minimize the lure of the ‘new’

I have often asked myself ‘Why do I keep buying things I don’t need?’

At different times in my life, I have have felt compelled to buy things I don’t really need. This is particularly the case for things I already have a lot of, for example:

  • clothing, accessories and shoes,
  • books,
  • crockery, and
  • homeware such as kitchen items.

When I go to charity shops, it’s clear that I am not the only person with this problem. There are huge volumes of donated items, some unused and still in packaging, some with price labels still attached.

I am not alone in buying things I don’t need. What is driving this behaviour? And how can we get it under control, so we are not wasting resources and filling up landfills with surplus items?

What are the reasons behind buying things I don’t need?

There are a wide range of reasons why we buy unnecessary things or duplicate items. Some are deeply personal, others are based on our cultural values.

Here are some of those reasons why we keep on buying things we might not need:

1. We have a shopping habit

Shopping is a habit or pastime for many people. People enjoy walking round the shops or browsing online. And it can be linked to a time of day, like a lunch break during the work day, or browsing online in the evening.

Breaking the ‘shopping as a leisure activity’ habit would reduce or limit impulse spending.

2. We want to boost our mood or relieve depression

There’s a reason that the term ‘retail therapy’ was coined. A 2014 study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that retail therapy can make people happier immediately. 

However, shopping with the purpose of improving your mood is not a a cure for anxiety or depression, and will usually bring only a short term feeling of comfort. ‘Comfort buying’, similar to comfort eating, can lead to problems in the long term if you are doing it too often.

3. We want to keep up with others or impress them

It’s easy to see the material things that other people have and want to have those things too. We may try to keep up with their purchases like new model cars, or expensive clothes or accessories, so that we can show that we have a similar lifestyle. Trying to keep up with the standards your friends, neighbours and family have may be important to your sense of pride and identity.

You might not really want the latest car or expensive clothes, but you feel you should aspire to these things, for a sense of status. This is especially true if you work in a profession in which people tend to ‘look the part’, like the legal profession.

What other people need may not necessarily be what you need. And if you are trying to keep up with others, you are likely to be buying things you really don’t need.

4. We forget about what we already have

Have you ever been shopping and bought a new piece of clothing, only to get home and find a very similar item in your wardrobe already?

Often I end up buying things I don’t need when I buy a duplicate of something I already have. Especially if an item has been tucked away in a cupboard and is rarely used. And with clothes, the 80/20 rule seems to be the case for lots of us, as we wear 20% of our clothing for 80% of the time.

5. We see too much advertising / marketing

Advertising and marketing are powerful tools for companies selling their products. They spend millions getting their messages out to us in so many ways nowadays.

And I say this as a blogger with a website running adverts, as it’s a way for me to make money from writing. So I know I am part of the marketing machine that dominates our lives.

I have bought items when I have seen them advertised online or in an email newsletter from a company I subscribed to. My kids are susceptible to marketing when they watch YouTube, as there are so many targeted adverts there.

6. We don’t have money, time or inclination to fix or repair things

It’s common to buy a new thing to replace something that is broken and needs fixing. Partly because products are often so cheap, and fixing it would cost more than the price of a new one.

For example, it is cheaper to buy a new low cost kettle or toaster than it is for a repair company to fix your broken one. Items like household electrical appliances are mass produced cheaply, with a throwaway mindset built in the process. It’s cheap to buy a new one, so why bother fixing it?

This planned obsolescence is built into products to make consumers buy more of the items. And it’s hard to fix many of these items yourself nowadays.

7. We have personal histories of insecurities

Some people have experienced times in their lives when they did not have enough to eat, or enough money to buy necessities like clothes or shoes. This is noticeable in the Baby Boom generation, who grew up after World War 2, and experienced food rationing as kids. But it can apply to anyone who have lived in poverty or had insecurities from difficult upbringings.

People may equate having more items with having more security in their lives. Some people hoard pantries full of food, especially if they grew up not knowing where their next meal was coming from.

And many people have taken to hoarding food during the last two years of the pandemic, due to legitimate worries about security of the food chain. This is after seeing dwindling supplies of food in supermarkets, which can trigger worries of food insecurity for many people. I know that I am prone to this, and that I have a ‘prepper’ mentality. I have stocked up, by buying things I don’t need right now, but have bought them for future use.

8. We like to have collections of particular items

As a collector of vintage homeware, I know I really don’t need another retro bowl or dish. I have more than I can possibly use. Yet, if I see one of my favourite types in a charity shop for a reasonable price, I find it hard to resist buying it.

Being a collector can lead to being a ‘completist’, you feel like you have to buy the whole set or all pieces in a range. You might feel like you are always looking for a particular piece to complete your collection. And you might get into a bidding war for that elusive, rare unicorn piece, and pay too much ,to satisfy your want to own all the things.

8. We are live in capitalist economies that make continual spending the norm

I have only lived in Western world capitalist societies. I have no idea what it is like to live under a communist or socialist regime, so I can’t comment on that kind of life.

However, living in a capitalist economy means I feel I have to keep spending more to keep the system going.

My family aspire to be more self sufficient and live an off grid lifestyle. We do this by growing some of our food, and making use of alternate ways to get things like bartering or getting items for free. And collecting rain water for all our water use, and have solar panels to create electricity.

But it’s practically impossible to avoid all economic transactions. And honestly, I don’t want to have to grow or produce all the things we regularly use, like coffee, flour, and dairy products. People became specialised in production of different items for good reasons.

However, I sometimes feel that I’m buying things I don’t need in order to keep the economy going. Especially at tough times, when we are encouraged to buy local – of course I want to support people in my area and country. If everyone decided to stop buying so much and become more minimalist, our economy would suffer and people would lose their livelihoods.

How can I stop myself from buying things I don’t need?

There are so many reasons why we buy too much or buy unnecessary items. However, we can reduce the excess consumption of goods, by rethinking our shopping habits. Changing habits is not always easy, but these ideas may help you stop buying things you don’t need.

Some ways to stop buying things you don’t need

Ask yourself the question ‘Do I actually need this?’

If you continually find yourself making unnecessary purchases, you might have to start being tough on yourself. Pause before you get to the till, online checkout or make an offer on an auction website, and ask yourself ‘Do I really need this?’ Be honest with yourself.

It might feel annoying or uncomfortable to challenge yourself at first, but you will get better at it with time. I find it a struggle at times, but it has stopped me buying things I don’t need lately.

A similar question is ‘Do I have space / room for this item?’. If your wardrobe is already full of clothes, or your cupboards are piled up high, adding another item will lead to even more overcrowding. If your storage is in a cluttered state, it can be hard to find things you do want to use, when you need to use them.

Reflect on what you already have

Many of us have so many possessions in our homes already. Lots of us are incredibly fortunate to have most of what we need in life.

One way to avoid buying things you don’t need is to think about what you already have. Feeling grateful for what you have can help you reduce impulse purchasing.

One common situation is having lots of clothes in our wardrobes or closets, and not really needing to buy new ones. You could do an inventory check on your clothes, to see what you have, and identify any items you might actually need. See post for how to review your current clothing – 4 ideas for a more eco friendly wardrobe.

Don’t shop just for something to do – find other activities

If you spend less time going to shops or online stores, you can reduce the temptation to make unnecessary purchases. Reducing the opportunities to buy things will reduce how often and how much you buy.

You can also reduce temptation by unsubscribing from store mailing lists, and blocking junk mail by putting a sticker on your mailbox.

If shopping is filling an emotional or psychological gap for you, you could try taking up new low cost or free hobbies. But you probably need to be careful that you don’t start spending loads of money on equipment, though.

Ideas include:

  • Arts and craft activities
  • Reading
  • Listening to podcasts
  • Exercise such as walking
  • Getting out in nature
  • Gardening
  • Selling surplus items from around your home
  • Writing in a journal
  • Starting a blog
  • Volunteering your time

Think about your money goals and set a budget

If you find yourself frequently buying things you don’t need you could be wasting money, or getting into debt. It might be time to look at your overall money situation, and set a budget. There are many great books and resources online about how to set a budget. Use these ideas to focus in on your money goals.

Part of setting a budget is to look at what you currently spend money on. When you see how much you spend on different categories such as groceries and clothing, you may see ways you are spending more than necessary. Setting yourself a budget in these areas could help you save money towards bigger goals like having a holiday, getting debt-free, or starting a business.

Buying with cash can make the purchase seem more ‘real’

People are more likely to make impulse buys using credit or debit cards, compared to buying with cash. It’s so easy to spend on a card, but feels more ‘real’ when you hand over actual money.

However, currently it’s more common to pay by card. It is getting more difficult to get to a bank or a cashpoint to withdraw cash. So this strategy may work best for when you go to a specific event or occasion, where you can get a specific amount of cash as your budget for the event. When the cash is gone, you have to stop spending!

Don’t fall for marketing tactics

If you don’t really need an item, even if there is a special offer or discount, it will still be a waste of your money to buy it. Even if there is a limited time offer, or free shipping, you don’t have to make an impulse buy based on these tactics.

If an item is on offer for a special price, ask yourself if you would still buy it at full price. This will help you decide if you really need it, or are just influenced by the price reduction.

If you need to buy something – buy good quality and use it

Sometimes you really do need to buy an item, that’s the reality of life. If you can, and I know this isn’t the case for everyone, try to buy a decent quality item that will last.

People often buy a great item they love, but end up saving it ‘for best’ or a special occasion. And then buy a cheaper or lower quality item for everyday use. This seems a shame, if the great item is never used. Using the items at least puts the money you spent on them to use.

It’s ok to buy nothing

Even if you have spent time looking in the shops or online, you don’t need to buy things every time. Shopping does take up time, and people may feel that they have wasted their time if they don’t make a purchase.

But you don’t have to buy for the sake of it, to justify the time you have invested in shopping. Buying something you don’t need is more of a waste overall.

Further reading and listening about mindful spending:

I love the podcast, website and films by The Minimalists . I started listening to their podcasts when I first thought about changing my lifestyle, back in 2017. Listening to their discussions on their old ways of mindless spending and debt, and their more purposeful approach nowadays was the eye opener I needed to change my own life.

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