Consumed By Our Consumer Society

THINGS! More things to clutter our desks, our shelves, our homes!

Years ago, on our way to Borrego Springs, just past Dudley's bakery, we saw a man carving a bear with a chain saw. There were several bears in various stages of completion, some standing, some sitting. One was holding a salmon in his front paws. He was about four feet tall and was almost finished. We stopped and asked if he was for sale. Yes he was, and not too expensive. We gave a deposit and said we would pick him up on our way back home.

The bear is now standing by the front door to my apartment at the White Sands of La Jolla, and I smile at him as I pass by. He gives me pleasure, but did I "need" him? This was, of course, totally "impulse buying."

Planned purchases require a four-step process. First, there must be an awareness of need or want. Second, there is the search for the object, either by going to a store, looking through a mail-order catalog, or going online. Third, there is the actual act of acquiring the object, which may include bargaining. And fourth, there is the ownership of the object by either using it, wearing it, eating it, looking at it, or listening to it.

Impulse buying has none of these elements -- you see it, it sings to you, you want to possess it, you might deliberate for a few seconds about the fact that you don't really need or maybe you cannot really afford it, and then you buy it anyway because practical factors don't really play a part in the decision. Acquiring something you want triggers the pleasure centers of your brain.

Some people, mostly collectors, enjoy the hunt, the challenge of finding something rare. They will own the object for a while, then sell it and look for another. Other people are packrats: they like owning a lot of stuff and live in cluttered houses, often to the dismay of their spouses.

I know for myself, when I pass a frozen yogurt place, I stop and indulge even when I'm not hungry. It's good, so why not? I have read that one should never grocery shop when hungry because one buys on impulse. When my husband and I traveled, we bought souvenirs that ended up gathering dust in unseen corners of the house. Our kids begged us not to bring them anything anymore from exotic places. Tour buses and cruise ships have shopping tours, shopping stopovers, and almost everyone helps the economy of the countries visited, returning home saying, "where shall we put it" or "who can we give this to?"

I remember, as a child in Europe, our families took dominical walks together. We strolled on Sundays enjoying the various parks near Paris. Later, when I had children and lived in Switzerland, families went walking in the surrounding countryside. That was the weekend activity. Today, families go to the mall. When my granddaughter was a teenager, she went to the mall with her friends with nothing special in mind, and they returned with "must have" items such as blue nail polish or another T-shirt. Shopping is now equated with other legitimate leisure activities.

The lines are too often blurred between "need" and "want." Do I need the sweater in the store window? Probably not. Can I use it? Probably yes. Do I want it? Definitely. So do I buy it? Mail order catalogs, beautifully displayed store windows enticing customers to come in and browse, and ads in newspapers, all beckon us to spend money to own more. Now we own too much because we are prodded by our environment and our culture to keep buying to respond to our fleeting desires for this or that not-really-needed object.

We used to go to the local library to borrow books, now we buy them. I remember shortening dresses and skirts when fashions changed and adding hems and borders to lengthen them when the new look was longer. We re-heeled our shoes, darned our socks, and even took our stockings with runs to the woman who specialized in re-weaving them. We made do, it was good enough; perfect was not in our vocabularies. Our aspirations were more limited. We were not bombarded by so many promising ads.

Were we less stressed because of fewer choices, less need to make constant decisions? I do not know, nostalgia creates memory gaps, but I do know that we should all do less shopping, own less, get rid of clutter, and have a life free of too much stuff. Discarding something often feels like a loss and that can trigger stress hormones, which is why it is so hard to get rid of things. So far I am a failed minimalist.