Buying Into Our Personal Narrative


Why do you shop? What makes you purchase the things you do? Why do you like what you like or want what you want?

Most of us make our purchases without asking “why”, and for those times we do, “because I like/need/want it” is usually considered a sufficient answer. But what’s the why behind that? For small purchases that are consumed in private, like toothpaste or hairspray, we rarely think twice about the brand, we care mostly about price. But more expensive purchases that publicly visible, everything from clothes to our homes, we are much more sensitive to what the object communicates to our peers, and what it says to and about ourselves, than what it actually does for us. This extrinsic, intangible value of the item makes the price and cost a little blurry in our eyes. We will spend whatever we think our personal narrative is worth.

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Take a purse, for example. Fundamentally, a designer Birkin bag that retails for tens of thousands of dollars performs the same function as a plastic grocery bag, which is to hold and carry items from one place to another. But why do some people elect to purchase the expensive designer purse rather than carry their things about a plastic bag? There is some argument for practicality. Obviously leather will hold up better than plastic long term. But tens of thousands of dollars better? No. So then the argument comes down to craftmanship and aesthetics, but eventually descends to the real root of it all, which is status. The Birkin communicates affluence, a grocery bag does not.

We want what we shop for to align with our values. We want what we buy to reflect who we are. But, perhaps more than anything, we want what we buy to reassure us that we are, or at the very least are becoming, who we want to be.

Many people think materialism is merely about trying to impress other people, but it goes much deeper than that. We buy things to impress ourselves. Many of our purchases not only tell other people we are successful, they tell us that we are.

Aspirational spending refers to the act of buying something hoping it has a transformative effect on you or your circumstances. That by purchasing an item or experience, we adopt traits and characteristics of that item or experience — or the social class that typically enjoys it. This means buying designer clothes on minimum wage, or living in an apartment or house that eats up more than 35% of your income. It’s driving the car you can’t afford or charging vacations to your credit cards. You hope that by buying in, even it takes debt to do so, the item and all its intangible attributes become yours.

Of course, it’s not just about wealth, status, and success.

We buy things for entertainment, for social or environmental causes.

We buy things because we are bored or angry or happy.

We buy things after long deliberations, and we buy things on a whim.

But we always buy.

The market for organic and unprocessed foods is as much about buying self-assurance that we’re a concerned citizen of the earth as it is about doing actual good. This is why marketing is so effective: it is so much more than convincing you that you want something, it is hinging your identity on it.

Think you’re not playing the game because you don’t shop? Think again. Abstaining from buying is more or less the same as doing so when it comes to telling the story about who you are. Just because it’s the opposite act doesn’t negate the fact these are still two sides of the same coin. The person that does not buy, does so because the act of not participating in consumption of one item or another (or consumption in general) tells themselves and the world a different tale — but it’s a story nonetheless. We hope that by not buying we show others that we are unmaterialistic or uninterested, that we are frugal or responsible.

In a world continuously motivated by insatiable appetites, being able to not need or not want may be the greatest status symbol of all.

But it is still a status symbol.

Regardless, with every purchase we buy in to our own narrative. That we are trendy, wealthy, practical, extravagant, tech-savvy, health conscious, socially concerned, committed to environmental sustainability, interested in minimalism, interested in excess, or interesting, period. We want our stuff to say who we are, or who we are not, and we always want that message to be loud and clear.

If you hack into the plot of the story behind your spending, you might be able to steer it in one direction or the other, but you won’t be able to stop it. For that reason, my only advice is that you make sure your purchases align with your values, because they won’t with anyone else’s. Whether you’re spendy or spendthrift, someone will disagree with your purchase or lack thereof — or rather, misinterpret the story you’re trying to tell.

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