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Deconstructing your consumption

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KAI RYSSDAL: So, consumers are feeling better. Great. Maybe now we’ll all start buying more stuff, the economy will turn around, and by springtime this whole mess is a distant memory. . . . Or maybe not.

But either way, commentator Rob Walker says now’s a good time for us to take a hard look at our habits. Not just what we consume, but how.

ROB WALKER: Lots of us are having second thoughts at the point of purchase these days. But if the economy has you feeling like you want to change your shopping habits, don’t just think about it when you’re standing in front of the cash register. Think about it when you’re standing in front of your stuff.

The ads and the sales promotions we’re bombarded with all point us to the moment of purchase, and admit it, that’s the part of shopping we focus on, too. It feels good to get the latest tech toy, or the new pair of premium denim jeans, or the great deal on 400-thread-count sheets.

That’s the consumption climax, but isn’t the end of the story. That comes on the inevitable day when whatever you bought is used up, obsolete, or found neglected in the back of the closet. We go to one store or another every week for new stuff, but we don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on our old stuff. Instead we put that off, maybe because it can be an uncomfortable moment of truth: Where did I get all this stuff?

Actually, that’s exactly why you shouldn’t avoid such moments. For starters, it’s worth trying to wring some satisfaction out of how we get rid of things — how we unconsume. Just replaced that perfectly good tech toy with a newer one? Well, finding your unconsumed possessions a new home through Freecycle, Craig’s List or even Goodwill feels better than throwing them out in a big purge before you move.

But the more lasting payoff is that embracing unconsumption moments, instead of avoiding them, offers a whole other way of evaluating your consumption habits — for better and for worse. Those premium jeans went out of style way before the denim wore out. But those sheets were actually worth the money. You’ll learn a lot more from your own stuff than you will from the latest sales promotions. And it might just change the way you shop.

RYSSDAL: Rob Walker writes the “Consumed” column for The New York Times Magazine. His latest book is “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.”

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