The truth about why we buy

Tess Vigeland Nov 25, 2011

Tess Vigeland: So there’s the history of Black Friday. But if you really think about it, marketers alone can’t make us open up our wallets to spend, right? So what it is about us as consumers that drives us to want all those things? Sure, you could blame Madison Avenue. But James Roberts says it is far more complex. He’s written a new book called “Shiny Objects: Our Obsession with Possessions and the Truth About Why We Buy.” Welcome to the program.

James Roberts: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Vigeland: So I would wish you a happy Black Friday today, but we are going to talk about how perhaps Black Friday is not all about happiness. Why are we spending the money we don’t have to find the happiness we cannot buy?

Roberts: There’s a number of reasons. One is that we’ve got a lot of people encouraging us that happiness can be bought online, at the mall, or in a catalog. And then there’s a lot of other reasons — security, we feel better when we have things around us and purchasing us can make us feel a little bit safer.

Vigeland: Let’s talk brass tacks here then with money and happiness and where to two actually perhaps do meet. And you talk in the book about how there is an actual cut off after which money adds very little to our happiness. What is that number and how do we arrive at that?

Roberts: That particular study that I used says that the figure is about $60,000. There is a relationship between money and happiness up to a point. But after that point where we’ve kind of covered the basics — we’ve got a roof over our head, we have enough food on the table — and then after that, it just doesn’t deliver the goods. Pardon the pun.

Vigeland: Well I think perhaps we see that. I know that there are studies out there that show that almost the more money you make, the more you want to make because then it feels like it’s never enough.

Roberts: We call that the treadmill of consumption. And we buy our first house. It’s bigger than our apartment and it’s got 1,200 sq. feet and it’s enough, but all of a sudden that becomes our new norm because we adapt. So all of a sudden now that new norm of 1,200 sq. feet is what we look at as our frame of reference to the rest of the world. So that ability to adapt both serves us and can undermine our well-being.

Vigeland: Can we frame the discussion slightly differently and ask what the relationship is between our happiness and the amount of debt we have. So we talk about happiness versus how many things we have and what we’ve bought, but what about debt? Where does that play in here?

Roberts: These materialistic longings that we have don’t just have a negative impact on our pocketbook, but they impact how we feel about ourselves and they impact our willingness to get involved in the community. Really, research tell us those are the real keys to happiness and materialism is antithetical to all three of ’em.

Vigeland: So Black Friday is today, and the holidays coming right up here, how do you want people to be prepared for what is traditionally the biggest shopping season of the year, the biggest accumulation binge that we have?

Roberts: What I would suggest is set a budget and stick to that budget. When you go out shopping, use layaway. The great thing about layaway is that it forces you to pay off four items before you get ’em. Come January, you avoid that financial hangover.

Vigeland: James Roberts is author of the book “Shiny Objects.” Thanks so much for coming in.

Roberts: Oh, you’re welcome. Thank you, Tess.

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