Category Archives: Consumerism

Advertising and the Consumer Mindset

advertisingI watched a documentary yesterday about how corrupt our country is. It was awesome. And by awesome, I mean depressing. And the documentary started out with a disclaimer about conspiracy theories, so obviously I went in assuming everything they said was going to be pure fact. Kidding aside though, the documentary did touch on one subject that I found particularly interesting: public relations and advertising.

The segment focused on Edward Bernays, who happens to be Sigmund Freud’s nephew. Bernays is often credited as the father of public relations. During World War I, he was the man who realized the government could garner more public support for war if America’s involvement was positioned as an effort to bring democracy to Europe, rather than an effort to gain power for America. After the war, he wondered whether he could employ the same tactics during peacetime. He pulled together his uncle’s work on psychoanalysis and other great thinkers’ work on crowd psychology to develop a means to control what people think. He called it “public relations.” Continue reading

Blinded by Frugality – Finding the Beauty in Gifts

giftsI’ve talked a lot about how much I hate the expectations surrounding gift giving on holidays, so it’s easy for someone like me to get down all all forms of gifting during the holiday season. The consumerism of Christmas is infectious, and it’s easy to forget about a different kind of gift giving: the spontaneous gifts that come from the heart. They’re the gifts you give someone just because. Because you saw it and instantly knew they would love it. Because they’d mentioned a few times that they wanted a particular item and you felt like doing something special for them.

I was reminded of how beautiful the act of giving can be on Facebook of all places. I saw a post from a friend of a friend (Facebook privacy fail!). She wrote that her cat knocked her slow cooker off the counter top, shattering it. So she and her husband went to the store to buy a new slow cooker. While she was comparing prices, trying to find the best deal, her husband said, “Don’t skimp, get the one you want.” To her, those words meant, “I adore you.”
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The Season of Giving

Now that Halloween’s over, it’s officially Christmas season, or at least that’s what I learned from a trip to Target. In fact, I actually went to Target on October 30th, and the Christmas section was already taking over the Halloween section, so I can only assume that by now Christmas has engulfed about 25% of the store.

I was brought up in a practically-no-gifts house, so the whole concept of buying gifts for people just because the calendar tells me to is very foreign to me. My fiancé, on the other hand, was brought up in a house where Christmas and birthdays meant piles of gifts. It’s a completely different way of life, and it’s hard for either of us to understand the other. But like all other things in relationships, compromise is the answer.

On Christmas, my fiancé likes to give gifts to everyone in his life. He’s a frugal fellow though, so most people just get a dozen or so homemade cookies. That’s a good thing, because if he went out and bought expensive gifts for everyone, my head might explode. He does spend a bit more than I’m comfortable with on his immediate family, though.

My family is Jewish, and my parents were always clearly a little annoyed that the “spirit of giving” associated with Christmas overtook American culture so much that they couldn’t completely deny their children presents during Channukah. Unlike many other Jewish families in our community though, my parents didn’t give us kids presents for every night, and when we did get presents it was something small, like a comic book. My parents didn’t believe in showering kids with gifts on holidays because they didn’t want to instill in us an entitlement or expectation that we “deserve” gifts. If we wanted something, we could ask our parents for it, and if they thought it was reasonable, they’d get it for us, regardless of the time of year. So as an adult, if I see something that I know someone close to me would love, I’ll get it for them, but I won’t give someone an impersonal gift just because it’s Christmastime.

It’s amazing how much we’re shaped by our upbringing in every aspect of our lives. When my fiancé’s sister and sister-in-law email him telling him what he should get their children for Christmas, it rubs me the wrong way like crazy. And my fiancé can’t even begin to understand how I think it’s acceptable to let my brothers’ birthdays go by with just a “Happy Birthday!” phone call.

The key to compromise is accepting that just because you don’t understand someone else’s viewpoint, that doesn’t mean their viewpoint is invalid. I can’t ask my fiancé to stop giving gifts to his family, and he can’t judge me for not giving gifts to mine. But now that we’ve joined our lives, we do have to think about what’s best for us. In the interest of our finances and future goals, he has to keep the amount he spends on his immediate family down. And in the interest of ensuring that my future in-laws don’t hate me, I need to participate in the gift-giving, as much as it kills me to buy a gift for someone “just because.” Thankfully, I have a very personal gift that I know his mother will love already, so I won’t have to grit my teeth buying her some stupid trinket I won’t know if she’ll like anyway. Yay!

Are you in a relationship where you have differing views of gift-giving? How do you deal with it?

The Importance of Reevaluating

I still have my fair share of unfrugal habits. For instance, I watch (and pay for) TV, I drive 20 miles to and from work every day, and I sometimes go out for food because it’s more convenient than cooking. But these are conscious decisions I’ve made. For the past year or so, I’ve prided myself in my mastery of conscious spending. That is, until I realized yesterday that I missed something.

It all started on Tuesday when our weekly bundle of grocery store coupons came in the mail. My grocery store was running their “5 for $25″ special on meat, where you can get any 5 specially marked meats and pay $25, with each additional item being $5 as well. My fiance and I are huge meat lovers, so whenever they run this special, I go to the store as soon as the deal starts so I can have the best selection and of course choose the most expensive pieces of meat to get the best deal. (I scored a couple packages that were marked at over $9!)

The booklet had many other deals in it, including a coupon for a free bottle of Vo5 shampoo and conditioner. I was running low on shampoo and conditioner, and even though I don’t typically use Vo5, I wasn’t going to let a free bottle of shampoo and conditioner go unclaimed.

I’ve been using Pantene for at least 8 years. If you asked me why, I’d tell you it’s because I like how it makes my hair look and feel. But the truth is, I haven’t even tried most brands of shampoo and conditioner. When it comes right down to it, I buy Pantene out of habit, not because I’ve tried several brands and liked Pantene the best.

When I got to the hair care aisle, I went straight to the Vo5 and picked up a bottle of shampoo and a bottle of conditioner, paying no attention to price – it’s free after all, why should I care about price? As the check out woman scanned my items and I watched all the discounts ring up, I was feeling pretty good about myself… until the Vo5 rang up. $1.09 each was the original price. My initial reaction was a surprising one – “it figures they’d give you a coupon for the cheap stuff.” I caught myself. Here was an area that I hadn’t even considered before. I still had expensive taste in shampoo and conditioner.

I always buy the big bottles of Pantene, which are 25.4 oz and cost $6.99. The Vo5 bottles were 15 oz and cost only $1.09. That comes out to a difference of $0.20 per ounce. I haven’t tried the Vo5 products yet, and perhaps I’ll hate them and never buy them again. But what I will do is look for other options and break my habit of buying expensive hair products just because I’ve gotten used to them.

Moral of the story: once you think you’ve gotten control of your spending, don’t become complacent. There may be certain items you overlooked, certain things you think are important to you just because you’ve been using them for so long. You don’t have to give up all your unfrugal habits, but always look at the price of every single purchase you make, you may be surprised to discover how much money you could be saving.

My Wall of Shame

As I’ve hinted at in the past, my life pre-frugal revelation was spent buying way too much stuff. When you’re stuck in a consumerist mindset, it’s easy to justify purchases. It’s only once you’ve embraced frugality that you can look back and realize just how idiotic those justifications were. Looking back on some of my more egregious consumerist blunders is embarrassing, quite frankly. So what better to do with embarrassing personal anecdotes than share them on the internet for all to see, right? Just in case any of you were feeling down on yourselves for making stupid purchases, read on to instantaneously feel better about yourself!

Here it is, my Wall of Shame:

If you don’t recognize these shoes, that’s probably a good thing. They’re Manolo Blahniks. I got these soon after I started my job because I was so excited that I was earning money and wanted to buy myself something nice. My justification: really bad math. I wasn’t dumb enough to believe that I could fill up my closet with high-end designer shoes, but I thought that on my decent salary I should be able to treat myself to nice things every now and then. Of course that’s a slippery slope, and “every now and then” really turns into “whenever I feel like it.” I probably should have realized the error of my ways when the salesman told me that Jessica Alba had just bought a pair. This embarrassingly poor choice cost me around $650. After four years of sitting in my closet and being worn maybe three times, they’re currently for sale on eBay.

This purchase is only about two-and-a-half years old, and it’s another doozy. It’s a Marc Jacobs bag. My justification: I “needed” a purse that could cross-function as a carrying case for my brand new netbook. I had recently purchased a netbook that I wanted to carry around with me on a regular basis, but I didn’t want to have to deal with a separate carrying case, so I wanted to get a large purse with a center zip pocket for the netbook. I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for anywhere. I went to all the usual places a financially irresponsible person would look for a purse: Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus, and finally Nordstrom, where I finally found this beauty. And on sale, no less! 50% off, what a bargain! Except that the full price was $1600… you do the math. I used this bag for its intended purpose for a while, but I eventually got tired of carrying such a big bag around all the time and pretty much stopped using my netbook, so the bag has sat unused for about two years. It’s also up on eBay.
After a particularly bad breakup a few years ago, I needed a self esteem boost. I decided to join a gym and see a personal trainer. Joining the gym was fine, I got a one-club membership at 24 Hour Fitness that cost $25/month. But the personal trainer was the mistake. My justification: working out with a personal trainer was going to change my life. Wrong. All it did was cause me to stress about making my credit card payments each month while working out three times a week with a really attractive trainer and seeing only very minor results after six months. I’m not sure exactly how much this cost me, but I’d estimate around $3000 over six months. If you’re really serious about fitness and want to work out with a personal trainer, I would recommend doing a lot of research, don’t just accept whatever trainer 24 Hour Fitness assigns to you. Personal training sessions are incredibly expensive wherever you go, so if you’re willing to pay for it, make sure you work with a trainer who has a reputation for getting results.
Eventually I decided to leave 24 Hour Fitness because the location I was going to wasn’t clean – you never want to pick up a piece of exercise equipment and see a cockroach dart out from under it. I decided to join the incredibly expensive gym near my work. My justification: if it’s right next to my office, I won’t have any excuse not to go. My justification was actually spot on here, I went to the gym all the time. I started running and began to lose weight. The gym was well ventilated, clean, offered great classes, and had ample products in the shower area so I never had to bring my own stuff. I loved that gym. Except that it cost $145/month. I stayed there for a little over a year before I realized that I no longer needed the motivation of going to the gym to work out – I was happy to work out at home or go for a run around my neighborhood. I could have made that transition several months earlier and saved a bundle of money.
There, see? Your financial mistakes aren’t so bad. Don’t you feel better now?