Consumerism and The Search For The Holy Grail
"purchasing will set you free"

This article is a prime example of a hodgepodge of different topics blanketed under the umbrella of "consumerism". There isn't really any overarching thesis or point that I'm trying to prove here. Most of these topics weren't long enough to merit their own page, but I think they were still interesting enough to share.

Topics


Regarding What Is "Worth It" and Luxuries

Everyone values different things. It's quite an obvious fact, but we still can't help judging others based on what they spend their money on, particularly on luxuries.

I'm not particularly a utilitarian person in all respects. There are some places where I apply it (clothing is one example), but there are some things that are an exception to that rule. And really, I'll be hardpressed to find someone who is strictly utilitarian in every aspect of life. One could argue that utility could encompass the impact possessions have on one's emotions, but that's a different discussion for another day.

I can't really judge people any more regarding what they like to spend their money on because I certainly have a niche that not many people understand, which is fountain pens. Let's just say that I have a few pens that have broken the triple-digit barrier in terms of cost, and while that seems rather absurd, I have my reasons. Some of which may not be a suitable justification in the eyes of other people.

But really, I could make the argument against practically everything that isn't a necessity. And I mean anything. From a utility standpoint, every luxury costs way beyond what their utility brings to the table. Any argument that could be made against the expenditure towards a category of products could literally be shot back at the person if they have their own niche that they like investing in.

If someone were to question why I would spend that much of some dinky pens, I can easily frame it from their perspective: why buy multiple cameras? Don't they all take pictures? Your phone can take pictures, too, so why not use that? Why buy multiple handbags, when they all do the same thing, or if X bag is cheaper and works just as well? Why buy multiple of the same type of shoes if their use cases are the same? Why buy anything that is a luxury in this case, if there is something out there that will fulfill its utility at a much cheaper price, or if you own multiple of the same category of item already?

Of course, people will justify their items with "they're all for different purposes", or "I like having some variety in my tools/apparel", or "they're just better quality". Those are valid points! Problem is, anyone could technically use those justifications too and people can and will still be judgmental. That's rather hypocritical, isn't it?

We judge each other because we can't seem to understand why other people buy the things that they buy and yet we can't justify our own purchases without devolving to the same type of handwaving. I certainly don't find some expenses worth it, but others may think differently, and that's not a bad thing. Different tastes lead to different forms of expenses, so I really have no right to say what people should spend their money on, granted they're spending it responsibly and not damaging themselves or other people.

Branding and Preconceptions

Speaking of luxuries let's talk about brands that make "themselves" to be luxury brands, because let's face it, the large amount of the prestige of these brands is a result of their exuberant prices, not their actual quality. Not to say that these brands don't have quality necessarily, but a large amount of the cost of the product is the brand recognition and not based on the quality or the craftsmanship

There was an adage that I caught wind of where a rich person was looking to buy a rug for some reason I can't remember. He didn't want to buy a rug from a few vendors because of their low prices, so what a particular salesman did was increase the price of their rugs by an excessive amount despite the fact that their rugs were no different from the other vendors. And solely because of that price hike, the rich person became interested and bought one of their rugs. In this case it's fallicious to think that price is directly proportional to the quality of the product, and that really applies to a lot of things.

I appreciate (and honestly prefer) handcrafted products and I understand why they're expensive, but a large amount of branded products seem to imply craftsmanship by limiting their stock, when in fact they can easily manufacture a lot of these things en masse but if they do then they're unable to leverage scarcity to bloat their prices. With some of the costs of these products you'd think that the material would be made out of unobtainium or something, but the large majority of products leverage off of the brand name and recognition to charge a premium on something that quality-wise is no different from other products.

I always like thinking of a situation where if luxury brands ever lost their social recognition as "luxury" brands, then their entire foundation would collapse. There would be no reason to purchase from these brands because a large amount of the cost of their products is because of their implicit social recognition. Thus, the only people who would hold these brands in high regard are those who are aware of these brands and their placement in the hierarchy. Otherwise, they'd look like an average brand to the average person. Ignorance literally devalues luxury brands, which I find rather funny. I'm sure you'll find someone that you'll anger immensely if you were ignorant regarding their extortionately priced possessions. It just shows where a large majority of the cost of the product comes from, and what people truly value when they get these sort of things.

Limited Editions

Limited editions are quite literally some of the wackiest things that I've seen in the market. We're so wired to value scarce items that we gravitate towards them without even realizing it.

I had made an observation regarding this when I was window-shopping for something. A specific item didn't get my attention at first, until I saw the description where it said "made in a small batch of 25 pieces". Now I was interested.

But wait a second, wasn't I not interested in the item before? Such a simple thing as making something deliberately scarce instantly produces interest, even though the item itself had no value to me prior to finding out about its limited quantity.

It's odd because I think a part of the reason why we gravitate towards scarce items is the possibility of turning it around and selling it for a profit. And while that's certainly a possibility, I think a large majority of limited edition purchases are for the sake of not missing out and don't end up being resold, resulting in remorseful purchases, especially if it was for items that you truly didn't care for.

Another reason is the feeling that you belong in some special club, this group that has the small selection of said items. It gives a false sense of belonging because 99.9% of people wouldn't even know it was limited edition was until you let them know about it. It's a limited club of individuals that isn't even known, so it's limited nature isn't even worth leveraging for any sort of social recognition.

Why I think limited editions are amusing is that a large majority of products become "limited edition" on complete accident. Items get discontinued all of the time, and the hilarious part about that is there are times when there's a sudden increase in interest the moment it gets discontinued. And it's not like most discontinuations of products are arbitrary; it was likely because the cost of production outweighed the revenue gained from selling said item. How ironic is it that an item suddenly gains interests the moment it gets discontinued out of a lack of interest? The same thing goes when the company that is making said items goes completely under and ceases to exist: no one batted an eye, but now that they no longer exist, the items that they used to sell are now coveted.

A thing to also consider is that companies have pushed so many different types of "scarce" items that the variety has inevitably taken away from its limited nature. For example, if a company makes clothing and releases limited editions every season, by a certain point there are so many limited editions to keep track of that there would be no point in tracking or even acknowledge any of them. However, people don't typically consider that broader perspective and see an item's scarcity in the moment instead of how manufactured it all is.

If you really want something "limited edition" or "one of a kind": just make the item yourself. Of course, that's not a viable solution to everything, but it just goes to show how fickle the idea of "limited edition" is when a lot of things in this world are scarce or unique enough as they are without tacking on a label.

Usually my rule of thumb is if my tastes coincide with the limited edition item in question, then its scarcity is merely a bonus, not a large part of the reason why I'm getting said item. A lot of people I see tend to jump on the limited edition bandwagon purely because it's limited edition, not because they actually like what they're buying, leading to a whole lot of regretful purchases.

Preventing Impulse Purchases

One of the ways which I manage to catch myself out of unwise purchases is the use of a wishlist. And it's not an ordinary wishlist where you simply put what item you want and leave it at that. It's a tiny bit more involved, but it certainly helps some with curbing some impulse purchases.

My system goes something along the lines of this: items that aren't necessities and are not needed urgently will immediately go into the wishlist, both as a way to remember what I want and also with intentions of making a more informed decision.

When you put in an item in the wishlist, simply add three extra things: the cost of the item, the date of when you added it to the list, and why. Why are you buying that item? Sometimes, we slap things in a list of things to buy and we can't even put into words why we want it.

I mean, the reason could be anything. "Looks cool", "may use it in situation X", or whatever. The reason itself isn't really the point, but it makes you think about why you're even making the purchase in the first place. Most impulse purchases ignore reasoning entirely, so if you at least muster some of it, you're already ahead of the curve.

I say that the reason doesn't matter is because you'll find out whether the reason holds up if you wait long enough. You may come back a week later and find that "looks cool" isn't an adequate enough reason to shell out hundreds of dollars on an item that you may use only a few times, if at all.

Sometimes, I don't even need to wait to see how absurd the purchase would be. I would be plugging in an item that I think would be nice to have, get to the part where I have to give a reason why, draw a complete blank, and then think "purchasing this would be ridiculous", and leave it out of the wishlist altogether.

This type of wishlist forces me to rationalize my purchases. Besides filtering out items that I have inherently no need for, it also points out items that I do have a need for. Items which have been in the wishlist for a long time and still have some sort of need attached to it are likely to be items that are going to be good purchases.

An example of this was when I was procrastinating on getting a proper desk chair. It was going to be a big purchase, so it sat in my wishlist for years, while I was tolerating the awful chair that we got from who knows where for how many years. After a while I decided enough was enough and I decided to take the hit, and... it was well worth it. Did the expense hurt? Sure it did, but at least the utility I got from it outweighed the costs by a huge margin. The fact that it sat in my wishlist for as long as it did and I kept it there shows that there was at least a pretty big chance that the item was more likely to bring some long-term satisfaction and utility.

The wishlist doesn't have to be a simple "here's what I want to have" list. It can help with figuring out what items you really want for the long-term, and filter out the items that you only want in the moment.

Purchasing in a Vacuum

A way which I ensure I make as much of a deliberate purchase as possible is to see the desired object in a sort of vacuum. If I had not heard any of the hype attached to the item, the enthusiasm of the various people that have reviewed it, or not caught a glimpse of any advertising or marketing regarding it, would I still be interested in buying the product?

Another way to look at it is seeing if I am still interested in it had I stumbled upon it on accident. If I wasn't interested in the first place and then suddenly seeing all of these people using it makes me want to get it, was there ever desire in the first place or is it simply a case of FOMO? It's weird how we sense a need for a product only after seeing other people use it. If there was an inherent need for it I would've complained about it and actively sought after it long before I see people use it. It's essentially seeing the object for what it really is, rather than what people tend to claim it to be: some life-altering experience that will permanently increase satisfaction. Very little purchases can really claim that realm.

A large majority of consumerism is driven socially. People can really get swept away purely from the enthusiasm from other people, only to be disappointed because expectations typically fall short of reality when one's expectations are purely built on what people say about it; people whose preferences and tastes can differ wildly from your own. Not to say that reviews are useless, but it's good to be wary about when looking at reviews is done for research purposes and when it becomes fuel for one's confirmation bias.

This is not to mention that you see snapshots of people's "honeymoon" phase of acquiring an item when you browse some social circles. They are absolutely stoked about their new purchase, but what about a month from now? Will they be just as happy, or will they have learned to live with their newly acquired possession and life has once again reached equilibrium? Most likely the latter, but that is never the part that is shown to other people. What is permanently cemented in their timeline is that "my happiness has increased after acquiring X", but in reality the high that you get from acquiring something only lasts a short time. Permanent records of acquisition exaggerate the impact that an external possession has on one's life because it doesn't contain the entire picture. This is why people should be careful about looking at other people's post-purchase enthusiasm when making purchasing decisions.

Minimalism and Discontentment

You know, people talk about how accumulating tons of stuff isn't going to make you happy. While I agree with that, what I don't agree with is expecting the opposite to be true also: expecting that getting rid of everything will make you happy. Extremes at either end won't do you much good.

To want to get rid of your stuff can also be a form of discontentment, where you become restless with the things that you already own. In both cases (accumulation and decluttering) there is this form of desire, expecting the end result to be happiness, but in the end you don't attain happiness because the possessions were never the issue, it was your perceptions towards them that were the problem.

I'm at the point now where I think that however much I own in a given moment, I can and should be content. The important part is reaching an equilibrium state, where you find no need to purchase or declutter anything. Whether or not that state is reached when you own little or much is up to you, but it certainly can be achieved at any state past the fulfillment of your necessities.

I don't need to be unbelievably wealthy and have everything at my disposal to be happy. And the other way goes too: I don't have to own nothing and become an ascetic to be happy. either. I can be content where I am now, having what I have.

Philosophy Divided Between Consumers and Designers

A small thing which I've observed is the divide of a particular philosophy between designers and consumers, despite the fact that the philosophy could be exactly the same for both parties.

A good example of this is minimalism. There are things which from an aesthetic and design point of view is minimalist. However, the item itself may be redundant or unnecessary that it would go against minimalism as a philosophy: the idea of having less unnecessary expenses, or owning less. Minimalism as design doesn't necessarily coincide with minimalism as a lifestyle. You could be a minimalist while not looking like a minimalist, and vice versa.

Same thing goes with items that are designed and crafted to be "utilitarian". It could very well look utilitarian, but it may be so expensive that from a utilitarian perspective you could get something that functions the same for a cheaper price; the expense itself may go completely against a utilitarian philosophy.

I just find it interesting that the design of a product itself may adhere to the philosophy it's representing, but from the consumer's standpoint it may entirely contradict said philosophy. Maybe one has to consider a certain philosophy or aesthetic to hold differently depending on whether you're the producer or the consumer.

Hype Trains

I don't know what it is about hype trains. Every time I see one all I see is it ending badly. Is there any major hype train in recent memory that has actually ended well?

Our imagination and expectations are a pretty powerful thing, and hype trains are a great illustration of that. We take the information that is presented (which is not very much to begin with) and think about all of the possibilities beyond it. Now put that in a positive feedback loop involving other people, and what you have is a hype train on its way to its destination Disappointment.

It's not to say that every product that has a hype train inevitably is disappointing in a qualitative standpoint. The product could actually be in fact pretty good. The problem is that the expectations from the consumers were so high that they were expecting 100%, or even hundreds of thousands of percent more than what they received, even though their expectations were entirely unrealistic to begin with. You could have delivered a 10/10 product, but if everyone else was expecting a 15/10 product, then disappointment is all that is going to result. Even if the product is pretty much perfect, people were expecting something beyond perfection, whatever that could possibly mean in any context.

I don't know people, it's pretty simple: expect what you receive, not anything more than that. That way, your expectations will be met, and if it goes beyond that, then at least you'll be pleasantly surprised. Looking forward to something that is beyond what the product is capable of being sets you up for disappointment no matter what the result is.

It's not to say that companies aren't to blame, either. They often overpromise, but never deliver. Or they lengthen the timeframe such that they'll deliver their promises "eventually", but not when their product releases, which is ridiculous. Imagine if a car manufacturer releases a vehicle but doesn't implement a consistently working steering system or engine until months after it has released to the public. It would be ethically abhorrent. Yet that is what happens nowadays, particularly in the gaming industry.

It certainly is a complex issue that involves both the consumers and the producers. Some instances can be blamed on the producers, but the consumers aren't entitled to have their unrealistic expectations fulfilled just because they have them.

The Grail

From the various hobbies revolving around purchasing goods that I've seen (mechanical keyboards, watches, and fountain pens are prime examples of this), there is this concept called the grail: the item which you long to obtain but cannot do so, whether because the item is so rare that it's near impossible to get, or the price is so high that buying it would result in financial disarray if not properly prepared for.

From a collector's standpoint, this concept is more feasible, since your desire is dictated by what already exists in the market. However, from a standpoint where I want to find the absolute perfect tool to fit my taste, this "grail" is going to be an endless goose chase.

As an example, if I wanted to find the perfect drawing instrument to fit my tastes, it would either be very expensive (as everything about it would have to be custom made) or literally impossible. There are certain things about ourselves that we don't even know, so how would we know that this theoretical grail item even fulfills all of our desires? And even more pressing, what happens if our tastes change? What happens then? What our grail was back then may no longer be our grail in the present, hence why these consumerist hobbies tend to result in multiple "grail" items, which kind of just degrades the use of the term. I don't think King Arthur would be pressed to find more Holy Grails after he finds the first one, if he ever finds it at all.

I think that the idea of the "grail" is in some sense an attempt to emulate spiritual enlightenment: attain/realize X, and suddenly everything in your life will be fulfilled. The problem with this is that grail creates a price tag for one's own freedom and fulfillment, to buy yourself out of imprisonment. It's easy to find out that this leads to a dead-end when you realize that there would be no reason to attach such weight to a grail item if you removed the many reasons why you deemed it to be a grail in the first place, whether it be cost, scarcity, etc. And if the item has no merit outside of your inability to attain it, why would acquiring it make your life any better?

Adapting to what you own costs nothing, but finding an external possession that meets all of your expectations and needs is going to be either extremely expensive, if not downright impossible.

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