It's almost here! The biggest shopping weekend of the year (Black Friday through Cyber Monday). In the mall, crowds will be pushing and pulling to buy stuff they didn't even know they wanted until they saw the "huge sale prices." And even if we don't go crazy at Target or in the high street, we might work at filling an online shopping cart.
It's ironic and disturbing that we follow the holiday dedicated to the spiritual practice of thanksgiving with a spending orgy. It's as if that short pause for gratitude makes us all the more determined to get back out there and grab more stuff. We had to miss one day without our usual fix.
Of course, we "have" to shop for Christmas, but we struggle to come up with gift ideas for all of the people on our list because pretty much everyone we know already has everything they need and most of what they want. This makes us especially vulnerable to ads and sales and "must have" gift lists. "What should we get for Uncle Matt?" is a question that seems to need an answer, and retailers are ready to provide it for us.
And yet... many, many people don't like what they get for the holidays, and will either return the items, sell them, or stick them in the back of a closet. Tobin Moore, CEO and co-founder of returns solution company Optoro, estimates that over 5 billion pounds of waste is generated from returns every year.
Overconsumption is in some sense the cause of all our environmental problems. It's the source of a lot of our debt. And it's certainly the reason for all of our clutter and much of our stress.
And while it's true that retailers make a good percentage of their yearly revenue on this long shopping weekend, most of that revenue comes from selling us stuff we don't actually need by convincing us that we're getting the best possible price (even if that might not be the case). And the majority of that revenue makes gigantic multinational corporations even larger.
Have you heard of Buy Nothing Day? It's an international movement that originated in Canada in 1992. The day coincides with Black Friday and is intended to encourage us "to examine the issue of overconsumption." Some people mark the day by cutting up their credit cards, or pushing an empty cart around the nearest mall or big box store, staring with blank faces at the shoppers.
I'm not sure how much that improves the situation. Avoiding stores for one day doesn't mean we won't overspend on the next. Not shopping on Black Friday doesn't prevent consumerism on a large scale.
What we should do, and what a minimalist mindset encourages us to do, is stop buying things we don't need.
So if my four-year-old iPhone functions, I don't need to upgrade to the latest model. If your 40" TV works perfectly well, you don't need a new 60" screen. Your brother doesn't need a fancier smart speaker, your mom probably doesn't need another holiday sweater, and I know my grandsons don't really need more toys.
There's a feeling, often stated by pundits at this time of year, that Black Friday frenzy might be a little crazy, but that our national well-being depends on people buying ever more – including things they don't need. If people bought less, they worry, our economy would crash and we'd be in a bad state.
It's not just "disappointing retail figures" that get economists in a twist. When the U.S. savings rate reached an all-time high last spring, there was fear that people would "stockpile cash" rather than spend normally. Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics lamented, "As long as the money is being put in savings... it tends to curb growth and to weaken the potential of the economy." (Psst... your bank uses your savings to invest in other businesses – doesn't that strengthen the economy?) Even using the money to pay down debt meant "more gloom ahead."
Whoa. What kind of society have we built that requires people to waste money and resources in order to sustain it? How long can we keep increasing debt? I'm not the only one to think that sounds like a house of cards, something too fragile to last.
Minimalism is not the end of spending. If minimalist ideas continue to spread, it won't mean the death of the economy – although there would be many changes.
My husband and I live a minimalist life, but we still own a useful amount of furniture, dishes, cookware, linens. We have books, hobby supplies, and art on the walls. We drive a car. We get regular massages, attend plays and concerts, go to the movies, and occasionally buy over-priced coffee drinks. We may be trying to live minimally, but we are still consumers. We can't live without consuming to some extent.
What we try to avoid is excessive consumption. Excessive consumption leads to bigger houses, faster technology, fancier cars, trendier clothes, lots of airline travel, and overfilled closets, drawers, attics, and off-site storage areas. It promises happiness, but whatever joy it delivers is short-lived, because it continually creates a desire for even more. And it slowly steals your time, energy, creativity, and contentment.
Minimalists don't stop spending money, they just spend it differently. Instead of buying more material possessions, a minimalist might spend on experiences (like a balloon ride or a ski trip) or services (like a personal trainer or a massage). When a minimalist does purchase consumer products, she may buy higher-quality items (such as organic food and keep-it-forever furniture). She may choose fewer, longer-lasting items that are produced ethically and sustainably.
And as author Joshua Becker reminds us, "Minimalism allows us to redirect our finite resources away from our wants and begin to use them in practical ways to meet other people's needs." Guess what? The economy still benefits when we feed the hungry, house the orphan, provide medicines and education, and support projects that attempt to save our environment.
Everything is 100% off when you don't buy it.
Joshua Fields Millburn
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash. Thank you.