Early in our marriage, my wife and I passed a car for sale in the parking lot of a shopping center. It was an older model red Isuzu Rodeo. Like most newlyweds, we didn’t have much money at the time, and we were driving her parent’s old Pontiac Grand Prix, desperate for something newer.
We pulled into the parking lot, looked inside, and then went home and called the number on the FOR SALE sign in the back window.
A couple days later we took a friend who is pretty wise about cars to go meet the woman selling it. When we greeted each other in the shopping center parking lot, the woman tapped her watch and said, “I only have a few minutes until I have to pick up my kids from the babysitter, so can we do this quickly?”
We agreed. And instead of test-driving the car on the street, we just drove it around the parking lot. It was a manual transmission, so in the parking lot we never got higher than second gear. The friend we brought along pointed out a few things he thought were positive about the car. So we pulled back into the spot, handed the woman the cash, and she was gone.
My wife and I got in our new red Rodeo and our friend drove the old Grand Prix. We pulled out of the parking lot and onto a pretty busy street. Everything was fine in first gear. I shifted to second and things were still completely normal.
But the minute I shifted to third, the car made a horrible sound, jumped, and died.
I thought maybe I had done something wrong, so we tried again. I restarted the car and slowly drove forward. First gear was fine. Second gear was fine. But then, sure enough, in third gear it made an awful sound and died again.
The clutch was bad. And we would have to spend more to repair the clutch than we paid for the whole car!
We realized we had been duped. Maybe the woman didn’t actually have to pick up her kids. Maybe she didn’t even have kids! But she had our cash and we were stuck with a busted red Rodeo.
THE EXPLOITATION OF IMPULSIVE SHOPPING
Today when we are about to make a purchase that requires a large investment of either money or time (like a new pet) we ask ourselves, “Is this a red Rodeo?”
In other words, have we thought this through? Have we done our homework? Do we know exactly what we’re buying? Do we even need this?
The reason we have to hold ourselves in check is because impulsive purchases are fun and easy! When you wander into the Apple Store and walk out with a brand new iPad that you had no plans to purchase, or you get an email with a discount on a cruise you hadn’t planned to take, or you decide it’s time to redecorate your living room with brand new furniture, you get a dopamine rush that feels really good.
Online retailers have found every way imaginable to tap into this reality of the human mind. If you search for one item you need, you’ll be bombarded for weeks with suggested items you never knew you needed, but may very well purchase to go along with the first thing you bought.
Credit card information is stored so we can just click a button to get the bright, shiny object we didn’t know existed five minutes before.
TRUE CRAVINGS vs CHEAP IMITATIONS
The reason we buy that iPad or take that cruise or upgrade our furniture is not because we need those things. It’s because we believe that they will somehow satisfy a craving.
Buddhists talk a lot about craving. They believe that craving is the source of almost all suffering. We crave things like control, acceptance, affirmation, love, and notoriety, but when we don’t get them we try to satisfy the craving with cheap imitations like food, status, sex, and, yes, possessions.
Sometimes buying something on a whim makes us feel like we’re in charge of our life. We crave a sense of control so we wreck our bank account just to show who’s in charge.
Drugs and alcohol become a common way that people attempt to satisfy the craving for less stress and a sense of euphoria about life.
Food is an easy way to satisfy our need for happiness or stimulation.
Eventually though - just like our red Rodeo - these cheap attempts to satisfy our cravings only end in suffering. We go broke, we become addicts, we get fat and unhealthy. Our cravings might even land us in jail.
And soon we’re right back where we started, craving something we don’t seem to have.
YOU WANT NICE THINGS, AND THAT’S OKAY
The path away from the suffering caused by our cravings is to let go of craving altogether. But that can take a lifetime to accomplish. So, until you no longer crave anything, it’s wise to name your cravings and identify a viable solution for getting what you need.
This starts with recognizing the difference between needs and wants.
a source of income to pay bills and make daily purchases like groceries and medicine
a roof over your head
And that’s basically it.
If you have these three things, you and your family can survive and even enjoy a simple life.
But most people - especially those who earn a high income - don’t always want to just survive and enjoy a simple life. This is a broad generalization of course, but people often want to thrive and enjoy the most luxurious life their money can buy. They want to do more than just pay for daily purchases, have a roof over their head, and find a way to get from Point A to Point B. They want to have nice things, they want to own their dream home, they want to drive a car that elevates their social status.
The vast majority of our cravings are not driven by our needs, but by our wants. It’s easy to feel guilty about that. But if you can clearly name what you crave and how you will go about getting it, it’s much easier to plan and avoid the inevitable disappointment that comes from impulsive spending.
For example, if you decide that you want to eat all organic food, the craving beneath it might be about a healthy lifestyle that leads to happiness and longevity. By naming what you want (happiness and longevity) and how you’re going to accomplish it (eating organic) you can own it and plan for it in a way that is financially productive.
You get into financial trouble when, on a whim, you decide to do all your grocery shopping at Whole Foods and spend several hundred dollars for a week’s worth of groceries that you hadn’t planned to spend.
If you want something, ask yourself what the craving is behind it, and how you can best satisfy that craving. Then, work it into your financial plan.
COMPREHENSIVE FINANCIAL PLANNING
A strong, comprehensive financial plan guards against impulsive purchases by incorporating the things you need and want. You can create a plan to cover monthly living costs, debt repayment, and save for luxurious vacations or purchase nice vehicles. You can allocate money each month for your kid’s education and have cash on hand when Amazon recommends a skin cream you never knew you needed.
A comprehensive plan takes your past, present, and future into account, and allows you to maintain control over what you need and what you want.
The sense of control we gain from a financial plan overcomes many of the cravings we try to satisfy through impulse spending. So if you find yourself constantly burdened with red Rodeo’s because you didn’t think through the ramifications of something you bought, maybe it’s time to create a plan so that every purchase is made on purpose, and you can feel at ease knowing you still have some control over your life.