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The Home Economist: Enjoying More by Buying Less

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By Brett Graff

minimalist_interior(MCT)—In Miami for a 100-city book tour, author and blogger Joshua Millburn explained to an audience at The Book Store how he found the road to happiness: by moving out of his way much of the store-bought stuff for which he paid lots of money. Formerly living in a three-bedroom home with a kitchen lined with shiny appliances and a closet filled with 70 Brooks Brothers shirts, Millburn took a look around after his mother died and his wife left, and he decided that retail therapy wasn’t particularly therapeutic.

Millburn, age 28 at the time, went online and learned about the minimalism movement — which involves living with fewer possessions in pursuit of other fulfillment — and spent the next eight months giving away items he’d bought but hadn’t used. At the end, he sold his home and his three luxury cars before quitting his $200,000-a-year job to pursue writing.

“My finances are better than ever,” says Millburn, who had racked up $100,000 in debt he only recently — and finally — paid off. “It’s not only that buying all this stuff is harmful financially. That’s just the easiest thing to see. But it’s the aftermath of it all. We get this high from buying something. But it doesn’t last far past the parking lot.”

Millburn’s feelings on the matter nearly match scientific results on the subject of money and shopping, as shown most recently by research from San Francisco State University. It proves there are three forces in the human brain at play when collectively contributing to the financially and emotionally draining addiction of compulsive shopping. Most of us wouldn’t be clinically diagnosed with the disorder, which affects some 10 percent of the population. But the rest of us — though my husband might argue my placement in the 90 percent category — can probably admit to experiencing one or two or even all of the influencing mindsets at some point.

With American credit card debt back on the rise (the Federal Reserve says it increased by $4 billion percent in third quarter last year) and our happiness on the decline (a Harris Interactive poll shows 33 percent of us were happy in 2013 compared to 35 percent of us in 2009) we could all save ourselves some money and some guilt by simply recognizing the over-shopping symptoms, practicing the cures and (even if we don’t quit our jobs and sell our houses) try at least some of Millburn’s minimalist practices.

“Of course, everyone’s at some point gone into a situation where they ignored their finances, engaged in emotional retail therapy, and also thought that a product or purchase would transform their lives,” San Francisco State associate psychology professor Ryan Howell said of the three drivers working together to cause compulsive shoppers to spend money on things they don’t need.

“Every commercial offers transformation expectations — the idea that if you buy perfume, you won’t only smell good but men will like you better and your life will transform — but compulsive shoppers buy into it more than most people.”

In fact, it’s the big force driving the compulsion. There’s also the act of using retail therapy to emotionally soothe fears, anxieties or other bad feelings. And third, it’s about ignoring your finances.

Still, the average person can learn from studying the shoppers, Howell says. Simply by being aware that you’re using retail therapy to soothe anxiety or depression, you can instead seek another activity. By counting on a product to change your life, you can put your faith elsewhere. And if you know big credit card bills are piling up, you can decide to tackle them.

“Just like having to count calories when you eat,” Howell said, “shopping is much less enjoyable when you’re aware of your finances.”

Even if you can afford to spend, your purchase will get less enjoyable as time goes on, says Leaf van Boven, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado. Human beings are wired to adapt to their surroundings, he explains, so that we can notice and deal with new environmental events. After a sweater lives in our closet for a while or even a car in our driveways, we become accustomed and over time, disinterested.

“It’s the pursuit of life experiences that are associated with meaningful goals,” van Boven says.

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