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Why unconscious spending tempts

For many people, all the external pressures encouraging us to spend, and the internal ones that make resisting difficult add up to a life of Unconscious Spending. All of these pressures result in a culture where many people live for today without really considering the impact on the future. This means that many people do not save enough for retirement, get into debt, and effectively work today to pay for what they consumed yesterday.

Conscious Spending makes sense: You work hard so you should get what is best for you and your household with the money you earn. Yet most people don't spend in a way that is in their own best interests. Why? The simple fact is that it often feels easier to be an Unconscious Spender. Let's take a minute to look at what we are up against.

The external pressures that encourage you to spend

Although no one makes you spend money, a lot of time and money is spent by experts who make it hard not to spend.

  • They tell you what to want.
    First, there's the advertising and marketing industry. Imagine hundreds of highly paid psychologists, statisticians, filmmakers, marketers, copywriters, and artists hired to influence your buying decisions. Every ad that makes it on to prime-time TV and every item that makes it to the stores is the product of years of research into what you like, what values you hold, what aspirations you have, and what emotional buttons to push to get you to make a purchase. Think you can pit your self-will against their sophisticated marketing? It's tough. You are bombarded with marketing messages and offers that are designed to push your buttons. And if they are successful, they will lead you to want something you never wanted before.
  • They dangle it in front of you.
    The second external pressure comes from merchandisers who know how to turn a browse into a buy. Retail consultants can boost a store's sales by determining where and how to display products, what signage to use, and how to make the transaction enjoyable. The good news is that all this data collected about you means that you get information about things that you are somewhat likely to want: If you're a Velveeta type of household, you get Velveeta coupons; if you're a Brie household, you get flyers from your local gourmet market. The end result is a whole lot of consumption that drives the economy. If we went into stores only when we needed to buy something, and if once there we bought only what we needed, the economy would collapse, boom. What is bad is if the marketers sleep well while you struggle to make ends meet, pay for a house full of stuff that never gets used, or face your future with little saved for a rainy day and a sunny retirement.
  • They offer anything you can think of.
    The next external pressure comes from the incredible range of things to choose from. Today, in most developed nations, you can buy almost anything you can imagine almost anytime of day. If someone imagines a need and a marketer believes that others have the same need, then there's a good chance that you will find it in a store near you one day soon. Flipping through the many catalogs that come through my door, I can find hundreds of items that I survived without for years but that clearly serve a purpose: from special clips that close bags of chips to storage containers for all the remote controls that have flourished. Someone buys these things, proving that the wealth of the economy is being used to satisfy more and more subtle and obscure wants.
  • They build in obsolescence.
    Another external pressure that adds to the drive to buy is that times change. A lot of what you buy becomes obsolete or out of date. The product life cycle-the time between when a product is first released on the market and when it goes into decline-is getting shorter. Most households harbor a museum of technologies past: a BetaMax video recorder, a computer that is more than 5 years old, a rotary phone that still works but no one has the patience to use anymore, or perhaps a black and white television. People who always try the latest thing, a group that marketers call "early adopters," feel this cost more than most. They were quick to move from vinyl records to CDs, from CDs to minidiscs, and now to downloadable music players that are making minidiscs old hat. Additionally, the length of time that a durable good lasts is shrinking, redefining durable to mean "it lasts until just after the warranty expires."
  • They make the money easy to get.
    The final external pressure that fuels the trend to spend is having more access to money, whether or not it has been earned yet. Credit cards, home-equity loans, store cards, even advances on paychecks through check cashing stores allow people at most financial levels to have unprecedented access to borrowed funds. Living on debt is not just a possibility; it is a reality for many.

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