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Chicago Tribune: Selling the Idea of Buying Less

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on January 7, 2013

Is your credit card hung over?

Did it party too hard over the holidays? Overindulge online? Have a few too many swipes through the card-reading machine?

Does it have a headache?

Do you?

The shopping party is over; we're washing the clearance sale dishes. And in the harsh, bill-illuminating light of January, we may be feeling that consumer life has become too consuming.

Do we spend too much time and money buying more stuff? Did we need all that stuff we got over the holidays?

Even as we are wishing we had bought less, do we still yearn for one of those classy pale neutral purses for spring?

With the ink still fresh on resolutions to spend less money and get out of debt, this is prime time for a new year's talk with the Center for a New American Dream.

The national nonprofit organization encourages people to buy less, enjoy life more and join together to create a less materialistic, more sustainable culture. And the message has particular resonance in January.

"People can take time at the beginning of the year to reflect on how they want to change their habits," said Wendy Philleo, the group's executive director.

The center, which is based in Charlottesville, Va., encourages people to reflect on that, and more.

"It's really about people taking a look at our consumer culture and the pressure to buy and to shape our lives around shopping," she said. "That really is what New Dream is about — let's look at this overwork, overspend, over-consume treadmill we're on."

Buying too many things doesn't make us happy and creates environmental harm and waste, she said, but a $150 billion-a-year advertising industry makes it difficult to resist. She struggles with temptation herself.

"I have certain ways I deal with my consumer impulses," she said.

She doesn't allow herself to buy a new piece of clothing unless she cleans out her closet first. Sometimes that seems like so much work that she decides to do without. Other times she goes ahead with the closet-cleaning, and in the process realizes that she already has enough clothes.

She organizes clothing swaps with friends. She avoids going into stores without a specific purpose. She takes her name off catalog mailing lists.

And if she does see something she wants in a catalog, she cuts out the picture, puts it in a folder and leaves it there for several weeks. After that, she will consider it. But often simply clipping the picture is enough to scratch the itch.

"Somehow that makes me psychologically feel better," she said. "It's almost like I bought it."

Buying less sounded like more work than buying more.

"It's just a really difficult thing to do," she confirmed. "It's almost like it's an addiction and we need a system, like AA, to take ourselves off it."

But do we really want to be cured of the addiction? Frankly, I like material goods. That's why my credit card was dancing with the lampshade on its head over the holidays. Money may not buy happiness, but it's bought me some items that have made me feel awfully good.

Philleo, however, had calming words for the hesitant. If you buy more carefully, she said, you end up with possessions that are truly special.

"It's not about not liking stuff; it's about valuing things that are made well and are durable," she said. "If it's something of true value to you, then enjoy that purchase."

In addition to occasional high-quality purchases — good news to someone coveting a high-end purse — someone who spends less time shopping has more time to spend with friends and family.

And people shouldn't feel obligated to spend money to save the economy, Philleo said: "We have to redefine what the economy is for. We're boosting up this economy that's based on destroying natural resources."

My new year's spending thoughts have me examining what tempts me and why. That elegant spring bag I covet — how much pleasure would it bring me, and for how long? How much of my desire is prompted by a realistic assessment of how it would make me look, and how much by a fashion magazine transformation fantasy?

Whether or not I buy it, the analysis brings its own pleasure. Looked at like this, the purchase would be a choice, not a compunction.

Meanwhile, I'm putting my over-served credit card to bed, maybe with a glass of orange juice or some toast. I'll try to let it sleep the holiday season off.

Still, I have to confess — within minutes of getting off the phone with Philleo, I resolved to buy a pair of stretchy black pants recommended by a friend.

But I did think carefully about whether I really need them. On the grounds that these promise to be the holy grail of stretchy black pants — comfy but pretty — I decided that I did.

And after all, it's the hair of the dog.

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