Before you purchase an item, any item, you are acutely aware of the purchase price attached to it. We consciously see that amount, analyze whether the item is worth that cost, and make a decision on whether we should purchase the item based on our perceived value of it. Some of us may even take the extra step of doing some research prior to the purchase to help determine whether or not we’re getting a “good deal”, or at least a better deal than competitive product alternatives may currently offer.
And that’s it. After the purchase, we leave the retail store or close our browser tab, we (maybe) use said item, and our role as a consumer cog in a consumption-driven capitalistic economy is blissfully complete.
That’s what we’d like to believe.
The Real Actual Costs of Buying Stuff
We’ve been trained to think this way and not worry about what comes after our purchase. This dynamic is an existential failure for consumers. Why? The real cost of stuff goes far beyond that initial price tag. Post purchase price, and any applicable sales tax, there are additional actual costs that we often (but should not) overlook:
- the cost of maintaining or fixing the item (whether DIY or through the service of others)
- the cost of transporting the item to/from the service of others or to purchase DIY maintenance items
- the cost of transporting the item to/from a new location, storage, and/or on a trip (and if we transport enough things in 1 trip, we’ll definitely need to purchase a larger vehicle)
- the cost to insure the item
- the cost to protect the item from theft
- the health cost associated with owning an item that contains harmful materials
- the cost to trash, donate, or sell the item when you inevitably want to “upgrade” or declutter
- the cost to store the item (and at various levels of accumulation you’ll definitely need a bigger home, which will come with even more cost, maintenance, insurance, heating/cooling, property taxes, etc.)
- the cost associated with the time invested to do all of the above
Before all is said and done, the actual cost of an item is often many multiples higher than the simple purchasing cost that we paid.
The Mental Costs of Buying Stuff
But wait, there’s more. Beyond actual costs that we can attach a dollar value to, there are also the mental costs associated with each item that we usually do not consider (or feel) until later:
- the concern over how we can maintain the item as functional
- the concern over how we are going to fix or replace the item
- the concern over how we are going to protect the item from its ruin or theft
- the concern of compatibility with another item
- the concern over where we are going to store the item
- the concern over how we are going to properly organize all items combined
- the concern over whether the item is still “good enough” or we need to “upgrade”
- the concern over how we are going to transport the item or an entire home full of them should the opportunity/circumstance arise
- the concern over what to do with the item at the end of its usable life
- the concern over all of the time invested into doing all of the above and earning money to pay for it all (and what that takes away from in the rest of our lives)
The Environmental and Social Costs of Buying Stuff
That’s a lot to digest, but we’re not off the hook just yet. Beyond the actual costs and mental costs associated with each item we purchase, there are societal and environmental costs that we rarely think about:
- the environmental cost of material extraction for the manufacture of the item
- the environmental cost of chemical and energy pollution from the manufacture of the item
- the environmental cost of supply chain transportation of the item
- the social cost of worker exploitation
- the environmental cost of transporting the item home
- the environmental cost of upgrading vehicles to move more stuff
- the environmental cost of upgrading homes to hold more stuff
- the environmental cost of packaging waste from the item
- the environmental cost of item disposal (nearly 100% of everything we ever purchase will ultimately end up in a landfill, best case scenario)
- the social costs of conflict over resources (most wars are really conflicts over natural resources)
A Healthy Dose of Consumer Existentialism
Most of us are raised to conform and not think critically about our consumption in a society that values accumulation. So if all of this results in some reflection and even makes you feel a little uneasy – that’s good. It makes me uneasy as well because I still often have to remind myself of it. A dose of consumer existentialism every now and then (ideally frequently enough so that questioning every purchase becomes habitual) is good, perhaps essential to maintaining a healthy relationship with stuff, enhancing one’s personal finances, and reducing our impact on the planet. Every advertisement and comparison to others will give you the nod to dismiss these types of thoughts and continue the paradoxical, never ending search for meaning and happiness through consumer purchases. It’s a constant blue pill/red pill choice. Choose wisely.