Materialism

I have a few thoughts on materialism which float through my head every so often.
  1. Disgust at how much stuff everyone around me (including myself) has, and how much waste this represents.
  2. A strong desire to buy expensive classy things.
  3. Contempt at how much some people spend on luxury goods.
  4. The thought that money isn't what really matters in life, and I shouldn't worry much about what I spend or how much I buy.
Obviously these are deeply contradictory, and alternating between them is suboptimal. Perhaps you can think of it as my brain being torn between signaling and countersignaling. It's difficult to tell exactly where my impressions of different products come from - but the companies which I instinctively respect the most (Google, SpaceX, Jane Street, AirBnb, McKinsey) aren't ones which provide physical products, nor place traditional ads. Meanwhile I have no particular affection for either cars or soft drinks, despite having experienced hundreds of their marketing gimmicks. If these fleeting thoughts are the only effect that two decades of pervasive advertising have had on me, I'm pretty happy with that.

But what default affect should I have about buying things, if not any of those extremes? I guess it would be best to have a mindset of thrift but not one of scarcity (which is, funnily enough, a pretty good description of my parents). If a purchase makes sense, don't stress about how much it is. If it doesn't make sense, don't wave away how little it is. Then update your definition of what "makes sense" when your financial situation changes. Also, spend a long time weighing up whether big purchases make sense, but not little ones. If every 5 minutes of deliberation can get you a product that's a few percent better or cheaper, then you should save up literally all your deliberation time for considering houses and jobs. Obviously that'd be a bit extreme, but the principle is sound. People don't do nearly enough house-shopping or career planning, given that making the right choice for the former could be worth a year's salary, and for the latter even more. (On the other hand, the more difficulty you have deciding between two options, then the more similar their expected utility, and the less that decision matters, all else being equal).

I know of some people who have taken non-materialism to extremes by cataloging every item they own, or refusing to own more possessions than will fit in a backpack. I don't think that this is a good goal in and of itself, because material possessions can be very useful (and even if you want to reduce your environmental impact, it's much easier to offset via donations). Certainly it's counterproductive to stress over how many things you own. But I do find a certain aesthetic appeal in the minimalist lifestyle, as I do with all simple and low-stress lifestyles. And unlike becoming a fisherman in the south of Spain, this is a lifestyle I could adopt without making major changes to my plans and goals. It's far from my highest priority, but worth a try in the future.

I was planning to add that there would always be one exception to minimalism: my book collection. But actually, I'm pretty happy with my Kindle so far; and while reading was central to my identity when I was a child, I can now picture myself living without a big collection of physical books - maybe just half a dozen favourites for old times' sake.

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