Field Guide to the Materialist: She's Gotta Have It

Things! There is little that Victoria Frances enjoys more than thinking about, looking at, and acquiring them. As an editor at a Manhattan-based interior-design magazine, Frances (not her full name) sits at her desk all week, flipping through catalogs in search of lamp shades, pillows, and candelabra to borrow for photo shoots. On Saturdays, she shops. "I start at 10 o'clock," she says, "and I do what I call 'The Four B's'—Barney's, Bendel's, Bergdorf's, and Bloomies."

For the past decade or so, Frances has spent thousands of dollars a week on clothes, shoes, home accessories, jewelry, and furniture. Pleasure with possessions remains integral to her sense of self: "I love to be surrounded by beautiful and exotic things," she says.

Frances is an unabashed materialist, a high-end version of the mildly object-obsessed masses in our capitalist society. The pressure to buy and acquire, after all, surrounds all but the most isolated Americans. Moreover, everything from our sneakers to our salad dressing telegraphs something about who we are to the world. "The main way we present our self-image is through stuff," says Tim Kasser, associate professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and author of The High Price of Materialism.

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Frances is all too aware of how her love for objects is tied up with a long-held desire to adopt a certain identity and social status. "Starting in college, I probably wanted to appear like the kids I was going to school with—rich and WASPy," she says. "When you're really insecure there is nothing worse than appearing different—you just want to go unnoticed and appear to be the same."

But adorning yourself and your home with the latest and greatest may offer no more than fleeting glee. "Buying stuff doesn't seem to make even materialistic people happy," Kasser says. A materialistic lifestyle is associated with an inadequate sense of security, competence, relatedness, and autonomy, he's found. In addition to perpetual feelings of ennui, the materialist runs the risk of burgeoning into a full-blown shopaholic, a person so obsessed with buying that they fall into debt and suffer dire personal consequences. A recent Stanford University study found that about 5.5 percent of men and 6 percent of women fit the criteria.

Ever the extremist, Frances is taking dramatic steps to stop herself from sinking too deep into her own materialism. This year she plans to quit her job, travel around India, and move to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to spend time skiing and volunteering. "I'm going out there with the primary purpose of not shopping," she says. "I think it will be a wonderful feeling to shed all of the symbolic artifacts that clog, distort, and sway people's perceptions of me. I think it will be cathartic." The turning point came when she received a gift she refers to as her Jeep Cherokee—a handbag that costs as much as that iconic SUV (yes, literally). When friends and co-workers began ogling her new possession, Frances suddenly realized she was embarrassed to own it. "First of all, nothing that small should cost that much," she says. "And second of all, there are so many better uses for the money. The whole thing started making me sick."

To the Mall Born

Are certain kids destined to get dollar signs in their eyes? Lan Nguyen Chaplin, a professor of marketing at the University of Illinois, and Deborah Roedder John, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, found that materialistic values (like preferring "nice sports equipment" to "being good at sports") surge between the ages of 8 and 9, and then again between 12 and 13. Tellingly, children with low self-esteem value possessions much more than do kids with higher self-esteem.

Frances believes her own materialism is rooted in shameful feelings about her home life: She grew up poor, raised by grandparents with Depression-era values who forced her to wash tinfoil for reuse. Her outstanding abilities as a soccer player gave her entrée to exclusive team clubs, and through those Frances was exposed to the homes and lifestyles of very wealthy people. She felt inadequate in comparison. Buying things—the right things—later became a way for her to attain a sense of parity.

While deprivation can foster materialism on one hand, families that worship the almighty dollar can also breed the stuff-obsessed, Kasser says. People who had parents who placed a high value on money, status, and image tend to be more materialistic than others.

Brainwashed to Buy

A materialist's consumption is driven by more than family values or attempts to compensate for what was lacking in childhood, though. We can't underestimate the influence of corporations that go to great lengths to connect their products to the promise of emotional fulfillment, Kasser says.

The manipulation begins before we even know what an advertisement is, argues Susan Gregory Thomas, author of Buy Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds. Marketers rely on an idea they call KGOY—Kids Getting Older Younger. "They know that a lot of 0 to 3-year-olds are now watching TV. But all that babies and toddlers get from television is character recognition—there's no understanding of narrative. And the only time they run into the characters is when something is being sold. So they're just absorbing information about brands."

Think Before You Buy

If you're lusting over that black leather Armani coat, it won't help to ask yourself whether you really need it, says psychologist Nando Pelusi. "We are justification machines, so you'll think, 'Yes I do! With this jacket I will please the ladies!' " Here's how to shift your mind-set in the moment:

  • Don't beat yourself up. Your desire is borne of your "mental architecture to acquire, acquire, acquire." So don't feel bad, but be alert to this tendency.
  • Conjure up some shopper's skepticism by playing devil's advocate. Ask yourself, "What are the disadvantages of buying this?"
  • Dig deeper and ask, "What is the real reason I want this?" If it's to lift a blue mood, know that the boost will be temporary. If it's to quell status anxiety, remember that keeping up with the Joneses is a losing battle.

How To Dematerialize

When Judith Levine, author of Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, renounced all but necessities for a year, she saved $8,000, had more time to spend with friends and do meaningful work, and felt liberated. But she also felt lonely and bored, because she couldn't go out to the movies, and lost, because her identity was shifting and her usual sources of stimulation were gone. It's not an easy road, but if you're ready to give things up (or at least cut back), here are a few practical steps to take:

Be more scholarly about stuff: Learning about the history and craftsmanship behind possessions can deepen your superficial interest and help you develop your own tastes, not those dictated by advertisers. Sotheby's, the famous auction house, runs a master's program that offers students a chance to choose one particular type of object and study it in depth. After a year or so in Jackson Hole, Frances hopes to enroll in the program to turn her obsession into expertise.

Get outside of yourself: If you can't stop thinking about those peep-toe sandals and how much you need them, distract yourself with a non-shopping-related activity, Levine says. Pick up a good book, take a bike ride, or meditate. Better yet, do something nice for a friend or neighbor. It'll fill up your soul without emptying your piggy bank.

Embrace your inner beatnik: "I reclaimed an old Bohemian identity that I'd always been comfortable with," says Levine. Once her life was structured around ideals such as living for art and fighting against conventionality, it was easier to avoid buying stuff. "I stopped thinking of myself as a consumer and started thinking of myself as a citizen."

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