WTF is “The Art of Shopping?”

what a joke

If this is art, I’m glad I’m not artistic.

“I love shopping. There is a little bit of magic found in buying something new. It is instant gratification, a quick fix.”
–Rebecca Bloom

I’m a big fan of thoughtful and intelligent advertisements. The two biggest attractions of the Super Bowl are the halftime show (can Beyonce perform every year?) and the advertisements. The really good advertisements stick with me for at least 12 hours after the game is over – long enough for the game to finish and for me to sleep through the night.

Occasionally, though, I see advertisements which are stupid enough to beggar belief. I recently saw a billboard espousing the value of “the art of shopping.” I’m not talking about the art of shopping intelligently so that you don’t blow a bunch of money when you could have haggled someone down in price. This ad was supporting the art of shopping as if your ability to walk out of the mall with a bag full of Neiman Marcus good was something to be proud of and to tell everyone you knew.

The underlying message was as clear as it was mind-boggling: you have no value unless you spend a lot of money on “haute couture” items. The Joneses are cooler than you, and you have some shopping to do to keep up and to reclaim your worth in this world.

There are two types of people for whom I feel sorry if they fall for this marketing garbage: those who have already blown their money shopping for worthless junk and crap and now have to justify their actions, and those who are actually suckered into spending more money because they somehow think that “status symbols” are going to gain them more meaning in life.

Hey, I’m all for living a life of abundance. If you do things which grow your wealth, then you get to have a richer life. You don’t have to waste hours on the weekends clipping coupons just so that you can save $10 at the grocery store. I want you to get to the point in your life where that is not an amount of money which will significantly impact your life so that you can value your time a little more.

However, I’m also not supportive of the notion that you should be looking to fill your life with more crap. Be it buying a shirt that has a polo pony on it or buying a suit that’s made by Armani just because of some logo or brand name, these purchases are not about increasing the value of your life.

Never, ever, ever, have I sat in a promotion discussion about someone and heard “well, that person doesn’t wear name brand clothes. We can’t elevate this person to a position of leadership.” The myth that you have to wear name brand clothes to get ahead in your life is one which is perpetuated by the companies that make those clothes and the people who waste money on those clothes.

Of course, some of that time was spent in the Army when we all had to wear the same thing anyway, but that doesn’t change the point!

What is a good art of shopping to me? Here are a few thoughts:


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  • The act of shopping doesn’t cause you to spend more time than what you save. This, of course, requires you to understand the value of your time and the utility that you get out of spending your time on certain activities. The simplest shortcut for figuring out the value of your time is to take your salary and divide it by 1,920, which is roughly the number of hours that you work in a given year. That assumes you could spend the spare time working and earning the same amount, which you wouldn’t. So, you need to adjust that amount downward, and if you enjoy the process of shopping (blech!), then, you’d adjust it down even more, since you’re getting pleasure out of shopping.
  • What you’re shopping for aligns with your priorities. You have to understand what’s important to you to make sure that what you’re spending lines up against what you value. If you’re spending a bunch of time and money shopping for clothing for yourself but you say that your family is your highest value, then there’s a misalignment. However, if, for example, you truly love to travel, then spending the extra time and money to give you the best possible experience on your next trip or vacation would be time well-spent, since you’re investing in the quality of something which you value.
  • You’ve negotiated well. I enrolled in a bargaining and negotiating class in business school, and one of the assignments was to bargain over the Thanksgiving break. I dragged my poor wife into the mall on Black Friday and haggled my head off, much to her disgust. It worked, though. Everything is negotiable if you know how to do it. Check out Chapter 4 of my Ultimate Guide to Personal Finance for some resources on how to improve your bazaar haggling skills.
  • What you’re buying won’t clutter your life. If you buy a bunch of things, then you’re simply going to anchor yourself to those things. The stuff you buy will limit your real options in life since you will have to account for all of those items as well as spending time (and possibly money) maintaining them. Furthermore, research by the University of Colorado’s Leaf Van Boven and Cornell’s Thomas Gilovich shows that we’re much happier when we do than when we have. In other words, experiences bring us greater happiness than material goods. The study shows that people, when thinking about past purchases, experience more positive feelings remembering purchases of experiences than of things. Furthermore, when we think about future purchases, we get more pleasure out of anticipating experiences than we do out of anticipating buying things. Monkey Brain wants a 183” flat screen TV. Future You wants a nice day out or a nice vacation.

There is, in my opinion, no such thing as the “art of shopping” as the retailers would have you believe. While there is an art to shopping, there’s no great status symbol or life revelation that you’ll get perusing storefronts, and while you’re perusing those storefronts, you’re simply giving Monkey Brain an opportunity to cause you to buy something you’ll regret later.

If you want to enjoy art, go to a museum. If you’re going to buy something, have a strategy.

Is there an “art of shopping?” What do you think? Tell us about it in the comments below!

About Jason Hull, CFP®

Jason Hull, CFP®, is the Chief Technology officer of myFinancialAnswers, an online comprehensive financial planning service.

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