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Companies in the U.S. spend over $187 billion a year trying to insert their opinions into your buying decisions. How can you protect yourself from their influence? One easy trick. Introducing the perspective of the Negative Purchase.
I was playing a game with a few friends the other day. We were talking about advertisements growing up, and we tried to fill in the blanks on different slogans, wondering how stick those messages as many as 10-15 years later. It was eerie how well they stuck. A few of the ones that came up:
- “Choosy moms choose jif.”
- “Kix: Kid tested. Mother approved.”
- “Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.”
- “Disneyland – The happiest place on earth.”
- “Pardon me, but do you have Grey Poupon?” (said in snooty accent)
The chief strategy of these marketing campaigns seems to be social proof. This brand of tweezers is associated with rich people/those of discerning taste/an ability to attract all the women in a 5 mile radius, so, you know, you should buy it. As much as we all recognize how manufactured and fake all that is, scientists have proven again and again how repeated exposure makes can infiltrate the mind. So what’s a frugal, FIRE-minded individual to do when they’re about to pull out their credit card?
The Negative Purchase: The One-Step Method to Eliminating Marketing Influence
There’s a fast and easy way to temporarily clear your mind of marketing influence – and even the influence of your friends and family – when making important purchasing decisions.
Say you’re deciding on a car. You’re a fancy lawyer-pants at a fancy law firm, and all your colleagues have Mercedes or BMW’s. You and your spouse are looking at buying the new family car. You’re torn between a used Honda Honda CRV and a brand new top-of-the-line Mercedes GLE SUV.
Here’s what you do. Pretend that with either choice, your friends, family, and the world will scoff when they find out. If you buy the Mercedes, you’re a pretentious, name-brand-loving panderer who is happy to pollute the environment. It’s too big, it’s extra features are useless, the colors are weird. If you buy the Honda, you have no taste or individuality. It is also too big/small, it’s features are not enough/useless, the colors are weird. Essentially all options for the purchase will be viewed negatively by others – the Negative Purchase.
If you go through this visualization exercise, you will quickly strip away all social input in your decision. After all, they’re all going to dislike your decision anyway. So what’s left is just your own opinion.
Perhaps what you’ll find under it all is a set of strong opinions about what matters, especially in your big purchases. Your bile might rise, and you’ll shake your fist. “Who cares what you think? I need an X engine because my wife feels strongly it’s a safety issue to be able to accelerate quickly to get on the highway. I need a DVD system in the car because it is literally the only thing we’ve found that keeps our four kids quiet on long drives, etc. etc.”
Or on the flip side, “I have a golden retriever and a girlfriend. What do I need a DVD system in the car for? And I drive a total of 10 miles a day. I don’t need a leather-clad luxurymobile for the 15 minutes I’m sitting in the car each day and would rather spend the money elsewhere.”
If you find a set of strong opinions after you’ve stripped away the cruft of marketing and social expectations, your path is clear. Go forth, and live your best life. You can put down your money knowing it’s completely aligned with your values rather than trying to impress others around you.
More often than not, you’ll probably discover that you actually have very little opinion on what product is superior. When pressed for a decision, you may find yourself spouting a list of frankly irrelevant, overblown details. If that’s the case, don’t worry. That’s excellent news!
In this day and age it’s become de rigeur to make every decision an earnest expression of one’s individuality and personal mission. But honestly, in so many decisions in life we just have average needs. I find it hard to swallow the idea that my choice of toothbrush or screwdriver set needs to say a lot about my life philosophy. Of course, if you’re a dental instruments inventor or in construction, maybe you feel differently. We each have a set amount of energy and focus, and that means there’s generally a handful of things we really care about, and a bunch of things where we’d be happy with “just enough.”
If you find you have little opinion on which product to choose, you can trot out the deeper goals you have for your life. If you’re focused on stashing away as much money as possible, maybe you choose the cheapest option. Then you move on, saving your time, attention, and resources for the few decisions that really do address the categories you care deeply about.
I’ve had plenty of opportunity to use this strategy in the past month. We recently had to go shopping for a new couch. Since it was a potential bigger ticket expense ($1k-$3k), I figured I should put some real effort into it. I pinned images on Pinterest like a madwoman, as this would be a focal piece of our new living room design. I visited three different couch stores in Manhattan. There was a moment when a Macy’s salesperson steered me gently into the $5k range for couches, espousing the virtues of a down feather layer in the cushions, and I briefly considered it.
Then I got hold of my senses. As a pregnant lady, my chief concerns were that the couch was less than 6 feet from my computer desk for maximum ease of collapse. It had to be offered in a neutral color because I actually care more about paint color and art for the design than I do about the couch. Who says the couch must to be the focal design point of a room? And it had to be cleanable with water-based solutions and not be too expensive because I would soon have a munchkin jumping all over it and spilling juice everywhere. So, you know, the $5k down-feather special-cleaning-only couch was a no-go. Anyone who asks me what my couch says about us will be told, “it says I’m pregnant with a kid who’s about to upend my whole world and I need somewhere to sit while that happens.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum, we just ordered a fancy, 33” curved monitor for the Hubs to go in his man cave. These things can go for $800-$1000 at retail price. He agonized about it for weeks. He’s an avid gamer, and he grew up saving his dollars to buy one $50 PC game a year. The idea of spending that kind of money on a screen that would need to be replaced in 3-4 years seemed crazy to him, but he also thought it would enhance his gaming experience significantly. I had strong opinions on this one. The dude spends more time on his computer than doing anything else. He loves games (he even used to work in the games industry). Amortized over the years, we’d be paying a couple hundred bucks a year to improve his hundreds of hours of gaming. As it turns out, he was able to find an Amazon Warehouse deal on an opened item with a cosmetic defect on the back of the screen which lowered the price to $500. He’s raved about that screen for the entire 3 weeks he’s had it. I have no regrets, and I’d say the same in a hypothetical scenario where friends or family gave us the side-eye for the purchase.
If you’re like me, hopefully you’re lucky enough not to have extremely judgmental friends in real life. But envisioning the Negative Purchase – one in which all options would be scoffed at by your friends, family, and the world – can help you strip away any subconscious messages you’ve stored away about what’s cool, appropriate, or impressive, leaving only what you actually care about behind. My hope is that it saves you the hundreds or even thousands of dollars it’s saved me, and allows you to redirect those funds to something that will benefit your life more greatly.
What about you? Any purchases you wouldn’t have made if you had used the Negative Purchase strategy? Any decisions you’ve made recently that feel even better after employing this technique?