Retail therapy at scale

posted by Jeff | Monday, January 25, 2021, 7:22 PM | comments: 0

Like a lot of people, assuming they're not enduring financial hardship, I've had a lot of strong urges to buy something to compensate for the half-functional pandemic world. It's an urge that I haven't had in any meaningful way in a very long time. In my 20's I wasted so much money on stupid shit that I didn't need that had no long-term value (and I didn't save or pay into a retirement account, which causes a fair amount of anxiety now). When I got to the point of rebooting life, post-divorce, I mostly spent money on doing stuff.

The experiences-not-stuff philosophy really took hold when I invited my girlfriend at the time, in 2006, on a trip to Las Vegas. We had not been dating for very long really, and despite being naive about early stage relationships, it seemed like a really good idea. As it turns out, we dated for a long time, and I think the success of that trip was honestly predictive of the length of our relationship. The memories of that trip are enduring and amazing, and since that time I've focused (successfully) on having experiences like that.

Having experiences typically involves other people and travel, and obviously in the pandemic there are limitations to that. The routine stuff that we would do is definitely off the table, like cruises and theme parks (Disney isn't even selling passes at this point). The revolving door of friends and families who crash at our house can't do that. No big parties. The bigger things, like big travel and bona fide tourism to places we haven't been are indefinitely on hold.

I remember the hits of dopamine from buying stuff, and getting it home and unwrapping it. Buying CD's was the most economical, certainly. I'd roll in to a Best Buy and talk out with two or three discs, without really knowing if the music on them was any good. The endless string of computer parts were like that too... a little more RAM, another hard drive, or a really special moment, a new video card. Less frequently, there were big ticket things, like a new laptop or a video camera. Of course, the dopamine was erased when my credit card bills came, because I didn't buy any of that stuff on cash. I had significant revolving debt until I was 39, though it was generally manageable by the time I was 33. I didn't make good choices.

These days, retail therapy doesn't even make sense. Even pre-Covid, I didn't really buy stuff in stores that often, unless there was a special or sale or something (last one was this laptop, three years ago). Things like music and movies don't even exist in physical packaging now. I went on a Lego buying binge this year, but all of the sets involved waiting for stock and then shipping time.

Only the really major purchases deliver "the feeling" now, and those are infrequent. Buying a new camera last summer definitely sparked joy, but the pace for buying those is every eight years. There aren't really things that I want the way that I did back in the day. Except maybe a pinball machine, but that seems so superficial. Maybe I don't know how to have fun anymore.

Well, sooner or later, we have to buy another car since Diana's was totaled, but those purchases, even when it was the electric space cars, usually start with purchase regret, not dopamine.


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