“Living doesn’t cost much, but showing off does”

13 August 2018

reading time:  minutes

One of my favourite books is Spent by Geoffrey Miller. (In some editions it was titled Must-Have.)

The book has probably saved me thousands of dollars, and might even save me hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of my life.

Miller is an evolutionary psychologist. He applies this lens to marketing and what drives consumers (that’s us!) to buy.

(Fun fact: I bonded on with my future father-in-law by discussing Miller’s first book, The Mating Mind. In retrospect, that’s a weird book to lend your girlfriend’s dad the first time you meet him.)

In large part, Miller suggests, we buy things for reasons we aren’t aware of or aren’t usually keen to acknowledge. One of the reasons we buy things is to signal to others: to convey messages to potential mates and people who can help us survive and succeed.

The fundamental consumerist delusion

One of the central points that I took away from the book was Miller’s thesis about “the fundamental consumerist delusion”. The declusion being, that others “care more about the artificial products you display through consumerist spending than about the natural traits you display through normal conversation, cooperation, and cuddling”.

Consumerism is hard to avoid:

“Advertisements for most products converge on one key message: other people will care deeply what products we buy, display, use… The result [after being exposed to about three thousand ads with this meta-message every day, day after day] is that we greatly overestimate how much attention others pay to our product displays, through which we are unconsciously striving to show off our key… traits. We also underestimate how much attention others pay to more natural forms of trait display that can be judged easily and accurately in a few minutes of observation and conversation.”

Yet, “research on ‘person perception’ suggests that we are really good at judging other people’s intelligence, sanity and personality from just a few minutes of observing their behaviour or talking with them.”

Miller makes the excellent point that “products can aim to advertise one’s status, and act as status symbols, but they do not actually confer status. That is done by other people: one’s status dwells in the minds of observers”.

Alternatives to consumer spending

In one of the concluding chapters, Miller points out that “buying new, real, branded, premium products at full price from chain-store retailers is the last refuge of the unimaginative consumer, and it should be your last option. It offers low narrative value – no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events… It reveals nothing about you except your spending capacity… It grows no physical, social, or cultural roots into your local environment. It does not promote trust, reciprocity, or social capital. It does not expand your circle of friends and acquaintances.”

He offers some alternatives to consumer spending. If you feel compelled to buy an item:

  • “Just don’t get it”
  • “Find the one you already own”
  • “Borrow one from a friend, relative or neighbour” (“Borrowing also builds up social capital, as it promotes reciprocity, trust, and social bonds.”)
  • “Rent it” (Miller notes that “Personal ‘ownership’ is just a way of renting things from the universe for a human life span, or less”, pointing out that “economists are routinely puzzled by the human propensity to overbuy and underrent products that will see only occasional use.”)
  • “Buy it used”
  • “Buy it in generic, replica, or trickle-down form”
  • “Make it yourself”
  • “Commission it from a local artisan”
  • “Wait three years [if it’s a new technology]”
  • “Ask to get it as a gift”

“Living doesn’t cost much, but showing off does.”

Miller puts it bluntly:

“basic survival goods are cheap, whereas narcissistic self-stimulation and social-display products are expensive. Living doesn’t cost much, but showing off does.”

It’s a message I need to remember. What I enjoyed most about Miller’s book is that it provides a forceful intellectual framework for these points about consumerism and our consumption-based culture.

Tyler Durden from Fight Club may be cool, but Geoffrey Miller is smart.

I’ll return to this book many times in the future, especially when my desire to spend starts to pop up again and I need an effective anaesthetic to this tendency.

I’m thankful for some of the purchases this book has persuaded me not to make.

I recommend the book highly. It may also help you be more mindful of your spending patterns.


defining wealth, saving, spending, status

About the author 

Sonnie Bailey

Sonnie likes telling people that he’s a former Olympic power walker, a lion tamer, or a popular author of erotic, supernatural, mystery novellas. Sometimes he says he was in a band that opened for Robbie Williams. None of these are true.

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