Why We Buy: The Role of Comparison in Our Spending Choices

Why We Buy: The Role of Comparison in Our Spending Choices


It seems these days, people’s lives are an open book. Well, maybe not an entirely open book, but people are certainly more quick to share publicly areas of their life they want to share.

Posts and photos are shared on social media from people all day long offering a curated snapshot into their lives.

According to statistics, every minute of every day, there are 64,000 photos shared to Instagram, 24,000 videos uploaded to TikTok, 350,000 tweets sent, and 4,000,000 items shared to Facebook.

That’s every minute, of every day… 365 days a year.

With the world sharing its highlight reel, it becomes easy to fall into the trap of comparison. Add in the element of advertising broadcasting their opinion of what the perfect life looks like and how to get there, and it’s no wonder why overcoming consumerism is so difficult.

This constant comparison not only affects our self-esteem and contentment, it fuels our spending choices in more ways than we’d like to admit.

We begin to feel like our life isn’t measuring up to others. We start to think everyone has it better than us or is happier than us. And we subtly begin looking outside ourselves for answers that “apparently” everyone else has discovered already.

We often end up purchasing things we don’t need and chasing things that don’t satisfy. All because we are trying to keep up with our assumptions about how well life must be going for everyone else.

Here are some of the different ways we compare ourselves with others:

1. Social Media Envy

Social media platforms are notorious for showcasing the best parts of people’s lives, often leading to an unrealistic portrayal of reality. When we scroll through pictures (millions posted every minute apparently) of friends on luxurious vacations, flaunting their latest gadgets, or sharing their best weekend plans, it’s easy to feel like our lives don’t measure up. This can lead us to make unnecessary purchases in an attempt to keep up, or even worse, portray a similarly ‘perfect’ life.

2. The Perfect Home Syndrome

Home improvement shows and magazines broadcast beautifully designed, spacious homes as the norm. This leads us to compare our living spaces with these idealized images. And if that’s not enough, everyone in the world redoing their kitchen or flipping a fixer-upper seems to be sharing their glossiest photos online. This comparison can cause us to feel discontent in our own home and drive us to continuously redecorate or even move to a bigger house, seeking that perfect home experience, often at a great financial cost.

3. Keeping Up with Trends

Fashion and technology industries are particularly adept at making us feel outdated. The constant release of new trends and gadgets can make our perfectly functional belongings seem obsolete. Again, this leads to a cycle of endless buying to keep up with the latest trends, even when our current items are still in good shape. That is their goal of course. If fashion trends weren’t changing, we’d never spend more money on clothing because we already have enough in our closets.

4. The Illusion of a Perfect Life

Sometimes, it’s not just about material possessions. We may perceive others as leading more fulfilling, happier lives. This perception can lead us to buy things we think will make us happier or more accepted or maybe even perfect ourselves: a fancy car, a new outfit, a gym membership, a new diet plan, or a brand new self-care routine that promises the world.

5. Parental Pressure

As parents, we want what’s best for our kids. Too often, this means constantly comparing our children’s experiences and activities and development with others. Rather than learning to appreciate and accentuate our child’s gifts, we want to have everyone else’s. This can lead to overindulgence in toys, gadgets, and activities. We often buy more in an attempt to ensure our children aren’t ‘missing out,’ sometimes forgetting the value of simpler joys.

6. Vacation Vanity

Whether they were intended to or not, travel posts from friends and family on social media almost always spark comparison. I like to think that some people post them with honest intentions… but I’m not sure I’ve seen a single one that comes across that way. Regardless of the intent, once we start comparing our travel lives to others it ignites a desire to visit exotic locations or luxurious resorts. I am a big fan of owning fewer possessions so you can pursue more memories, experiences, and impact. But when travel spending comes from comparison or, even worse, solely for the sake of taking impressive photos, we get into overspending trouble.

7. Fitness Fantasy

Those with perfect bodies and genes have plenty of opportunities to show it off—and I’m not just talking about gym selfies and magazine covers. Fitness influencers are offered lots of money by companies to keep the posts and poses coming every single day. These physical comparisons—whether with actual influencers or just neighbors down the street—can spur us to invest in trendy workout gear, expensive gym memberships, get-fit-quick supplies, or the latest health supplements—often more for the appearance of a fitness lifestyle than actual health benefits.

8. Hobby Hype

When hobbies become a means of social comparison—be it photography, gaming, golfing, or crafting—we can find ourselves purchasing expensive equipment or supplies simply to keep up with the community, rather than for personal enjoyment or development. I’m not against the joy of competition, as long as the competition isn’t who owns the nicest stuff.

9. Occupation Competition

It is equally common to compare our jobs and workplaces to others. Certainly, comparing paycheck to paycheck is nothing new. But nowadays, there seems to be a million other things we can compare: vacation days, virtual/in-person, office perks, personal leave policies, even dress code. Our tendency, just like everything else, is to assume that others have the perfect job and boss as jealousy begins to stir up discontent over the job we currently hold.

10. The Success Metric

Constantly, almost everywhere we look in our world, success gets measured by material wealth and conspicuous consumption. And if this is how society is going to measure success, we feel compelled to prove our own—at least in comparison to others. So we chase money and physical possessions as symbols of our success, trying to prove our worth to others (and often times, ourselves).

In these ways and more, comparison fuels our consumption and shopping habits.

My goal with the list above is to show you how prevalent our tendency to compare is in our society. And also to spark some new thoughts in your own mind about areas you hadn’t considered before.

So how do we overcome this tendency to allow comparison to dictate our spending choices?

Here are a few ideas I wrote down today:

—Acknowledge Your Triggers

Recognize what triggers your comparison habit. Is it scrolling through social media, talking to certain friends, or watching certain shows? What areas from the list above hit closest to home for you?

—Practice Gratitude

The more we focus on what we have, the less inclined we become to desire what we lack. Keeping a gratitude journal can be an effective way to shift focus from comparison to contentment. You may not be leading the pack in every area on this list, but there are certainly wonderful things in your life worth celebrating.

—Intentionally Align with Your Values

Be sure to take the time to figure out what you value most so you can focus on them. Because the most effective way to overcome envy and comparison in your life is to align your life with your deepest held values. Once we know that our money and time and energy are being spent on the things we value most, we become less inclined to care what others are buying or how they are spending their money.

—Limit Exposure

Reduce time spent on platforms or in environments that fuel your comparison. If social media is a trigger, limit your time on it. This is certainly easier when it comes to shutting down social media than say, spending time with family (if they are an issue for you), but wherever and whenever appropriate, limiting exposure is an important strategy.

—Set Personal Goals

Define success on your terms. Set goals based on your values and aspirations, not based on societal standards or others’ expectations. Getting a clear sense of what you want to accomplish with your life will help you stay focused on your life and your days, not others.

—Seek Authentic Relationships

Surround yourself with people who value you for who you are, not what you own. If you have to own nice things to impress your friends, maybe you have the wrong friends. Or maybe, just maybe, you are assuming incorrectly about the types of things that truly impress people. Find people who love you for you—and surround yourself with them as often as you need.

—Remind Yourself that Nobody Has it All

There will always appear to be people who have it better than you. But remember, we almost always compare the worst of what we know about ourselves to the best assumptions we make about others. So remind yourself often, nobody has it all. Each person you meet experiences problems, trials, and weaknesses–just like you. This is what makes us human. Nobody is exempt. Nobody has it all. Nobody.

—Celebrate your Uniqueness

Your life is different than anyone else’s. You have different talents and gifts and experiences. Comparing your path in life to anyone else’s is like comparing apples to oranges. As much as you think you are the same, you are not. You are different. Rather than comparing your life to someone else’s, compare yourself today only to yourself yesterday. If you are growing and improving, you are on the right track.

—Seek Inspiration, not Competition

It can be very motivating to be surrounded by others who are making the most out of their life. And in those cases, comparison can rear its ugly head. Rather than seeing yourself in competition with another person, seek to learn from them.

The path to overcoming comparison and consumerism isn’t easy. But it is worth our effort.

It requires thought and time and difficult conversations with ourselves. But the peace and freedom that come from breaking free from these traps are empowering and life-giving.

Let’s all choose to live a life defined by our values and worthwhile pursuits, not by what others have or do. And in the end, everyone will benefit from it.



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