Consumerism vs Materialism: Are They Both Harmful?

We have access to more consumer goods than any generation that came before us. Some families have multiple cars, frequently dine at restaurants but they don’t seem to be happier than before. Alongside with rising levels of well-being, we see mounting credit card debt and increasing numbers of self-storage facilities to house the things we buy, but probably don’t really need.

To some extent, most of us participate in consumer culture and value material possessions, and that’s perfectly fine. But in excess, consumerism can take a toll on our well-being, relationships, and quality of life.

How to Avoid Consumerism

What Is Consumerism?

If it’s desirable to constantly buy new things or believe that happiness comes from frequently getting new possessions, that’s consumerism.

In economic terms, consumerism proposes that consumer spending is the key driver of the economy. Its proponents see consumerism as a catalyst for economic growth and consider it a crucial government policy goal.

In everyday terms, consumerism occurs when people in a capitalist system partake in excessive materialism. This overconsumption is often seen as conspicuous, reactive and wasteful.

Consumerism vs Materialism

While the two are treated as synonyms, this is not an accurate description.

  • Materialism occurs when you love, value, protect, and care for the things you’ve purchased. It’s a natural human behavioral trait. Parting with the thing isn’t easy; you keep what you have, even if newer versions are available. When it breaks, you repair it. Materialists generally tend to save money in the long run.
  • Consumerism occurs if you love to buy things. Joy comes just before purchasing a good or service. The thrill is short-lived, and the item doesn’t make you happy.

Negative Effects of Consumerism

Consumerism doesn’t just affect your wallet. It can contribute to a wide set of problems, including:

  • Degrading the environment. Growing demand for consumer goods means greater demand for raw materials, water and energy. Governments and producers must also figure out how to manage waste. There is the possibility of the release of dangerous substances used while creating a product that may cause environmental harm.
  • Consumerism destroys traditional ways of life and values. With consumerism, there is a shift from values like integrity to materialism and competition. People self-segregate by thinking that the more they can buy, the better they are socially.
  • Deeper debt, and more consumer exploitation by big businesses. Consumerism drives us to buy more regardless of whether we can afford it. More people want luxury goods and are taking risky financial actions to get it. Predatory companies (including payday lenders) make loans and credit easier to get and customer vetting becomes lax.
  • Negative psychological effects. It’s a known fact that financial problems bring on drastically negative reactions like stress and depression. Money is the number one reason married couples fight and is often cited as a key reason for divorce. Chasing the short-term thrill of the latest consumer trends when you don’t have the money is hectic. Additional effects include growing resentfulness, becoming overworked, and having less quality time for yourself and loved ones.

How to Avoid Consumerism

It’s not easy to elude consumerism, but it is a worthwhile struggle. Here are a few tips for putting up a successful fight:

  • Stop and reevaluate. Before you make another purchase, take a look at your life. Are you devoting your energy, money, time, and other resources to things that are actually important to you? Do your possessions enhance your life, or strain it? Review your life holistically: your salary, your expenses, and your daily habits. Sort them into the necessities and the luxuries. Then be honest with yourself about whether these things make you happy.
  • Don’t be a copycat. You don’t need to live the same lifestyle of your friends, neighbors, family, or that person you admire. Truthfully, neither one of you may be able to afford that life. Your financial wellbeing and peace of mind should not be at the mercy of other people’s purchases.
  • Familiarize yourself with your weaknesses. Know what triggers your consumerism behavior. Is it a store, a product, a scenario or a person which can lead you down the path of debt? Do you shop when you’re stressed, emotional, bored, or simply when you see a “SALE” sign? Observe your own behavior, identify the signals, and adopt measures to avoid or counteract them.
  • Reflect upon your motivations. Unfortunately, marketers use what motivates us to get us to spend more. They hone into our desires in sneaky ways, targeting our emotions for a more effective result. Whatever it is you’re searching for; they suggest their product will fill that need. Go deeper to find out what lies underneath your desire. Once you know what motivates you, you can begin to find healthy ways to satisfy the need.
  • Your purchases should enhance your contributions to society. Purchases that contribute to your purpose always have greater value to you and the society around you.
  • Evaluate the hidden cost of your purchases. We tend to evaluate purchases by their sticker price. (Worse, we often underestimate the cost due to the left digit effect.) Many of us forget to add in the hidden costs in our purchase. We neglect to calculate the time, energy, and fuel costs involved in making the decision and conducting the purchase. Too often, we also ignore maintenance costs, stress, worry, and emotional attachments as well.
  • Challenge yourself. Try a 30-day no-shopping challenge. When you beat that, push yourself further and see how long you can keep it going. Adapt the challenge to your weakness, whether it be cutting out clothes, knick-knacks, or eating out, for example.
  • Whatever makes you happy, do more of that. Seek out what brings you joy and integrate more of it into your life. Let it become your distraction from shopping.


Identifying what drives your consumerism and acting against it has positive effects for you and society on a whole. Not only can it lead to a happier life, but it will also cement your path to financial independence.

Roman Zelvenschi

I started a digital marketing agency Romanz Media Group Inc. 12 years ago. Running my own business quickly taught me the importance of cash flow. Making sales was not enough, I had to have money in the bank to pay the vendors, staff and personal bills.

During those early stages of the company I learned how to get creative with debt and to save on interest cost. I paid for everything I could with a credit card to both get more points and to extend the payment date by 25 days (credit card grace period). I then utilized a 0% balance transfer offers to rotate this debt.

I learned a lot during this process and made a lot of mistakes. My key lesson is that the most important part of being financially independent is how much I managed to save, rather than how much I earned. Staying disciplined with savings and tracking spending is not easy and I tried many different methods to stay on track.

FinancialFreedom.Guru is a side project where I and my staff are trying to share the practical knowledge on how to understand finances and to build wealth.