Displacement

When you buy something, you aren't just buying that something. Buying a TV isn't just buying a TV.

It's buying a device that may suck up as much as two months' worth of time per year from your life (yes, on average, people watch that much TV). Further, watching TV actually makes us less happy.

In other words, "buying a TV" is really displacing about 15-20% of your time, and likely displacing an equivalent amount of your happiness.

If you knew that gleaming new TV you were about to buy would actually provide anti-time, anti-enjoyment and anti-happiness, would that change anything?

Let's say you buy one of those meal prep/meal delivery services like Blue Apron or HelloFresh. The benefits (as they are presented to you) are clear and concrete: you'll save time, you won't have to cook, your life will be easier. This is why these services are sold to you.

But what might this service displace?

It will displace the practice of a basic life skill that, over time, could become increasingly easy for you through use (or increasingly difficult through disuse). It will also displace the act of building efficient grocery shopping skills, yet another basic life skill that gets gradually easier and easier over time. It displaces healthy social activities centered around the practice of cooking. And this is to say nothing about the displacement of all the other things you could do with the money you've spent.

You can certainly drive yourself crazy overthinking this, but it doesn't change the fact that all of our purchases (really, all of our acts and all of our decisions) displace something else that we could otherwise do.

And in the heat of the buying moment it's nearly impossible to focus on what a purchase will displace. But because it tends to put the brakes on spending actions, I think this could be a useful frugality tool to have handy when making any purchase. And it goes without saying that the companies selling these items or these services to you do not want you to think this way at all. They want you focused on the comfy, easy-to-visualize realm of obvious benefits. They don't want you in the uncomfortable, abstract realm of displaced activities and displaced happiness.

With all this in mind, I've created a mini-checklist of pre-purchase questions you can ask yourself to help you focus on what that purchase will displace:

1) Am I being humble about the results of this purchase? What incorrect assumptions might I be making about how I'll use (or mis-use) this product or service?

2) Unintended consequences will undoubtedly result from this purchase. Have I considered them? What might they be?

3) Should I hold off on this purchase to think through questions 1 and 2 a bit more?

Readers, what would you add?


See the intelligent and useful book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton for related ideas on this topic


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