“I love advertising because I love lying”

^ That’s a direct quote from Jerry Seinfeld’s speech last month when he received a CLIO—a prestigious advertising award. Now, when Seinfeld said that, he was doing what he does—his acceptance speech was a standup comedy bit—but it contained some powerful truths. Go ahead and watch it when you have about 4 minutes.

Enjoying our 'free' vacation in San Diego

Hearing Seinfeld talk about advertising, buying things, and materialism reminding me of a host of buying experiences from my life. Like when I was just 9 years old, I received a catalog full of toys that I could earn by selling stuff to friends and family members. I remember leafing through the pages, carefully analyzing each item, and imagining what my life would be like if only I had that toy.

I dreamed and I schemed, convinced that I would be happier—that my life would be measurably better—if I could just get my hands on that toy. Eventually I’d save up enough money, and push enough products to earn some credit toward my dream toy. I’d order it, and anxiously await it’s arrival in the mail.

As I waited for my package, I’d become more and more assured of how great this was going to be. I was going to be so much cooler now. Then it would come, I’d tear open the package, and I’d get to work setting up my new toy.

Alas, my toy wouldn’t be all that it was claimed to be. It didn’t work as well as advertised, or it didn’t satisfy a real interest of mine. Much to my disappointment, my life didn’t actually change—except that I now had a few less dollars.

I’d like to say that I learned my lesson back then, that I stopped buying useless trinkets. But as the years have gone by I’ve still found myself imagining that a new shirt would improve my life, or that some candy will really make me feel better. Seinfeld summed up the reality well when he said:

“We know the product is going to stink. We know that. Because we live in the world and we know that everything stinks. We believe ‘hey, maybe this one won’t stink’. We are a hopeful species—stupid, but hopeful.”

Most of the things we can buy out there really do stink, and I know that. But for some reason I like to believe it’ll be different this time…stupid, but hopeful.

The best medicine I’ve found for this problem is time. Time to really think about something before spending my money and attention on it. Time to let the initial whizzbang wear off. Time to see things as they really are.

That’s why I don’t buy things when I first want them anymore. I make note of the thing I want to buy, tell my wife about it, and then I just let it sit for a while. Because of our budgeting cycle, that usually means I get around a month to separate myself from the rush of wanting something. Once I can get past that excitement of desire, things are often a lot less appealing.

Let me leave you with one last quote from Seinfeld’s speech. It’s a joke about the advertising business, but it’s really honest, really sad, and a bit thought provoking.

“I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-earned money to buy useless, low quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy.”

I’m gonna do my best to not get duped, to not buy into the misrepresentations, and to use time as my ally.

How about you?

  • What’s the last purchase you made on a whim?
  • How many impulse buys have you regretted?
  • Do you have a policy you use to make sure you get some time to think before you buy?

Here’s what you can do the next time you find yourself wanting something:

  • Acknowledge your desire for it—it’s totally okay to want stuff!
  • Write it down, email a reminder to yourself, tell your spouse about it—these things help the brain to relax, because you know you’ve acted on your desire
  • Even if it’s on sale, don’t buy it right now…$10 off of something you don’t really want isn’t a deal
  • Decide when you’ll revisit and make a decision—it could be an hour, 2 weeks, or 3 months
  • When decision time comes, try not to romanticize the purchase—it’s just a product you’re buying
  • Most importantly, feel good about your decision, whatever it was, and know that you made up your mind with intention

Have a happy day!