Buying Instead of Doing

There’s a lot about our consumer culture that worries and, sometimes, shocks me. Sometimes things even worry me. Like this: Lately I’ve noticed that things are becoming substitutes for actual experiences. We’ve taken to buying rather than doing. I see this in every sector, but it seems to be extremely prevalent in the sporting goods/outdoors category. It seems as though people are buying things and letting the things take the place of actually doing the activity. They buy top notch skis and call themselves skiers when they’ve never touched the slopes. They buy a basketball hoop and call themselves LeBron, even though they only played once. They buy tents and sleeping bags and then never camp, but call themselves avid campers. They get a full set of scuba gear and call themselves a diver, even though they’ve never gone further than the deep end of the community pool. It even extends to cars. How many people do you know that bought big SUV’s complete with the off road brush package and deer warning system and then never drove anywhere but the interstate?

Of course, this buying instead of doing extends to areas beyond sporting goods. Plenty of people have closets and garages full of craft or hobby supplies for projects they were going to take up. But once they have the stuff, the desire wears off and they never touch it again and all those projects languish. There are those who bought musical instruments, all the accessories, and the tutorials on DVD and never play, yet when asked they say, “Oh, I play the saxophone.” Some people buy lots of fancy kitchen gadgets and think they are suddenly Wolfgang Puck. In practice, they haven’t advanced beyond frozen pizza. I even know someone who claims to be fluent in three languages, when what she really has are three barely used Rosetta Stone packages. Try to converse with her in German (one of the languages she claims fluency in) and she can’t get past hello and goodbye.

My favorite current “buy it, don’t do it” trend is the Wii. So many people are taking up tennis, golf, bowling, and boxing on their Wii’s. Some even then claim to be tennis or golf experts. But what happened to getting a racket and some balls and hitting the local court? Or getting the family together and going to the bowling alley and playing some games? I understand that it can be nice to have something to do when the weather is yucky or you’re home not feeling well, but too many people are using the Wii as a substitute for any sort of real sporting activity. How satisfying is it really to catch a virtual fish when compared to landing your own real fish? Is it really satisfying to buy a virtual sporting experience when you could, for very little cost, go out and have your own experience?

We all have a desire to be more than we are. That’s understandable; it’s human nature to want to try new things and get involved in a lot of activities. We all want (or should want) to grow as people and expand our horizons. There’s nothing wrong with that. Where things go wrong is when the “stuff” or the “virtual experiences” we buy take the place of actually doing the real thing. Owning top of the line Rossignol skis doesn’t make you Picabo Street. Having a pair of Air Jordans doesn’t make you Michael. All that having the stuff does is makes you look the part. But it’s an expensive illusion. The only way to become a great skier, photographer, quilter, golfer, tennis player, or anything else is to get out and actually practice your sport or craft. You can own all the equipment in the world and still have no idea what to do with it. Ownership does not confer expertise.

I think that some of this is related to our desire to show off. We figure that we can craft the illusion of ourselves as great at something and no one else will be bothered to look too closely. If they see us out there with our fancy equipment or we say we play tennis every day (not mentioning that it’s Wii tennis), they will assume we are great. It lets us feel superior, even though we are not.

(True story: In my youth I was a figure skater. I, like most kids, started out on very basic skates and worked my way up to the more “serious” models as my skills grew. Well, this woman shows up at the rink one day with her daughter in tow. The kid was wearing super-serious skates, the kind we saw on kids who were national level competitors and that very few of the people at our rink ever wore. Well, all of us who were regulars at that rink were like, “Oh, man. Who is this chick with the skates? She must be really good.” We assumed from her gear that she was this great skater. Well, she hit the ice and I mean hit the ice. She could barely skate forward, couldn’t go backward and had no jumps. Of course, we (being kids) snickered at this poor girl, then we outright mocked her. Poor kid. She was in such pain because those skates were brand new and extremely stiff. Her feet weren’t used to boots that thick and unyielding. The coach asked the mother why on earth she’d decked the kid out in those skates when a basic pair would have been good enough for now. The mother said, “Because she’s a great skater and all the great skaters wear those skates.” The mother thought that buying the gear was enough to make the kid into a great skater. Coach shook his head and walked away. After about a week, the kid’s feet were so raw and blistered, she was crying before practice everyday. After about two weeks we never saw her again. I’m sure those skates gathered dust in the closet for years.)

The other part of it is laziness and impatience. We want to be great, but we don’t want to do the work. We want to be great now (or have others think we are), not three years from now when we’ve really mastered the craft. It’s easier to buy the equipment than to actually take the lessons and do the work required to be great. We can simply tell people that we are good at such and such, and then point to the gear. We don’t have to do the work. What’s funny is that they never hand out any marks of greatness-medals, monetary awards, plaques, or knighthoods to those who merely own the equipment or set virtual records on their gaming systems.

If you really want to try a new activity or become great at something, there is a budget-friendlier way (and it will ensure that you actually learn the skills necessary to do the activity). Start at the bottom and work your way up. Begin by renting some equipment. Yes, sometimes a rental confers the mark of “beginner” on your forehead, but at least you didn’t go broke trying this new activity. (And you don’t look like an idiot when your skills don’t measure up to the gear.) If you find yourself enjoying the activity, buy some inexpensive, basic equipment. Maybe look into used equipment. Then, when you outgrow the features or capabilities of that basic equipment, upgrade to something better and sell your old stuff to another newbie. Use the money you make to buy better gear. Only keep upgrading as long as you are still doing the activity. When you lose interest, stop buying stuff.

(Another true story: I know a guy who used to be a great skier. He always had the newest gear, but it made sense for him because he was always out on the slopes and had technical skills that required great gear. Then he quit skiing. I don’t know why. But every season, he still buys all the latest stuff. Yet he never skis. It’s costing him a fortune and I don’t get why he won’t stop. Something psychological, I’m sure. Anyway, don’t be that guy. If you lose interest in something or can no longer do something, stop buying the accessories for it.)

The whole point of buying gear or supplies should be because you are doing the activity in question, not to simply look the part. If you’re going to spend the money, for crying out loud, get out there and do something with it. If you’re going to claim proficiency at something, it had better be because you really know how to do it, not because you set the new high score on your Wii. Don’t let owning the gear or having the virtual experience be enough for you. Get out there and do the things you want to do. Doing it is the only way to master something or even become proficient at it. And if you start small and work your way up, you can become great without a lot of expense. Do it, don’t buy it.

This entry was posted in Personal Finance, Shopping and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Buying Instead of Doing

  1. Carol says:

    I’ve been guilty of purchasing somethings in hopes that now owning the item would encourage me to use it, be it exercise equipment, cooking utensils, office supplies, or even some clothing…at least when I do purchase these hoped-to-be-frequently-used items, I get them at a discount, and they are far from being top of the line.

  2. t says:

    Fanny, the nice camera bit sounds like a coworker of mine who does photography as a side business. He told me that people often comment about how good his camera is instead of his photography skills.

    I have had the buying instead of doing syndrome happen to me a bunch. Examples I can remember would be a 250cc dirt bike, rollerblades, and video games. While I was working on a graduate degree, I had a music instrument hobbie. It got pretty bad I had about $50K music worth of gear, but barely anytime to mess with it.

    Hoping my DSLR doesn’t turn into a buying instead of doing experience.

  3. whitestripe says:

    i agree with most of what you’ve said but not the things like buying a basketball hoop and buying camping gear. we have two snowboards and camping gear, and probably camp twice a year and BF snowboards once a year. that is not subsituting money for experience though, in my opinion. when we camp, we have a big group of friends and we go to an island for a couple of days where there is nothing. BF goes on an annual (or once every two years sometimes) snowtrip with friends, usually overseas. he has spent probably $2k on his equiupment, and is an excellent boarder. these snowtrips last for two weeks to a month. we might have spent a few hundred dollars on camping gear and only get to use it once in a blue moon, but that does not mean we dont get an experience out of it when we do use it. i think this goes for a lot of people.

  4. baselle says:

    Very true. A poor craftsman blames his tools. But two other effects might be at work here:

    1.) Buy quality fear. Its the cheapest man that pays the most. Isn’t that what is hammered into us?

    2.) Buying the expensive, top-of-the-line to forces us to pursue what we got the item for. Or it turns an elliptical machine into the most expensive clothes rack in the world.

  5. Carl says:

    Dave thanks for pointing out another modern condition. I’ve been guilty of this syndrome on several occassions. It is certainly true that just because you have the best brushes does not make you Pablo Picasso.

  6. Panda Bear says:

    Here’s what I do: Instead of spending tons of money on all that gear just to let it clutter up my home, instead, I go to the local thrift shops and buy all of their really pretty shiny trophies for next to nothing and display them in a very prominent location of my home so that visitors can’t miss seeing and admiring them! Almost all of them I have even had my own name added by using an inexpensive engraving tool!

  7. AdamCO says:

    You’ve definitely touched on something I think a lot about. I think your assumption that people buy fancy equipment because they think that makes them good or to “show off” seems a bit jaded.

    I think that all of us really want to be great at something. We don’t have time but we have lots of money. So, like you say, we buy some fancy product to accomplish a hobby we want to take up. I think that this product is always bought with the sincere intention of becoming accomplished in whatever craft it represents. So rather than mock those who buy but cannot do, I just feel bad that we don’t have more time in our lives to accomplish those things that we find meaningful.

    I love the wii. The wii isn’t a substitute for sports, it’s a substitute for movies or crossword puzzles.

  8. Gail says:

    Oh goodness, please don’t discourage people from buying top of the line products for ‘non’ hobbies! How would I find all that incredibly cheap sewing stuff at and yard and thrift sales if not for people who bought it and then one day cleaned it out. I had fun beading a gift this Christmas, a craft I would have never taken up on my own except that someone gave my hubby’s aunt the stuff and she passed it on to me.

    A frugal person takes advantage of people who buy and then don’t use and inevitably someday my sewing room contents will be up for sale and someone will think I had a ‘hobby’ and never actually used my stuff. In reality I have made many, many craft and home projects plus make most of my own clothes and I don’t turn down give aways so I have plenty of hobby supplies stashed away and will never be able to use them all. I’d weed stuff out, but I never know what I will need next.

    I have been seeing this a lot lately also as I have been looking for a second sewing machine. Many ladies put them up for sale with minimum sewing time on these incredibly expensive machines–because they don’t have time to use them, they have a baby so don’t figure they will have time to sew for years, etc. Amazing to me. I had babies and I sewed with them around. I worked and I sewed. I’m chronically disabled by arthritis and I still find ways to sew.

    You will always find time to do what is important to you to do. But, I’m still happy for the sewing stash rejects that I find!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *