The New York Times ran an article a couple of weeks ago entitled “How E-Commerce Sites Manipulate You Into Buying Things You May Not Want,” which was full of the sort of depressing and sometimes disturbing data privacy-related information that you may have grown accustomed to of late. Modern capitalism is many things, and one of those things is an incredibly efficient if not altogether wise machine to get us to buy a bunch of junk we don’t need and then turn around and buy some more tomorrow.

At any rate, I had two immediate, visceral reactions to the article. One was, I’m so tired of these stories where software preys on the idiosyncrasies of the human psyche to get us to “like” something on social media or “One-click purchase” something else on a website. It’s hard enough to make good decisions in this world, financial or otherwise. Being at the mercy of tech companies who take advantage of us when we’re tired borders on the sinister.

But the second reaction to all of this was, Are you kidding me? We have to do better! I mean, come on. These gimmicks have no business being a primary driver in our behavior as humans. It’s a tough world we live in, sure, but in many ways we’ve also willingly abdicated our responsibility as people to think critically and to assess how a purchase (or any other action) will actually lead to positive outcomes in the real world.

And you know what? I’m biased of course, but I think both of those reactions were legitimate, and I think there are two underlying realities we need to address as a result.

First, almost everything on our TV and phone and computer screens is, to quote Ralphie from A Christmas Story, “a crummy commercial.” Marketers have only gotten better at slinging modern versions of “Be Sure to Drink Your Ovaltine” at us in ever more cunning and constant ways. And of course we don’t really even want most of this stuff, not really. Just recognizing this is a way to combat it! But you can also combat it by spending less and less time with digital devices at all. Our phones especially are not only constant crummy commercials, they’re also constant distractions. Which leads me to the second reality I think we need to be aware of…

You and I have agency. We have freedom. We can do nearly anything we like. But the default of that freedom in our society is typically a freedom from. Freedom from restraint, freedom from responsibility, freedom from critical thinking, freedom from attention, freedom from ethical wrestling, freedom from the consequences of our actions on others. But what we really crave as humans is a freedom for. The aimlessness of freedom from is its own form of bondage. Freedom for a particular purpose, a particular ethic–that’s the freedom worth having. It gives direction and clarity in a complex world.

When we recognize those two realities, we have a real opportunity to make a key change in our finances: Our “yes” answers and “no” answers, whether in response to a crummy commercial, or one of our children, or a spouse, or a local charity, or even our own inner dialogue–these answers become less and less subject to the whims of our emotions (and the ways they can be manipulated) and more and more tied to something bigger than ourselves. Which is a good thing.

Last thing (and this could definitely be a whole blog post in itself, but I’ll introduce it anyway): We aren’t in this alone, though we often act as if we are. The French philosopher René Girard spent a life’s work talking about what he called “mimetic desire.” What he meant was, we are all imitators, and even our desires are imitations of the desires we see around us. So my closing plea today will save you money but will more importantly help you lead a more impactful life: The crummy commercials and the proverbial Joneses are not worth imitating; find a someone–or better yet a community of someones–who is. That’s one of the reasons we like to gather people at our office whenever we can–it normalizes a community of folks who utilize their financial freedom for a higher purpose. And that’s the coolest part of what we do.

Let us know if we can help!

Author Jared Korver, CPA, CFP®

A product of small-town North Carolina (Carthage, to be exact), I’m proudly married to my best friend and co-adventurer, Amy. Together, we have two boys named Miles and Charlie, and could more or less start a library from our home. I love being outside, can’t read enough, am in the habit of writing haikus, and find food and coffee to be among life's greatest treasures.

More posts by Jared Korver, CPA, CFP®

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