Add friction to control buying

We now have the “no buy year” as a trend, and predictably LinkedIn is commenting on it. Like most trends, it will probably fizzle out long before the year is gone. Crash spending control doesn’t work any better than crash dieting does. It may help in the short-term, but in the absence of other changes, you’ll probably bounce right back. What works is friction and you need to add it back to the mix. Here’s how I did it.

For context, until a year ago, I was working at Amazon making more money than I could reasonably spend as a single guy who lives with two cats, drives a 14 year-old Honda, vacations at hostels, and doesn’t care much for fashion or brand names. On the one hand, this allowed me to sock away the max savings every year in my 401k, and then some more elsewhere. But long work hours and lots of disposable cash made it easy for me to do a lot of “unreasonable” spending too. The big online companies make it easy.

When I left Amazon, I noted how much of this was tied to my former employer. I set out to change that, in part because of the change in income, and in part because I’d become uneasy with the amount of junk and the number of cardboard boxes I was tossing away every week.

I added friction

Everything Amazon (and other retailers) do is designed to reduce “friction.” Friction being defined loosely as “anything that might cause you to not make a purchase that you otherwise might make.” So we have instant ordering, on devices we carry all the time, with delivery sometimes in a day or sometimes less.

Advocates of slow-growth, no-growth and de-growth philosophies have pointed out that this friction-removal is at the core of what modern businesses do to continue growing. Having already consumed all of our available time, the only way to get us to spend more is to figure out ways to spend more money or attention in the time we have. Some people have identified this as a cause of serious psychological and social damage, and it has the negative financial impact that “no buy year” advocates speak about. Tech executives like to say this provides additional benefit to society, but it’s clear to me that most if not all of the benefit flows to the tech companies. I decided to add some friction back.

First: I removed the Amazon app and other shopping apps from my phone. I can still order from the website on my phone’s browser, but somehow I don’t. The mobile website sucks compared to the app which is why the app exists. It removes friction. I started leaving myself notes about things I “needed to buy” so I could get to them later when I was in front of a computer.

Second: I killed Prime. I had been thinking about this for a while because for the purposes of shopping, Prime isn’t as great a value as it once was. (Remember when everything on Prime was 1-2 day free delivery?) I guess there are other things that are packaged with Prime, but I don’t use them much. And these days they’re putting commercials on videos for Prime subscribers too, so what exactly am I getting for the money?

[In parallel, I did similar things with other retailers, but Amazon was by far the largest.]

Getting rid of Prime doesn’t mean I no longer get free delivery, but I have to strategize a bit more. You get free (but slower) delivery if you spend at least a threshold amount (they are intentionally vague), so if you’re buying a bunch of small things, you have to add them to the cart and wait until you’ve accumulated $35 or $50 of stuff before you buy and there are some other limitations that mean you may need an alternate third-party junk item rather than the first one you picked. Then you have to wait 3-5 days for delivery. Boo Hoo. (The website says 5-8 days. It may be my specific location, but I rarely find it takes that long.)

A funny thing happened

I sent myself messages reminding myself to order something or other that I thought about during the day. But I got home, looked at the messages and decided that the thing that seemed so important “in the moment” wasn’t really necessary at all. I had gotten by just fine without it, and couldn’t foresee needing it again. Half of the things I thought of buying, I didn’t buy.

This is where friction really makes a difference. Everything they’re doing is designed around moving you as quickly as possible from “I thought about it” to “I paid for it.” That’s why they want voice assistants that don’t require you to pick up your phone, and is probably the real reason Elon wants to put a chip in your brain. All these remove friction.

Still, I’d end up with a cart full of small items, and several days later when the total hit the “free shipping” threshold I’d look again before hitting buy. Half the things I had cared enough about to put in my cart, turned out to be things I couldn’t see a reason to order just a few days later.

Over time, I stopped sending myself as many messages reminding myself to buy something. I re-trained my mind to be more judicious up front and to spend just a few seconds asking “will I ever really use this thing?” Rather than an order or two each week, I now place about two orders per month, not counting my monthly subscriptions that are mostly cat food.

I cut out the temptation

A huge amount of the junk that constitutes our “online experiences” exists for no reason other than to get us to spend. While the term “doomscrolling” is often used to describe most people’s interaction with their social media feeds, it’s far more accurate to call it “shopscrolling.” The vast majority of content we encounter is de-facto advertising, designed to eliminate as much of the friction between “see interesting product” and “purchase product” as possible.

I’ve mostly removed the social media apps from my phone, set limits in Screen Time, and ruthlessly culled the number of accounts I follow, eliminating pretty much anything that is mostly advertising. Their goal is to tempt me to buy things that I don’t need. I’ve decided to be adverserial: my goal is to avoid buying stuff I don’t need. I avoid finding out or caring about the latest trend, including the “no buy year,” which itself is a TikTok-driven trend.

These days my social media is mostly friends, and a few sites/pages that discuss things I care about without trying to sell me much. And the Mets, because I doubt they’ll be good enough to sell me anything in the rest of my lifetime. My scrolling has decreased and I have more time for important things.

It’s sustainable

I haven’t stopped buying things that I need or are useful. The stuff that was always somewhat better thought-through is still ordered. What I don’t get are the piles of junk that I might use once then toss in a drawer or on a shelf, and eventually throw out or give away. Chase informs me that my spending with Amazon has decreased significantly, and Amazon is just the most egregious example. Adding friction back into my shopping has caused me to buy less from everybody.

For example, removing the rideshare app from my phone’s home screen seems to have resulted in me walking and taking transit a lot more. The app is still there! I could easily search for and bring it up, as I have from time to time in random airports. But it’s no longer right in my face, so it’s used less. I’ve killed off the food delivery apps. Now I wait to get home before I order food, and somehow once I’m home where I can easily heat up leftovers, the urgency of ordering disappears. I’m eating better too.

My closets are cleaner and I’ve opened up more shelf space than I thought possible. I throw away less things that I didn’t need in the first place. I no longer contribute piles of broken-down cardboard boxes to the recycling bin every week.

There are other things. I’ve always been good about fixing things, but I’ve become even more so. I had a good collection of tools but there are things I have not done in the past that I could do because of tooling. With a bit of work, I’ve discovered that it’s easy to find good ones used, or to borrow them. My building’s handyman and the foreman for a construction site across the street have been great sources of “tools I only need once.”

The most important thing is that what I’m doing is sustainable over the long haul. I don’t think that’s true of the “no-buy year” concept. One of the individuals quoted said she even stopped dating, lest she have to admit that she doesn’t shop much, and has a social media stream full of content about not buying things. That seems like the kind of extreme typical of an unsustainable crash diet. But my approach is focused on long-term smaller changes that add up. If I went back to another super-paying job tomorrow, I’d continue. Some people may think I’m weird because I don’t have Uber at my immediate fingertips and my first thought is “can I walk?” followed by “is there a bus/train?”, but they probably think I’m weird already. I’ll live.