It seems that many of the web’s personal finance sites (like this list on Wisebread.com) are actually shopping sites disguised as benevolent dispensaries of financial advice. I checked out the websites like Deal Seeking Mom and Money Saving Mom, and various others from the top ten. Then I checked out another service that has become popular among people with the desire to save a few bucks: Groupon.
The thing I noticed about these sites is that they seem to focus on buying things, rather than not buying things. One site had a picture of an attractive makeup-wearing woman’s face and the text “Request a Free Olay Sample Pack”. This wasn’t an advertisement, it was an actual article. Groupon had all sorts of deals like “Sushi for Two for only $22 at this restaurant in YOUR town! – 50% off! .. Sign up for daily emails from Groupon!”
Even though I’m Mr. Money Mustache Himself, I must admit I was immediately tempted. “Hmm, I do like Sushi. Maybe I should go out tonight? I wonder if they have any deals on tools or bikes? And I am down to zero pairs of jeans without major holes in them, perhaps I should look for Old Navy or Target coupons as well?”.
See, while the deals presented on these sites are indeed good deals, the problem is that they are creating wants and perceived needs inside me, where only contentment existed before. Think for a moment about the quote from one of the nation’s Founding Mustachians, Henry David Thoreau: “A man is rich according to the number of things he can afford to let alone”. I believe one of my biggest advantages in the battle to maximize happiness while buying less stuff than most people, is not even knowing what stuff is available to buy.
This is one of the many reasons that I suggest that you, as a rich person in the making, should not even have access to broadcast or cable TV of any sort. The advertising, and the lifestyles portrayed on TV, and even the product placement in movies, is just too powerful to not trick you into wanting unnecessary stuff. (And regardless of the advertising, there is just too much interesting stuff to do in life – every second spent watching TV, no matter how interesting it seems at the time, just causes you to miss out on even greater fun).
I actually hadn’t heard about Groupon at all until just a few months ago, and I only visited their actual website today, as part of the intrepid and painstaking research process I do for each of these articles. But my wife, Mrs. Money Mustache, has her own secret research line into The Real World*. It’s the collection of other ladies she knows through real and internet relationships, both in our original hometown and our new one. Since these folks are not part of the unusually wise group we call MMM readers, she gets a sneak peek into what Actual Consumer Ladies are doing with their time**.
What she sees is amazing. Financial disasters in high-income families. Acres of expensive products and vacation destinations strewn across Flickr photostreams. And through it all, a common theme that it is tough to get by financially in modern life, so we must use Groupons and Online Deal Seeking to make ends meet.
I would suggest that while coupons do actually get you discounts, the most profitable route is still to keep yourself off of as many mailing lists and deal websites as you can. When we moved into our current house, I did the usual trick of contacting the direct marketing association at dmachoice.org and blocking most paper junkmail (it really works, the maibox can stay empty for days at a time these days). But I have still felt the tickle of temptation from a stream of sneaky catalogs that has started coming to my house. I’ll buy a tool or a guitar stand or a bike part, and it will trigger a stream of Harbor Freight, Musician’s Friend, and Nashbar paper catalogs flowing to my house. Despite my best intentions, I find myself pausing just before tossing them into the recycling bin. Just a quick peek. And an hour later, I’m topping off the cart to the level required to get the free shipping. Now I get beer brewing ones as well. Sigh.
The thing about stuff is, you only need a certain amount of it, even when you are leading a decadent middle-class life as you and I are. When I graduated from school and bought my first house, it was empty. So I did go out and buy a lot of stuff. Couches, microwave oven, pots and pans, a vacuum cleaner, a suitcase, the whole lot. I did it inefficiently by my current standards, since Craigslist was not yet invented and neither was Mr. Money Mustache. But the key is that it was a finite amount of buying. Now I still have all that stuff. So I don’t need to buy most of it again for many decades. Without advertising, you only need new stuff when your old stuff breaks beyond repair***. But really, for a person of my age, the spending on new stuff should be at an absolute trickle, because things don’t really break all that often.
So, I’m investing the rest of the morning in contacting each of the companies and getting off of their lists, permanently. And I did NOT type my email address into the box on the Groupon website.
*(much like the telephones they use to talk between the Real World and Matrix spaces in the movie.. except here on MMM the worlds are reversed: I refer to the fake consumer world outside the cozy enlightenment of the Mustachian Community as the Real World, even though those people are technically more like the people still stuck in the Matrix. Some day we may have to change our terminology to resolve this confusion).
** Of course, Consumer Men also exist in vast numbers, but I don’t have access to such a large group on my own Facebook account.
*** I recently thought this had happened to my 1999 vacuum cleaner. It was purchased for about $60 at Costco during that initial flurry of house-filling purchasing. It’s an upright vacuum cleaner and the handle developed a crack and started flopping off of the body. I had been vacuuming delicately with it for the last couple of years, and contemplating replacing it. Then I manned up a little and went out to the garage and fashioned some metal splints for it with holes drilled to screw into the main body. It’s now sturdier than it was when brand new, and I am confident it’s good for another 12 years.