Sometimes you just want to treat yourself, right? You work hard, so you deserve nice things.

Maybe you fancy a new watch, more extravagant than the one you currently own.

Or perhaps an expensive new coffee machine for your kitchen.

Or a new television with a larger screen and 4k…

You don’t normally buy something this expensive, but it’s nice to go all out and splurge every now and then.

Most of the time, this behaviour is harmless. But, sometimes, one splurge can have a knock-on-effect.

Let me explain…

Let’s say a woman gets a promotion at work, and to reward herself, she buys herself a new luxury bag. It’s the most she’s ever spent on herself and she’s over the moon with it.

The next day, she puts on her bag. But she realises something is not quite right.

The bag looks amazing, but suddenly her Glassons outfit and Hannahs shoes look cheap and tacky in comparison. So she decides to introduce some high-end labels to her wardrobe which will complement the bag.

Now she looks great and she’s feeling happy again. But when she hops into her car, the same wave of dissatisfaction hits her.

If anyone were to see her emerging from her old, beat-up car in her designer clothes and bag, they would most certainly assume she was wearing fakes. So she upgrades her car.

But now when she parks her flash European car outside her house, it looks strange. It doesn’t look like the person who drives that car lives in that house. So now she decides to move to a nicer house.

That escalated quickly, didn’t it?

Okay, it’s an exaggerated example, but this is what can potentially happen when introducing a new item into your lifestyle that’s fancier than what you’re accustomed to.


The Diderot effect

This phenomenon has a name — The Diderot effect.

The Diderot effect is the idea that possessions contribute to their owner’s sense of identity, and upon the acquisition of a new possession that does not complement existing possessions, it can result in a spiral of consumption.

Grant McCracken coined the term in 1988, naming it after philosopher Denis Diderot, who wrote an essay on the phenomenon. [openx slug=inpost]

Diderot’s essay is called Regrets on Parting With My Old Dressing Gown. In the essay, he describes how he was gifted a beautiful new dressing gown.

At first, he loved the new dressing gown. However, he started to feel dissatisfied with his other possessions which did not complement the elegance of the dressing gown.

Diderot wrote:

Lend an ear to the ravages of luxury, the results of a consistent luxury.

My old robe was one with the other rags that surrounded me. A straw chair, a wooden table, a rug from Bergamo, a wood plank that held up a few books, a few smoky prints without frames, hung by its corners on that tapestry. Between these prints three or four suspended plasters formed, along with my old robe, the most harmonious indigence.

All is now discordant. No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.

So, he began to replace his possessions with expensive new versions, causing his spending to spiral out of control.

Evil instinct of the convenient! Delicate and ruinous tact, sublime taste that changes, moves, builds and overturns; that empties the coffers of the fathers; that leaves daughters without a dowry, the sons without an education; that makes so many beautiful things and great evils. You who substituted in my house the fatal and precious desk for the wooden table: it is you who ruins nations, it is you who will perhaps one day take my effects to the Pont Saint-Michel where will be heard the hoarse voice of a certified auctioneer saying: Twenty louis for a crouching Venus.


Mindful spending

So how can you avoid this fate?

It’s all about being more mindful with your purchases.

If you’re planning to spend big on a luxury item, slow down and think about how it will complement your existing possessions.

If you buy that big new television, will it look out of place in your living room?

Will you feel the need to upgrade your sound system or your furniture to go with it?

These are some of the questions you should ask yourself.

We all seek to upgrade our lifestyles as much as possible, but staying within your means is key.

So if your next big purchase doesn’t inspire joy and instead makes you feel dissatisfied with the other things you own, consider that you might be better off without it.


Sara Martin
Contributor, Money Morning New Zealand