Overspending woes – the Diderot Effect

Denis Diderot as painted by Dimitry Levitzky
Denis Diderot as painted by Dimitry Levitzky
Lush robe, dude. Do you have the matching slippers?

What do you and an old French Librarian have in common?

Have you ever bought something which then prompted you to buy something else to go with it – and then something else? Before you knew it, you ended up spending much more than you initially intended.  You might feel foolish, and a little bit stupid for breaking your budget (if you even had one).

Say, you finally decided to upgrade your old coffee table – from two milk crates and a plank – to an actual table.  And then you thought that you should have a tablecloth to match – and maybe a vase.  It’s about time that you had a full set of plates – because that’s adulting.  And come to think about it, the couch is a bit shabby too…

You have fallen victim to the Diderot Effect – a phenomenon related to consumer goods first recorded in the 18th century (yes, we’ve been consumers for hundreds of years).   Diderot was a French philosopher and librarian who first described this effect in his essay ‘Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown’.  Diderot was given a beautiful new scarlet dressing gown – but compared with this lush new robe, the rest of his possessions began to look second-rate to him.  He replaced his old straw chair for one covered in Moroccan leather.  His ratty desk was replaced with an expensive new one. He even upgraded the art on the wall – to expensive works.

This spending pattern continued and eventually plunged him into debt – and this is before credit cards and Klarna.  He ended up wishing he had never received his beautiful robe.

At the core of the Diderot Effect sit two ideas.  The first is that acquired goods will be related to the owner’s sense of identity, and as a result will be complementary to (or go with) each other.  Like the thought that you need a coffee table, because now you are an adult with an income. The second idea is that the introduction of a new possession that is different (or better) than your current complementary goods can result in a process of escalating purchases.

There are so many scenarios in which you can fall victim to the Diderot Effect.  In my opinion one of the most pervasive (and financially crippling) scenarios is when you move house.  I have moved 10 times in almost 15 years for various reasons – and each time I have fallen victim to the Diderot Effect to a greater or lesser extent.  A couch that served its purpose in the old place, doesn’t look so great in the new place – so it gets (inevitably) upgraded.  But in order to give it a more cohesive look I purchase some cushions to go with it.  And some new blinds, and a nice print…

Or imagine that you’ve managed to buy your own place (YAY! Congratulations!) but it doesn’t seem like what you imagined your ‘dream’ home to be once you move in.  Originally you thought that a lick of paint and some new curtains would be enough to live in – but you find yourself ordering a whole new kitchen and bathroom otherwise you think you’ll go mad dealing with the old ones.  You can see how things can spiral out of control quickly.

So, what’s the solution?  First knowing that this is a ‘thing’ helps you prepare for it. What works for me is trying to think ahead – and seeing how the next big purchase can fit in with my current style. Beware the lure of a whole new look – because it can start a spending spiral.

Try this: think about your next ‘key’ purchase.

  1. What have you got coming up this year?  Do you need to buy an outfit because you’re attending a wedding or two?  Are you planning to move house?  Do you need to buy a new bike? A car? Some furniture?

  2. Write down what you plan to purchase (and your budget for it) – then write down the possible additions that could go with it.  If it’s a new outfit you are going to buy – do you need the shoes to go with it?  How about a bag?  Do you need accessories (a tie or a necklace) or a coat as well?

  3. Go through the things you already own. Can any of these items be repurposed to suit the new item you are planning to buy?  If not, can you postpone the purchase of add-ons so that you are not buying them all at once?

I would love to hear if you’ve been hit by the Diderot Effect – and what you do to counteract it. Email me at fleur@wtf-money.com to let me know.

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