Louisiana Digital News

YOLO Spending and The Illusion of Control



Ever since the pandemic (and, really, before then) people have been spending like mad. Call it YOLO (You Only Live Once) spending or revenge spending, people are buying everything in sight. Cars, vacations, concerts, meals out, houses… Whatever. It’s a see it, want it, buy it world. While inflation has slowed things down somewhat, there’s still an awful lot of YOLO’ing going around. 

Why all the YOLO spending? 

Well, there are probably lots of reasons. Many people will tell you that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, so you’d better get your fun in while you can. YOLO! While we all always knew this, the pandemic drove it home in graphic terms. And, due to all the closures, the pandemic forced a lot of people to put off some fun and desired purchases. Thus the term “revenge spending.”

But I’ll put out another, thornier, reason for all this YOLO spending. For some, spending creates an illusion of control and control is something we’re all sorely lacking these days. Not that we ever really have much control. Life is full of randomness, even at the best of times. But the past few years of pandemics, politics, wars, climate disasters, etc. have truly shattered whatever poor illusion of control we’d managed to create up to this point. So we’re looking for something, anything, to make us feel like we have some control over our lives. 

Spending can do that. 

Spending money on anything and everything that tickles your fancy can feel good in a world that’s out of control. If everything is blowing up around you, fixing up your kitchen or going on an expensive trip can make you feel like you have some control over something, at least. “Look, everything is on fire, but I’m at least controlling my house, or my fun! I may drown in five years from sea level rise, but at least I have a good looking kitchen now!” If you can’t articulate exactly why you feel good when you spend, it probably comes down to a feeling of security and control. 

Spending can tamp down the panic and temporarily make you feel like you’re doing something. You’re improving your bathroom. You’re going out with friends. It creates a sense of day to day consistency and control. But it’s all an illusion. Fixing up your bathroom gives you no more control over disasters, political whims, or a pandemic than doing absolutely nothing does. The only thing it does is make you feel a little bit better, for a short time. Over the longer term, however, it can actually be detrimental. 

Until it can’t. 

No matter how much you spend, you can’t outrun the loss of control. The swanky kitchen becomes just another room during the next pandemic when you’re stuck at home. The lovely new car is dented in an accident. Your vacation is cancelled when a war breaks out at your destination. A concert is cancelled when the performer runs afoul of local politicians and is ordered not to perform. You can spend and spend, but the randomness will still come for you. Spending does not protect you. (Short of buying a very few items that might actually help in times of disaster, war, or pandemic.)

Worse, spending to gain a sense of control can quickly get out of control. Example: You’re craving security and comfort so you decide to buy some new furniture. That felt good. It made your “nest” cozier and you feel safer and comfy at home. But it’s not too long before you crave that feeling again. What now? A whole new kitchen or bath? An addition? Maybe a car with the latest safety features. As the world spirals, you spend ever more, seeking that feeling of control again. Like a drug addict, you have to spend more and more to get that good feeling back. You become desensitized over time and it takes more, bigger purchases to give you that same feeling. Eventually, you’re in deep financial trouble. 

So what control do you have?

Frankly, not much. Most of what happens in life is beyond our control. We can try to mitigate some bad things, like by purchasing insurance, or getting a car with great safety features, but that still doesn’t mean that we won’t be hit by a drunk driving 100mph and pushed into a ravine where no safety features or insurance will help. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take sensible precautions and just give our lives over to fate. It simply means that spending, on anything, is no guarantee of control. And certainly spending on frivolous stuff will not give you the control you desire, even if it sort of feels like it might. 

What can you do?

Other than spending on precautionary measures, saving money is your best bet. Look, no matter how bad things get, the chances are that you won’t be wiped out. At least not in the first wave of whatever happens. You’ll probably be around for a while. Having some money set aside for a true emergency can make you feel better in a helpful way. You still don’t have control over everything, but if prices spike, or you need something urgently, or you need to move, having that money will be helpful. You’ll have actual control over a few things. And if the world settles down into some sort of normality, you’ll have that money to live out your old age in comfort. You can sit on your front porch and chuckle as you tell your grandkids about all the craziness.  

That’s as much real control as you can get in this world. (And before you say it, yes, the banks could fail and all your money could be gone, so you still might as well YOLO… Yes, that’s true. The banks could fail. And in that case, we’re all equally in trouble. I’ll see you at the Thunderdome. But that isn’t a likely scenario, so you’d better save some money so you have some control over your fate.) 

I’m not advocating that you never have any fun or spend on anything that’s not strictly needed. You do have a life to live, for however long it lasts, and you need to enjoy it. It’s just that if you’re spending because it makes you feel like you’re in control of your fate, you need to wise up and realize that that is an expensive illusion. 

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