Denis Diderot was a very famous French philosopher, the co-founder and writer of one of the most comprehensive encyclopedias in his time: Encyclopédie. He, however, lived nearly all his life in poverty.
In 1765, at age 52, Diderot’s daughter was about to be married, but he could not afford to provide the dowry.
When the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, heard of Diderot’s financial troubles, she offered to buy his personal library from him for £1,000 (approx. $150,000 today). She was a book lover and enjoyed his Encyclopaedia. An arrangement where he would still keep the books and be in charge of the library.
Suddenly, Diderot had excess money in his hands than he needed!
So, after paying his daughter’s dowry, he bought a new scarlet robe. He felt his scarlet robe was so beautiful, and all his other possessions looked drab and faded compared to it. He felt the urge to buy some new things to match the beauty of his robe.
- He replaced his old rug with a new one from Damascus.
- He decorated his home with beautiful sculptures and a better kitchen table.
- He bought a new mirror to place above the mantle
- He replaced his straw chair with a leather chair
- He changed the art on the walls
He kept buying until he was back to…….Poverty!
Denis Diderot eventually observed and wrote an essay titled Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown.
He concluded by saying “I was absolute master of my old dressing gown, but I have become a slave to my new one.”
These reactive purchases have become known as the Diderot Effect.
The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption, which leads you to acquire more new things. As a result, we end up buying things that our previous selves never needed to feel happy or fulfilled. In other words, the purchase of one new item often leads to the unplanned purchase(s) of another.
- We buy a new shirt or dress… and immediately begin looking for new shoes, bags, earrings, make-ups, and watches to match.
- We bring home a new couch… and suddenly the centre and dining tables in our living room appear old and shabby, in need of replacement.
- We purchase a new car… and soon begin spending money on car washes, more expensive engine oils and maintenance, and even the places we hang out, which results in more expenses.
- We move into a new home… and use the occasion to replace our existing seating room and bedroom furniture, and household appliances (ACs, Cookers, TVs, Sound Systems, etc.) with a new one.
In each circumstance, the reality is that we already have enough, which worked just fine before. But because something new had been introduced into our lives, we were immediately drawn into a process of spiralling consumption.
Always bear in mind the Diderot effect and never allow it to overpower you. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status. Stop trying to impress others with your stuff and end up depressed! As you work towards achieving your financial goals for 2023, do not allow your financial resources to be heavily drained due to unnecessary consumerism.