How to Spend Wisely in 2021
Money is power. Using it consciously may help you save and be a more ethical consumer.
When I was a child, five dollars was a lot of money. Because I couldn’t earn money on my own, if an adult gave me five dollars, I would feel a surge of power. Then, when I turned eighteen and got my own credit card, I no longer had to ask adults for permission to buy things online. I could buy anything I wanted as long as I could afford it. I had power.
And that’s what money is: power. When you have money, you have power. When you buy things, where and who you give your money to receives some of your power.
With great (financial) power comes great (financial) responsibility
When I first started earning money, I tried to be as thrifty as possible. I delighted in Amazon one-day shipping. It made me feel smart and frugal.
Yet something about Amazon’s convenience and cheapness nagged me.
Many of us have been taught to chase the lowest price possible when buying something. Ethical consumerism is still a relatively new concept, and it’s not easy to embrace. Why should I buy a $50 shirt from an ethical yet expensive company and wait three weeks for it to ship when I can buy ten shirts for $50 and have it on my doorstep by tomorrow?
Yet I feel called to spend wisely and ethically. Why? Because—once again—money is power. Through taxes, buying, and investing, it’s also the main way I interact with society. My spending has an impact on my community, and unlike my political party preference or my stance on civil rights, I have direct power over my own money. (I don’t have to lobby someone higher-up to make a change.)
I won’t sugarcoat it—ethical consumerism is difficult. I don’t intend to be perfect at it, but I do want to make it a goal in 2021 to buy intentionally.
This article will explain what I mean by that. Please keep in mind that I’m still learning, and I welcome any feedback from readers.
But first, take care of yourself
I want to begin this article with a BIG caveat.
This article is written for people who have a decent amount of disposable income, who aren’t living paycheque-to-paycheque, who are class-privileged and want to be more responsible about the way they use that privilege.
Not everyone can afford the most ethical, sustainable, and environmentally-friendly way of living and buying things. If the only thing you can afford is cheap fast food, don’t feel guilty. Put yourself in a good financial place first before spending all your money on ethical yet expensive products.
Take care of yourself, because you can’t take care of anyone else before you do.
Define what “living well” means to you
We each have our own creature comforts that we can’t live without.
Whether you want to save for a luxurious retirement or give more to charity, first determine what you consider a comfortable life. Use your own definition, not someone else’s.
For example, I don’t have a car and I don’t plan on buying one. This saves me a ton of money, but I’m aware that for many people, having a car is a requirement, not an option. I happen to live in an area with good public transit and I actually enjoy riding the bus. Therefore, owning a car doesn’t increase my standard of living by all that much.
But I’m happy to spend a few extra dollars on really really good coffee. And I don’t mind making sacrifices in other departments to feed my coffee habit.
So, spend a few moments thinking about what you really need to live well. Do you absolutely need a single-family home, or are you content living in a condo where you can spend the extra money saved on something else?
Avoid instant gratification
Fighting the urge to be seduced by instant gratification will make you both an ethical shopper and a savvier, thriftier one.
So, before you buy something you’ll regret, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Do you really need this item, or do you just want it because it looks cool or is trendy to have? Will you use this item a year from now?
- How much do you get paid per hour at your job? How many hours will it take to pay off this item? Is the item worth your labour?
- Is there a better place to buy this item? Instead of a heavily discounted third-party seller, could you buy the item from a second-hand store, an independent retailer, or directly from the producer? If it’s more expensive in those places, how much are you really saving with the unethical seller? Is saving a few dollars worth it?
A $10 graphic tee seems great, but it’s $10 for a reason. It probably won’t last long. Many of my favourite clothing pieces are now in disarray because they were cheap. Not everyone has the means, but I personally believe that if you can, you should consider investing in longer-lasting, higher-quality, albeit more expensive clothing.
I get it. Buying second-hand isn’t glamorous, and some of us are raised to shun second-hand things because they’re “dirty” or make you “look poor.”
But buying second-hand is key to the recycling part of reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s good for the planet. It also directs money away from rich corporations to charities that run thrift outlets.
I’ll admit that I’m not the best at buying second-hand (I like shiny new things, damn it!) but I have come up with a few low-barrier guidelines to increase my second-hand shopping:
- Books are a great item to buy second-hand because you save trees and your money! You can also get fun, older editions of books that may not be in circulation anymore.
- There are some things I won’t buy second-hand, such as underwear. However, outerwear (which tends to be expensive new anyway) tends to be hardy second-hand.
- Other good items to buy second-hand include: furniture (go to a physical store and inspect the item before you buy it), musical instruments (disinfect mouthpieces!), hobby items (when you’re unsure of whether to commit to a new hobby), and sporting gear (especially for kids who grow out of stuff fast).
If buying second-hand still feels off to you, consider visiting your local flea market instead of the mall the next time you go in-person shopping. Flea markets can be incredibly fun places full of quirky people selling quirky things. I bought my first record albums from an eccentric guy at my local flea market and kept returning because digging through crates of dusty albums was so fun.
By the way, a good place to buy second-hand books is Better World Books (no, I’m not sponsored by them).
Support independent artists, producers, and businesses
I recently fell in love with Society6. It’s an online store that supports independent artists by selling art that can be printed on almost anything: phone cases, shower curtains, end tables, and more. I also bought my nifty Womxn of Medium mug there:
Now more than ever, during a global pandemic, we need to support independent artists, producers, and businesses. Here are some ways you can do that:
- Buy directly from the artists you support instead of a third-party seller. Avoid cheap counterfeits and copies.
- Choose a small, locally-owned independent store rather than a big-box store.
- Order food from locally-owned independent restaurants rather than big chains.
- Support businesses owned by Black, Indigenous, and people of colour.
Invest, don’t donate
I used to have a negative view on donating to charity. I thought it was lazy and “throwing money on the problem.” I thought giving skill or time was better. Then I realized that I don’t have the means, the knowledge, or the time to volunteer for everything I believed in. I’m also not a doctor or lawyer without borders!
But I’m eager to support those who are!
I like to think of donating to charity not as donating, but as investing in solving a problem you’re passionate about solving. Investing, rather than donating, makes you care about the situation more. By seeing myself as an investor rather than a donor, I’m more eager to follow up with the organizations I’ve given money to, to see how they’re doing and how the world is changing because of them.
If you want to get into donating, here are my tips:
- Give to grassroots organizations. Unlike World Vision or United Way, these organizations are more strapped for cash. They’re also doing on-the-ground, front-line work.
- Invest in local organizations because chances are, they’re solving problems you’re already familiar with, that affect your community and you.
- Give to a cause that’s deeply personal. For example, I give to a local organization that helps people access therapy because mental health is something I’ve personally struggled with.
- Consider pledging a monthly donation. This way, you develop a lasting relationship with an organization and their work.
- If you’re a young adult with class privilege, check out Resource Generation (in the U.S.) and Resource Movement (in Canada).
Finally, it’s okay to treat yourself
I do think it’s okay to treat yourself on occasion. Within reason.
2020 wasn’t the best year financially for a lot of people, so I don’t think that it’s wrong — if you have the means — to invest a little money back into our local economies. So, help out your favourite restaurants by ordering takeout. Support your favourite artists by buying their creations. And of course, if you can, invest in organizations that are doing vital work in our communities.
Hi! Thanks for reading :) My name is Li Charmaine Anne and I’m an author and freelance writer on unceded Coast Salish territories (aka Vancouver, Canada). To read my articles for free (no Medium subscription required), sign up for my newsletter.