2016-12-09 / Opinion

Where hard-earned cash is free to roam

By JEFF LAGASSE
Columnist


It’s way too easy to spend money nowadays. At no point during the year is that more obvious than now, in December, when most of our disposable income is being sucked into that big black vortex known as “holiday shopping.” Ugh. Even uttering the phrase makes my wallet hurt.

Credit and debit cards made this an issue a long time ago. When you don’t carry physical money -- when you don’t feel a wad of bills in your pocket, or hear the jingle-jangling of loose change -- your mind plays tricks on you. You convince yourself you have way more dough than you actually do, and this increases your likelihood of making ill-advised financial decisions, like dropping 50 bucks on a plaid coat for your Bernese Mountain Dog. Everyone knows that breed prefers polka dots. Silly.

Since online shopping became a thing, this problem has increased exponentially. Not only are you not dealing with physical money, but the virtual realm provides a cornucopia of treasures, with vacuum cleaners, laptops and plastic busts of John Quincy Adams all within clickable distance of one another. It’s very easy to pick out something nice and shiny for your sweetheart and then say, “Well, while I’m on this site, I might as well buy this carved-wood cockatoo I’ve had my eye on…”

Fast forward two weeks and your front stoop is littered with brown packages, a good many containing items you don’t need and will probably regret buying. Impulse items used to be relegated to tiny consumables, the Hershey bars and sticks of chewing gum lining the racks next to the supermarket register. On a computer screen, everything is the same size, so everything becomes a potential impulse item. Pokémon trading cards, bicycle pumps, pig-shaped potpourri holders, translucent beer coasters and Kim Basinger’s autobiography are now stacked to the mudroom ceiling, a monolith of wasted money that would have been better spent getting that mole removed from the base of your neck. I mean it, you should really have that thing looked at.

Twenty years ago, few people -- at least in my immediate circle -- predicted that online shopping would be this huge. I remember being in my mid-to-late teens when “online shopping” started registering as a term, and initially there was some trepidation about the very concept: Is it safe? Is it reliable? Is my haul of Dean Koontz thrillers being shipped from the actual Amazon? What is this?

Now it’s the norm, and that’s not altogether horrible. There’s something to be said for scratching off half my holiday list while soaking my feet in a salt bath. But every December my bank account weeps. It falls to its knees and cries out to the heavens, “Why? Why does one-click shopping exist? Why is it so easy to buy a pound of beef jerky and a jumbo-sized tube of herbal moisturizer?”

As with many technological advancements, the convenience of internet buying comes at a cost. You lose out on a real-world experience. When I was a child, my mother would take me out to various malls and shops to knock a few items off her Christmas list, and to a child whose experience of the holidays was still relatively fresh, close proximity to that commercial, green-and-white cheer was downright eye-popping. Every plush snowman, every mechanical hand-waving Santa was a tantalizing appetizer that left me ravenous for the main course. Watching bustling shoppers flit about with their sparkly plastic bags was heartening in some way, an indication that these grown-ups, these strangers, had families and friends in their lives who meant something; it was an affirmation of what we call “holiday cheer.” These positive experiences were of course augmented by my anticipation of meeting a fake-bearded Santa who smelled faintly of rye whisky. But still, the adventure was real-world and tactile, something I could take in with all five senses.

From a grownup’s perspective -- “grownup” being a relative term here -- I can now appreciate the in-person shopping experience on a practical, money-saving level. Simply put, there’s a limit to how much you can carry, and subsequently purchase. Even if you’re shoving around one of those big rickety shopping carts with the iron bars and weirdly tortuous-looking child seat, you’re restricted to a handful of larger items and a bunch of smaller ones. That carved-wood cockatoo was immensely appealing when you saw it on homemadejunk.com, but let’s say the internet didn’t exist and you saw the exact same item perched on a shelf at a big-box store. You’d like to buy it, sure, but after snagging a vacuum cleaner, a microwave, 12 toilet seat covers and a case of Schlitz, there simply isn’t room. The limitations of physics has allowed you to save money in this situation. It’s also kept your mantle that much less tacky.

Between the monetary savings and the multi-sensory experience, it’s clear that in-person shopping is a better all-around option. Yet more and more of our holiday gift-giving -- heck, our shopping in general --  is done at the click of a button. It’s easy to see why. We like things easy, even if easy isn’t good for us.

I’d say that was a human trait, but it runs deeper than that: It’s an animal trait. Stray cats have a strong hunting instinct that reaches back through evolutionary history, but domesticate one and it’ll forget all about chasing birds and start purring when its master grabs the can opener. Mammals from ferrets all the way up to people enjoy luxury, and will take advantage of it when they can. We’re hardwired. We’ve been heading in this direction for a long time, but now that we’re here it feels empty somehow. We spurn our money and a tangible reality in favor of our virtual shopping carts, and meanwhile that fake Santa is getting mighty lonely on his throne.

I guess that’s why he’s got the whiskey. Luckily for him, there’s no one around to see him drink it.

-- Jeff Lagasse is an editor at a Portland media company who will hypocritically do most of his holiday shopping on sites like eBay, where there are great deals on zombie Bobblehead dolls. Lambast him for this practice at jelagasse@gmail.com.

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