Why We Buy

We often buy not to enjoy our purchase or meet a physical need, but to fill a hole in our hearts, a lack in who we are. 

By Mark D. Harris

The Christmas season has just ended, and people worldwide have been evaluating the effects of the holiday. Some people do not celebrate Christmas, and so whatever effect the holiday has on them is indirect. A Buddhist in China, for example, may not believe in Jesus Christ, but may be employed manufacturing toys or clothes given as gifts by those who do believe. A Muslim in the Islamic State may hate the very idea of Jesus Christ, but realize that his American and Western foes are less likely to attack him on December 25th. A Western secularist may scoff at Christianity, but still take advantage of Black Friday shopping bargains and deal with holiday traffic. For many in the West, and in other parts of the world, Christmas is a social rather than a religious holiday.

What happens to Christmas gifts? Some presents go back to the store, food gifts are eaten, and a few offerings end up in the trash. Most presents, however, are used, stored, cleaned, and perhaps used again. Years of Christmases, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and other occasions result in a continually growing pile of presents, but gift-giving events are relatively rare and so the pile is modest.

Much more than buying for others, we buy for ourselves. Rarely associated with a specific event, self-shopping empties our pocket books and fills our homes with items of greater or lesser usefulness. Shopping becomes a major form of recreation. We spend our free time in malls rather than in parks. Our closets, shelves, and garages fill up with clothes, computers, and cars, and so we rent storage units. Eventually we buy bigger houses, and still our possessions proliferate. We spend our time buying stuff, sorting stuff, storing stuff, maintaining stuff, moving stuff, and finally disposing of stuff. We own our stuff, but our stuff also owns us.

Ultimately, we buy things to fill a need. In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs in the form of a five-level pyramid. Physiological needs such as air, food, water, and shelter formed the base of the pyramid. The next level up is safety; personal, financial, health, and a safety net against adversity. Love and belonging comprise the middle level, which includes friendship, intimacy, and family. Esteem, both from oneself and from others, is the second highest level. Finally, self-actualization and self-transcendence, the desire to fully accomplish your purpose in life and in relation to the rest of the cosmos, are the highest need.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html)

  1. Self-Actualization/Transcendence
  2. Esteem
  3. Love and Belonging
  4. Safety
  5. Physiological

Though Maslow’s work has been criticized throughout the decades, it still provides a useful paradigm to address the question “Why do we buy?”


The most fundamental reason for buying is to acquire the basic things that keep our bodies alive. Food, water, and shelter are required, but these purchases do not only serve the bottom of the pyramid. Food nourishes us, but it also ties us to a certain culture and social group. European Americans may favor beef and potatoes while Asian Americans prefer fish and rice. Such food-based ties contribute to our sense of love and belonging, as well as our esteem.

Shelter meets a physiologic need but our choice of shelter helps meet other needs as well. A well-built and locked house in a good neighborhood provides a sense of safety. A large, beautiful home reflects and confers a higher social status than a small, plain one. A dwelling in an area of clean air, safe water, good sanitation, and a beautiful landscape will help its occupants be healthier than one without these advantages. When a man with a beautiful home takes care of his family and entertains others, he adds to his sense of love and belonging, and ultimately his self-actualization.

Clothing is another physiological need, but most people use clothes to do far more than just protect their bodies. Humans as animals could do fine covered with burlap sacks, with more or fewer layers as needed for the climate, but even the poorest people dress themselves better than that.  Soldiers and law enforcers wear body armor to keep them safe. People wear clothes similar to their social group to identify with that group. Men dress to communicate wealth and virility. Women wear clothing to attract a mate, highlight their best features, and excite envy in others. Long hair, jewelry, and high heels are entirely unnecessary and may even be detrimental from a physiologic standpoint, but they are important to esteem, love/belonging, and self-actualization.

In summary, humans buy to meet physiological needs, but do so in such a way as to meet higher needs as well.


Some purchases are specifically to enhance safety. Insurance policies are not necessary to live, and most people don’t boast about their coverage, but we buy them nonetheless. A few boorish sorts might brag about the size of their savings accounts, but most citizens, at least in the developed world have one. When disaster strikes, however, failure to have either damages people at every level in the pyramid. Men and women who have failed to take such safety measures and then lose their job, suffer a disease, or lose their home face withering censure.


Much of what we buy is to enhance our sense of love and belonging. As relational creatures, we are largely defined not by who we are but by whose we are. This is true even in the hyperindividualistic West. My friends and I used to joke in high school that all of the people who considered themselves nonconformists looked alike. Millions of teenagers follow celebrities on social media so that they can be like them.

Certain items like wedding rings, family photos, art work, and presents for special occasions are purchased specifically for love and belonging. People buy sports team jerseys, music artist T-shirts, and organizational polo shirts for the same reason. However, the need to be loved and to belong is so powerful that it permeates everything we buy, and everything we do.


Why do we buy a car for $50,000 when we could buy one for $20,000? They are probably equally safe and get the same gas mileage. Why do we buy intentionally ripped blue jeans with a famous tag for $100 when we could buy intact blue jeans with an ordinary tag for $20? The former will fall apart sooner. In hundreds of similar circumstances, from handbags to glasses, we spend far more than we need to, from a purely functional standpoint. We part with much of this money to raise our self-esteem, and others’ esteem for us.

Self-Actualization and Transcendence

In the Christmas movie, The Bishop’s Wife, Agnes Hamilton (Gladys Cooper), a wealthy widow, is donating money for a grand cathedral to the memory of her departed husband, and in penance for never really loving him. Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) desperately wants the cathedral to be built, but the task of agreeing on plans is threatening both his ministry and his marriage. Both were striving for self-actualization and transcendence, and using everything they had, money and influence, to attain them. Only the intervention of the angel Dudley (Cary Grant) allows them to find real self-actualization and transcendence.

We all yearn, consciously or subconsciously, for the same thing. We spend our money and our lives to achieve what we believe will give us self-actualization and transcendence. Buying is a major part of both.

Why do we buy so much?

Having discussed why we buy, we need to ask why we buy so much. Our physiological needs are quickly met; the human body can only consume a relatively small amount of food and water, can only wear a limited number of clothes, and only needs one shelter at a time. Safety needs are also limited – except for those with mental illness, most people don’t stock up on house locks or insurance policies.

Love and belonging needs may be limited, or may not. Humans can only have a certain number of parents, children, or friends. Time and space limit the scope and depth of our relationships. Once a person has a loving family, a solid circle of friends, and a strong association with their favored group, they will often be satisfied. This need cannot be met with possessions or accomplishments.

Needs for esteem and self-actualization are the hardest to define, and the hardest to meet. John D. Rockefeller was once asked “how much money is enough?” His reply was “just a little bit more.” This answer applies to everything else that we seek in our drive for esteem and self-actualization. Hollywood superstars want more fame, and Napoleon Bonaparte wanted more power. In most cultures in the world throughout history, the sheer number of one’s possessions is a key indicator of wealth, power, and fame.

The preceding discussion, however, implies that purchasing is mostly a cognitive activity, in which your brain makes the decision to buy or not based on rational, or at least semi-rational, criteria. In truth, buyers spend a lot of money on impulse. A product or service makes them feel a certain way, the shopper likes the feeling, and so he or she buys the product or service. The emotions decide, and the reason rationalizes the decision. Merchandizers collaborate with our inner hopes, dreams, and insecurities to part us from our money.

  1. Mannequins look away from customers at display windows; their eye position enticing passersby to make eye contact and walk into the store.
  2. Scents are powerful. Floral or citrus scents make us linger, talcum scents evoke nostalgia, and lavender or vanilla scents relax us.
  3. Companies decide who their target customers are for each product and in different locations and times, and play music that was popular when those target customers were 18 years old. Middle agers may hear classic rock, while millennials may hear modern pop.
  4. Clothing departments have warm and soft lighting, and clothing tags are printed so that larger women wear smaller sizes.
  5. Cheaper products seem like a better deal when placed alongside more expensive products, and red ink on sales signs make the markdowns seem bigger.

The overwhelming message from the media is that everything, or almost everything, is bad. The overwhelming message from advertising is the you are bad, or at least not as good as you could be if you had the advertised product or service. When we immerse ourselves in media, whether television, internet, print media, radio, social media, or something else, we eventually become convinced of these messages. Then we go to stores, or order online, to make ourselves feel better.

The Christian Perspective

Many have criticized Maslow’s hierarchy and even understanding of needs, but few will object to the general ideas of needs and that they can be categorized. Most understand the pivotal role that our unconscious plays in our spending, and the array of forces constantly trying to separate us from our money.

First, the Bible recognizes the needs of man on all levels, but provides only one solution to these needs.

  • Psalm 23 – The Lord is my shepherd; I shall have no want (unmet needs)
  • Lamentations 3:24 – The Lord is my portion, says my soul. Therefore, I have hope in Him.
  • Philippians 3:7-8 – Count all things as loss compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ
  • Philippians 4:19 – My God shall provide all of my needs according to His riches and glory in Christ Jesus

God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, meets all of our needs. Jesus promised to meet our physiological needs (food and clothing – Matthew 6:31-34). He protects us (Psalm 91), loves us (John 3:16), and invites us into His community (1 Corinthians 12:27).  The Holy Spirit does not delude us with foolish self-esteem but tells us that we are precious in Christ. He helps us want good character before God more than a good reputation before man (Proverbs 29:25, Matthew 10:28). Jesus Christ doesn’t offer self-actualization or self-transcendence. He offers perfect forgiveness, unquenchable love, eternal life, and a role in God’s redeeming work in the world. God is less concerned with “self” than He is with “Other”.

Second, the Bible teaches that our resources are not our own. God gives us everything that we have, and we are not at liberty to use these resources any way we wish. Our money, our homes, and even our lives belong ultimately to Him, and are to be used in His service and for His glory. In shopping as in every other activity, our focus is not on ourselves. Christians are not to think “what can make me safe, what can make me belong, what can make me loved, what can give me esteem, or what can make me actualized.” Instead we are to think “how can this please God, how can this serve others, and how can this make me more effective in His service.”

What does this mean in day to day life? Each person must search the Scriptures and answer this question for themselves, but here are a few ideas.

  1. Immerse your mind in Scripture, in prayer, and in intimate fellowship with other Christians. In so doing, you will develop the mind and heart of Christ.
  2. Think, speak, and act outside yourself, dwelling not on your own needs but on the work of God in and through you.
  3. Spend more time outdoors – in parks, forests, beaches, rivers, and mountains.
  4. Spend less time indoors – time inside four walls is likely to be time sitting (sedentary, bad for health) and time consuming media.
  5. Give away more time and money.
  6. Shop less – don’t go to stores, malls, or internet sites just to hang out. Make a list of what you actually need, and add a few wants occasionally. Buy only what is on your plan.
  7. Spend more time with others doing non-shopping activities – picnics in the park, dinners at home, church activities, sports (live viewing and participating).

Think, ask family and trusted friends, and pray about how you can become more like Christ in relation to buying. Your pastor may be a good source of guidance as well.


Most people in the United States and throughout the developed world buy too much. Rather than us controlling our stuff, it begins to control us. We buy for cognitive (thinking) and for emotional (feeling) reasons, but the latter are often dominant. We buy to meet needs within ourselves, and sometimes to bless others. Possessions can never meet our deepest needs, but still we buy more.

Christians cannot live this kind of life. God through His Holy Spirit due to the work of Jesus Christ meets all of our needs. He feeds us, clothes us, protects us, loves us, gives us a community, gives us value, and makes our lives matter. Since He fully meets every need, to live as though He does not is unbelief. The resources that He uses to meet our needs are not our own. God does not meet our needs for our benefit, but rather so that we will come to know Him and His glory.

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