6 Ways to Avoid The Diderot Effect

A friend of mine passed me this article on Denis Diderot who I could have sworn we’ve blogged about before, but a quick search told me we hadn’t so I had to make sure we fixed that STAT :)

Here’s the article I was passed, by one of my favorite writers online – James Clear:

The Diderot Effect: Why We Want Things We Don’t Need — And What to Do About It

In a nutshell – Diderot was a French philosopher in the 1700s who one day acquired a new fancy robe which then didn’t match any of his other items. Feeling discontented by this, he went around upgrading his things in order to match the quality of the said robe, eventually plunging himself into a spiral of debt.

From Wikipedia:

“Compared to his elegant new dressing gown, the rest of his possessions began to seem tawdry and he became dissatisfied that they did not live up to the elegance and style of his new possession. He replaced his old straw chair, for example, with an armchair covered in Moroccan leather; his old desk was replaced with an expensive new writing table; his formerly beloved prints were replaced with more costly prints, and so on. “I was absolute master of my old dressing gown”, Diderot writes, “but I have become a slave to my new one … Beware of the contamination of sudden wealth. The poor man may take his ease without thinking of appearances, but the rich man is always under a strain”.

And thus, the Diderot Effect was born!

When obtaining a new possession creates a spiral of consumption, leading you to acquire even more new things in order to feel completely satisfied. Which, of course, never transpires.

As funny as it is to think about how this could happen from a robe (must have been a killer one!), we’re all susceptible to this and have no doubt got sucked in many a times our selves…

I know I have! Even just this Saturday while house hunting I kept catching myself thinking about all the new stuff I’d have to buy in order to fit better in these immaculate homes! No way I could dirty it up with all my hand me down furniture or clothes, right?? Haha… I mean, what would all my dinner guests say when they never come over?! ;)

(And then ironically enough, as we passed by some not-so-good homes an hour later I thought about how well my Frankencaddy would have fit vs my current shiny Lex, haha… The Diderot Effect in reverse, which actually would work out well to your advantage! ;))

A pretty interesting phenomenon nonetheless though, and of course there are many ways to catch yourself before the temptation sets in…

Here are 6 tips from James’ article that I think are super helpful:
(particularly #4 and #5)

#1. Reduce exposure. The fewer robes you see, the fewer robes you want!! ;) (But in more modern parlay – UNSUBSCRIBE FROM ALL THOSE STORE EMAILS or whatever else gets you drooling every day!! Even Instagram! *gasp*)

#2. Buy items that fit your current system. You’re perfectly happy with what you own now, so just keep pairing them with things that match well! “You don’t have to start from scratch each time you buy something new.”

#3. Set self-imposed limits. This one is great – and not unlike *budgeting* – where you give yourself limits to work in to avoid going overboard. And if you don’t trust yourself enough, wrangle in a BFF or spouse to help keep you in line! It’s a lot harder to stray once you involve others!

#4. Buy One, Give One. This is a popular mantra of minimalists, and for good reason. If you’re always offloading the same number of items you’re bringing in, you can never get buried in stuff! “Always be curating your life to include only the things that bring you joy and happiness.”

#5. Go one month without buying something new. And now a popular mantra of all $$$ bloggers, haha… But a great way to force yourself to reflect before going off the deep end for sure ;) And one that can totally change your wallet’s life!!

#6. Let go of wanting things. Admittedly a lot easier said than done, but still a worthy goal to shoot for. And James notes something here in a way I’ve never seen put that really had me thinking: “Realize that wanting is just an option your mind provides, not an order you have to follow.” YES!! TRUE!! Not that I ever confused a “want” with a “order”, per se, but it’s a great way of re-labeling things and one we’d be well rewarded for, especially during house hunting ;)

Here’s a link to the article again – it was a great one: The Diderot Effect: Why We Want Things We Don’t Need — And What to Do About It

Anyone else care to share their tips on how they avoid getting sucked in?? Or any of their Diderot stories to help us feel better about ourselves?! ;)

I can’t say I’ve ever been humbled by a robe before, but you never know what’s lying in the creep around the corner! It’s the unsuspecting stuff that gets us every time!

Thanks for the article rec, Leah!

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  1. Nita April 22, 2019 at 5:50 AM

    Ooooh, good timing. The Diderot effect will be coming at full speed on me in my new apartment. Imagine having 60% more space and having to furnish that…
    I’ve budgeted hard on this category, I set an aim and have been saving for over two years (and will go on till December, after which I’ll dial back in favor of other aims), so I really need not to be “ooh, that would be so little compared to the whole budget, let’s get it”

    1. J. Money April 22, 2019 at 6:37 AM

      60% – wow! That’s def. a lot more space, haha.. Good job saving up for it though! And congrats on the new adventure! :)

  2. OFG April 22, 2019 at 9:12 AM

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes to #1. Turning a blind eye is the greatest key to avoiding unnecessary purchases. I stopped needless spending when I unsubscribed from emails and stayed out of stores. If I don’t see it I don’t want it. Now if only I could do the same with home improvement projects. When we paint one wall in the house we realize how much we need to paint the other. Once the paint is dry we realized the furniture was looking a bit shabby, fix that couch and suddenly the carpet needs a good cleaning. What started as a job for one or two rooms, turned into a five year project to revamp the whole house!

    1. J. Money April 23, 2019 at 6:09 AM

      Haha yup! It’s a slippery slope!

  3. Leah April 22, 2019 at 9:38 AM

    H! Jay! (Thanks for the shout out!) Two other concepts that help me avoid the “Diderot Effect” are strategies that I’ve learned from two other bloggers.

    1) I love Cait Flander’s idea for questioning whether I am making purchases in order to pursue an aspiration identity (e.g. buying this thing will make me feel cooler, smarter, more sophisticated) versus only buying things that I will use or consume NOW. This brought so much clarity to purchases that would otherwise be expensive and stupid for me (and Diderot) in chasing who I want to be, rather than serving me where I already am.

    2) I also love David Cain’s Depth Year idea, which is using/reading things that I already have/own, thus helping me resist the urge to find satisfaction in things “out there.” I’ve been doing a Depth Year (imperfectly) myself after David’s latest article on it, and I’ve found the effects are profound. The Depth Year really helps me with #1, #5, and #6 in your article (three birds with one stone). Here’s more from David on this: https://www.raptitude.com/2018/12/why-the-depth-year-was-my-best-year/

  4. Life Outside The Maze April 22, 2019 at 10:53 AM

    Good advice to beware of the Diderot Effect with fanciness. I have also seen a sort of positive version of this effect with working out and sometimes with hitting my budget. When I workout, it I feel better and then don’t want to spoil it by eating a bunch of fast food or something. Then it all builds. Similar if I have hit my budget all month I tend to keep doing so rather than splurge on the last weekend and blow all the other frugality. Of course it doesn’t always work out that way but I guess my takeaway is that your brain strives to excel at what you practice

    1. J. Money April 23, 2019 at 6:13 AM

      Agreed :)

  5. Abigail @ipickuppennies April 22, 2019 at 12:01 PM

    I’ve been struggling with this weird notion that popped into my head that I need a pair of black heels. It doesn’t matter that I don’t wear dresses or skirts. And that getting the heels probably wouldn’t change that. “But at least you’ll have them in case of…”

    My brain couldn’t even finish the thought because I can’t think of a time that I’ll need them. But that didn’t stop me browsing for heels online, which reminded me that I also wanted some black ankle boots, so I started looking at those.

    Then I realized I’d have to get different jeans for the boots to be worthwhile, which is when my brain finally accepted that the whole exercise was ridiculous and I closed the window (where I had items in my cart! I came awfully close to buying!). Close call, but at least I pulled out of the nose dive.

    1. J. Money April 23, 2019 at 6:17 AM


      Maybe it’s a premonition you’ll be invited to some rockin’ party here soon ;)

  6. Elise April 22, 2019 at 1:06 PM

    This was such an entertaining read!

    The Diderot effect is actually something we reference often in our household. Seven years ago, we were Diderot on steroids. After I finished grad school, we felt we deserved a bigger apartment, nicer luxury cars, and fancy new wardrobes to boot.

    But over the following two years, we realized none of this was making us happy. Where we found our greatest joy and fulfillment was actually out conquering a 14,000 foot mountain, or tackling a new trailrunning PR up our favorite local trail, or simply just taking a stroll along the beach. All things which, miraculously, are free.

    Thus, your number 6 tip is really what changed everything for us. But I would add that simply letting go of your “want” is rather hard for most of us. I personally found it easier to start by replacing the “want” of things with a want of experiences. Finding experiences that are free, and that also help with personal growth, simultaneously removes the desire for superficial objects while enhancing one’s sense of personal accomplishment and fulfillment.

    I have so much less now, but I feel so much more full.


    1. J. Money April 23, 2019 at 6:28 AM

      Yayyy!!! How freeing of a feeling!!!!

      Excellent idea on swapping out the “wants” too so it doesn’t feel like you’re depriving yourself at all – very smart :)

  7. Joe April 22, 2019 at 2:09 PM

    It’s tough when you relocate. We donated/sold/threw out a bunch of stuff when we moved. Then we needed to buy some stuff for our new place. It was mostly under control, but I still want more. Now, I’m trying to find a dining table. I could get something for cheap on Craigslist, but we’re being more selective now. We’ll use it every day for years so might as well get a nice one we like. Right??? It’s tough to resist buying…

    1. J. Money April 23, 2019 at 6:30 AM

      Haha yeah… but you kinda sorta need a table to eat on, so I think you get a pass on that one :)

  8. BasicBitch April 22, 2019 at 2:37 PM

    UGH! I am right there. I feel this one on a spiritual level.

    We just renovated our master bathroom. And a lot of our mindset was, “We’re only going to do this once! Might as well buy the best version of X!”

    And now it’s done and it’s so beautiful and I am so tempted to replace PERFECTLY FINE bedroom furnishings so that they “match” the splendor of our new master bathroom! It’s so stupid but so insidious.

    1. J. Money April 23, 2019 at 6:31 AM

      That’s why the financial blogging community came into existence – to give ourselves a place to run and hide to!! ;)

  9. CJ April 22, 2019 at 6:12 PM

    I think for me, the older I get, the easier it is to control….we already have everything we need for the house, bought the best we could afford years ago,…..now have people saying “you still have that” and the answer is “yup” and we still like it. We have lost my parents already, and my In-Laws now have to relinquish some of their possessions, this is a real wake up call about what we really need. Funny how after all the years, we will end up in a small apartment, after getting the big homes with all the stuff….going to be interesting when it happens to us.

    1. J. Money April 23, 2019 at 6:34 AM

      If only we could have some of that wisdom in our youth!! But i suppose that’s the fun of it all… learning and failing and finally figuring ourselves out right before we depart, haha…

      I love the idea of going back to a small apartment with even less stuff in the end though :) It’s such a freeing feeling!

  10. Greg @RetireBy36 April 22, 2019 at 9:45 PM

    Wow – I’ve experienced this phenomenon but never knew it was actually a thing. I mean you can’t buy new pants without buying 3 shirt to match, right?

    1. J. Money April 23, 2019 at 6:35 AM

      of course! everyone knows that! ;)

  11. NikkiD April 22, 2019 at 10:52 PM

    This is a hard one for me right now. I just moved into a new apartment after living with family for years. I have no furniture and there are somethings I just can’t convince myself to get used, like a mattress. New mattress comes with new sheets, it hasn’t spiraled too far but it bugs me that I have all empty room besides the bed–and I saved for this! Fingers crossed that I don’t go too far into the Diderot Effect.

    1. J. Money April 23, 2019 at 6:37 AM

      I am sending you healthy wishes over there!!!

      Maybe pick up a few copies of Marie Kondo’s book and place one in each of the rooms for a subtle reminder! Haha… only stuff that sparks joy (and that you “need”) go in there! :)

  12. Torrie @ To Love and To Learn April 22, 2019 at 10:55 PM

    Fascinating! I feel like I learned about this concept in my psychology classes, but maybe under a different name. Of course, when I google another name, nothing comes up, so who knows? (Thank you Google, for making it so I don’t have to remember anything from my college classes anymore.)

    I noticed this one when we bought a new couch (or, more accurately, when my mom and stepdad bought us a new couch). Other than a mattress, it was the first piece of new furniture we’ve ever owned in almost 8 years of marriage, and it made us realize that…you can kind of tell that fact now, since its appearance. I still love my new couch, but it sure has made me want to start doing all sorts of crazy house projects lately!

    Best beware when y’all find another house to move in that it doesn’t suck you in too, ha ha :)

    1. J. Money April 23, 2019 at 6:43 AM

      I know!!! I am scared already!! :)

  13. Your Money Blueprint April 23, 2019 at 3:27 AM

    Good tips. I use a couple of different ones though:

    1/. Gratitude: I have found the key to not wanting new things is to start practicing gratitude for what you do have. It works wonders and I do it every day now.

    2/. A frugal wife: Having a wife that slaps me anytime I make a foolish decision is good motivation too.

    1. J. Money April 23, 2019 at 6:55 AM

      You’ve cracked the code, sir – haha….

  14. Laura April 23, 2019 at 8:35 AM

    I love suggestion 1 it has helpped me a lot

    Another option is to move money out of your chequing account as soon as you are paid (ideally into an investing account!). This reduces the amout I can spend on needs and if I do get caught into increasing consmerism at least I have already put away savings.

    1. J. Money April 23, 2019 at 9:41 AM

      Totally. Excellent idea!