The Diderot Effect

The Diderot Effect has been used as a lesson against mindless consumerism since the minimalist movement began. The moral of the lesson is always the same: buying something nice will lead to us buying other nice things until we’re broke and miserable.

I was right on board with that thought from the beginning. Why should we strive to buy better things when we’re all poor in the first place? I reasoned. Wouldn’t it be better if we used what we had instead?

It would definitely be cheaper, I thought.

So that’s what I did for years. I scrounged around for free or cheap stuff and made do in order to save money. I kept it clean, used it till it died, and scrounged replacements as time went on.

Diderot’s complaint was that a gift of a fancy robe caused him to upgrade his entire home to match. He spent far more than he felt was appropriate and regretted his decision. His rant has been used as an argument against consumerism ever since.

Let’s poke at him with a stick. If we strip away the consumerism aspect his theory is simple: if we allow ourselves to upgrade one aspect of our lives, in time we will upgrade other areas to match.

Does this work in both directions? Let’s use my life as an example. Here are some pictures of my home before I became extremely frugal:




This is my bedroom now:

new bed

Note that every single item in all of those photos was paid for in cash. I purchased the furniture in the first photos secondhand. I didn’t break the bank to achieve the first look; I used what I had and accentuated it when time and money allowed.

And if I allow myself to be honest with myself, the first set of images suits who I am inside much better than the photo of what I’ve become.

In short, I am a living example of the Diderot effect. By focusing solely on what I could scrounge and exploring how low I could go financially, my external environment deteriorated as well.

What Can We Learn From the Diderot Effect?

We can see from my example that the Diderot effect works in both directions. In the first set of images, I started out by purchasing a bedroom set from a friend and accentuated accordingly. In the second…

…I’m not so sure how to explain the last photo.

While there is a risk of allowing ourselves to buy more than we can afford, if we curb the temptation to overspend, I believe that we can harness the Diderot Effect to improve our living circumstances over time.

An upgraded wardrobe, purchased used (or new when money allows), would provide improved job opportunities.

An upgraded home would improve our quality of life and allow us to attract, not only a different set of friends but a completely different lifestyle than the one we currently have.

So repeat after me:

There is Nothing Wrong With Improving Your Life

There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve your financial circumstances.

There is nothing wrong with affordable luxury.

We need money in order to live. That is a fact of life that, try as we may, we cannot escape in our modern society. There is no sin in improving your wardrobe bit by bit to gain a better paying job, and there is no sin in upgrading your home as you can afford it.

I’m preaching to myself as well here. Until I started this post, I’d no idea how far I’d fallen.

Oddly enough, my income hasn’t even changed much between the two photos. I had changed, and I hadn’t even realized it.

Harnessing the Diderot Effect

I’ve decided that it is time that I went back to the woman I was when I snapped those photos. She wasn’t ashamed of owning nice things; she bought what she could afford when she could afford them and savored those luxuries in her life.

She didn’t tolerate useless clutter but she allowed herself occasional treats. She enjoyed scented candles, incense, and a monthly box of inexpensive bath salts that she split with her kid.

She didn’t feel guilty when she went out to eat. She didn’t feel guilty when she bought a pretty dress at Goodwill. She carefully budgeted her money but allowed herself the little splurges when money allowed.

She wasn’t perfect; she allowed herself to be persuaded to live above her means around the time those photos were taken. She took out some credit cards and financed a washer and dryer that caused her to struggle. I suspect that attempt to move too far and too fast is what started her on the journey to where I stand today.

But if I learn from that experience, if I harness the Diderot Effect in a responsible manner, I should be able to improve my life dramatically.

I can go back to who I was again.

Confession and Challenge

This post ended far differently than how I originally envisioned it. I imagined that I would rant against consumerism like I have so many times in the past as I sat down at my keyboard. I worked myself up to a white-hot rage against my previous self…

…until I looked at the date on the original photos.

I wasn’t a mindless consumer back then. I had started down the path of minimalism, true, but I had used the philosophy to curate my life for the better. I had stumbled upon minimalism before it was a thing and I used it to better my life before I got swept up in the pissing contest of less is more.

I don’t like what I see that I’ve become. I’ve allowed myself to settle for less and less until I lost sight of who I truly am. I was so driven to live on less that I forgot that there is value in moderation.

Maybe Katie was right. Maybe I did deprive her in my desire to live cheap. I did it with the best of intentions but I can’t argue with the truth I see in those photos.

Seeing these photos made me realize a truth I’ve avoided facing for far too long. This post is the reason I decided to press the pause button on my blog and my life in order to rethink things.

I can’t change the past but I can learn from it so I’ve set myself a challenge. I am going to identify one item that I’ve denied myself for ages; an item that I could never justify purchasing under my previous mindset. An item that cheapskate me would never buy because it was far too expensive and served no practical purpose other than to provide me pleasure. I am going to buy it, just because, in order to prove to myself that I am worthy of owning beautiful things once more.

After that, I will begin to use the Diderot Effect to reclaim my life.

Have you noticed the Diderot Effect in your life? Has it been a positive or a negative change? Are you happy with the results of the effect? Please share your stories in the comments below.

20 thoughts on “The Diderot Effect”

  1. I have experienced the same thing. I first found your books and your blog when I had become a caregiver for a disabled family member several years ago. I read a lot FIRE blogs, but almost all the writers were single STEM males making 100 000 a year and I could not identify with them.

    I think that when one starts to hone her money-saving skills and frugal thinking from a place of necessity – if I don’t do this, I don’t know how to feed the children next week / pay the electricity bill / keep the roof over our heads – , the effects of success are much more potent than if one is a STEM engineer driving a bicycle to save money for a less pressing goal. When I became frugal, it made me feel in control. I didn’t have to feel a spark of anxiety every time one of the children brought a note from teacher asking money for unexpected excursion. But all those good feelings can lead to wanting to save more money to have more peace of mind, or control, even though it doesn’t work that way.

    Six years ago I had 25K debt and no savings. Today I have 83K in investments and a paid off apartment in a inexpensive neighbourhood. I recently had to leave my job again when the need for caregiving increased and I’ve had very hard time trying to soothe my nerves. Even though I have three alternative income sources and my income surpasses my expenses by 600 euros a month, I still worry about having enough. It’s genuinely not necessary to deny myself small improvements like buying a 5 euro lipstick I like, but buying it brings me more anxiety than not buying it. I guess my years in poverty had a lasting impact.

    I’d love to read more of your thoughts on Diderot effect later. Allowing myself nice things is something I struggle with, because I often fear I spent too much even though I would consider the same purchase reasonable if it was done by a friend.

    1. Congratulations on your progress Hanne! Your story is amazing! I am nowhere near your level of progress, but you have given me hope.

      And you are completely right–poverty does have a lasting impact. It becomes habit to deny yourself even when you no longer have to.

      It was quite a shock to realize that the Diderot Effect works both ways. I will definitely have to explore this further. In the meantime, I am thankful to know that I am not alone in the struggle. Thank you for that gift.

  2. I also think that if you have faced poverty in your life it does affect your spending habits one way or other. Whenever I watch any kind of money saving video or blog post the first thing the creator says to stop spending on clothes, furniture and so on, and rightfully so. However, there are people who are savers because they know what lack of money looks like. For them not spending on clothes or small luxuries are very easy, it is their comfort zone. If they want to spend it becomes difficult for them. I am one of them. I have seen in my adolocent years what lack of money looks like. So, when I started to earn I became more frugal than was necessary.

    I have a goal to buy a house for myself. What often happens is that whenever I try to buy something nice for me, say an expensive face cream, I struggle thinking instead of buying this I should put money towards my goal. I start to feel restless and impatient. I start telling myself that I must refrain myself from spending on luxury.

    However, through much ups and downs I have learned that we must give ourselves treats from time to time instead of focusing on just one goal. We aren’t robots. A nice top or a nice cream are small ways to show self love.

    There is a trick I have adopted. When I get my salary at first I save. Then I budget the rest of amount. At the end of the month whatever if left after spending I put into a purse as cash. And I spend it on myself. It is kind of stealing from myself. But it does give me immense pleasure to spend on myself.

    However, in spite of that I slip often and start struggling to spend. Then again I revive myself. And honestly, till date I thought I am the only one who struggle to spend. But it may not be true.

    1. No Ajita, you are not the only one who worries about spending money and treating yourself on occasion.

      Those photos were a wakeup call for me; I’ve realized that I’ve become much too focused on money. While it is a good thing to want to be frugal and save, there has to be moderation. I realized that I’ve been unconsciously punishing myself for years, which was quite alarming. Life is about balance, so now that I’ve realized what I’ve been doing I’ve got to work out a way to alter my mindset a bit. That said, I don’t see any spending sprees in my future; just a change of focus.

  3. Hmmm… there are times when I have some big expense and it leads to more spending. I think the mental process goes like this: “Well geez, if I can spend that much money on xyz thing, how come I can’t spend a little bit on myself?” IMHO it’s about balance and priorities. I scrimp and save on things I don’t really care about (like clothes and furniture) so that I can spend money on things that are important to me (like bike stuff and cats.) The key is figuring out which things matter and which things don’t. I try to ask myself some questions before I buy something. Do I need this thing? How much will this thing impact my life? Is this a salable asset – in other words, can I recoup some of my costs by selling it if it doesn’t work out? Could I buy one used or get one for free? If so, how many hours of my life would I have to dedicate to finding a used or free one, and is that a good trade? (If it costs me 10 hours of time running around to thrift stores to save $10 – that comes out to a dollar an hour – probably better to spend that time making a little extra money.) I think the goal is to own a small number of nice things that you use regularly and really treasure. Something that sits in a closet, cabinet or garage 99% of the time probably won’t have a meaningful impact on your life.

    1. Very good point, Cat! Unfortunately, I’ve gotten to the point where I deny myself things that I can afford because money has become more important to me than my quality of life. That is what I see in the photos. I see items that I loved (I adored that bedroom suite), that I passed on when I decided to pursue minimalism. I see little things that, had I not been so focused on the money aspect, that I would have handled differently as I examine the photos.

      I’ve got to break the habit of being entirely too focused on money. I’ve also got to get off of the minimalism bandwagon because I can tell that, while I don’t regret the experience, that my obsession with money and stuff has gotten a bit out of hand. I’ll probably always be frugal; I just need to alter my focus a bit.

      Does that make any sense?

      1. Hmmm… this is one of the things I don’t understand about minimalism. How does getting rid of something you already own save you money? I suppose if you sold it… but used furniture doesn’t really have a big resale value. I mean, I get the whole de-cluttering thing – there is such a thing as too much furniture, but I just don’t understand the whole “I will live in an empty room” thing.

        Anyhow, my point with the questions wasn’t to talk yourself out of buying something – I think it works both ways. Usually for me, those questions help me talk myself into a purchase. Here’s an example. I spend what most people would consider to be an outrageous sum of money on biking stuff. If I just looked at it in isolation, I too would think it was an outrageous sum. But here’s the deal. I spend an average of 10 hours per week on my bike. Biking brings me great joy. I agonized over it for months, but spending a boatload of money on a nice bike turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. Right now I’m having bike seat “issues” and am struggling to find a seat that works for me. They aren’t cheap – a decent one costs $100-200, and normally that’s the kind of expense I wouldn’t allow myself. BUT, I LOVE the time I spend on my bike, and having it be more comfortable will make a huge difference in my quality of life. Plus, used saddles (“saddle” is the term for a bike seat in road bike land) sell like hotcakes on eBay – so if I buy one and it doesn’t work out (which is often the case,) I can sell it for almost as much as I paid for it, and just look at the difference as a “rental fee” for determining if it’s the correct saddle for me or not.

        1. Minimalism, in its pure form, is about removing the excess in our lives. It is supposed to aid in clarity and focus, as well as make life in general easier to maintain since you don’t have as much to clean and care for. It is theoretically supposed to aid one financially because it helps the person realize how little they need in life to be truly happy.

          While I don’t regret my experience with minimalism, I’ve contemplated either writing an honest book (or a blog post at least) about my personal experience with the philosophy, from the viewpoint of one who actively pursued the practice until I realized that, for me at least, it wasn’t practical.

          As for the washer, I do the same thing that you do with your bike. I try to come up with reasons to justify purchases and have for years now. The post about the washer, combined with my eye-opening revelation about the Diderot Effect, helped me to realize that I have taken both frugality and minimalism too far in my life. Instead of being able to say “a washer would make my life easier and I would enjoy it; I’m going to save up for one,” I have agonized quietly over the desire since my last washer failed. The desire made me feel selfish and somehow bad inside, in a way that isn’t healthy. I realize that now. While it won’t be an instant change, I understand that I need to come to peace with myself so that I can move forward in a more rational manner.

          One of those steps was changing the focus of this website to eliminate the fact that I felt that I was disappointing my readers every time I allowed myself to purchase something.

          1. I look forward to your post and/or book on your experiences with minimalism. I’m not really a “joiner” myself – I’m too stubborn! And I’m always suspicious of anything that has a lot of rules. I guess I just think that ultimately, the goal is to be happier, so you take what you can from other people’s systems and experience, but ultimately, the system should serve you – not the other way around.

            Anyhow, FWIW, your posts are never a disappointment, and I don’t think you have anything at all to “live up to.” You’re an inspiration to many, many people – and you don’t have to put yourself into any sort of a cage to prove anything to anyone. That’s sort of why I stopped blogging about environmental stuff and “being green” – I started to feel like the whole internet was hanging over my head, judging my every move – like I needed to justify every decision I made – NOT HEALTHY! Taking care of yourself is never selfish, and you absolutely deserve to be happy! Go forth with Joy!

          2. Aww, thank you, Cat! And thank you for showing me that I am not alone in this. Reading some of my posts from this past year, I suspect that I’ve been ready to make this change for some time now. I was concerned about the reaction of my readers, however. To my delight, the decision seems to have had the opposite effect but time will tell as I move forward. I am grateful that I’ve arranged my life so that, no matter what happens I’ll be able to continue writing here regardless.

            In hindsight, I believe I jumped in as passionately as I did due to a number of factors. I was frustrated at my personal life, I was already actively paring down my possessions, and I ended up moving several times in short order. It was perfect timing in my personal life, which is one reason why I cannot bring myself to regret my actions. I have learned so much from that experience that will benefit me as I move forward. Hopefully I can work out a way to use that experience to benefit others as well.

  4. I have been poor three times in my life. We finally got out of debt and started saving and now we are rich enough politicians think we must be Republicans. But, when we sold our motorhome a few years ago and moved into an apartment with no furniture we went to IKEA and furnished the apartment with only the things we thought we needed. We could not talk ourselves into buying more expensive furniture but we didn’t have time to hunt for bargains. When we moved here the movers handled the furniture gently because they said pressed-wood furniture falls apart easily. I already broke one chair. So, was our bargain furniture a bargain?

    1. Ahh, the perils of pressed wood. I detest that stuff with a white-hot passion. It is beautiful when you first acquire it but the beauty doesn’t last :(.

      That stuff is the one item I have no regrets about eliminating from my life. If you examine the older pictures in the post, you’ll notice that I didn’t like pressed wood back then either. Katie’s dresser was an ancient hand-me-down from friends who went the pressed-wood route in order to “upgrade,” my coffee table is one that my parents owned when I was a child (that heavy thing survived the Flood of 1997 even), and my bedroom suite was metal and glass. If I recall correctly, the last piece of pressed wood furniture I owned was here when I first rented the place. I used it at first since I had no furniture but then quickly discarded the ratty old thing.

  5. Gosh, I thought You were POOR, hehehe that looks like living like a queen, in before as well as after pics to me, I guess its all quite subjective.

    1. Bwahahaha! I adore you!

      When it comes to income, I am poor compared to many of my neighbors. When it comes to stuff, I am definitely poor compared to my neighbors, even living here in the ‘hood. My neighbors have items like cars and televisions that I refuse to purchase for a variety of reasons; I cannot count how many times I’ve been criticized for not going to a “buy here pay here” lot and getting a car on payments instead of walking everywhere.

      And I’m not sure if it is the stuff so much as the fact that I’ve allowed myself to fall away from who I am inside due to my obsessive focus on money. Once I recovered from the shock I realized that I’m not doing “bad” per se…compared to my neighbors I live quite well financially because I live within my means.

      For instance, someone in my neighborhood, a person who earns over twice what I do a month (and has two incomes, so in reality their income is at least 3x mine) is currently in the midst of a financial crisis. Their car was repossessed and the local rent-to-own place is threatening to take all the stuff they’ve rented–which I gather is a good portion of their possessions. Even worse, judging from their current…aroma…I suspect that they’ve had certain utilities disconnected as well. Compared to them I am doing quite well financially despite the fact that they have lectured me on more than one occasion about how I should get a better paying job so that I can have “nicer things.” I feel for their circumstances; I know from experience just how hard it is to climb out of a financial hole. In their eyes, however, I am the crazy one.

      So yes, you are definitely correct. It is all subjective.

  6. I am sad to hear that Katie feels you deprived her in your quest to live a frugal and minimalist lifestyle.

    1. I believe I wrote about it, though I couldn’t find the post. When she first started working she made the comment that she wished that I had worked more instead of arranging things to stay home because it would have been nicer to have the stuff than to have me around.

      The thing is, we had discussed it before I arranged to stay at home. Had discussed it sporadically for years, actually. She had wanted me to stay home back in those days so I made it happen.

      Hearing her say that still hurt, however.

  7. First of all, thanks for your honesty. Its rare to hear anyone say “I’m changing my mind”, and its a powerful thing to let go of beliefs. Thanks also to the commenters…I think the point about 100000 dollar tech guys is probably spot on. Like you I trained myself in frugality while a single parent. Now I’m better off and wondering how to really use that training for a future adventure….but what? please don’t stop writing, I’m getting interested!

    1. Hello Deborah! Don’t worry, I have no plans to stop writing. Writing is one aspect of myself that I have no intentions of changing.

      Truthfully, I’m not so sure that I’ve “changed my mind” as realized that I’ve went a bit too far, if that makes any sense. Those photos helped me realize that my focus hasn’t been on improving my life so much as “how low I can go financially?” I have to put a stop to that, so to break the habit I need to change my focus. So definitely no more minimalism or extreme stuff, though I’ll definitely continue to be frugal and will doubtless toss some items over time!

      As for the rest, I’ll have to figure it out as I go along. Thanks for sticking with me!

  8. Forgive and forget what Katie said, she is a teenager helpful in some things and hurtful in others it’s all part of growing up. I Know I was one many many moons ago!!!

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