How St. Augustine Helped Me Recognize My Unhealthy Spending Habits

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been somewhat of a packrat. In my youth, I collected action figures, trading cards, and comic books. Even as an adult, I still enjoy collecting pop culture memorabilia. But as the amount of products advertised to collectors has exploded, I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with the hobby. The breaking point came for me last year, during the lead-up to Christmas.

LEGO introduced a new set in its premier “Ultimate Collector Series”: a massive scale version of the iconic AT-AT Imperial Walker vehicle from “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.” The slick advertising made it clear that this item was aimed at adults – not a single child appeared in the entire commercial. Due to its massive scale and many accessories, I assumed the price point would be somewhere in the range of $250 to $300. My estimate was way off: It costs $799.99.

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At first, I was stunned, but then I began to get angry. I’m as big a “Star Wars” fan as anyone I know, but I thought it was outrageous to drop $800 on what is essentially a toy. This high-end LEGO set is only one example in an upsetting trend of consumerist manipulation. So-called “nerd culture” has become just another market demographic for corporations to exploit. As I fumed, I came to the unsettling realization that, by failing to curb my own “nerdy” collecting habits, I had become part of the problem.

In that moment, I was reminded of the opening chapter of the “Confessions” of St. Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Before his conversion, the young Augustine tried to fill up the emptiness in his heart with sensual pleasures and worldly accomplishments. And yet, he found himself more and more dissatisfied. After much prayer, reflection, and study, Augustine realized that only God could fill the hole he felt in the core of his being.

Pondering St. Augustine’s conversion story got me thinking about how I could reevaluate my spending habits. Had my consumer choices aided and abetted the growth of an unseemly throwaway culture? Acquiring possessions is not in and of itself a bad thing; but my pursuit of worldly goods had made me restless and become such a preoccupation that I was in danger of losing sight of my relationship with God. Thus, I was moved to perform an examination of conscience with these ideas in mind and the results were sobering. 

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Over the years, I’ve accumulated many superfluous possessions. Like many pop culture fans, I was swept up in the Funko Pop craze, and collected the little bobblehead figures, particularly the “Star Wars” and Marvel ones. This was in addition to a collection of expensive superhero statues. I’m also a bibliophile and love shopping online for new, used, and out-of-print books. As I tried to curb my undisciplined spending, I realized that I often used online shopping as a way to assuage loneliness, frustration, and depression.

I was forced to admit that the superficial happiness I felt when acquiring collectibles was fleeting. Furthermore, my shrinking bank account only aggravated a sense of discontent. In a misguided effort to suppress these guilty feelings, I would routinely “purge” my collections, giving away or throwing out many unused items. But this strategy routinely backfired as, similar to St. Augustine, I couldn’t shake my discontentedness and spiritual restlessness, and I was soon collecting again. I needed to break this unhealthy cycle.

Over the last few months, I have taken some practical steps that have helped me place my possessions in the proper perspective. I formed a consistent habit of expressing gratitude in prayer for the many gifts that God has bestowed on me: my loving family (including a younger brother with whom I remain very close), my improving physical health, and the success of my freelance writing endeavors.

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As a daily reminder of these blessings, I started keeping a gratitude journal. By journaling even small occurrences that uplifted me each day, I began to notice the intimate interest God takes in my life. Whenever I needed reassurance amidst a difficult situation, one of my friends would be inspired to pray for me or to lend a word of encouragement. By cultivating an attitude of gratitude, my preoccupation with acquiring “stuff” has waned and I have begun to place more value in things that are truly important: faith, family, and friends. 

I’ve also found that small acts of service to others, when done with love, produce a deeper and more abiding happiness than spending my money on “stuff.” I currently live with my retired parents, and I’ve tried to be mindful of opportunities to make things easier for them, such as doing chores and little fix-it jobs around the house. As a freelance writer, I’m occasionally contacted by aspiring wordsmiths asking for advice. Remembering how much I benefited from supportive mentors when I was a beginner, I always try to pay it forward to novice writers with encouragement and constructive feedback.

Finally, I’ve begun to discern ways I can generously help build up the Kingdom of God rather than build a collection of knickknacks. This includes supporting charities focused on evangelization and catechesis. Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire apostolate has been a huge inspiration to me as a writer, motivating me to pursue a deeper knowledge of the Church and its rich history. Last year I learned about the global work of the Missionary Society of St. Paul from a Nigerian priest who visited my home parish.

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My collecting habits are too deeply ingrained to be shaken off overnight. It’s been an ongoing struggle, a process that I have yet to completely master. But, with God’s grace, I will strive to make more informed spending choices that reflect my renewed commitment to the virtues of moderation and simplicity. I continue to pray for the intercession of St. Augustine, that my heart might be healed of its restless desire for more “stuff” and find peace in God, who is the only true cure for my restlessness.