If You Could Buy Everything, How Much Would You Spend?

On our own internal notions of self-control


My husband Ben sent me this dreamy question after food shopping at our favorite grocery store:

If you could spend unlimited money at TJs and therefore, then, eat unlimited snacks and other food, how much food would you actually end up consuming, and by extension how much money would you spend? Like I’m sort of curious about the limits of gluttony and the fine line between what people think they want (unlimited snacks forever) and what they are actually capable of consuming. The next logical question is, perhaps, is Trader Joe’s aware of what this magic “ceiling” is on the amount of food that people can consume and whether they are trying to push it upward somehow.

I love this thought problem because I’m always wondering how much willpower I would have, absent external pressures. If I didn’t feel like it was bad for my health, or, ugh, my figure, to eat ice cream, how much ice cream would I choose to eat? If I could watch TV all day, how much TV would I choose to watch? And if I could spend as much as I wanted at Trader Joe’s buying and then bingeing on peanut-butter filled pretzels and seaweed snacks and so on, how much would I choose to spend?

My idea of myself is that I am a slothful, gluttonous mess, so absent “society” — really, the mean voice in my head that I consider the distillation of society — telling me, “No, stop that,” I would be Hannah Horvath, unemployed and eating cupcakes in the bathtub.

This is delicious

I mean that so specifically that I was astonished watching Girls when it debuted. I kept thinking, That’s who I’d be if I let myself go. I’d have no savings, few career prospects, several much cherished delusions about how much I’d be able to achieve once I finally got it together, and little else.

Then, not too much later, I realized, She’s not actually happier than I am, and that was perhaps even a more destabilizing thought than the first one. Hannah is all id and no superego, whereas I have an overactive superego and a repressed id, and yet, she doesn’t seem thrilled with what hedonism and a certain amount of shamelessness have been able to do for her.

Science seems to back up the idea that hedonism doesn’t lead to contentment. “The relation between happiness and consumption of stimulants follows an inverted U-curve, spoilsports and guzzlers are less happy than modest consumers,” reports one abstract from the Journal of Happiness Studies, which actually exists. Another essay I found has the straightforward title, “Hedonism: It’s Not As Fun As It Sounds.”

Hedonism: It’s Not As Fun As It Sounds

Self-indulgence doesn’t necessarily make a person happier, especially not in the long term. But how much self-indulgence would one engage in if money, for example, were no object? I found an interesting neurology study that used rats and chocolate to answer a similar question about overeating.

Eventually — after having wolfed down about 10 M&Ms each in 20 minutes — normal rats became sated and ceased eating. With this change, the enkephalin rush abated while other circuitry presumably kicked in to tell the brain to stop the compulsion.

For a normal rat, ten M&Ms in 20 minutes is enough to feel satisfied. After that point, Templeton will stop on his own. That’s good to know, right? I like to think I would do the same. If you gave me a bag of them, my damn superego would probably stop me from eating any M&Ms, or else allow me over one or two. But I am comforted thinking that, left to my Templeton-ish devices, I’d still probably stop at ten. Likewise, with spending, I’d be really excited, if given an unlimited budget, to hit up Macy’s or Banana Republic, but then, at some point, I’d think, “OK, I’m all set for now.” I wouldn’t just keep going, compulsively. I would, pretty quickly — the equivalent of ten M&Ms in — feel satisfied.

There are other constraints to consider, too: even if you could spend unlimited money at Trader Joe’s, you probably still wouldn’t have unlimited space in your pantry to keep all those delicacies, or an unlimited amount of time to enjoy everything before it went bad. So some moderating impulse would kick in, or else boredom might. The question is, Before or after you loaded up your cart with 25 packages of the Mac n Cheese bites?

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