How Consumers Can Take Control Back

Being a consumer probably isn’t something you like to think about. That word alone can conjure up images of an apocalyptic, dystopian, WALL-E-esque universe where humans are materialistic, wasteful and greedy. But let’s put that sad image aside for a moment and think some positive thoughts.

Like it or not, you’re a consumer. Companies worldwide spend billions of dollars every year marketing to you. Which means that every day, you’re exposed to thousands of ads competing for your dollars. But you’re not powerless. By simply paying attention, doing some research, and enduring a little bit of delayed gratification, you can take back control as a consumer.

That’s why March 15, World Consumer Rights Day will be recognized around the planet. And it’s not just another random holiday (looking at you National Panda Day). World Consumer Rights Day is a global event aiming to raise awareness and advocacy for consumer rights and needs.

Let me break it down for you. Consumer rights simply means anyone who buys anything—literally anything—has the right to have information about the quality, purity, price and standards of what they’re buying.1 The Consumers International organization puts it like this:

“[Consumer rights is] about our right to access the basic things we need to live, including food, shelter and safe drinking water. It’s about making sure your new television won’t break down after three months, that your car has the features and technology to keep you safe, and that the data companies collect about you online isn’t lost or stolen.”2 

World Consumer Rights Day is about changing that story of the materialistic consumer we talked about earlier, taking back control of our rights, and becoming smart spenders. Now, that sounds nice, but how do you go from falling for the traps to being in charge of your financial destiny? I’ve got three tips for you.

The first thing you should do when considering a purchase—especially one that falls outside of basic life necessities—is ask yourself what sales incentives could be at play and who’s really benefiting. You’re always being marketed to. And frankly, with all the research and neuroscience at their fingertips, companies know you better than you know yourself. Marketing isn’t a bad thing, but you need to be able to see through it and spend because it’s your decision—not because of slick marketing.

Where a product is in the store or on a shelf, how the brand makes you feel, time-sensitive sales or promotions, convenient payment methods, financing tactics—these are common traps for the everyday consumer. Remember: Businesses don’t offer a sale where they don’t come out on top. And everything is 100% off if you don’t buy it. How’s that for a deal?

The second tip is to make sure you’re confident about the purchase you’re making. For starters, do you understand the terms and conditions? You may not read all the fine print, but look out for the biggies: return policies, warranties, and proof that it’s a reputable researcher—not some kind of scam.

If it’s a big purchase, have you done your research? Are the reviews trustworthy? Companies will use positive reviews on their own website (genius, right?), so look at independent sources for product reviews. And some spaces, like crypto, are still too new to be properly regulated. So if you’re looking to spend money in a crypto or an investing app, see what their customer service is like before you dive in too deep. A good filter to use is this: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

My last tip is to know where to go if things go wrong. If you have a consumer complaint and customer service is unhelpful, take a deep breath and reach out to your friends at the Better Business Bureau. They help navigate marketplace disputes and work with law enforcement agencies on scams or frauds. Likewise, the Federal Trade Commission will take your fraud and identity theft cases. Be sure to report any scams, fraud or criminal activity to your local law enforcement and your bank. They can help if you run into scams, but at the end of the day, what happens to your money is up to you.

Taking back control as a consumer is about believing that you are in charge. I want you to stand up for yourself financially and stop letting life just happen to you. You can play defense by paying attention to marketing. You can fight back by making sure you’re confident about your purchases. And you can exercise your rights by reaching out to the people out there who can help.

Now, go forth and spend wisely. Oh, and happy World Consumer Rights Day!