I’ll start off this time by relating a few tales of recent shopping excursions where I talked myself out of making some seriously frivolous purchases.
A week before Christmas, I was at an electronics store searching for a shower radio for my sister-in-law. While wandering around, I went through the flat panel television section. As I’ve mentioned before, our current decade-old television has cloudy corners and my wife and I agree that sometime in the next few years the picture tube will fail. Anyway, I stood there admiring a 46″ LCD television, envisioning how we would rearrange our family room to accomodate it, including some wall-mounted shelves on either side of it to hold DVDs and other electronic equipment. Three years ago, I probably would have left the store with a big box. This year, I didn’t.
Two days before Christmas, I spent most of an afternoon playing Halo 3 and Bioshock online with my cousin. I was atrocious, but I had a lot of fun. Afterwards, he practically begged me to get an XBox 360 so we could play together online. I was tempted, but I won’t be buying one.
Yesterday, I was at a bookstore searching through the cookbook section for a book with a good description of how to make some particular variations of homemade pasta – I’ve been trying some things and it always winds up being of a texture that doesn’t cut very well (it seems to shred, actually). I found an amazing Italian cookbook that not only clued me into what I was doing wrong (insufficient kneading and not running the dough through the roller more than once), but provided a very elegant description of the whole process. I was sorely tempted to get it, but instead I just read aloud out of that section into my voice recorder, went home, promptly added the book to my Amazon wishlist, and sighed with relief that I didn’t spend unnecessarily.
Earlier today, I was at a coffeeshop for a brief meeting with a potential business associate. I was tempted to get a big ol’ $6 coffee, but instead I just requested water, which was comped to me, and sat down at the table.
In each case, I was tempted to spend on something I didn’t need, and I resisted the urge to do it. The items were at a variety of price levels, ranging from the $6 coffee to the $3,000 LCD television, but the principle remained the same: I didn’t need it, so I didn’t buy it.
Three years ago, I would have probably spent the money in each of those situations, at a point in my life where my income was substantially lower than it is now. What changed? The biggest change was that I realized I didn’t really need stuff to make me happy. An extension of that is that I learned how to talk myself out of frivolous purchases.
I hear from a lot of readers who realize that stuff doesn’t make them happy, but they’re still having a difficult time figuring out how to actually say “no” to their purchasing habit. For instance, a reader wrote to me recently describing all of the spending that they had cut out, but lamenting that they were still having difficulty making ends meet and paying for their “needs” like “kid’s sports fees and equipment, new clothes for work, painting the living room, and counseling.” In each of those cases, they made a choice to spend and even if you realize that you’re making a real choice in such decisions, it can still be hard to say “no,” especially if you’ve spent many years saying “YES YES YES!”
My approach to saying “no” is pretty simple. For each and every purchase I make, I try very hard to talk myself out of the purchase by asking myself a few questions about that purchase:
What’s the best thing that could happen to my life if I make this purchase?
This question usually nails unnecessary upgrades, like buying the flat panel television. Does my life improve if I buy it? If it’s just an upgrade, then the improvement is just incremental – and if it doesn’t add any major features, that incremental improvement is tiny. With the flat panel, the only thing it does is increase my floor space in the family room by a square foot or two – and that’s only if I wall-mount the thing and rearrange our other home entertainment equipment. Not much of an improvement at all, especially compared to the price.
What’s the worst thing that could happen to my life if I don’t make this purchase?
This one filters out frivolous new items, like an XBox 360. If I don’t buy the item, nothing changes in my life. There’s nothing bad that happens in my life if I don’t have an XBox 360 compared to not having one. Obviously, this is a compelling argument for some purchases, like a cell phone, but for many things, you realize that nothing bad really happens if you don’t have it.
Do I already have access to something that substitutes for the function of this item?
Here, we’re filtering out redundant purchasing, like the cookbook. I already have cookbooks that cover most of the material in that book, so even though I’d like to have it and read it, I do realize that it doesn’t bring any new value into my life. In other words, perfect gift material – I’d enjoy it (likely quite a bit), but it’s not something that serves a need for me.
Could I acquire this item cheaper elsewhere?
This one encourages comparison shopping, and often stops the urge when the other questions fail. I often know I could find the item cheaper online or at another retailer, so I think about the cash I could save with just a little patience and that’s enough to get me out the door. You might also be able to get that same item for free: counseling could come from a valued friend, or a book might be had for free from the library.
Am I buying this entirely for social reasons?
This final question battles peer pressure, like the urge to buy coffee when you go to a coffee shop with friends. Why not just buy water instead? When you go clothes shopping, don’t buy clothes you don’t need just to be social. The real question is whether you would buy this item without others around – if the answer is no, you should never buy it.
In a nutshell, these questions are merely there to get you out of the store and away from the immediate temptation to buy. With time and reflection, you may in fact decide to make that purchase, but such calculated and researched decisions aren’t the problem – impulsive buying is the real danger.