Updated on 08.17.11

Deciding When It’s Okay to Spend Money

Trent Hamm

Earlier this week, Sarah and I stopped by one of the Borders “Going Out of Business” sales and browsed through the decidedly picked-over book selections there. At the one we visited, roughly half of the store’s stock had been sold, which meant that you had to really look around for deals in the remaining books on the shelves.

We left the store with four books. Two of them were children’s books that we intend to give to our daughter for her upcoming birthday, another one was a gift for someone else that we’re saving for the future (a really nice hardcover book), and the final one was a book that I’ll review at some point in the future on The Simple Dollar.

Of course, while we were wandering around, I found several books that interested me, including God Created the Integers by Stephen Hawking, Cowboys Full by James McManus, and The Man Who Invented the Computer by Jane Smiley. I leafed through these books and read the first few pages of all of them, but eventually I found myself putting each one back on the shelf.

Mind you, these books were selling at 50% off of their cover price and most of the ones I looked at were paperbacks. We’re talking expenditures of between $5 and $10 here, not particularly backbreaking for us.

Yet, still, I put the books back on the shelf and eventually left without buying any for personal enrichment or enjoyment.

When I went home, I felt a mix of feelings about this choice. I didn’t really regret not buying them, but I couldn’t help but ask myself if I wasn’t going too far in choosing not to buy myself things.

Part of my hesitation is that the bookstore visit came just a couple of weeks after my largest annual splurge, Gencon, which I save up for throughout the year. Of course, this year, I mostly just traded games and spent the small amount of money that Sarah gave to me with the insistence that I spend on games.

I think the truth of it is that finally, after years of consciously adjusting my buying habits, I’ve really reached a new normal when it comes to spending money.

Rather than seeing something I want on a shelf and seeking out a plan for buying it, I see something on a shelf and by default come up with reasons not to buy it.

That’s not to say I don’t splurge. I was certainly quite active in the auction room at Gencon, waving my auction card around during several bidding sessions.

However, I don’t wantonly splurge. I decide in advance, when my mind is on an even keel, when I’ll allow myself to splurge. An impromptu stop at a bookstore, for example, doesn’t cut the mustard unless I find a book there that I was already intending to pick up at some point.

It was not an immediate transformation and it certainly hit some bumps along the way, but that book store visit was the first time where I genuinely felt as though I was no longer convincing myself to buy things on a whim, but instead I was reinforcing my stance not to buy things.

Letting yourself make these decisions beforehand, long before you find yourself in the heat of the buying moment, makes it much easier to simply say “no” when you find yourself in that situation. Simply knowing that you’re not buying anything you weren’t already intending to buy makes it so much easier to not lose money to the temptation of impulse purchases.

It takes practice to get there – at least for me. Today, though, I feel incredibly confident that my money isn’t slipping away from me on unplanned and impulsive purchases.

I control my money and my desires. They don’t control me.

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  1. krantcents says:

    I read a lot online, but I enjoy reading books and magazines. For books, I check Amazon to find what books I am interested in and immediately go to my public library website and put my choices on hold. For magazines, I shop subscriptions online and found a few bargains. I have a 3 year (30 issues) subscription for $8.22. My wife reads some books on her Kindle and uses the library too.

  2. Steven says:

    How should I put this?

    Your obsession with *not* buying Stuff might be just as “unhealthy” as making impulse purchases. It sort of reminds me of people who go from a house full of Stuff they don’t need, discover minimalism, and purge all their things only to start counting how many items they own. As if this were virtuous, and the less they own, the better.

    They’re still spending a lot of time concerning themselves with what they own, just as before when they owned a lot of Stuff and felt no control. Now they’re “in control” and obsess over ever little detail. “I can’t buy this because then I’ll own more than 100 things.” “Oh, it’d be nice to own this, it’d make my life easier, but I don’t really *need* it.” And so on.

    Seems to me, your obsession with being frugal, or not making impulse buys on things that would enrich your life, that you *can* afford, is just as “bad.” Life (and money) is meant to be enjoyed, and if you’re so torn about spending a few dollars on something that you say would bring you enjoyment…I can’t understand the point.

    You’ve said that frugality is a way of life that allows you to cut back on the things that you don’t value so that you can spend on the things you do. This article leads me to believe you’ve gone one step further. Now, even though you value books, and they bring you some level of satisfaction, you’re not buying because now you’re “in control.”

    In control of what, exactly?

    Are you really in control, or is it an illusion? Are you like those people who obsess over ever object, only with dollars? An obsession over anything, even money, is a lack of control, in my opinion. Yes, it’s good to spend wisely on things that will enrich your life, but not spending simply for the sake of not spending doesn’t seem virtuous to me.

  3. chuck says:

    the amt of free stuff on the internet has saved me tons of $$$$. no more mags and newspapers subs and betweeen ted talks and free tv shows no more cable. just about any topic in a book has a wiki page and lots of discussions about it so my need to buy books is down alot too. books still have more depth but there are many topics where the depth online is greater and more current (such as reference books). the ever expanding internet continues to reduce my spending on media of all kinds.

  4. Gretchen says:

    “…spent the small amount of money that Sarah gave to me with the insistence that I spend on games.”

    is not normal. You can debate all day long about normal vs. healthy, but I think this borders on unhealthy. As everything can be when taken to a far enough extreme.

  5. Gretchen says:

    I also find it ironic that an author doesn’t want to buy books, but that’s neither here nor there.

  6. em says:

    I don’t think this is unhealthy at all. He values not impulse shopping and even if it is something that he would enjoy or enrich his life it is still an impulse shop. Now if he goes home, thinks about it for a week or so and then chooses to buy it for its enjoyment purposes or whatever reason he finds then its no longer an impulse buy. Its good that he has finely reached the point in his spending where he’s no longer making impulse purchases. He could just as easily save that $5 and check the book out of the library. I hope to one day reach this point but am far from there

  7. chuck says:

    i agree with em that trents behavor isnt unhealthy. i think there is a infinite number of things that i would enjoy but i need some restraint and cant get them all. trent seems to read plenty of books so he prolly decided he doesnt need anymore right now.

  8. Kate says:

    I found myself in the same kind of position at a fabric store last week. Patterns were on sale for 99 cents–they were quite literally giving them away because patterns are a horrendous $13 to $14 these days. I was with a friend who was looking for patterns and, as I perused the catalog, I found three that I liked. I even went so far as to pull them out of the drawer. When it came time to buy them, though, I put them back in the drawer. My friend’s comment was: They are only $1! True, but #1–they were an impulse buy; #2–I don’t sew much anymore and don’t really have time to sew; and #3–I knew they would go in a drawer somewhere to resurface years later. Only $3 but I made a deliberate decision to not spend that $3 and it felt good! My grandmother amassed a small fortune by making those kinds of deliberate decision. Although she lived simply, she never wanted for anything and she knew that a number of small purchases could quickly add up to big bucks.

  9. Nancy says:

    When you buy things you automatically become responsible for them; their care and maintenance. I try (though I’m not always successful) to be deliberate with my purchase of things.

  10. Emma says:

    The temptation to spend any money at Borders at this point of its liquidation is low. It is comparable with book shopping at Costco; some tiles, nothing sophisticated and new. If Trend had encountered the 50% sale with full selection of books- I bet he would have come with his pick up truck. My young teens spend hours at Barnes and Nobles. It is their city substitude for play ground, cinema, shopping mall and whatever. I let them buy a magazine , a book, not to be a “parasite” and read for free.$20 is well spend on two kids for 4 hrs of enjoyment. They love their time. Each disappears in his/her own corner, so does my spouse and myself. O.K. at times we spend more than $20 and times less.My son refuses to read from the library stating that the books have”boogers” in them. They do- noodles, hair, juice stains.I am talking about big city facilities. Maybe suburbs have clean books, I am sure they do.By the way,it is sad to see book stores closing. Not the best sign.

  11. AndreaS says:

    Steven, lighten up. Literally I never buy new books for myself, and only occasionally I buy them for gifts. I never buy new children’s books because they are so abundant and cheap on the used market.

    This month I helped out at a benefit barn sale. I spent a couple days sorting out several hundred books prior to the sale. The books sold for 3 for $1 for hardcovers. Less for softcovers. Although this sale was mobbed, no doubt hundreds of books didn’t sell. Much of the stuff leftover from this sale was dumpstered. I happen to think there is a moral issue in buying new books when so many are thrown out. From an environmental standpoint, how can we justify new books just because we want them in perfect condition or want to read current fiction instead of five-year-old fiction?

    I buy books at yard sales and secondhand sources. This summer I found an Andrew Goldsworthy photography book my daughter wanted for Christmas a couple years back. The retail price was over $58 with sales tax. I paid $1 for this used hardcover in good condition.

    When you buy stuff retail, or even buy 50% off the retail price, then you close out future opportunities for the thrilling bargain at 1/58th of the retail price. I would have been disgusted to find that $1 book had I already bought it for $58.

    A book (in general) is not a need. It is a want. There is no urgency in getting a want now. I just find it fun building up an interesting book collection from secondhand sources. I collect secondhand reference books on subjects that interest me. It is not unhealthy to want to collect books that are also very inexpensive.

  12. Tamara says:

    The Borders in my city closed in January. I bought 4 books, one on the periodic table I’ve had on my wishlist for a long time, two cookbooks, and a fiction book I’ve also wanted to read but haven’t found at the library. I spent $30 and have gotten a lot out of these books (except one of the cookbooks, it’s on crockpot cooking & my crockpot crapped out on me). I don’t consider these bad purchases though I did go in the store without a specific plan. They were the first new books I’d bought in years! I have tons of books and the vast majority of them came from yard sales, thrift shops, and half.com…

    Clothes and shoes on the other hand are things I need to learn to cut back on. At this point I can literally wear a different outfit every day of the year…and I still bought a skirt & another pair of shoes yesterday :P

  13. valleycat1 says:

    I like Trent’s sum-up; likewise, if I’ve recently had a major treat/splurge, I’m less likely to splurge today.

    The occasional small splurge is ok (& maybe he should/could have gone for at least 1 of the 3 books he walked away from), but being conscious of one’s spending & planning ahead is a major step toward financial security in the long run. Remember, this is written by someone who will go to the trouble to disconnect a major appliance just to save a few cents over a year.

  14. jo says:

    i am the same way, my husband sometimes sends me out shopping and demands that i spend 15-20 dollars on an item of clothing or something else for myself. for me, that 15-20 dollars is a lot and i can make it go far, but even saving 60-80% on my shopping trips sometimes leaves me feeling guilty for what i did spend. there is NOTHING wrong with it though, it’s good to show restraint, and to avoid spending unnecessarily just because you can buy something. saving 5 or 10 dollars here and there does add up… just like SPENDING 5 or 10 dollars here or there.

  15. Lilly says:

    I think it all comes down to your motivation. If you simply did not want to spend the money on the books you saw, then it is healthy and smart. If, however, you saw a book you would have loved and you “deprived” yourself when it was affordable and available, then maybe you have gone to the other extreme (though it doesn’t sound like it). It’s interesting the beliefs that we buy into: I am currently trying to talk myself out of believing that buying the newest gadget or whatever else is out there is going to make me a better mother (I’m a first time mother, so I guess it comes with the territory).Wish me luck!

  16. Tanya says:

    “Not wantonly splurging.” That is the key. I’ve hit our Borders going out of business sales a couple of times (although most stuff was only 30 percent off) and like you, saw a lot of things that looked interesting but I passed up. I have found a couple of real treasures bookwise, bought a game to give as a gift, and bought a book just because I wanted it. It would have been easy to really goof up my budget by buying everything I thought looked interesting. Instead, I have very little buyers remorse and found some books that will be useful and enjoyed for years to come. Knowing what you REALLY want and what REALLY interests you is a good tool for buying wisely – especially when you’re tempted by huge sales.

  17. littlepitcher says:

    Flea market selling trained me to one thing: if you can’t sell it for your purchase price or more, leave it there.
    Even at 50% off, Abe probably will have it for less, even with shipping.

  18. Georgia says:

    One of the great benefits of getting older. I have had so much of stuff and now don’t need or want it. Most stores I can walk into, look around, and walk out without buying anything. The only one I have trouble with is Walmart’s. They have tons of stuff that anyone can use and at fairly reasonable prices. I have one author I must have new as soon as it comes out in paper- back. I usually wait until Walmart gets it in because they have it at 25% off. Of course, they didn’t have it when I was in there last, so I bought it at our local grocer for the regular price.

    I allow myself only so much to spend each month and put the majority of it on my 2 cc’s.

  19. Steve says:

    I very rarely buy books because I get them for free at the library. We go to the library at least once a week anyways, and if our branch doesn’t have something, one of the other branches usually does. The only time I buy books is for gifts, for my daughter, at yard sale prices ($1 or less), and a couple times where the book was longer than I could comfortably read in 4 weeks.

    But obviously the post isn’t just about books. Nor coffee or anything else specific. The fact of the matter is: Trent (and many of the rest of us doing well financially) didn’t get where we are by habitual splurging. It’s the very fact that we don’t spend money impulsively, that gives us the money which we could spend impulsively.

  20. Annie says:

    I love going to Borders and just sitting there browsing magazines, books and enjoying a cup of coffee. I always wanted to walk away buying 2 or 3 books but i also refrain myself and think if i am going to read it 10 times. Spending 20 dollars on a book you read once seems like a waste to me and i have stopped doing that. Now i use the internet for free reading and the free library. I also see that on amazon that I can find the book i wanted to buy at 50% off to buying used for just a couple dollars. I think you did the right thing trent and not splurge on the books you saw on sale. If you really want it, maybe you can find it used on amazon.com for a few dollars and not feel guilty.

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