Updated on 12.10.08

If You Don’t Need It, It’s Not a Deal!

Trent Hamm

The following guest post is from Jason of FrugalDad.com. Jason writes about frugal living, family finances, and other related topics at his blog.

With the holiday shopping season in full swing I am reminded of how often people rush out to buy something just because it is on sale. I admit, I enjoy saving money as much as anyone, but I’ve caught myself falling into the trap of buying something just because it is a great deal.

A few months ago a friend called me about a tool chest that had been incorrectly priced at a local Sears store. Sears was honoring the price because people were flocking to the store with sales ad in hand. I thanked him for the heads up, but pointed out that I did not need a tool chest. My garage was already crowded, and what few tools I have are comfortably stored away in toolboxes and other organizers. His response was predictable, “I don’t really need it either, but it is half price!”

Save 100% By Avoiding Sales Altogether
I was lucky in the sense that my friend called to give me a heads up and I wasn’t already in the store, where impulse decisions often lead to the purchase of things we don’t really need. In the past, I was the world’s worst at picking up stuff I didn’t need just because it had a yellow tag, or a big “SALE” sign above it. Marketers must have loved me!

If you have a habit of seeking out sales, or giving in to tempting in-store sales, I encourage you to consider Trent’s ten-second rule, something I have applied in my own life with great success. Simply stop and count to ten before tossing the item in your shopping cart. Usually, by the count of seven or eight, I have a pretty good idea whether or not I actually need the item. Most of the time it goes back on the shelf, regardless of the cost. The way I look at it, items put back on the shelf save me 100%, and no store can match that sale price.

The Same Rules Apply to Free Items
People often rationalize the accumulation of stuff because it was given to them for free. However, I would argue that stuff is not really “free.” After all, clutter is money. The more stuff you have the more you have to spend maintaining, protecting, and storing it. There are also opportunity costs to consider. Again using my own example, if my garage wasn’t so cluttered I could store used fitness equipment there and cancel my gym membership. At $30 a month, that clutter is costing me the opportunity to save $360 per year!

To make matters worse, a quick inventory of my garage reveals much of the stuff was handed down, or picked up for next to nothing at yard sales. Save the few items with sentimental value, I could probably toss seventy-five percent of its contents and not miss a thing. Time to do some early spring cleaning!

The next time you are faced with temptation to add to your already growing collection, ask yourself if you really need the item. Take price out of the equation, regardless of how good a deal it might be. If it turns out you really do need the item, and it is available at a great price, take advantage of the sale with cash and enjoy.

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  1. Scordo.com says:

    Avoiding buying all together is the best way to save money.

    This is basically the lesson my dad taught me via home improvement and how to fix things (I wrote about it in late November in an entry titled “Do Not Buy What You Think You Need”:


    Vince Scordo

  2. Michael says:

    I agree with this post 100%. As a marketing major fresh out of college, I can attest to the classroom discussions that rovolve around how to get somebody to buy something that they normally wouldn’t buy.

    Economists might call it price elactisty – everyone has a breaking (buying) point, it’s just a matter finding it and still making a profit.

    No matter what the price is, if you buy something you don’t need it isn’t a good deal, it’s clever marketing.


  3. Curt says:

    Yep. Don’t even look at the ads unless you are looking for something.

  4. Kevin says:

    And yet people run AWAY from the stock market when it goes on sale. Go figure.

  5. Ken Deboy says:

    Don’t just throw clutter out, a lot of it can be sold on EBay. I’ve been very surprised at some of the “junk” I’ve been able to sell there.


  6. So, so true, but it’s hard for bargain shoppers to hear this. The rule applies even for free stuff, too. A hand-me-down sweater that you never wear is junk, even if it’s got an expensive label. Once I figured that one out, I was able to get rid of a lot of stuff that I never used but felt obligated to keep because it seemed to elevate the status of my closet. In reality, it was costing me space and time–not such a bargain, after all.

  7. Time to go home and start putting some stuff on ebay. thanks for the kick start.

  8. cv says:

    I’ve gotten pretty good at saying no to free stuff, but I have a harder time with food. I usually eat very healthy, but “It’s free” is enough to make me eat all sorts of crap I wouldn’t normally buy, especially candy and lunches at the office. Ugh. I need to develop some discipline on that one.

  9. Amen!

    I agree on this, even when the item in question is free. I don’t want a glucose monitoring system even if it’s free at CVS. ;)

    My biggest weakness is probably clothing clearance sales, especially the 75-80% off sort. But, an unneeded piece of 75% of clothing is just causing me to spend 25% more than I need to.

  10. Michelle says:

    Ahh, so my husband was right when his response to my gleeful, “But look how much I saved!” was “How much would you have saved if you did not buy it at all?”

    Luckily, I am smarter now.

  11. Craig says:

    As my grandmother says you can go broke saving money

  12. I agree with everything that has been written. Another point: how many people live in homes they cannot afford because of too much stuff? My sister falls into this category. She is facing some major financial difficulties. She should have moved into an apartment she could afford when her lease had to be renewed last spring, but she had too much stuff and did not have the time to pack it up. Had she moved at the end of her lease, she could have saved hundreds of dollars per month. But, the junk accumulated over the years made moving difficult and she is, sadly, paying for space she cannot afford. Now, she can’t move, because she is stuck in her lease. Hopefully, she will be a bit wiser when her lease comes up for renewal next time.

  13. Aya @ Thrive says:

    Same concept goes for when you find coupons or discount codes as well. You become to tempted to use it but forget to think that you wouldn’t even look at the items in the store if you were never given the discount offer. I find joining mailing lists dangerous for this reason. Constantly getting reminders of how you can save money on their products is a constant reminder to go look for something to buy – why would you waste this discount/sale opportunity?! Well, consider that you’ll get the same kind of reminder in a few weeks. Plus, not even looking is saving you the most amount of money.

  14. Lorra says:

    Unfortunately, my view of how much knitting I might do becomes very distorted by an encounter with free or discounted yarn. I’m getting a grip on this tendency now that most of my under-bed space is taken up by yarn.

    I think Trent once posted about setting up alerts with Amazon to be notified of major discounts on items that you definitely want to buy at the right price, so as to avoid perusing the Amazon bargains regularly in search of those items and getting tempted to buy other things because they are such “great deals.”

  15. cw says:

    Here is a partner to your Ten-Second Rule: When I have a basketfull of things and am heading for the checkout line (this applies to groceries as well as hardware, clothes, etc.), I look through the cart and pick out one thing to put back on the shelf. It’s only briefly painful, and I find I never miss that “least wanted” item.

  16. liv says:

    i don’t usually buy non-clothing stuff i don’t need, but i definitely buy a lot of clothes on sale. sometimes i suffer “buyer’s remorse” within days and have to take the time to go back and return it. it’s such a pain…

  17. J says:

    As my dad says “We are going broke saving money”

  18. Green Panda says:

    I’m sometimes guilty of this (we’ll use t later). I realized that I might use the sale item but I’ll ALWAYS use the money saved.Having money in the bank is better for us, especially in these uncertain economic times. If we need it, we can buy it, if not i’s ok.

  19. Carrie says:

    If you have tools to get rid of be sure to contact your local chapter of Habitat for Humanity for a donation!

  20. Sally says:

    Almost just succumed to this on Blockbuster online – movies for $3.99 – I can rent them any time!!! Even though $3.99 isn’t a lot of money – it’s the $3.99 purchases over time that add up to money that could have been invested.

  21. James Grabowski says:

    Similarly, my wife had earned all these movie coupons with points we earned on our credit card. Even though the movies were free, we were restricted to titles I happened to not be interested in. I felt like spending our time watching movies we didn’t want to see – while paying a babysitter (!) – was no bargain. Should have sold them on Craigslist.

  22. Tea says:

    One thing that makes avoiding sales easier nowadays is that you can almost always find some sort of coupon for what you want. With coupon sites like retailmenot.com, freeshipping.com, and mrcheapstuff.com, you rarely have to worry about missing out on a discount, no matter when you buy.

  23. I routinely buy reduced items all year long. I drop them into my “gift drawer” at home. When birthdays roll around I always find something new and nice in my “gift drawer” and when Christmas comes calling, I have great gifts for nearly nothing! So I guess I do buy on sale, but I’m purposeful about it. I don’t buy something just because it’s a great deal. BUT if it’s a great deal and I can use it for a gift, it WILL go in the cart!
    Another great post FD and Jason!

  24. na0 says:

    i had this problem just last night!!
    i noticed that the refurbished ipod touch had dropped even more in price on apple’s website.
    and i started thinking about how nice my boyfriend’s ipod touch is.
    then i started thinking about how fast and easy it would be for me to dip into my ing savings account to buy one.
    i slept on it.
    and i woke up this morning realizing that i really can’t afford an ipod touch right now…
    and even if i could, i don’t need it.
    my macbook works just as fine.
    it’s just a lot heavier to carry around. lol

  25. brooke says:

    Haha, did my husband ask you to write this?! He told me this for years! I am happy to say that I now know better.

  26. Melissa. says:

    Kevin @ #2: And yet people run AWAY from the stock market when it goes on sale. Go figure.

    Yeah, I don’t get that one, either. [laughs]

    Tammy @ #15:

    I do the “gift drawer,” too, but no matter how good a deal the gift item may seem, I don’t buy it unless I can think of at least one specific person who would genuinely enjoy getting it. If I can’t immediately put a name and a face to that object, I don’t buy it, no matter how nice it is or how deeply discounted.

  27. Carrie says:

    Please, please, PLEASE come and tell my husband this! He won’t listen to me.

  28. Lisa Miller says:

    I’ve been saying this for so many years to my friends who call to tell me about sales at department and grocery stores. To their “But it’s 40% (or whatever) off!” I always say, “If I stay home, I save 100%. And don’t forget the gas not burned driving to the sale.

  29. Rebecca says:

    This is something that is a challenge for me and that I have been working hard to overcome. I love a bargain so I have had to re-train myself to stop and think whether I really need something or if I am just buying it because it’s a “good deal”.

  30. briang467 says:

    Also, see the chapter “The Hidden Price of Free” in the book “Predictably Irrational”.

    It discusses our irrational impulse to overvalue items that use the concept of “free” even if they aren’t really free. Marketers know how to exploit this. (And I’m one of the bad guys because I work in advertising).

  31. This post is so true. One of the biggest myths out there is… “A penny saved, is a penny earned”


  32. Kim says:

    J.C. Penney has free delivery now on any purchase over $25. I found some cordoroys a while back that I want and was just waiting until the free shipping took effect. BUT, unexpectantly, the cords are on sale for $19.99.

    So I started looking for another item to put me over and didn’t see anything I wanted or needed but decided to buy a $9.99 shirt that I didn’t even particularly like. Then I realized I was spending $10 to save $5.95 in shipping. Dumb! I stopped myself and just ordered the cords.

  33. Nick says:

    If you do need something though, it is best to get the item on sale, or used (depending on what it is), and save a bunch of money. Sales aren’t altogether an AWFUL thing.

  34. Sharon says:

    I would have gotten the glucose meter for free, put a post on Freecycle and gotten it to someone who can use it. Sharon

  35. Sharon says:

    I would have gotten the glucose meter for free, put a post on Freecycle and gotten it to someone who can use it.

    Likewise, this is how I buy all my gifts. 70-90% off is typical. I get them when I see them and give them later. I try to stay a couple of years ahead on Christmas gifts for people. Sharon

  36. Bryan White says:

    I’m quite lucky, I dislike shopping. I also seemed to have developed a remarkable sense of guilt if I buy something I don’t need. I do have one weakness which is gadgets. I have a rule that applies now if I want to buy a gadget, I have to think about it for a month before making the purchase.

    Something that saves us from filling up our garage is that fact we only have a carport. We could fully enclose it, but we feel it would just get filled up with junk if we did that.

  37. Jihan says:

    I agree. You made a very good point about clutter being money. I have watched a lot of shows that help families clean their homes. Apparently the more they had, the more they had to get to pick it up. And at the end, they had to do a yard sale and all the big or “rare furniture” weren’t sold.

    I have to admit though, the team in the show really pressures the family.. a few books a man used to study that he hardly reads anymore HAD to go in the sale. Books can be read over again and besides I feel the houses aren’t going to be clean forever.

    My mom has a bad spending habit especially on clothes and sometimes I wish she didn’t. She doesn’t take my advice so every time we go to Kohl’s on Saturdays, we bring back a bunch of shirts and the ones we “don’t wear” anymore, we throw them away or donate them.

  38. steve says:

    These days one of my favorite things to buy is a monthly “chunk of savings” in my ING account.

    But, regarding the current environment of many markdowns in retail stores, when I realized how many sales are going on, I looked ahead at my actual needs, which are very few, and I may buy two pairs of pants this holiday season if the sales are good, because by the end of 2009 I will be wanting some new pairs of pants and I might as well buy them at heavily reduced prices now.

    I just got a $10 off certificate in the mail for any purchase over $10 at JC penney and considered going and buyig a couple packs of underwear, getting the $10 off and just spending a few dollars total, but it seems like stealing to me because I know they are really hoping to have customers come and really shop, and they are on the ropes. It doesn’t seem fair to go and spend $11 and get $10 off when they are really hurting and need sales, and people who work with them need jobs. I don’t know, maybe I will buy my pair of pants with it.

  39. Sara says:

    I heard that the difference between men and women is that a man will buy a $1 item he needs for $2, and a woman will buy a $2 item she doesn’t need for $1… But I guess men are also susceptible to sales sometimes!

  40. Deborah Johnson says:

    Thanks for sharing this post. This is especially timely now, as we’re bombarded with holiday sales advertising.

    I’ve lost count of the number of people at work who keep telling me about some deal at some store for an item I don’t need. They look at me like I have two heads when I tell them I’m not buying anything right now.

  41. Chris @ BuildMyBudget says:

    The easiest way to avoid spending is just avoid stores altogether. Like Jason said, if you’re not there in the store, you have a much better chance of overcoming the impulse buy.

  42. getagrip says:

    The comedian Gallager did a great sketch on this in one of his shows. In this case talking about his wife and a couch she bought on sale. “Look at all the money we saved, and I just had to buy it because we couldn’t have someone else sitting on our couch!”

    I think this is one of the toughest things for people who are addicted to shopping to get over and realize. They focus on the “savings” versus actually needing the product. Sales reps and car dealerships use this tactic to draw you in, keep you there, and get you to buy. “What if we could get that payment down” or “How about I take another hundred off the price” are just some examples of their come ons.

  43. Catherine says:

    Great article. I have to count to ten all the time to stop myself buying something because it’s on sale.

    To use sales to my advantage, I like to keep a running list of things I am on the lookout for in tadalists(currently there are a few wardrobe staples on the list and I’m looking for a hand held mixer) and I only buy those things when they are on sale. That way I buy things I need, but only when they are on a hefty sale as I am prepared to wait for a great deal.

  44. Goalhunter says:

    This is so true. Although I didn’t learn it from this post, I have had this lesson recently revealed to me and it’s such an eye-opening shocked. Your title is perfect: If you don’t need it it’s not a deal. Exactly right. And the follow up is that you don’t need much. Realizing this is a new freedom. Thanks for this message!

  45. SteveJ says:

    @steve “These days one of my favorite things to buy is a monthly “chunk of savings” in my ING account.”

    That’s a really clever way of looking at it, I love it.

  46. Thomas Jefferson would have agreed with you, Trent. One of my favorite quotations of his is, “Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.” I worked for a bargain retail website for years and always kept that in mind when tempted – even during our employee-only sample sales.

  47. Jimmy37 says:

    I hate to admit that I have a worst disease. If I see something on sale and I already have it, I want to buy it anyway to get the deal. How sick is that? ;) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fought with myself and returned stuff I don’t need.

  48. steve says:

    @Green Panda, “I realized that I might use the sale item but I’ll ALWAYS use the money saved.”

    LOL–That’s so, so true and so well stated!

  49. steve says:

    @SteveJ: I’m glad you liked that turn of phrase. Thanks for the compliment!

  50. Jessica says:

    Very true. If you buy something and then you don’t use it you’ve just wasted your money.

    My mother in law is a perfect example of this. She has a huge stockpile of groceries in her kitchen cabinet. I sometimes think that she could run a food bank for the homeless out of her kitchen and still have enough to feed her family. She goes shopping every two weeks for food, and I personally have never seen her pantry dwindling. However, my inlaws are in debt from my father in law’s medical bills. There are 4 people in that house to feed and my mother in law is the only one in that house who works. I have suggested to her that if she didn’t buy groceries for one or two months and used what she has in her pantry, then that money could go towards those medical bills. She says that makes sense, but she and I both know what it’s like to have bare cabinets, and she doesn’t want that to happen again. Understandable, been there done that and got the tshirt! But when your cabinets are chock full of food and you’re not using very much of it then to my mind what you are doing is little more than hoarding.

  51. steve says:

    @”she and I both know what it’s like to have bare cabinets, and she doesn’t want that to happen again.”

    usually if that happens it’s pretty easy to just go shopping and buy some groceries.

    Seriously, it sounds like she has had some bad experience with *not having money to buy food* and having an empty pantry shelf. She’s probably not in that financial situation now and actually could be wasting money by letting food go bad if she is overstocked. It is worth examining.

    I myself have tended to overstock both my pantry and my fridge and have wasted lots of food as a result simply by not realizing it was there and it going bad. So I have started eating the fridge and pantry down over the last 6 months and I have found it to be a postive change. When the fridge in particular gets low, it’s time to eat some of the less “popular” things that are in there, which prevents them going off. Same with the pantry. About once a week I pull some heretofore forgotten staple out onto the counter and make it a project to use it in a recipe in the coming week.

    If you have an overstocked fridge and/or pantry, this approach is worth experimenting with

  52. steve says:

    @ the person who wrote “so every time we go to Kohl’s on Saturdays, we bring back a bunch of shirts.”

    Wow, just for perspective, that’s a LOT of trips to Kohls from some people’s perspective. I only go to one of those stores like Kohl’s or Target about once every 6 months or when something wears out (like, gets holes in it) and I don’t have another so I need to replace it.

    If cutting down on the number of shopping trips is something you want to tackle, you might want to try not accompanying your Mom on these trips and just marking on your calendar 3 months from now “go to Kohl’s” and see how that works. It will feel weird the first few times that you don’t go (like “why aren’t I at the store today!!!??? What’s going on???) but I suspect that you will quickly you find other uses for the time and the money you have been spending on these regular trips to the store and get out of the habit of such overly-frequent shopping.

  53. steve says:

    @Jessica whose mom-in-law has the overstuffed pantry:

    A suggestion: if to your mother in law it’s a matter of psychological security and knowing that there will be food available even if she doesn’t shop so much, you might suggest that she open up a savings account and deposit the extra money she would normally spend on shopping in there and leave it. Then she would know that the money was available to spend on food at any time, and maybe that would help her let go of the need to hoard so much food.

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