Updated on 05.25.10

Pulling the Trigger

Trent Hamm

One of the biggest challenges of saving money for a big goal is when exactly to go forward with that purchase. Three examples:

For almost three years, I saved money for a replacement for my truck. For almost a full year, we shopped for a replacement while continuing to save and, during that year, we passed over several potential replacements before finally settling on a 2004 Honda Pilot. We wound up spending significantly less than we had saved, but we also spent the last several months with the truck in various states of unusability which severely hindered our travel potential.

For about two years, I have saved for a tablet computer of some sort to make note-taking (and sharing and organizing these notes) and mobile web browsing and communication easier – in other words, the bread and butter of my work. I made a feature list defining exactly what I wanted in this device and began saving (using SmartyPig), socking away a few dollars a week. I now have plenty to buy a tablet and there are several tablets on the market that have about 80% of the features I’m looking for at various price points and configurations. Do I pull the trigger on one of these or do I continue to wait for the “perfect” one while making my current research trips and travel more challenging than they could be?

A close friend of mine has plenty of money saved for a laptop. She has a desktop computer at home that’s ailing and she constantly mentions how a laptop would be useful to her. The problem is that she’ll make up her mind to buy one, wait a month or two, and notice a very similar one that costs $50 less and a better one that costs $50 more. So she convinces herself to wait to get the “best” one, but misses out on a lot of time where she could actually be using and enjoying that laptop.

In each case (with somewhat different specifics and resolutions), a purchase was carefully considered, but the challenge of figuring out exactly when to pull the trigger has been the challenge.

If you wait longer, the prices might come down somewhat and you might get more features, but you miss out on the use of the item during the intervening time.

With the Pilot purchase, for example, I was often unable to go to the library to do research I needed to do for my book during my normal working hours because my truck wasn’t working and we hadn’t decided on a replacement for it. This created a cost: I had to wait until Sarah was home with the one functioning vehicle we had and use it to go to the library, missing out on family time (which is my favorite time of the day and the most important time to me) and, more than once, skipping out on fun events. By waiting, we gained a better deal on the car but I lost family time.

With the tablet, I could happily go out right now and buy one that meets almost all of the needs I’ve described for myself – but not all of them. I could continue to wait until the “perfect” tablet comes out (which might happen in six months or might happen in five years), but during that waiting period, my note-taking process and research process remains much slower than it otherwise might be (I’ve used a tablet without owning one and I already know how much of a boost it can be when doing library research or taking notes in a meeting or catching up on reading materials on the road compared to other options). By waiting, I might get the “perfect” tablet, but I lose efficiency and quality of resarch now.

With the laptop, there’s a similar equation at work. She might get more “bang for the buck” by waiting, but she’s missing out on working on her thesis at the park today while watching her kids play.

For me, the balance of factors goes like this.

First, don’t buy such an item if you don’t have the money saved for it. If you can survive without it, even if it’s not convenient, don’t go into debt for it and don’t alter your retirement savings and future planning for it. Ideally, you can set up a savings plan for whatever goal you have in mind (SmartyPig works great for this) and build up to it over time.

Second, separate the “must-have” features from the “nice to have” features. With my tablet purchase, for example, I separated out the “must haves” from the “nice to haves” and realized that there are at least two tablets out there that have all of my “must haves” right now. With the Pilot purchase, we really failed to do this until we were almost a year into our search, but doing this opened our eyes to the Pilot that we now own. With the laptop, I’ve advised my friend to just identify what purposes she intends to use the laptop for and focus on getting the best bang for the buck that meets those needs.

Third, make sure those “must-have” features actually benefit your life and just aren’t idle desires. I had long wanted a tablet, but I didn’t really see how much it could help my productivity until I tried one out. The more I investigated, I began to understand what features would actually really bump up my productivity and which ones were idly fun. In other words, I began to separate legitimate needs from “that’s cool” desires that I really didn’t need to drop my hard-earned money on. Quite often (as with my desire to buy an Xbox 360), this “must have” versus “that’d be cool” separation talks me out of buying the item, so it’s also useful in making sure that you truly do need the item at all.

Finally, if you find an item that meets your “must-have” needs, buy it sooner rather than later. The “must-have” features are the ones that will actually improve your life. If you have the money in hand to purchase an item that meets those needs, do it now because you’ll actually improve your life by acquiring it. Shop around, of course, but if you’re simply sitting there waiting to save another 1% on a “better deal,” ask yourself what you’re losing now by waiting.

So will I buy a tablet? Sarah actually thinks I should and is encouraging me. I’m still hesitant, largely (I think) because I’ve become very hesitant about every purchase. We’ll see.

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  1. Jon says:

    Would you mind listing some of your “must haves” for a tablet. I used to develop software for some but could not fathom why anyone would actually want one.

  2. Colby says:

    Love my Pilot and love my iPad. In fact, I have never had one regret over either purchase and my Pilot is 7 years old. I agree with you that you should do the research but don’t put off the purchase (assuming you have the money) for too long or you miss out on the benefits of having something that you need and will make your life easier. BTW, I had a Toshiba Tablet that served me well, but I wish I hadn’t bought it. It was too early in the tablet market and at the time I could have survived with a cheaper laptop. It was one of those instances where I convinced myself that I needed something that I really just wanted.

  3. David says:

    I think sometimes you really can over-analyze some things. You decided to save for something, once you’ve saved up for it, buy it, unless you don’t think you need it anymore. When it comes to purchasing things, they will always get better. Wait, and something better WILL come out. I have a friend that bought a laptop, something went wrong, and he brought it back to the store 2 days after he purchased it. Turns out, they come out with a new laptop every 60 days, and he was at the end of the cycle. If you decide to wait for something better, you will wait forever.

  4. Natasha says:

    I’m curious as to the benefits of a tablet as well – the ones I’ve used seem cumbersome for typing, writing, and that sort of thing

  5. Trent,
    It sounds like you are writing this out to help justify the purchase.

    Out of curiosity, what are the features of the tablet that will make you more efficient?

    I’ve never looked at owning one, so I’m cursious to know if it would boost my productivity as well.
    So, like Jon above, would you mind listing the features that you view as “must haves”?

  6. Tom says:

    I’m also with Jon. There is nothing about any tablet that will make a writer more productive then a good laptop. If the iPad has succeeded in anything, it definitely succeeded in having people create wacky justifications to purchase something that’s less useful then an alarm clock.

  7. Leah says:

    If it’s something you truly want, go for it. I finally bought a kayak after years of wanting one. I didn’t have money specifically earmarked for it, but I do my savings in a “money set aside for desires” type of account. The deal on the boat was great, and I am so excited to have something I’ve wanted for the past four years. The “procrastination” was me not being sure where to store it and how often I’d truly use it, but I’m now at that point your friend is at — I have a place to keep it, and I could probably delay and look for even better deals, but waiting longer means I can’t enjoy it now when I live close to some great lakes and rivers.

  8. Debbie M says:

    Are any of the tablets that satisfy your must-haves available more cheaply used yet? If so, you can do both–buy one now and use the savings to start a fund to buy an awesome one when this one stops working for you in ten years or whenever.

  9. marta says:

    Whatever you end up doing, please don’t take 3 years to do it. The ailing truck with the rusty bumper got a bit tiresome after a while.

    Can’t see either in which ways a tablet PC is better than a regular laptop. Taking quick notes: didn’t you advocate the good old notepad and a pen?

    You don’t need a gadget or a piece of software for *everything*you do. Sometimes I read such posts, and I can’t help feeling you are overcomplicating your life instead of simplifying it.

  10. JP says:

    An iPad has changed my life in one way. Btw, it sucks for taking notes. But, when I put it on the magazine holder on a treadmill, I can enlarge the font and I can run fast while reading. I see it as killing two birds with one stone.

    I use to think it was a solution in search of a problem, but I’ve finally found an area where I can save time.

  11. Joe M says:

    If you can afford it and you would enjoy it, then buy it. Delaying for analysis and putting up with hassles really isn’t worth it – believe me, I’ve done it over and over again.

    Managing your money wisely doesn’t mean you can’t purchase things and enjoy them. Sometimes I read the personal finance blogs and comments and it seems to me like readers are conditioned to think (and comment)that spending money on anything not absolutely necessary is wrong. Especially if you could avoid the cost in the first place or provide the service or make the product yourself. These are all useful things when you need to get your finances in order. Once they are in order, no need to overly sacrifice. Life is short, enjoy the fruits of your labor.

  12. Steve says:

    I bought a couple of X200 thinkpads…they are excellend. the handwriting recognition, onenote and the portability all combine to make an excellent “notebook”. Love the ability to watch movies, install any apps I want, etc.

  13. Brian says:

    The best time to buy technology is always six months from right now.

  14. KC says:

    I think you might be over analyzing here about the features. If you need something and have the money to buy it then get it. Features are misleading. There are plenty of features I’ve thought I needed, but once I got them they weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Other features I might not have thought were useful and then I got them and wondered how I ever lived without it.

    You can wait and wait and then miss out. My husband and I kept thinking about buying a large flat screen HDTV. But we kept hearing about how prices were coming down. So we waited. Then we bought a new house with a media room (sans tv). So we bit the bullet and bought the TV we wanted. We haven’t looked back. Now I’m wondering what took me so long to do it. As much as we love sports we’ve deprived ourselves of quality viewing entertainment waiting for the features at the right price. This definitely doesn’t qualify as a need, but it was something we wanted and had more than enough money to pay for. I feel stupid for waiting as long as we did.

  15. Leah says:

    I agree with KC. You’ll see when you get something what you really use. When I bought my macbook, I got it with all the bells and whistles. One I didn’t need was the DVD burner. In 4 years of ownership, I have yet to burn a DVD. Totally could have saved me money there if I had concentrated on what I need rather than hypotheticals.

  16. aryn says:

    I’m probably the lone dissenter here, but I say wait to buy the tablet. I say that because several manufacturers have announced that they’re releasing tablets in the next 3-6 months. Once there are several on the market, you can make a true comparison and then choose the best one. However, if you have the money and have looked at several models, I wouldn’t keep waiting until you find one that’s perfect. When it comes to electronics, that never happens.

  17. Adriana says:

    I think Trent is trying to hold to his money as much as possible (not a bad thing) but he is using excuses to not purchase the table. Will it make your work life better or WAYYYYYY better?

  18. sheila says:

    If Sarah the Wise is encouraging you to buy one now that you have the money to do so, that’s all I would need to know. I don’t know Sarah, but it may be that she knows it will help you and she’s trying to gently nudge you toward making a decision.

    At this point, purchasing the tablet would save you time and energy. You can start using tablet rather than wasting time looking around for the whiz-bang model which may or may not come out shortly. You’d save precious mental time, too. Wouldn’t you rather put the brain time into your next article or next book, rather than having this issue still pending and taking up mental space?

  19. Marlo says:

    We recently pulled the trigger on a replacement truck we had saved for quite awhile. I have to say, now I actually feel relief because we have taken care of the purchase and can get on with other goals. We had two big financial goals we have been working towards and now they are done. Its quite a relief…

  20. Michelle says:

    Trent, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

  21. Andrew says:

    I believe Trent’s wish to get a tablet (iPad or any other tablet) is based on convenience. I think an iPad would be great to have, but not for a writer. I think a tablet’s best use is the convenience factor (surfing net from couch, quick access to email, photos, videos on a large screen without bootups and such). That’s just my opinion anyways. Definitely not a must-have device, but you can get your money’s worth.

  22. Scott says:

    Are you disclosing that you are receiving funds from smartypig and ING Direct? You always seem to advertise with them, yet never disclose your associations.

  23. marta says:


    Can’t you do all of that with a small laptop, though? I mean, right now I am surfing from the couch on a 13″ MacBook. Tablets are what, 12″ wide ? Not much smaller, I think?

    I am just trying to figure out the advantages of a tablet over a regular laptop. Maybe they are better and quicker when compared to regular Windows machines – not trying to start the old debate here, but I have noticed the bootup takes ages on such computers.

  24. Julia says:

    Oh boy, did you string a familiar chord here!!!

  25. CB says:

    The iPad boots up instantaneously.

  26. Andrew says:


    As i type this, i’m on a 13″ Macbook, haha. I used to have an iphone and loved the convenience of capable email/web surfing in my pocket with zero boot time like CB said. I can imagine the iPad even increasing this satisfaction. Yes, you can do everything with a laptop, but i think this is a start of casual users actually being able to ditch a laptop all together. Not now, but soon i believe. I think it’s one of those things, that once you try it, you find more uses than you initially thought it would have.

  27. Julia says:

    By the way, I’ll explain a little my position here: my husband plays in that team. He wants a cellphone, he shops around, he considers, he studies, he compares, he reads a lot, and finally he postpones the purchase ONLY BECAUSE there is someone selling it for a better price and for some reason he can’t get it. Meanwhile his old cellphone doesn’t work right, which is very annoying for people who wants to reach him often (namely, me). Same story with photo cameras, and laptops, and goalie gloves, and winter jackets, and anything that costs over $ 50.

    On the other side, I analyze the need. I say “I wish I had this thing”, learn about prices and then I let it cool down in my head. If a while later I still want the thing, I go out and get it.

    I get very annoyed at my husband for overthinking the process. There are 3 things I really hate about it:
    1. the impressive amount of time he takes for his research. I don’t mean he takes a week thinking about it, I mean he can easily spend 4 or 5 hours doing research online.
    2. the enduring of bad situation that triggered the thought of the purchase. His phone chip gets disconnected when it rings (yeah, it’s that bad), he gets blisters in his hands for using bad gloves, his non waterproof jacket gets wet because he didn’t buy the other one, etc.
    3. the money spent. In the end, he usually buys something quite expensive, and truth be told, oftentimes things don’t turn out as expected. The super photo camera is so heavy that we take the point and shoot instead, the cellphone is used mostly to talk and the other features sit idle, the jacket is too warm or too short. I’m not saying that big purchases are doomed, I’m saying that you can’t possibly know 100% sure beforehand if the thing you’re spending your money on will live up to your expectations.

    So, I can’t say I’m an impulsive buyer, but I put a limit to the research and worry. Either I will buy that artifact or I will stop worrying about living without it; either I will try to buy it at the cheapest price or at the most convenient place; either I will save for it before the purchase or I will use a credit card; either I will buy a lower or a higher end version of it. I might even decide to spend a maximum amount of money and wait until it comes up; if I find it, good, if not, too bad (I write wishlists I update every year or so with those things). I’m very happy with some well thought purchases and regret others, but I don’t dwell on that too much either.

    So once I decided something is important and I want it, I refuse to worry about every possible factor and no, I don’t mind not doing the best possible deal or that in the future there will be better versions of that thing. If the price is reasonable and I can afford it, why enduring a disadvantaged situation? Life is short and in the end, my money is there for me and not the other way round.

  28. marta says:


    Gotcha. I think I wasn’t seeing this from the POV of a casual user. Instead I was thinking the iPad wouldn’t be of any use to me in a professional context, even if it was just a secondary computer.

    If I am in a situation where I need to be mobile (on a trip, etc) *and* able to do my work, I would need my laptop at the very least — I don’t think the iPad handles Photoshop and such. For e-mail I have got a smart phone, and that’s enough. Otherwise, if I don’t have to work, I just don’t take any computers with me.
    A Moleskine would suffice if I happened to have some idea during a vacation or something.

    I might change my mind in a few years, who knows. Tablets should have improved significantly by then. If they come up with one that is lightweight and works as well as a Cintiq (computer/Cintiq hybrid, I guess), I’ll be in line for that.

  29. Roger T says:

    Is a tablet PC absolutely necessary? Could a substitute such as Livescribe’s Pulse SmartPen provide the quick notetaking needed yet be able to upload notes to the PC and even use handwriting recognition for less than $200? The tablet paper can also substitute for an emergency drinking cup, a firestarter, wasp squasher,etc.

    As for Trent’s friend working on her thesis while she and her kids are at the park, focus on the kids and the park while there; the thesis at “thesis work time.” Doing both activities at the same time means not doing either activity justice. You don’t always get a chance for “do overs.”

  30. Ryan says:

    Just a thought since a few people talked about justifying a purchase.

    Why does every purchase have to be justified? If someone has the wants to buy something and has the money (after saving for retirement, education, blah, blah blah), then they should buy it.

    I can’t justify my Xbox 360, iPhone, or vehicle, but that didn’t stop me from buying them.

  31. Srini says:

    I have been reading your blog for a while and must say it is very useful. Thanks for writing/sharing.

    I work in IT and personally with any technology purchase, I would buy the best thing (be it laptop, phone, touchpad) that I can afford at that time. Yes, you can wait a few months and the price will come down. But then, a newer model with more features will be available that is more expensive.

    When it comes to tech buys, I do not recommend playing the waiting game.

    However, I would wait when I know a newer model of something is about to be released. That is usually when the older models get a price drop.

    Just my 2c worth.

    Thanks again and keep writing.


  32. Ashura says:

    Rent the netbooks you’re interested in buying for a month and keep a record of how often and for what purpose you used them. Make note of anything unusual or unexpected that catches your attention (think ease of use, battery life, etc,)At the end of the renting period you should be able to tell wether or not you should make the leap and purchase the item you like best guilt free.

  33. JonFrance says:

    The iPad is great, but you have to accept it for what it is: a media consumption device. For productivity, the best I can say about it is “it’s better than a phone”. But no comparison to a laptop.

    It is better than a laptop, though, for surfing the web, reading books, and comic books. The latter two cost money. Especially the books: they cost a LOT of money, because you’re buying them from iBooks or Amazon, as opposed to the cheaper ways to get books like the library, used book stores, or paperback swap. You spend more to read the same books on an iPad (whereas with comics you spend the same–but it’s always been an expensive hobby).

    Also, there are a number of apps that you inevitably get that also cost money.

    Still, it is a slick piece of gear and I enjoy mine, and since I read and surf the web a lot at home, I get a ton of use out of it. But it is a little luxury item, like cable, and for someone who reads a lot and doesn’t usually pay $10/book, it may be prohibitively expensive. Just two books a week would cost over $1000 a year on the iPad (or Kindle). If you have access to a library, that’s a hard price tag to justify.

    As for non-iPad tablets, I don’t think they’ve really managed to identify what they are useful for, yet. The iPad targets a limited type of usage and does it well, but at least it knows what it is for.

  34. Yes, you can play the waiting game, but you could also wait forever. No matter what electronic item you buy, or when you buy it, you will always be able to say six months later…Gosh, look how cheap I could have gotten it for if I had only waited.

  35. Geoff Hart says:

    Reminds me of the time, back in the early days of computing, when I decided I really needed to get the first HP Deskjet inkjet printer. I was printing out a lot of things I’d written because they had to be mailed to publishers — no e-mail back then — and it was costing me hours waiting for my dot matrix printer to finish printer. A laser printer (a few thousand dollars) simply wasn’t an option.

    So I tracked prices of the Deskjet every week or so, and watched the prices plummeting. As the prices began to level off, I seized the moment and bought the printer — not an impulse buy at $500, but a bargain compared to its price only a couple months earlier.

    Sadly, this was right at the start of the period when manufacturers began cutting product cycle times down to 6 months or less. I’d figured based on past experience that I had at least another 6 months before the next model came out, and guessed wrong: the next model was cheaper and far better.

    So Trent’s advice is sound: figure out a compromise between buying at the right price (and when you have the money) versus buying when you really need something, even if you pay a slight premium.

  36. kristinelevy says:

    I am also curious to know the must-have features of a tablet. What convenience other than size?

  37. Kate says:

    You should read The Paradox of Choice. Some others have sort of touched on the ideas this book covers. You can spend forever waiting for the perfect device. However, it is unlikely that the joy of using the new tool will make up for all the anxiety and waiting and use of the older, less than great computer. I say if you have the money and there’s a tablet that has your required features, then go for it. There’s opportunity cost to consider.

  38. skeemer118 says:

    @ #10 – ROTFLMBO! :D

  39. linsey says:

    It’s only money! Go for it, and I’m sure you won’t regret your decision since you will enjoy all the benefits of having it.

  40. Pashmina says:

    I think a tablet WOULD be better for a writer who prefers writing with a pen stylus than a laptop. Its way faster and easier on the hands. Anyone who has used an old Wacom pen pad loves them.

    I’d love to hear which pads you’re looking at and why. I also think waiting 3-6 months and saving more would be wise. I wouldn’t wait over a year though since some people are worried about inflation. Good deals are to be had on electronics right after back to school (Aug/Sept?) and right after xmas right? When do you guys think is the best time to buy electronics?

    I love SmartyPig and have the same “problem” you have now. It’s been so fun and also challenging saving up the money and now that I have the money, I want to make sure I’m getting a good deal.

    You’re right…there’s something about credit cards that doesn’t really make you do that so you end up spending more for sure!! I can really tell the difference.

    I have been smartypigging (saving) for a new summer and fall wardrobe and instead of buying brand new $120 shoes now that I have the money, I’ve bought previously owned shoes of the exact model I wanted right off of ebay for $20-$40! Then more money stays in my savings too. Yay!

  41. AshleyR says:

    I know exactly what you mean! I am the same way! For years, I’ve wanted a scooter. I did all my research and found one in my price range and paid cash on the spot and drove it home. It died as soon as it was in my driveway and I could not get it to start again. So I swore I would never buy a “cheap, Chinese scooter”. So I’ve waited. And watched Craigslist. I finally landed a deal on a 50cc Honda. But I quickly found out that the scooter I’d been lusting after was not what I really needed for my commute. So I got lucky and a week later, found a screaming good deal on a Yamaha 125cc.
    Here’s what I learned: If you get something at a good enough price, you can re-sell it at the same, better, or close to price. The defunk scooter from the first story? I lost $50 on that. But I paid $x for a running scoot and someone else paid $x-50 for one that needed repairs. We have decided to keep the 50cc scooter because it’s great on gas and fun to ride. But not good for a daily 20 mile commute. But when we decide to sell it, we expect to get what we paid for it.
    But many many times, I research and second guess my thoughts. It’s not the big purchases that blow my budget. It’s the little “dollar store” ones :)

  42. Ruby Leigh says:

    My husbund is a developer and consequently we are lucky enough to have a iPad in our hands as the result of his business. We would not otherwise.

    Anyway, it’s about the the most amazing thing ever. All kidding aside – there are a few things it does better that both a laptop and an iPhone. I have not spent much time using the “Word Like” program though, so I can’t speak to the productivity of it. However, ease of use is incredible, and there are many free apps to try (as well as ones to buy). Not to mention it is a “e-reader”, and it seems like an above average one – though it is the only one I’ve spent a serious amount of time using.

    Also, it seems like a great “kid” computer device (albeit heinously expensive for that use). Very interactive, and I am just waiting for more learning games to show up.

  43. Crystal says:

    I’m a big fan of using money to make life more enjoyable while saving money to make living possible. It’s a balance. It sounds like you saved the money and the tablet could make life more enjoyable…buy one and take advantage of the saved time! You’ll never be able to get time back!

  44. Sarah says:

    I am interested in saving sites like “SmartPig” and “Mint” but I am afraid of the consequences of giving out that much information on the web. I would be interested in an article that details the pro’s and con’s of those and similar websites and possibly how to juggle them (if more than one is useful).

  45. David says:

    Great post. It’s another way of saying, “it’s good enough for my needs”. There really never is a “perfect” situation. And, with technology, there’s always some new feature around the corner that eventually becomes a “must-have”. Sure, this may be a generalization, but did our grandparents generation do without a “computer”? Yep. Everything is relative to the perspective.

  46. Martha says:

    Get out of my head!

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