15 Shopping Rules of Thumb

I recently read a wonderful post over at The Technium containing twelve simple shopping rules of thumb for various products, mostly technology related. Some of them are great. A few of them are outdated. I find I use some of them myself; here are the ones I really find value in:

Pay for RAM, not speed. The speed of the computer chip does not matter; the attention-span or RAM memory does matter.
Pay for components, not cables. Buy the best components, and the cheapest cables.
Pay for speed, not channels. For cable internet, with enough speed you can watch TV channels on the internet for free.
Pay for sensor size, not pixel count. On today’s cameras you’ll have enough megapixels; better quality comes from larger sensors.
Pay for reliability, not mileage. On a car, you’ll spend more of repairs and maintaince over its lifetime than you will on a difference in gas.
Pay for comfort, not weight. A bicycle’s feather weight is moot once you add water bottle, a bag, any extra clothes you wear, while its comfort never disappears.
Pay for glass, not shutters. In professional cameras, great lenses endure, while the camera bodies change and go obsolete.

(I included the two photography ones because I’m related to multiple professional and semi-professional photographers, so I’m at least a bit knowledgeable in the field.)

These simple rules of thumb for purchases can be a great starting point for the research that you do when deciding what products to buy. They don’t point you straight to a product, per se, but they tell you which features are more likely to give you value for your dollar when you do make that purchase.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been accumulating a number of these “rules of thumb” for more common household purchases. Here’s that list – hope it helps.

Pay for location, not square footage. A home in a good location will always retain its value. On the other hand, lots of square footage mostly means room to store stuff you don’t really need, you often have to be far from your job in order to have a huge house, and there are tons of empty McMansions sitting in the suburbs that are unable to be resold due to the housing glut.

Pay for utility, not quantity. If you’re buying kitchen implements, you’re better off buying basic tools that really work for a lot of things rather than tons of tools for specific things. You don’t need more than three knives (a paring knife, a chef’s knife, and a bread knife, along with a honing steel). You don’t need more than two pots, one saucepan, and one skillet – you can make about every dish imaginable in those four things because they’re so flexible.

Pay for hardware, not software. Most of the applications that people need for their home computer have quality free versions online. Need Office? Use OpenOffice or Google Docs. Image editing? FotoFlexer (and other such tools) do almost anything a home user would want to do.

Pay for the beans, not the coffeepot. My wife uses a cheap old coffee pot that she’s had since we were in college. The coffee you put into the pot makes all the difference, not the pot itself, according to her. A $200 coffee pot with bad coffee beans will still make you a poor drink.

Pay for speed, not size. If you’re buying a new computer and are comparing hard drives, get the faster one rather than the bigger one for home use, as it’ll speed up your computer substantially and you don’t really need another 80 GB. The fastest ones are the solid state drives, but if you’re buying a regular hard drive, get the one with the fastest RPMs. Get the smaller drive, too. You can always buy a far less expensive external USB drive for file storage if you manage to fill up your main drive.

Pay for reference, not entertainment. I only buy a book if I know I’m going to return to it again and again. For books that don’t fall into that category, I check them out at the library or swap them online.

Pay for energy efficiency, not features. When you’re buying a large appliance, the energy efficiency of the appliance outweighs virtually every feature because of the enormous amount of energy used by the appliance. For example, an older refrigerator can use as much as 1,400 kWh of energy per year, which adds up (at $0.12 per kWh) to $168 a year. A newer refrigerator may use as little as 200 kWh of energy per year, which adds up to $24 per year, a savings of $144 per year. Over a twenty year lifespan, that’s $2,880 in savings, far more than the cost of the fridge itself. Similar calculations are true for other large appliances, such as washers, dryers, furnaces, and A/C units.

Pay for freshness, not convenience. Paying for convenience with food is usually a very poor bargain and often results in either bland food or food loaded down with so many chemicals and artificial flavorings and preservatives that you don’t even want to imagine what it’s doing to you inside. Buy fresh foods, take them home, wash them, and prepare them simply. Knowing how to use a slow cooker in conjunction with fresh foods is a life changer, because you still have the convenience of coming home to a hot meal that’s ready to serve, only it’s made with fresh and naturally flavorful ingredients, without lots of preservatives and the like, and for a lower cost.

To close, here are two bonus tips that can be used to evaluate even broader choices in your life.

Pay for experiences, not things. A thing is something that takes up space in your house. An experience changes who you are as a person. One cannot be replaced, while the other can easily be replaced. Give me junky furniture and a lifetime of memories.

Pay for what you need, not what you want. This is the best tip of all. Figure out your actual needs before you ever go shopping for any item, then seek out the least expensive option that matches your needs. Your wants mostly just cost you money without giving you anything you need.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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