It’s a pretty familiar feeling for everyone at some time or another in their life.
You’re doing some household chore and you realize that having some particular item would make this task more convenient, so you add that item to your shopping list.
Or, maybe, you’re at the store and you see something that is pretty obviously going to take care of a problem in your life.
Or, maybe, you’re at the store and you find some sort of incredible bargain on something you don’t strictly need, but it’s a bargain that you’ll basically never find again.
Do you pull the trigger? Do you spend the money to buy these things?
These things aren’t quite needs. You can definitely go on in your life without them. However, it’s pretty clear that this is a relatively useful purchase as things go. You’re getting a huge bargain on something or you’re buying something that you’re pretty confident will be useful in the future.
On the other hand… is this really a sensible purchase? Is this something you should be buying right now, with all of your other goals in life?
People face these kinds of decisions all the time in modern life, and they’re not easy decisions. These kinds of decisions represent value conflicts, where one value we hold true in life is in conflict with another value, and whenever we make a call in those areas, it never really feels right. We might talk ourselves into the idea that we made the right call, but doubt often lingers.
How can you ever be sure you made the right call? How can you remove second-guessing from such purchases?
There is no magic recipe for doing so, but there are a number of things you can do to clearly decide if most tempting purchases really make sense or not. If you apply those tactics and then make a good decision as a result, you eliminate an awful lot of the doubt from that purchase.
Here are nine such tactics that you can use to separate the good purchases from the bad when you’re unsure.
Tactic #1 – Think about the difference between this product and what you already have available to you
Let’s say you’re looking at a new clothing item. What exactly sets this apart from items you already have in your closet? There’s probably something about it that’s different than what you have, so spend some time identifying what it is.
Now, consider just that difference, all on its own, and look at that price tag. Is it worth it to spend that much just for that difference?
I use this same strategy when comparing electronics purchases. Let’s say, hypothetically, I’m looking at buying a new laptop to replace an older one at home. When I’m comparing models, I don’t just compare them to each other – I compare them to what I already have at home. What exactly is this new laptop going to provide that I don’t already have with my old laptop and my tablet as a combo? What are the new things I’m going to get? A bit more memory? A somewhat faster processor? Now, is that worth several hundred dollars?
If you follow this tactic, purchases where you’re not directly replacing a broken item begin to look very weak, especially if most of the use for this item is already covered with items you own. In other words, it keeps you from adding yet another thing to a large collection of items or keeps you from buying a gadget that replicates features you already have.
Tactic #2 – Consider whether you can borrow this item and get all of the usefulness out of it
This is my primary tactic whenever I’m in a bookstore. I can’t help but be interested in lots of books there, so I ask myself whether I could get the same value out of checking that book out from the library instead. For most books, a library checkout provides the same value for me, as the value comes from reading the book and not necessarily owning it. Books I want to own are ones I’ll reread regularly.
I do the same thing at hardware stores when considering tools. Could I just borrow a drill like this from a friend when I need one? Could I borrow a staple gun? Most of the time, with tools, the answer is yes, as they often sit around in garages until they’re needed.
Whenever you’re considering buying something, consider whether there’s a way to borrow the item instead to get most of the value out of it. You can do this with books, tools, movies, games, hobby equipment, and many other things. Don’t buy something unless you’re getting significant additional value for owning it beyond what you would get from merely borrowing it; if you’re just going to read a book or watch a movie or listen to an audiobook for the first time, borrowing is well worth it. Save the purchases for repeated enjoyment.
Tactic #3 – Ask yourself whether you would consider this item seriously if it were not for the price
Sometimes, items will jump out at you because they’re on deep discount. You’ll see something that’s mildly interesting, but because it’s sitting below a 50% off or an 80% off sign, it suddenly becomes really tempting.
Here’s the thing, though: are you guying this item because of the item or because of the price tag?
The reality is that if something wasn’t under your serious consideration before you noticed a sale, then the change in price tag shouldn’t matter in the least. (There is an exception to that – flipping items for profit – which we’ll touch on again later.) If an item was one you were already considering and it just happens to now be on sale, then it’s a pretty compelling case, but if you weren’t considering an item before, then you have no reason to own it now.
Would you have seriously considered buying this item at full price? If the answer is no, then there’s no reason to buy it at sale price unless you’re going to flip it immediately for a profit, because if the answer was no from the beginning, you have no need or use for this item, regardless of the price.
I find myself falling into this trap during “buy one get one free” sales. It’s often tempting to pick up items under those conditions, but quite often what will happen is that I’ll see one item that I actually want and have been thinking about buying along with a bunch of stuff that I don’t want. I’ll then try to convince myself that now is the time to buy that one item because I get something else for free.
There’s a catch, though: I’m pretty sure I can get that singular item at a better price elsewhere, which means I’m actually paying some amount for that other item that I have zero interest in. For example, let’s say all of the BOGO items are $20 each and I see only one item I want, but I can get that item alone at another store for $15. What I’m essentially doing here is paying $15 for the item I want and $5 for some other item I have no interest in. Why would I do this? Why would I buy that second item that I have no interest in for any price?
The reality is that buying something that you don’t really want or need just because the sticker price is right is a fool’s errand – again, unless you’re going to flip it immediately, which we’ll talk about below.
Tactic #4 – Consider whether you need this item immediately
The idea that you could buy this item and have it right now if you’re willing to pull out the plastic and purchase it is very tempting. You could take that item home immediately and use it immediately. That immediacy is sometimes mistaken in our minds for a sense of urgency and it can feel much like a call that this is our one chance to get this item.
That’s rarely true. There are very few items that are anywhere close to unique and there are very few purchases that need to be made right now.
The simplest thing to do in a case like this is to just stop for a moment and agree that you can wait a certain amount of time before buying the product, for two reasons. One, you’re making sure you actually want or need this item. Two, you’re giving yourself some time to find the item elsewhere at a better price.
What I often do is give myself thirty days to wait on any new purchase idea that pops into my head. If I decide that I want something or need it in a non-urgent fashion, I wait. I don’t have to purchase this today – it can wait for thirty days.
During that time, I usually just let it rest. What often happens is that wants completely fade away and new solutions for many non-urgent needs are found, usually through borrowing or repurposing something else. If a desire can’t wait a month, it’s not much of a desire, after all, and if a need isn’t urgent, how much of a need is it?
If I reach a month’s time and I’m still serious about that purchase, then I start price checking. I shop around for a good discount on that item so that I’m sure I’m paying a good price for it. I’m surprised how I can sometimes find an item on sale, no matter what it is, if I do some price checking on it. In general, for every $100 of sticker price of the item on Amazon, I spend about 15 minutes searching for a better deal, and I usually end up finding that time was really worth it in terms of how much I save.
Tactic #5 – Look at what you will cut from your budget to make room for this purchase and compare them
Whenever you buy something, that means you’re not buying something else. That’s the reality of having a limited pool of money – if $50 goes toward one thing, that’s $50 less in the ol’ checking account for other purposes.
So, what would that $50 buy you? It’d help build toward a car down payment. It’d buy part of your grocery bill. It’d probably replace a bunch of your light bulbs with LEDs, thus lowering your energy bills going forward and eliminating light bulb replacement costs for a long time. There are many, many other things you could be doing with that $50.
Whenever you spend $50 on a frivolous want, you’re also sacrificing all of the other things you could do with that $50. Sure, you’re gaining something with that purchase, but you’re losing the potential to do a lot of other things as well.
This isn’t a call to never buy anything or do anything fun. It’s a call to be smart about it and to be somewhat selective in what you choose to do with your money. Stick to things that are surefire wins and have exceptional potential and avoid things that are relatively unexciting “maybes.”
Tactic #6 – Consider whether you’d use this item with any regularity
When you’re considering a purchase, it’s easy to visualize yourself using that item a lot, but often that’s just the picture that the marketing related to the product wants you to visualize. Is it actually real?
There are a lot of tell-tale signs you can look for in your life to help you figure out whether or not you actually would utilize the tempting item.
First, is it related at all to something you already do regularly in your life? If it’s an item that’s meant to cultivate a new habit, start with the new habit rather than the item. That way, you’ll know if the habit is something you’ll stick with and you’ll also have a better sense of what you need for that routine.
Second, if it is connected to something you do regularly, do you already have something that does this? If so, is this intended to replace it and, if so, have you really assessed that first tactic earlier in the post? In other words, what is this thing doing differently than what you already have, and how useful is that difference? How much is that difference actually worth?
If either of those situations is setting off any warning bells about this purchase, give it some time first to figure out whether this purchase actually makes sense. Establish a new habit and look at your habits and routines to figure out whether an item actually adds value to that normal routine. Don’t ever buy something under the impression that it will launch a new routine for you.
Tactic #7 – Tell your friends about this potential purchase
Another useful filter when deciding whether you need a potential item is to ask friends about it. Yes, some of them will be “yes men” and simply nod their heads in agreement, but those aren’t the friends that are valuable. The friends that are valuable are the ones that quietly talk to you one on one about the purchase.
So, ask your friends collectively about a potential purchase. Expect that some people will just automatically encourage you to buy and ignore them (also, ignore any blatant negative people – why are they your friends, anyway?). Instead, look for people who come up with reasons not to buy it, whether they do it in a group setting or one-on-one with you. If a friend actually has the courage to criticize a potential purchase, thank them for that criticism because it can take some courage to do that.
I have a group of friends whose opinions I trust deeply and when I’m on the fence about something, I ask them. They almost always give good advice and feedback, and it’s rarely universally positive. It’s their mix of specific points that come from knowing me and knowing the situation that almost always directs me to where I need to be going.
Tactic #8 – Look at your ability to immediately flip this item for a profit
If you’re the type of person who’s perusing items looking for something you can flip for a profit – something I’ve done myself many times – one thing to keep in mind is the idea of quick flipping. I’ve found that unless I know a particular item cold – I know the market and the manufacturer’s history and all of that – I’m better off flipping an item for a quick profit as fast as possible. I don’t hang onto anything I’m intending to flip without some special knowledge.
So, what does that mean if you’re standing there deciding whether to buy something to flip it? Immediately start looking for prices online for this item on auction sites. What is it selling for on eBay or on Amazon Marketplace? Is it actually selling for something substantially higher than what you see before you, such that you can list it immediately and turn a profit? If the answer is yes, buy it and flip it. If the answer is no, then pass on it.
Don’t bother holding onto “inventory” unless you know that the price is going to go up because you have some element of special information. Without that, you’re taking on a needless risk and locking up your money into something that has a good chance of losing money.
Tactic #9 – Look at other options for purchasing this item at a lower price
If you’ve managed to go through all of this and are still unsure, the last thing you should do is make sure that the price you’re considering paying for that item is a fair price. Spend at least a little time comparing it to online prices.
I generally am willing to pay a little more at a brick and mortar location rather than an online one because I can assess that the product is in good shape right in front of me and I know the store’s return policy. I’m willing to pay a bit more than that at a locally owned business. But that “local” premium only stretches so far – and there is no such “premium” online.
Spend at least a few minutes shopping around for better prices before you shop. Be sure that you’re including any personal factors, like buying locally, into your decision, of course, but make sure you’re not paying $65 for an item you can get online for $20, as I recently almost did, or an item that’s listed on one website for $99 and another for $29, as also happened to me recently.
If you find that a potential purchase manages to make it through this whole minefield with confident answers that point you in the direction of the purchase, then it’s most likely a purchase you can make with confidence and without regret.
However, if you’re considering a purchase and one of these tactics is flashing a big “BE CAREFUL!” sign at you, stop. Wait. This purchase you’re thinking about is likely to leave you with regret, and you’re better off spending that money elsewhere.
There’s no reason to rush into any purchase that isn’t an urgent need, and very few things in life truly fall under that umbrella. Exercise a little patience with your purchases. Your wallet will thank you.