There are few things that leave me feeling worse than an impulsive purchase that wound up being a piece of junk or wound up sitting in the closet gathering dust.
Not only am I frustrated with the item itself, I’m also frustrated with me. It was my own personal choice to go ahead and make that purchase. It was my money that vanished into something poorly made or something that I didn’t find useful.
That money represents lost opportunity. I could have saved that for the future. I could have spent that on something that was genuinely useful or something that I genuinely enjoyed.
My solution to all of this is to be rather careful about how I spend my money. Before I buy anything at all, I ask myself at least a few of the questions on this list. Before any significant purchase, I ask myself all of the questions on this list.
I don’t make a purchase unless I can get honest answers to those questions.
That doesn’t mean that I stand there in the grocery store thinking to myself about everything I put in the cart. My meal planning system generates a grocery list and all of the items on that list have already faced the questions and survived, so I can buy those items without thinking. I do the same thing when I go into department stores – I usually have a purchase or two planned in advance and I usually avoid making any others.
For a major purchase, I work through these questions at home. Some of them just go through the back of my head while I’m doing other things. Others might require some research. In either case, before a major purchase happens, I’ve thought about all of these questions.
I don’t apply all of these questions to things that come out of my personal spending allowance, but I do use many of them. I even want to use that money – the money I can spend freely on whatever I want – as intelligently as possible, buying stuff that I’ll get lasting joy out of.
Here are the questions I use to evaluate my purchases.
1. Do I already have something that can do the job?
Whenever I buy something, I have some sort of purpose in mind for it. If it’s clothing, for example, I intend to wear it. If it’s a new skillet, I intend to cook foods over the stove top with it.
This question simply looks at whether or not I have something that already fulfills that purpose. Do I really need this clothing item? Are there items I already have that fill up that perceived gap in my wardrobe? What about that skillet? Do I already have skillets or cast iron pots that can do what I’m hoping to do with that skillet?
This question does a great job of pointing out the times when I am thinking about upgrades that aren’t entirely necessary. Do I really need to upgrade my laptop? Do I really need to do something with it that my old laptop doesn’t already do or my desktop computer doesn’t already do? When I start making a use case for what a new laptop could do that my current computer couldn’t, it becomes a lot less persuasive.
Sometimes, this involves looking for things in our home that can do the job in an unexpected way. For example, a chef’s knife does a pretty good job of “pressing” garlic on a cutting board, making a garlic press largely unnecessary unless you’re using it several times a day. Since I already have a chef’s knife, a garlic press isn’t very necessary at all.
2. Can I borrow it from someone?
Often, when I need an item just for a one-off use or for an extremely rare use, it makes a lot of sense to just borrow it from a neighbor or a friend.
For example, I was installing several shelves recently and found that our cordless drill was not providing enough torque to be helpful beyond two or three screws before recharging was necessary. Usually, our cordless drill does what we need, but not for a bigger job like this one. Instead of talking myself into a corded drill – after all, we had a great use case for it right there in front of us – we recognized that this was a pretty rare case for us and just contacted a few friends. It turned out that one of them had a corded drill with a lot of torque. I borrowed it a couple of days later and finished the project in about half an hour.
The best way to get this kind of borrowing started is to be very giving and lend your stuff to your friends whenever they ask for it or even when you hear them lamenting a task that they need to complete. If a friend needs a few extra casserole dishes for a large party, hand yours over. If a neighbor needs to chop some large branches, bring over your branch trimmer. You’ll find that if you’re very willing to give, they’re much more likely to be willing to lend, and the end result is that you’ll have access to rare-use items that you might have otherwise purchased.
This does require some awareness of the items that your friends and neighbors actually have. One good way of knowing that is to work with them on projects, both indoors and outdoors. Offer help when they need it and don’t be shy about asking for it when you need it. You’ll find that borrowing becomes second nature after a while if you have a great relationship with friends and neighbors.
Another great example of borrowing comes from your local library. Instead of buying a book, why not just borrow it from there? You can do the same with DVDs, CDs, and audiobooks as well. I love stopping at the library and picking up an audiobook before a long road trip, for example, and you better believe that I use it to check out books of all kinds. I generally only buy books that I’ll reference a lot or highly discounted ebooks for my Kindle at this point.
3. Can I trade someone an item or a service for it?
What if you need to “borrow” something that isn’t something you can return when you’re done, like some food items or a few hours of their time or some skill that they have? That’s when a trade can solve your problem perfectly.
It’s simple. If a friend or a neighbor has an item that you’ll rarely need, ask to borrow it instead of buying it yourself when that rare need comes about. Often, you’ll have items or skills or time that your friend or neighbor needs in his or her rare moments as well and you can give them in exchange.
I’m a big fan of “indirect” trading with my friends and neighbors. When they need help with something, I just offer it without hesitation. That way, when I need some help, they’re usually willing to offer it right back if I ask. The same goes for items that can be used up – if a neighbor needs to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar, I’ll happily hand it over under the assumption that when I’m in a pinch, I can do the same thing.
This keeps me from buying a lot of little things. It also keeps me from hiring repairpeople.
4. Have I asked my social network about it?
Beyond the direct borrowing of items and bartering for items, friends and neighbors can also be extremely useful in terms of offering ideas and suggestions that you might never have considered.
For example, let’s say you’re looking at buying a new laptop and you’ve already considered many of the other factors in this article. Instead of just heading straight for the store to buy one, you instead send an email to several friends and write on Facebook about how you’re searching for a new laptop and are looking for advice or discounts that your friends may know about.
In my own personal experience, I’ve seen friends jump forward with store discounts that they’re eligible for or access to special buying programs. I’ve seen people offer free software items and other things that they have around. I’ve seen family members jump in with lengthy detailed recommendations about what exactly to buy to get the best “bang for the buck.”
All of that stuff is incredibly valuable, both in terms of making a more informed purchase and in terms of finding a nice discount. Sometimes the value can be even better than that – I’ve had friends just give me things due to a Facebook post or an email, keeping me from buying them altogether.
Use your social network. They’ll rarely let you down.
5. Can I make it myself?
There are a lot of household items that we buy that we can simply make ourselves. Sure, there are the simple things like window cleaners or laundry soap, but you can also assemble a lot of food items yourself, like loaves of bread or frozen burritos.
Many of these items are ones where you’re actually just paying extra for convenience. I can make a good frozen burrito for half the cost of the same burrito in the store, for example. I can make homemade laundry soap for a fraction of the cost per load of soap from the store. Buying those items at the store doesn’t save me anything but time.
Thus, those purchases are weighed solely on the convenience factor. Is it reasonable for me to just make some laundry soap while sitting on the couch in the next week or two? If so, I’ll just buy the ingredients and save about 80% of the purchase price. Do I have time to make a couple of loaves of bread in the next day or two? If so, I’ll just buy flour instead of bread loaves.
Most of the time, there are some real fringe benefits to making things yourself. You have far more control over what kinds of chemicals are in the item. You have far more control over the quality of ingredients. You have far more control over the environmental impact of what you’re making. You have far more control over the flavor of the end product and the healthiness of the end product. Those benefits are usually on top of spending money.
In the end, many grocery and household purchases boil down to convenience, but there are times when convenience should be set aside to have better results for less money by contributing a bit of your own time and effort to the mix.
6. Can I delay it?
What exactly happens if you wait a month to buy this item? Six months? A year? Are there life problems created from waiting on this purchase?
If you can delay a purchase a month or two, you probably should do that. It means that you have an appropriate short-term solution to the problem already in hand.
If you can delay a purchase for a year or more, you should be asking yourself why you even need to make this purchase at all. If you don’t need it for a year, why on earth would you be buying it at the moment?
Unless there’s a real reason for buying now – your current item is failing, for example, or there’s an incredible bargain available to you if you act immediately – you should try hard to delay that purchase for a while. The longer you delay, the longer the lifespan of your previous item and thus the longer you’ll be able to wait before you have to replace your replacement.
Another great factor for this question is that it causes some purchases to vanish entirely. Let’s say I convince myself that I can wait a month for some item that I really really want. More often than not, at the end of that month, my desire for that item has completely cooled off. Sometimes, I’m left wondering why I even wanted that item in the first place.
7. Have I looked for lower-cost alternative solutions?
Sometimes, there’s a good solution for your problem that’s looking you right in the eye, but you somehow managed to overlook that great idea again and again and again.
Perhaps you’re caught up in buying a new car, but the truth is that you can just as easily commute using mass transit and don’t actually need that car at all. Maybe you’re obsessing over a new television, but you actually don’t watch it that often except for background noise and a simple small television will work for your fairly limited needs.
Sometimes, when you’re looking to buy something you, you don’t need to match or exceed what you already have. Instead, you should sit down and look at what your actual needs are related to that item. You may find that a simpler solution – usually a lower-cost solution – is a better option for you. Bigger and newer and more feature-laden is not always better.
This question does require some creativity. One good way to rethink the alternatives for any purchase you make is to simply visit blogs that discuss this type of item. Many of them do a great job of looking at alternatives to your originally considered item. For example, I had decided not long ago that I needed a better headset for listening to music and podcasts and handling Skype calls while I work. After a bit of research, I had settled on a particular headset, but when I spent some time reading blogs about headphones and found some posts on good headphones for listening in mono (I’m deaf in one ear, so everything is essentially in mono), I ended up going with a much less expensive setup that almost perfectly met my needs.
8. Have I looked at a thrift store or discount grocer or consignment shop for it?
At this point, I’ve eliminated a lot of purchases, but there are still many buys that seem like a good idea. If you’re still convinced that you need to make the purchase that you originally planned, the best first step you can make is to start at the thrift store or the consignment shop or the discount grocer.
In other words, start at the low end and don’t ignore used items.
The reason for this is that quality items often “slip through the cracks” and find their way into thrift stores and discount grocers with an absurdly low price tag. I’ve found amazing clothing items for my family at thrift stores. Sarah and I used a toaster that came from Goodwill for many years and we had a few furniture items from Goodwill in our living room for many years.
As for groceries, we often buy marzipan, stollen, and many other items at highly discounted rates at Aldi, paying half or less of what the items would cost elsewhere.
The nice part of shopping at secondhand stores and discount stores is that if you don’t like the quality of the items they have on offer, you can always just say “no” and walk away.
9. Have I looked online for discounts for it?
If you’re still looking, let the internet be your friend. There are very few purchases out there that can’t be chopped in price by finding a discount online or a low-cost website somewhere on the internet.
My first step is to price-check the item across every reputable online seller I do business with. I always check Amazon for almost everything for starters, and I also check out sites like Overstock and eBay. If it’s more of a niche item, I try to find discount retailers that serve that niche, like Coolstuffinc (for board games).
If an item isn’t urgent, I’ll use tools like Camel Camel Camel to wait until the price comes down to the level that I want to spend before jumping on the purchase.
For groceries and household supplies, I’ll also search for coupons on any item that I might be buying. I frequently check weekly coupon sites like Redplum and save the coupons for anything I might buy. I don’t use them immediately – instead, I wait for store sales on those items so I can stack the coupon on top of the store sale. This sometimes gets me items for free.
For any major purchase, I use all of these questions essentially as a checklist. The goal, at first, is to make sure I actually need the item. Then, if I can actually show myself that this item is a significant need, then I’ll start moving through the steps to secure a truly low price on the item.
I don’t use all of these questions on smaller purchases, but I do use some of them on everything I spend. Mostly, I try to evaluate whether or not I actually need the item I’m considering and, when I’m honest with myself, I recognize that an awful lot of what I’m spending my money on is a want – and a short-term one at that.
Using this list of questions has really helped me to make smarter spending decisions in almost every dimension of my life, from items bought for personal pleasure to the items found on my grocery list, from items I personally need to the items bought for my children, from big-ticket items like expensive electronics and cars to the toothpaste in our bathroom. The process, in the end, is the same: we trade our hard-earned money and expect something in return. I want the most – and the best – when I trade away my money.