Updated on 04.26.13

The Total Experience of a Purchase

Trent Hamm

My brother recently got a new job with much higher pay than he was previously making. After getting the job, he bought himself a motorcycle, something he’s wanted for a while, and he’s incredibly happy with it and proud of it, even driving it to work to save on fuel costs and saving on motorcycle insurance. For him, it was a good purchase – he’s worked hard and has desired a motorcycle for a long time, and acted on it when the situation finally presented itself.

Naturally, this whole experience got me thinking about my own purchases and I made a pretty interesting realization.

The single biggest change I made to my spending habits is that I finally became aware of the total experience of a purchase.

When you buy something at a store, many people think that the experience of the purchase ends as you walk out the door or as you’re enjoying the product. Not so. The total experience of a purchase ends when you’ve completely recovered the value spent when you made that purchase. Let me give you a clear example from my own past, in mid-2005 (before I had my financial crisis and was still spending without much control).

My Total iPod nano Buying Experience
In September 2005, Apple rolled out their iPod nano. I was already an iPod owner at the time, but the new nano models were so small and neat that I just felt compelled as a gadget lover to run right out and buy one, blowing $200.

That initial purchase rush was quite fun. I gave over the $200 and got my nifty new iPod, which I quickly loaded up with music and pictures and took around to show my friends so they could be suitably impressed by my new gadget. Those first few days were pretty fun.

But, you see, I already had an iPod, and besides that, I didn’t even use that iPod a whole lot. I would use it while walking around, but I did most of my music listening directly from my computer or out of my stereo system at home.

I also found that after just a week or so of light use, my nano was already developing little scratches. I started storing it in a pouch, which helped, but at that point it began to seem indistinguishable from my older iPod, except with less storage. My positive feelings were definitely beginning to mellow.

Of course, I’d bought that iPod nano on credit (much like many of my other purchases during that period in my life). So when the credit card bill came in, I didn’t have enough to pay it off, even though there was a nice new $200+ charge on the bill. Instead, I made the minimum payment and a bit more and felt pretty sick to my stomach about my rather large credit card balance. Yep, more negative feelings as a result of the purchase.

The next month came and went. My nifty new iPod didn’t get used very much. I couldn’t find the charger for it for a while, so it sat unused while I primarily used my old iPod. I’d see it sitting there, unused, and feel bad. Another credit card bill came, packaged up nicely with some more negative feelings.

It took me almost a year to get that credit card paid off. All told, that nano probably cost me $250 – and the net feelings and use that it generated were negative.

Using That Experience Today
That experience, along with several similar ones, has left me with a very strong sense of the whole picture of what I’m actually buying when I make a purchase. I’m not just taking home something nifty to enjoy – I’m also taking home the bill. I’m not just taking home something to play with today – it’s something that I should be enjoying over the long haul if I’m putting significant money into it. Could I perhaps get this item cheaper elsewhere, or do I even need it at all?

Is this purchase going to be a net positive, or is it going to be another iPod nano?

I ask myself this each time I go to make any kind of purchase that might even be slightly unnecessary. That thought process has talked me out of countless purchases over the last couple of years.

In the past, I’ve strongly advocated using the ten second rule whenever you’re considering buying an item. The questions above are the questions I ask myself during those ten seconds – and they usually talk me right out of buying the product.

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  1. Vartan Khachaturov says:

    Even though you now realize the purchase was a total mistake, I was wondering how you reconcile being an Apple customer with loving frugality and the best value for your dollar?

    You mentioned a while back how you also decided to go with the MacMini as your computer system and I was a bit shaken up to see that someone who makes their own detergent would pay for a computer that costs roughly double what it should.

    You mention how the purchase was a bad one because you already had an iPod you barely used, but what about the fact that 200 dollars on any other mp3 player would have gotten you 4 times the memory capability?

  2. Mark says:

    I can totally empathize with this. I think we all have had the experience of succumbing to a short-term burning desire to buy something, and then we don’t end up using it very much.

    I was seconds away from buying an iPod nano myself several months ago, but I finally decided against it because I wasn’t sure that I would actually use the thing. I still want one though. :-)

  3. Andy says:

    This is a great post. I love the feeling of getting every penny worth out of a product. Two products I’ve really done this for have actually been gifts. My brother bought me a Michigan sweatshirt during his first year of college (2001). It cost $20 but I have worn it a ton. For a while I wore it everyday during the fall and winter, and while I don’t wear it as much anymore (it is fraying and getting holes), I still put it on a few times a month. Definitely worth the $20.

    The other gift was a Swiss Military watch that my girlfriend gave me. I’m not sure what it cost (probably $50-100), but I’ve been wearing it everyday for 4 1/2 years and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.

  4. Katie says:

    We’ve recently employed the 30-day rule. Anything we want to buy (that we wouldn’t just buy with our allowance) we write on a list and if after 30 days we still want it just as bad we work it into the budget. You’d be amazed how many things you really cool off about in that period of time.

  5. Jules says:

    I have a list of (semi-expensive to out-of-this-lab-tech’s-salary) items that I’d like to eventually buy, things that aren’t strictly necessary, but would make my life a hell of a lot easier if did have them, such as a wristwatch and a good pair of shoes (there is a lot of walking in my lab). Every time I’m tempted to splurge on something, I remember that list, and it helps me save my money.

    Of course, I still do occasionally splurge–just the other day I bought a set of rainbow-colored pens. A good set of multicolored pens is something I find irresistible.

  6. Nathan says:

    Great Post…I agree on every point.

    In a different light I do have to say that I bought a video ipod to replace my second gen one that has ceased working and no longer under warranty, purchased with some saved cash…

    TOTALLY WORTH IT!! I use it every day on my way to work, while I am working at home at night and everywhere in between…heck, the radio has become useless

    but still, great post!!

  7. David Andersson says:

    Good post, makes me think of my iPod Shuffle purchase. The new Shuffles went at $100 something and it was so worth it. I’ve just it both in my running and everything.

    That made me think of some purchases, some purchases are really worth it. Routine costs you a lot, but sometime that $200 Nano could be worth it in the long run, especially compared to those weekly/daily $10 lattes.

  8. !wanda says:

    @Jules: I thought wristwatches were really cheap, especially if you just need a convenient digital watch with an alarm and a stopwatch.

  9. Daniel says:

    I tend to use my tend seconds to reflect on how stuff tends to own us, rather than us owning it. I have to consider if what I’m about to buy is something I want owning me.

  10. Bill says:

    Trent, I would be more than happy to help you with those negative feelings by taking that iPod Nano off your hands. :)

  11. Seb @ Pinching Copper says:

    I can relate… I used to buy the latest and greatest from Apple every time they came out with a slightly different iPod or Macbook, but I’ve cut myself off.

    My older iPod and laptop work just as well, and I don’t have to break out the plastic to use it.

  12. sara says:

    Yes, you’re totally right, thats a great way to look at it, as a total experience. And conversely, there’s a smile of satisfaction every time I look at a purchase that was needed, researched, saved for, and finally acquired at a good deal. When I look at it I remember back on all the reasons that it was a good decision.

  13. Paul says:

    Trent, loved this post. This is why I always check TSD everyday. This is the first post that has inspired me to ask a friend to check out your website.

    On a totally different note.. I used my first ever item until it wore out and I had to tell you about it. ;) I actually wore a pair of shoes until the sole came off (literally) and thought “Trent would be so proud.” lol

  14. KC says:

    I felt that way when I bought my Acura a few years ago. I was driving a 16 yr old Nissan and had saved up $20k for a new car. I did my research, knew what I wanted and got a great deal on a used Acura (even today I still think I got a great price). When I drove off the lot I really thought I had something – fancy car, great looks, leather seats, smooth ride, I was on top of the world. But then I started looking at other cars – LExus, Mercedes, etc. And it finally dawned on me – all I got was a damn car. It did the same thing my 16 yr old Nissan did – it consistently got me from point A to point B. I don’t regret my purchase, but I just feel silly about how I saw myself in that car. It really was quite foolish the get so much emotion from a purchase. And since then I really haven’t gotten that involved in any purchases I’ve made – maybe I’ve learned my lesson.

  15. Bob says:

    We all need to just step back and stop the impulse buying trying to get the newest, brightest, and biggest. Take a few days to think it out before we make the purchase to see if we really need it. Take this from the guy who got ride of my Beta Player only 3 years ago. Tapes just got to be to hard to find since the DVD’s have come out.

  16. jana says:

    articles like this make me come back to this site.

    my experience, although nit as nicely worded: i went shopping today morning and – after practising frugality for some time – actually went back and returned some items as i realised i did not really need them. and i did not buy that nice espresso cup from the coffee shop although it was 50% off (hec,, i did not buy there anything and they had big sales, surprised even myself:). thinking before buying, and actually going back to return something unnecessary, has saved me the equivalent of 17 dollars today – and i shop quite often (i love fresh produce) so these things really add up.
    i want to go to scandinavia for a holiday. not this year as i can not afford it now, but i want to go next summer. i want to emulate what my parents did (and what is probably the most normal thing with money): save up for the holiday over the course of about 14 months, eliminating impulse purchases etc. (if it does not work out, i might go the year after that so i do not feel stressed about it, which is a HUGELY important thing for me on all my journeys – i have lost 50+ pounds this year because i was not stressed that i want to do it THIS MINUTE, i just wanted to do it, so i started when i felt like doing it. i believe in ones mind coming to certain important points / crossroads – and in maximizing the potential this has)

  17. Mary says:

    Before I make a purchase I determine how many hours I would have to work to pay for it. So say for ease of doing the math I make $15 an hour before taxes and other deductions, which I always figure as $5 so I base everything on $10 an hour. That $200 IPod would take me 20 hours to pay for or half a 40 hour week. This has kept me from making many impulse purchases.

  18. MKL says:

    What a great topic, and one I have lots of memories of. Back when I was a musician, I spent ridiculous amounts of money on items that I ultimately rarely used. I buil;t a whole studio in my garage that was, when all was said and done, somewhere in the $20,000 range, and the net result was that I ultimately recorded about 7 or 8 songs during the entire decade I had it up and running. Today, some of the instruments are spread around the house so that my kids can play with them and enjoy them, but most of the effects, the mixer, the power amp and the big speaker cabinets have been sitting idle and collecting dust for close to 8 years now. I have definitely not recovered the utility for these items, with one exception. I paid $150.00 for an entry leve classical guitar, and I have actually played it and used it more than any other instrument or musical item I’ve purchaed over the past 18 years.

  19. My.cold.dead.hands says:

    I laughed when I read about your i-pod experience because it reminded me of some of the most powerful turning points in my own financial awakenings. As a kid on my 11th birthday I got an atari 2600 and thought that I had the most awesome game console around, and frankley in 1981 I did. Keep in mind that my birthday is in June, because not 4 months later the newest most awesome game console came out, the atari 5200, along with several other competitors. All had more games and better graphics than the 2600.

    That ended my life as an early adopter or gadgets. Now before I make a purchase I think long and hard about wether I really want or need the item. It takes more forever to buy things that most people buy without even thinking about it. But I can honestly say that I rarely ever regret my purchases now.

  20. Nick says:

    I need to keep this in mind. Lord knows I have made way too many purchases that would parallel your iPod Nano!

  21. Carrie says:

    I think you just talked me into buying a couch.

  22. Jules says:

    @ !wanda:

    Wristwatches can be really cheap, but I want one that will last and last and last, barring the odd battery change, as well as match most of the outfits that I’m wearing (vanity and professionalism prohibit me from buying the Little Mermaid watch from the kids’ section)–even though I don’t have to dress nicely at the lab, a pink and frilly piece at a funeral would just seem a bit out of place…

  23. Daisy says:

    I agree! I’ve realized this recently while having a negative experience over a book I bought. It created so much guilt and stress. This has definitely curbed my spending on “needs”. I just need to remember the experience, and the impulsive feelings just go away!

  24. Debbie says:

    Great post. I always think about how many hours I’ll have to work to pay it off with my NET pay. Most of the time it just is not worth it to have to work that many hours for an item.

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