In 2011, I sat down with my two oldest children and the three of us each made a list of things that we wanted for Christmas. I used it as a way to get some ideas to share with grandparents and aunts and uncles, but more than that, it was a way to get them to each practice using a pencil and to do something together with them.
A few weeks ago, I found those lists that we had each made. They were stowed away in a file folder in the filing cabinet next to the desk where I work each day. It was fun reading through the children’s lists, seeing their handwriting during the days when they were just mastering the basic motor skills to write.
Unsurprisingly, the things they wanted would probably be of no interest to them today. My daughter’s list included a few art supplies that she would probably still use. My son’s list? I don’t think he’d enjoy anything that was on it.
What was interesting, however, is that most of my list was the same.
My list mostly consisted of household items that we needed to replace. The items that fell outside of that category were almost entirely things that I would no longer want today.
The list touched on hobbies that I was into at that moment, but they didn’t really stick. The list included some books that I could have picked up at the library because, frankly, I didn’t need to own them. The list included a couple of tools that I ended up basically having no real use for.
It was a list of “wants” that seemed pretty urgent at the time, but turned out to not really be urgent at all. Nothing on that list (save a few items that fell under “replacing stuff we already use at home”) are things that I would spend my money on now or even want at this point.
The point isn’t that I’m bad at making a wishlist. The point is that our wants and desires change, sometimes faster than we think that they do.
I don’t actually have them, but I’m willing to bet that if I held in front of me a wishlist for each of my children and myself (and Sarah) from just a year ago, the majority of those items would no longer be of interest to any of us. Sure, there would be a few items that would stick around, but I would have a hard time guessing which ones those would be if I were to guess a year ago.
The items that lasted on my list were items that were completely reasonable to buy. If there’s an item of reasonable price that I still want after three years, then I probably should buy it.
The problem is that a want that lasts that long is exceedingly rare. In fact, if I were to write a list of the things I wanted three months ago, a significant portion of them would represent things that I no longer want.
Wants simply don’t last.
Books provide a great example of this. A book I wanted to read three months ago has a good chance of being a book I have little interest in reading now. My reading tastes will have moved on. A while back, for example, I was devouring books on political philosophy, but right now, I have very little interest in reading a book by Rousseau. If I had bought that book during the peak of my desire and not read it quickly, it would be gathering dust right now.
Even if I do read a book that I purchased, that doesn’t mean that it was a worthwhile purchase. There are a handful of books that I’ve purchased, such as Your Money or Your Life, that were well worth the purchase. I wanted them at that moment and I still “want” it now, in the sense that I still refer to it regularly.
Most other books I’ve purchased? Not so much. I read them once, have no reason to read them again, and my only real “want” regarding them now is to get them off our shelves and into the hands of someone else that might actually read them. Why did I not just check those books out at the library?
In almost every area of my life, the stuff I wanted even months ago don’t match up with the things I want right now. Thus, it makes sense to realize that the stuff I want right now will be of much less interest to me a few months down the road.
How is that useful? If I spend my money on something that I probably won’t want in a few months, then it’s a pretty poor expenditure. If I buy a book, read it, and just sit it on my shelf afterwards (eventually trading it or selling it), it’s probably a poor expenditure. If I buy an album, listen to it a few times, and then it ends up collecting dust in my glove box, it’s probably a poor expenditure. If I buy a board game, play it twice, find that it didn’t click with me, and it winds up in the recesses of my game shelf, it’s probably a poor expenditure.
As a frugal person, I want to be smart with my expenditures. How do I do that knowing this information?
If I want something, I usually wait. There’s no reason for me to have that thing now. It can wait for a while.
One way I often do this is to enter it into a price checking tool like Camel Camel Camel. That way, I have taken some kind of action regarding that desire – which usually takes the impulsive edge off of it – and I’m also setting myself up for alerts when the price on that item drops.
I regularly re-evaluate the wants for which I’m waiting. Once every few weeks, I’ll go through the items I have on Camel Camel Camel and ask myself if I still really want that item. If I do, I leave it in place… but more often than not, I end up deleting half of the stuff I’m tracking there.
Why? Many wants are short term things, and if I’m honest with myself, many of the things I wanted a month or two ago when I first added them are things that I no longer want today, so there’s no reason to keep tracking the price on those items.
Splurges and spontaneity are usually geared toward experiences, not stuff. I’m completely fine with spontaneity, but, in my eyes, spontaneity is problematic when it generates stuff that you then have to store and care for.
A spontaneous moment is one where you act purely on what you desire in that moment. When you buy stuff, that moment is extended, and not usually in a positive way. You wind up with items that you didn’t clearly consider in terms of their actual role in your life and that means, in all likelihood, they’re going to wind up on your shelves or in your closet gathering dust.
When you want to be spontaneous, go out to dinner. Don’t buy something that will take up space in your house. Go to a movie. Don’t buy something you’ll just wind up jamming in your closet.
I give myself a monthly “free spending” budget, forcing myself to wait on some of the wants. One big way to keep myself from buying stuff I want right now (but may not want down the road) is by simply capping my “free spending” each month. I allow myself only a certain amount of monthly “free spending” that I use for hobbies and personal entertainment, and when that runs out, I wait until next month.
This causes me to think more carefully about my purchases. For example, I buy this $50 item, I will probably not have any more money for fun things until next month, so I should think about that purchase. Why not just wait until next month to buy it? That way, I have money for the rest of this month if something comes up and, if not, I can carry the money forward and buy this item next month if I still want it.
A final thought: the more “lasting” wants that you fulfill, the less you want, period. Over the last several years, I’ve found that my actual wants are growing less and less and less over time. I still impulsively want things sometimes, but I’ve found that those impulses come up less often and they aren’t as strong. I don’t have nearly as many lasting wants, either.
Why? In my day-to-day life, I mostly have everything that I want. The things that I use and enjoy each day are already taken care of. There’s nothing really missing. So why do I need to spend money – which does nothing more than take away from the freedom that I dream of having – on things when I already have a pretty fulfilled life?
In the end, wants are temporary things, and being patient with them instead of acting on pure impulse helps you figure out whether or not that desire is a lasting thing or a temporary matter. If you throw your money into buying something that you want only in a temporary way, you’ll almost always regret it. Instead, if you just choose to wait a little while on all non-essential purchases, then really re-evaluate whether you still want the items, you’ll find yourself spending your “fun money” far more effectively than in the past.