Trying to frugally navigate our lives through a consumer-driven culture is not easy. We are presented with choices about if and what we should purchase multiple times per day. And we are so bad at saying “no” that the average U.S. household now has over 300,000 items. How do we even begin to deal with this?
The first thing we should do is question every purchase. Aside from basic essentials, no purchase in our lives should be considered a given. And no purchase should be assumed to be beneficial just because other people buy it. In this country, status quo and conformity are 2 quick paths to financial mediocrity (at best – and mediocre is close to zero here) or financial ruin (at worst).
So how do we become better and wiser consumer judges? What kind of questions can we ask ourselves that will help protect us from… ourselves?
I’m glad you asked! Here are 7 questions to ask yourself before every purchase that you can bookmark and refer back to until it becomes habit. If you have others – add to the comments.
1. “Is this an essential need?”
Labeling your purchases is extremely powerful. There are true essential needs: water, air, food, shelter, clothing (sometimes), community, basic hygiene, transportation, and health insurance. And that’s really about it.
Everything else is a “want” or “a want that we think we need”. And labeling it as such can get begin to remove emotion/endorphins at the moment of impulse and start to usher in rational thinking. It’s a start.
Note: you still need to use discretion even on the needs (i.e. healthy unprocessed food that you can buy from your local supermarket is a need, dining out at a 5-star restaurant is not).
2. “Can I even afford this?”
The answer is clearly “no” if you need to finance the purchase with a credit card or other debt. Beyond that, there’s a lot of gray area, and we’re generally really bad at judging.
3. “Could I use what I already have, make, borrow, or buy used and achieve the same benefit?”
If the answer to that is “yes”, you know what to do.
4. “How many hours (after-tax) in the past or future, do I need to work in order to pay for this?”
This can be a sobering thought – particularly for those earning low wages or when considering high ticket items. And if your income or wealth is so high that it isn’t sobering, consider if that money had instead gone to those in need, for something they needed (because that is a realistic alternative). Also – factor in total lifetime cost (including maintenance, etc.) – not just purchase price.
5. “Will I still want this just as much in a month?” (…and wait a month)
Delaying your purchases for a month (or longer) and seeing if you’re still as excited later on is an extremely effective tool that can help you realize you probably shouldn’t buy the item. One of a few things often happens when you do so:
- The endorphins that trigger impulsive purchases subside with time.
- You realize that life without the item really isn’t that bad after all.
- You find other things more worthy of your attention, time, and money.
6. “Will this truly add value to my life?”
We can be very poor judges at this – but it’s at least worth some reflection. Better yet – ask a frugal friend to be honest with you if they think it will add value to your life
7. “Will this still be adding value to my life 5 years from now?”
How many things have we bought thinking it will forever change our lives, only to completely forget about within weeks from purchasing? It’s valuable to reflect on this reality before adding to your stashes of lonely, once-desired junk.
I’m curious to hear what questions or reflections you habitually use to modify your purchasing behavior – please share in the comments!