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Save Money by Questioning Your Purchases

Written by Nickel - 33 Comments

Today I just wanted to highlight an excellent comment that I recently received. In response to “Quit Shopping, Save Money,” a reader named ‘sekishin‘ said:

“When considering a purchase, picture a stranger offering you [the cash value of the purchase] or the item in question. Which is of greater value you? Which would you choose?”

This is a great piece of advice, and one that could save us all a lot of money. If someone walked up and offered to give you $1000 cash or that new HDTV you’ve been drooling over, which would you choose? If you’d rather have the cash, then you better think twice before trading your hard-earned cash for that shiny new TV.

The point here is that simply stopping to question your buying decisions can go a long way toward cutting down on frivolous expenditures. If the purchase is still worth it to you, and if you have room in your budget, then go ahead and buy it. If not, then you should turn around and walk away before you change your mind.

Do you have any tricks for stopping yourself from making spending mistakes?

Published on July 22nd, 2009 - 33 Comments
Filed under: Frugality

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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33 Responses to “Save Money by Questioning Your Purchases”

  1. 1
    Neal@wealth pilgrim Says:

    Yes indeed.

    I never thought of it this way – and it’s a great way to filter the “should I buy this or not” question.

    Basically, what this does is actually change the question entirely.

    If I ask myself, “do I want this?” the answer is likely “yes”.
    If I ask myself “do I want to buy this?” I get fewer positive responses – but still too many.

    And if I ask myself “Do I want to spend this money right now for this item?” the “yes” list gets even smaller.

    When you put the “value” question in, it’s even more powerful.

    A subtle yet powerful way to look at things. Thanks!

  2. 2
    Skeemer118 Says:

    I try to find balance so I won’t make myself miserable but I also won’t buy everything in sight.

    1) I try to ask myself if this purchase is worth one more month of being in debt. In other words, if I buy this now it is money I cannot put on a credit card.

    2) I also try to ask myself, what if something happened tomorrow? (I ask this because I tend to be focused & anal concerning the budget) What if we didn’t take that weekend trip to the beach & something happened to my spouse/mom/family? Family isn’t around forever & one trip to the beach for 2 days isn’t going to kill us financially.

    Some people may not agree with my second thought, but it works for us. Again, I want balance. I use coupons & cut our grocery bill by $150 this month. That’s the money we’ll be going to the beach on. Not a dollar more.

  3. 3
    Kevin@OutOfYourRut Says:

    Maybe the question should be simplified to ask: Will the QUALITY of my life be better with a new HDTV or and extra $1000? I’m not a big TV guy so the answer is easy.

    It might have been here or on another site, but the suggestion was made to wait 7 days on major purchases, that if after 7 days you still want to make the purchase then it’s probably the right thing to do. It’s a system to avoid impulse purchases that are later regretted. Also, it’s a chance to give cognative dissonance a chance to take effect before the purchase rather than after.

  4. 4
    LOL Says:

    What good is money if you don’t spend it? A handful of cash is only ‘worth’ what you can buy with it.

    If you asked yourself the question on each purchase, logically you would never buy anything because you will never be able to ‘resell’ the item for more than you purchased it for — so it is always better to take the cash, ALWAYS.

    The better question is, if I don’t purchase this TV for $1,000, would I find a better use for the money on a different purchase?

  5. 5
    MikeS Says:

    If the money is part of my allowance (my wife and I each get a set allowance every month), then I never ask whether I need it or not. If I want it and I have the money, I buy it. I can do whatever I want with my allowance, but once it’s gone, it’s gone.

    If the purchase is household related, I usually ask myself “Did I live without this item yesterday, can I live without this item tomorrow?”. If the answer is yes to both, then I don’t make the purchase.

  6. 6
    Cecer Says:

    I think about the dollar amount of the purchase and what portion of the work week it took me to earn this amount.

    If it takes me a month to earn the cost of the HDTV, is it worth the expense? If it takes me half a week’s earnings to buy a dress that I can only wear once, it definitely makes me reconsider the fruits of my labor.

  7. 7
    Brent Says:

    I have to make sure I don’t talk to my wife about it if I know its something we don’t need but we’ll both want. We’re bad about getting all excited together and buying stuff that we don’t need. I know I won’t be able to buy it without asking her so the longer I stew over it, the less likely I am to think its a good idea to buy it.

  8. 8
    V-Chip Says:

    I keep a sticker on my credit card that has a picture of a house on it. When I take out my card it reminds me that eveything I buy keeps me further away from that dream. It helps.

  9. 9
    Rosa Says:

    I don’t really value cash (I know, weird) so I do the “am I willing to work x hours to own this thing?”. Not usually.

    Experiences are different – they usually live up to their billing better than things do.

  10. 10
    Michael Says:

    Oftentimes, I equate the purchase with how much I make an hour.

    Like, this TV equals 40 hours of work.

    Usually then do I say nevermind.

  11. 11
    Aj Says:

    This is a good way to put it. I just spent some money on hair spray to make my hair look shinier when doing it myself at home. I think it useful because I can get the salon look at home. This is important since I am going through a bad financial time right now and I have job interviews to go on. I want to look polished at my interviews. At the same time, $5 extra would be nice right now. If someone would have offered me both, I probably would have taken the money and waited a little but longer for the spray.

  12. 12
    Jason Says:

    I often walk around the store for a while with the item in my hands (not a tv) and try to wear off the new-ness factor and the excitement factor. If after 10 mins of it in my hand I still want it and I’m still excited, I don’t mind buying it. But more often than not, I put it back. This works great with clothes.

  13. 13
    RB @ RichBy30Retireby40 Says:

    Controlling the URGE TO SPLURGE is one of our greatest difficulties. My system is to just go ahead and buy the darn thing, enjoy it, and return it in like condition. Instead of viewing the Credit Card as an evil consumption tool, I view it as my friend that allows me to borrow things I want for free. I write about it in my blog, and it has worked wonderfully.

    Rgds,

    RB

  14. 14
    Thomas Says:

    I delay grtification on buys (especially big ones). If I put it off a month, I find I put it off another month and so on. On some items, I never do get back to buying it.

    For some, it’s actually FUN to watch money grow, even if it means not having all the things I’d want. Accumulating wealth has become more fun than accumulating depreciating assets.

  15. 15
    Engineer@EADFL Says:

    Small things I just ask myself, do I really want this for 20 dollars or would I feel better if I put that 20 bucks towards debt. The adrenalin of paying off debt beats the 3 minutes of happiness I get from the product.

    I have found time and time again on large items that the best way to go, cars, mattress, whatever… is to sleep on it. A good nights sleep and 10 or 24 hours will always bring things into perspective.

    Stops any “shouldn’t haves” from coming up later.

  16. 16
    bunny Says:

    I’ve started doing this recently and I’ve found it very effective.
    I have even done it with friends and it has helped them make that final purchase decision (one friend: “I would definitely take the pants!”).

    I find it works better for me than equating it to work hours and the like. Possibly because I can’t work any more than I do; I can’t pop into the office for 3 more hours to pay for a new shirt.

  17. 17
    Joey Joe Joe Says:

    I use the rule of 50. If something is 50 dollars or under, I may buy it that day. For every 50 dollars over, I must wait one day:
    0-50 = immediate
    51-100 = wait 1 day
    101-150 = wait 2 days
    151-200 = wait 3 days

    And so on. Rarely is there anything that I NEED to buy that day that is over 50 dollars.

  18. 18
    adante Says:

    I’d take the money and defer my decision. If I later decide I want the item I can then purchase it with the money.

  19. 19
    George Says:

    no but I wish I had some to stop my wife…:)

  20. 20
    Kirk Kinder Says:

    Just being conscious of spending does make a huge difference. This applies to other areas as well. I remember talking to an efficiency expert once who worked with a doctor’s office. The doctor had several efficiency folks and coaches come in to help them reduce patients’ wait time in the waiting and examining room. No matter what they did the wait was too long.

    This guy told the admin folks to simply write down the time when a patient signs in and when they escort the patient to the examining room. They did it on a chalkboard that is visible to the entire staff. Just by seeing the time they moved the patients through much quicker.

    Same goes for spending. By thinking about every expense we can delay or reduce our expenses. You don’t necessarily need to be tracking your budget at all times. Just be cognizant of it.

  21. 21
    Mike S. @ Your Personal Finance Source Says:

    Wow that’s a great way to think about a potential purchase.

    When I’m shopping I always try to distinguish an item between being a “need” or a “want.” I also consider if there is anything coming up soon (trips, events, meetings) that would warrant the money I’d be spending now. Even for the littlest of purchases I will weigh the pros and cons.

    -Mike S.

  22. 22
    faust Says:

    the saying goes: don’t buy what you don’t need, or else you might end being broke, and regret later on…

  23. 23
    jbickford Says:

    This is probably something everyone’s already doing, but it just occured to me that when I really “want” something – the best thing to do is try to get rid of all the previous “wants” i no longer use/need.

    I hold on to a lot of Tech gear i don’t use anymore (think Palm Pilots, ect.). If I get $2 a piece, net of fees, on eBay… i only have to sell 10 things and i’ve already cleaned my closet.

    Not going to use them, over time it can offset or add up to my next “Want”…

    trying to be smarter… anyone else have success?

  24. 24
    Live for Improvement Says:

    The next time you see something that teeters on the fine line between impulse and necessity, try counting up to the total dollar amount in your head. The more expensive the item, the longer you will be counting. You might think twice before buying a $60 pair of shoes if you must first mentally count to sixty. Counting engages your brain in another activity, and removes your focus from the desired item.

    I am not saying that when you finish counting the purchase will magically become rational, but it is a good way create a pause long enough to encourage a rational descison.

    -Dan Malone-

  25. 25
    FB @ FabulouslyBroke.com Says:

    I usually wait a couple of days to buy it if the $$ is very large

    If it’s below $50, I stand there for half an hour and go through what I already have to see if I need it

    Then I assess quality, price, functionality and need.

    I’m pretty good at controlling myself now.

  26. 26
    MTNoob Says:

    To put a purchase into perspective, I do the following.

    Divide the purchase price by my hourly pay rate.

    Then I ask myself… Is this item worth x number of hours (or days/weeks) of my work?

    And then I make my decision.

    (Unless it is shiny, then I will just get it anyways)

  27. 27
    Vatu Says:

    I try to avoid making the decision to buy something alone.

    It always gives me a nice perspective on my needs to confront someone else with them too.

    And it helps me to get away from the immediate buying-situation!

  28. 28
    TJC Says:

    Hey all!

    In the case with the television impulse purchase, you really shouldn’t be racing off to buy one, unless your current TV just died or isnt worth the repair cost. I am currently sitting on a 27″ 2001 Zenith TUBE TV. When it goes, which will probably be soon, I will then buy a 37″ flatscreen… And I’ll find one for under $500..

    Do you need it or do you want it? Differenciating this, will save you $$, but be fair & truthful with yourself in your analysis.

    Peace

  29. 29
    Victoria Says:

    I love clothes shopping. I am especially weak if there is a sale or discount involved. One way to help curb my clothes shopping is I ask myself “if this item were full price would I want to buy it?” Usually the answer is no.

    Another way I look at things is I remind myself how long I have to work to pay for the item. I do not want to be working forever and would love to retire early but if I’m buying items I do not need, that will definitely delay that dream.

  30. 30
    Save Money Hound Says:

    I would definitely take the cash and put it in the bank to earn interest whilst you think about whether you have any real purchasing needs that you could use the money for. And i don’t mean buying the new HD TV!

    To avoid spending mistakes, especially big purchase items, have a “cooling down” period where you walk away from making that spur of the moment big purchasing decision.

    In a week’s time, see whether you feel the same way about making that big purchasing decision.

  31. 31
    George Says:

    Here’s the Granddaddy of all anti-consumption websites,
    http://www.verdant.net.

    It’s been around since the mid 1990’s. There are thousands of things here to save money, question consumption and most of all, arm yourself intellectually against the urge to blow money on crap.

    Check out the alternate economy page.
    Naturally since it’s an anticonsumption site there are no ads for anything.

  32. 32
    Ben M Says:

    Well, yeah… I just don’t buy stuff. With some practice, I think a person can really figure out the things that are important for them. I stay away from things like CDs and DVDs that I personally don’t use that much. Name brand crap just for the sake of having name brand things. If a guy/gal lets him/herself become a consumption sucker, the stores will sell you crap ALL DAY LONG.

  33. 33
    Kathryn K Says:

    Several helpful strategies have to keep me from trouble: 1) Did I want it before I walked into the store and saw it? 2) Since I’m out shopping, add up the dollars spent already today and remember how much cash is available to me now and what is coming due, too; 3)Remember again that load of trash that goes out every week? At one time, all that trash was a “purchased item” I had to have–so am I buying something that will carry “value” over time, too? 4) If I’m having to charge for the purchase, then the value of the item includes an interest charge (and penalties ?), too. 5)If I’m still looking at that chosen item, then I take a walk around the store looking at all the wares. Then I get tired of looking at everything and just go home. 6) I’ve lived long enough to see some of the “treasures” I had to have, but couldn’t buy, recycled though Goodwill. When I saw it again, I didn’t buy it, even when it was valued at pocket change.

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