Stop Buying Crap You Don’t Need
How I curbed my spending habit
Buying new things is fun, but each item should have a meaningful purpose
Shopping is literally addictive. Dopamine could be described as the “pleasure” chemical in the brain.
Dopamine levels increase during sex, gambling, drug use, and shopping. This is why you get a thrill after a purchase, and why shopping addiction is a real phenomenon.
My old habits
I have a lot of stuff that sits in a junk drawer. Countless phone cases, random gadgets from Amazon, and cycling gear I’ll never use.
I actually bought a new phone I didn’t need and went on to regret it. My iPhone SE was my favorite phone. It was tiny, powerful, and did absolutely everything I needed. One day, I noticed the battery started to struggle.
Instead of doing the responsible thing and paying $60 for a new battery, I started looking for a new phone. Within 2 weeks I had a new Google Pixel 3. Sure, I could’ve purchased the new iPhone X to stick with the Apple experience, but I wasn’t able to spend $1000 on a phone at that point in my life. I snagged the Pixel 3 for $450 and all seemed well.
The initial dopamine hit from the new phone was great. I went home, set it up, and learned all the new features and quirks. The honeymoon phase of a new product is great, until it isn’t. It didn’t take long for me to miss my iPhone SE.
Don’t let a small problem turn into a bigger purchase
I’m sure we all have done this at some point to varying degrees:
- A suspicious noise and balding tires can lead to a new car
- Leaking pipes can into a whole new sink and vanity
- Dwindling storage leads to a new computer
- A broken zipper turns into a new jacket
Sometimes when I’m biking to work in the pouring rain thoughts start to creep in to my head. Thoughts like: “I should just buy a car”.
My subconscious knows better. I should not buy a car. My fiancé has a car when I need it, and I can always catch an Uber or take public transit if she’s not around.
A car might solve some of my current problems, but would add a whole new set of issues and expenses. I’d have to cut other things out of my life to realistically afford a car. In the end it just wouldn’t be worth it.
New things don’t always fix problems, they just create different ones
There is typically a more sensible solution available. Buying a new product should be the last resort. Maintenance is typically a better option.
- A new phone battery would have been $60. Instead, I bought a new phone for $450
- Repairing a transmission costs $300 to $1400
- Replacing a transmission costs $1800 to $3400
- The average used car costs $21,000 and the average new car costs $37,000
Do the math: even the most expensive car maintenance is a fraction of the cost of a new car.
1. Identify the problem
When identifying the problem, make sure you are specific. In my case, I didn’t accurately identify the problem. I told myself the problem was that I needed a new phone.
The real problem was that my battery wasn’t lasting as long. The former only had one solution: a new phone. The latter gave me a second option: Replace the battery.
2. Work backwards to find potential solutions to the problem
Brainstorm from different angles. If your car is making noises, you may need help from a professional to identify the problem.
Once you know what the problem is, you need to figure out solutions. These solutions may be repair the issue, replace the problematic part, or maybe it’s an un-fixable issue. Well now you have options.
3. Ask yourself: “Will this purchase improve my life?
For any product you plan to buy, the answer should be “yes”. For example, I just bought a pair of new wireless headphones.
I have devices with different wired ports, and my old wireless headphones did a poor job of connecting to my various devices. The result was that I needed to carry multiple pairs of headphones with me and charging cables. Of course, the charging cable was different from both my iPhone and iPad. This meant I needed to have three types of chargers with me at all times.
The new headphones use the lightning cable, and switch between all of my devices seamlessly. I now only carry 1 pair of headphones and only need two charging cables in my bag.
They made my life easier, and therefore, better.
4. If the product improves your life, then ask “is the cost worth the benefit?”
This part is less tangible. For me, the cost of the new phone was not worth the benefit, but it was for new headphones I recently purchased.
Right now my job as a physical therapist involves treating many patients via telehealth with my iPad. I work in a busy clinic with a lot of background noise, and it’s nearly impossible to do well without headphones.
I recently had a day when my wireless headphones died, and I had to complete all my sessions with wired headphones.
This meant I wasn’t able to effectively demonstrate motions or exercises to my patients. When I backed away from the screen to demonstrate, I had to take out my headphones.
My patients had a hard time hearing me, and I couldn’t hear them because the headphones were sitting on the ground. I had to go back and forth between demonstrating and listening, and the patients had to repeat themselves frequently.
A new patient could easily be turned off by this experience and choose to not come back and see me. The loss in potential revenue from that patient is higher than the cost of new headphones.
Therefore, for the headphones improved my life, and the cost was worth the benefit.
I realize my strategy will not work for everyone. I’ve come across some other strategies for frugality that work well.
1. “Don’t buy something unless you can afford to replace it.”
This saying is good advice, but it’s hard to follow.
The majority of Americans are struggling just to get by, so how can anyone expect to have twice the money they need for making a purchase? This strategy only works for those with the flexibility to delay purchases or put money aside.
Another version of the same strategy exists: if you plan to treat yo’ self to something nice, put some money into savings with that purchase.
For example, if you buy something over a certain price, put 50% of the cost into savings or your retirement fund. You can also put away a pre-determined dollar amount instead of a percentage. Even if the amount is small, putting some money away is better than nothing.
This version offers more flexibility, but it can get messy if you start to change the rules on yourself. It’s best to pick a strategy and stick to it.
2. Track your spending carefully.
Writing down your expenses each month is simple and effective.
Self-reflection is powerful. We’ve seen this in effect elsewhere: when people write down everything they eat, these lose twice as much weight as people who didn’t.
In my life I have found the same principle applies to spending. It’s easier than ever to track spending habits with budget features built into banking apps. Third-party apps like Mint are great as well.
My theory behind this is that we simply forget- or choose to block out- poor decisions.
When you force yourself to review spending habits, the numbers look a lot higher. Remember buying that ab-blaster on Amazon 2 weeks ago? Or if you spent $60, $37, and $49 at different times, it final number looks a lot bigger. Spending money in 3 locations makes $146 seem a lot smaller than a lump sum payment.
3. Intentionally Delay a Purchase
If you’re looking to buy something new, wait a little bit. This especially applies to online shopping.
Have you ever put something you your cart, closed your eyes and clicked “buy now”?
Me too. Stop doing it. I know, its addictive, but impulse purchases online are a problem.
When you have an item in your shopping cart, close the tab on your computer. Go do something else, and come back tomorrow. If you’re feeling extra productive, go through my checklist and decide if you really need this purchase.
Even if you delay all of your purchases by just a few hours, you’ll re-think some of them and end up spending less money. The longer you wait, the more effective this strategy becomes.
These strategies not complicated, and they probably are not new for most people. But a simple change can make a big difference.
To make a meaningful purchase it must be deliberate. For some, shopping addiction is a real clinical issue and requires more help. But for others, simply thinking more about each purchase can help curb some bad habits.
Before buying something new, take a minute to go through this checklist. You’ll end up with less buyer’s remorse and more money in your pocket for things you really care about.