So What DO You Buy? – Questions to Ask Before Making a Purchase

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

That’s my frugal mantra. Even though my family has been featured in the media a bit lately for not buying clothingChristmas gifts, or other unnecessary things, there are some things that we do buy. I thought I’d devote a post to the things that we’ve deemed necessary in our own lives as well as some of the questions we ask ourselves when making purchases.

Needs.

We’ve learned the difference between wants and needs. This means the basics like toilet paper, wipes (though we’ve started using “reusable wipes” in the form of cut-up T-shirts part of the time), and soap. One person’s needs may be another person’s luxuries. Try to be honest with yourself. Many people view a car as need. Some families view two or three cars as a need, whereas lots of people don’t have cars where I live. Even if the car (or fleet or cars) stays, let’s at least be honest and call it what it is. Let’s think outside the box when assessing our wants and needs and come up with creative solutions to problems.

Groceries.

We do eat. While some frugal people are great gardeners and can almost sustain themselves on their harvests, I’m not a gardener. I buy my food at the grocery store. But if you’re into cows, chickens, and gardens, more power to you! You rock! I do what I can to minimize our grocery bill by eating mostly vegetarian diet consisting of oatmeal, rice, legumes, and spices that we buy in bulk. The remaining fresh fruits and veggies are purchased weekly, in accordance with the seasons (because eating what’s in season is not only healthy, it saves us money too!) We also don’t buy expensive “health superfoods,” supplements, or sweets. We stick to a *mostly* real food, homemade diet. Desserts are reserved for birthdays and holidays. Alcohol is a special treat that I allow myself but try to enjoy frugally in moderation. It’s a little more work for me to make everything from scratch, but the savings and health benefits have been quite noticeable for our family.

Replacements.

When we actually do use things up or break them, we replace them with a clear conscience. It’s not as exciting as buying new things, I’ve found. When replacing things, I go to the store and I buy that one item and leave. There’s no “browsing” or the “thrill of the hunt.” I don’t allow impulse items to jump into the cart. In the past year we’ve had to replace a couple things: a faucet, a toilet, a blender, a tea kettle, and a crock-pot to name a few. The frugal, minimal rule I have is that I must actually get rid of the old one so that it doesn’t just become clutter. One in, one out. And it keeps me honest. If the old one is still too good to get rid of, then maybe I don’t actually need a replacement yet.

Investments.

I’m not just talking about investing in stocks and index funds. I’m talking about the little, everyday investments as well. Sometimes we have to spend money in order to save money in the long run. It’s good stewardship. It’s responsible. We try to invest in our health, as you can’t even put a number value on that. We also invest a little in our car and our home by practicing regular preventative maintenance. Maybe it’s buying a tool so that we can always install our own faucet. Maybe it’s insulation that will save us money on our energy bills. These purchases aren’t exciting, but they’re part of being an adult and taking care of what we’ve been given.

But what about everything else? We honestly don’t buy much else anymore. But here’s some questions that I like to ask before buying anything that doesn’t fall into the categories above.

Questions to Ask Before Buying Anything Else:

  1. Can I get by without it?
  2. Do I already have something similar?
  3. Do I need to own it or can I borrow one instead?
  4. Do I need this now or can it be delayed?
  5. Is this an impulse buy or something I planned on ahead of time?
  6. Do I want this mostly because other people have it?
  7. How much of my identity is tied into having this particular item?
  8. Does it fix a problem that I have? Does it fix more than one problem?
  9. Does it have a warranty?
  10. Is it well-made?
  11. Is it ethically-made?
  12. Can I learn to make one myself?
  13. Can I ask for this as a gift later rather than buy it for myself now?
  14. Does the store have a good return policy if this item doesn’t work out?
  15. Will I still want this item tomorrow?
  16. Is this the best price I can get on this item?
  17. Do I actually like it?
  18. Will it look as good in my home as it does in the store? (Or on me?)
  19. Will it enrich my life in some way?
  20. What else could this amount of money buy?
  21. How many hours did I have to work in order to pay for this item?
  22. Does it have resale value or will it instantly depreciate?
  23. Will it clutter my home?
  24. Will it add functionality or beauty to my life?
  25. Will it save me time?
  26. Will it somehow enrich my life through the experiences it provides?
  27. Am I willing to research and read multiple reviews of this item?
  28. Am I willing to look for a used one first?
  29. Am I willing to sleep on it before deciding?
  30. Can I actually afford this item? Meaning, can I pay cash for it today?

After you’ve asked yourself these questions, you might be so exhausted that you simply give up and decide to think about it later. You might throw your arms up and lament “This isn’t fun anymore!”

But here’s some wisdom I’ve recently learned: Shopping isn’t really supposed to be fun. Shopping is a chore that marketers have spent a lot of time and money on making more fun (and addictive.) 

When I stopped shopping for fun, I noticed huge savings.

I’ve gone back and forth on the idea of getting a tattoo for a while now, and I keep asking myself this set of questions. A tattoo is pretty clearly a want, not a need. It’s something I see on other people, it’s something I like the look of, and I feel like it’s a way for me to express myself. So far I haven’t convinced myself. In the meantime, I’ll just keep delaying it. There’s no point in rushing out the door to get one. I might never get one. And that’s perfectly fine.

What about you? Are there purchases that you’re on the fence about currently? What questions do you ask yourself when you make a purchase? Do you think of shopping as fun or as a chore?

Artwork by Xizi Liu.

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2 Comments

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  1. I loved this post! My husband and I are recently debt free–and after years of working hard and being frugal, I was surprised and disappointed with myself how quickly we fell back into the consumer mindset as soon as we gave ourselves a bit of wiggle room. Old habits really do die hard. You are right, shopping needs to be looked at like a chore–not as a way to pass time, or bring fleeting joy. I have a feeling I will be printing out your “Questions to Ask” for future reference 🙂

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