We might not stop to think about it all that often, but we spend a large majority of our time as consumers. We shop and spend and use things up and get more things and – well – we consume. Consumerism and consumption aren’t inherently problematic but can be if the way we consume negatively affects our finances or mental health. The term shopaholic didn’t enter our vocabulary without cause, after all. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. This goes for obvious things like eating an entire cake in one sitting but it can be applied to all kinds of money related decisions too. To make sure you’re not hurting your financial health, here are 7 questions to ask yourself before making any purchase – big or small.
Can I really afford it?
This is an obvious question but also the most important one you can ask yourself before making any purchase. By this I mean – can you pay for this item in full today? If the answer is no, you can’t afford it. Anytime you need to finance something (outside of a mortgage or your education, within limits), that’s a clear indication that you aren’t truly in a position to make that purchase.
This might not be what you want to hear when you’re staring down a new iPhone or a cute top or a [insert life-changing purchase here], but it is the truth.
Even if you can technically pay for it now, there are still plenty of reasons why it may not make sense to buy it. You need to seriously evaluate why you’re considering the purchase if any of the following apply to you:
- Your current financial situation stresses you out
- You don’t already have an emergency fund of at least $1000
- You aren’t saving money every month to put toward either a short- or long-term goal (or both)
- You don’t have a retirement fund in place
- You have existing credit card debt
- You aren’t paying your credit cards in full each month
- You have other, non mortgage debt
Why do I want it?
Thanks to one-day shipping and a culture that thrives on immediate gratification, we’re very used to doing things and getting things right away. Basically, we want what we want and we want it now. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of time and space for considering why we want whatever it is that we want.
For many of us, at least a good portion of the time, our purchases are driven by emotions, not physical needs. That means we’re shopping to fulfill something inside of ourselves rather than something tangible. We unconsciously shop for items that will provide us not just use, but a feeling. Things that will temporarily bring us happiness or lower our stress or represent us in some way.
This isn’t innately a bad thing, but it is something we need to be conscious of when we’re trying to save money and reach financial goals. Overspending and unnecessary spending are absolutely problematic if they interfere with our own plans. That’s why it’s so important that we be mindful about not just what we shop for but also why we shop.
As yourself – what is its value to you? Is it filling a true need? This kind of questioning allows us to slow down our financial decisions so we can make smarter ones and reduce our impulse buying – the Achilles heel of financial security.
If it wasn’t on sale, would I still buy it?
Said another way, would you buy it at full price? If not, then you may need to give it a hard pass. Although there are certainly exceptions, spending $40 because something used to be $60 almost never makes sense.
Often, an item’s sale price doesn’t even reflect a true discount but is only a marketing ploy to convince you that now is the time to buy. (There’s a certain department store that is famous for marking their items up so that they can appear to be marked down.) Don’t be fooled.
Can I make do without it?
Do you truly need this particular thing or is it possible that you can use something similar in its place? If you’re wanting to buy a Phillips head screwdriver, then there’s a really good chance that you actually need a Phillips head screwdriver and that a similar substitute – a flathead screwdriver – just won’t cut it.
But let’s say you’re considering buying an activity tracker and you really want an Apple Watch. Can you use your friend’s hand-me-down Fitbit instead? Does your phone have similar capabilities? Are you sure you actually need to track your activities at all?
The following saying is great to keep in mind when working toward your financial goals:
Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.
Can I borrow it instead?
A hundred years ago or more, we used to live and die by the barter and borrow system, relying heavily on neighbors and friends as a source for our stuff. By and large, that just isn’t the case anymore. That said, there are still people willing to lend and share if you just take the time to ask (and, obviously, be awesome about returning said item on time and in the same or better condition than you received it in).
There are plenty of online platforms that you can look into as well. Finding what you need is obviously a lot easier when you have the internet’s help. Some better known sites to try include SwapStyle and ThredUp for clothing; ZipCar for transportation; and BarterOnly and U-Exchange for general items.
Is now the best time to buy it?
Certain items cost a certain amount and it’s unlikely that the price will change from one month to the next. Other items, however, do fluctuate in price throughout the year, often from one season to the next. If that’s the case, is it possible to delay your purchase until it costs less?
Here’s a quick breakdown of (generally) the best time to buy certain items, organized by month:
- January – bedding, linens, fitness equipment, televisions and other electronics.
- February – winter clothing and equipment, home goods and apparel.
- March – winter clearance, luggage, grills and tax preparation software.
- April – tires, vacuums, spring and Easter items.
- May – spring apparel, small kitchen appliances, computers.
- June – undergarments, furniture, and summer sports gear.
- July – personal electronics, home improvement, and anything patriotic themed.
- August – back-to-school clothing and supplies, swimsuits, and outdoor products.
- September – mattresses, iPhones, and appliances.
- October – outdoor furniture, jeans, and baking and candy items.
- November – electronics, major appliances, and pajamas.
- December – electronics, tools, toys, and Christmas decorations.
Is it in alignment with my values, priorities and goals?
Lastly, ask yourself if this purchase is moving you closer to – or further from – your priorities and financial goals. This is really the heart of the matter. The simple truth is that if you want to be debt free, another pair of shoes isn’t helping you get there. Shopping will not fill your retirement account or help fund your child’s education. No item is worth your time or money if it will later invoke guilt or regret.
Everything you do or buy results in a lost opportunity – in economics this is called “opportunity cost”. Essentially this means that money or time spent now can’t be used for other things. If you buy a $100 item today, you can’t use that $100 on anything else. You can’t also use it for 2 or 20 different items that perhaps you need more. You can’t invest it and watch it grow. When you decide on one course of action, you inevitably give up another.
Your time is limited. Your money is almost certainly limited as well. These are valuable resources that can be either leveraged in positive ways or wasted on activities and things that don’t align with what you truly care about or what you truly want. You have to decide what matters most to you and pursue that at the exclusion of all the distractions vying for your attention. If you have goals, work toward those goals. Ignore all the noise around you. Anything less is a disservice to yourself.
Questions? Advice to share? Let me know in the comments!