Shopping Smart

The 8 Essential Questions I Ask Myself Before Making a Purchase

By | Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Whether your goal is to manage a tight budget or to practice some financial restraint, strictly scrutinizing the items you purchase is key. The items we purchase can say a lot about us: our financial positions, our personal styles, the stages of life we are in…

Taking a hard line with your spending habits is a great first step in achieving overall financial health. For me, these are some the essential questions I ask to ensure a potential purchase passes muster:

1. What for?

Temptation is everywhere. You ever notice how easy it is to go into a store for one thing and somehow your cart/basket/arms are loaded down with several other items you just picked up? My kryptonite is the dollar section at Target. “Hell yeah, I need this cute seasonal thing! Into the cart you go!”

But before I pull the trigger on a purchase, I have to ask myself, What exactly is this for? Is it a work expense? Is it a little piece of home décor? Is it a candy bar? But, most importantly, Is this necessary? With every item, be sure to be honest with yourself about what the precise purpose of this is. If it’s a new folio for your work documents because your old one has a busted spine, maybe go with it. If it’s another felt pumpkin that looks like all your other felt pumpkins, maybe put it back. Don’t just look at the function of the individual item — ask how it works in YOUR life.

2. Do we have one?

I’m a sucker for drink-ware. Don’t ask me why I’m obsessed with glasses and pitchers and carafes, but I am. I love glasswork, and it is so easy to enter a store and become pulled in by the cute wine glasses or the novelty beer steins and so on. Nine times out of ten, when I pull a pitcher off a shelf, I try to brush aside the fact that I have two different ones at home already.

I try to convince myself that this one is a different shape and, therefore, I must have it (because I throw so many garden parties on my little apartment balcony….). Defer back to Question One, “What is this for?” If the function of whatever you’re holding in your hand is the same as something else you already have at home, put it back on the shelf.

3. How often?

How often am I really going to use this? I recognize that some items and purchases don’t really fit into that “everyday living” category, but it’s still a good foundation to start on. Especially with apparel, it is essential to ask yourself “How often?” My personal style is 1970s glam, and I love wacky pieces and vintage finds and could blow an entire paycheck and pack an entire closet with aesthetic. But the majority of my week is spent in a law office downtown. I need that closet space (and sweet, sweet paper) for things like blazers and dry cleaning those blazers. Even a piece of cheap, fast fashion needs to come with questioning the likelihood of how often you will wear it.

So many items come packaged with the idea of a “lifestyle.” Like particular fashion trends or some kind of specialty kitchen item or a piece of exercise equipment. There are plenty of things that we are tempted into buying because it will make it seem like we are “that person.” (Having a lot of stuff for entertaining made me feel like a proper Southern lady, capable of entertaining. It did not change the fact that I am a very busy individual who likes to be left the hell alone 95% of the time.)

4. Why this?

I hate this one. This could also double as “Calling yourself out.” I remember shopping for my first apartment and absolutely having my heart set on these designer mixing bowls. They were chic AF and were made by my favorite designer. I tried over and over to convince myself (and my mother, who was graciously helping me out with some purchases) that I needed these bowls because, clearly, the price tag was an indicator of their high quality. They had already passed the “How often” test, because I was a big baker. But, at the end of the day, I knew that they were just going to get beat up with a lot of use, that there were just-as-cute and much cheaper options out there, and that the only thing I really and truly liked about them was the designer label.

We’re shallow creatures sometimes. We all have weaknesses and things we get suckered into. It’s so easy to fall in love with something and convince yourself that if you only had this

Take it from me. Take the step back and be real with yourself on why you think it has to be this exact thing. More often than not, the cheaper alternative will suddenly seem much more attractive.

5. Where?

As in “Where is this going to go?” Recently, my parents were faced with the fact that they would soon be empty-nesters and are looking to downsize from a 5,000+ square foot home to something more manageable. One of the biggest anxieties this created in my mother was “What am I going to do with all this stuff?” In my own small apartment, I appreciate that space is a precious commodity. My cabinet space is limited. I have to choose between getting another cool piece of furniture in or having more room to move about comfortably. And there are only so many surfaces on which to set trinkets.

When shopping, the first thing I have to consider is the physical space the object will occupy in my home.  Where will it go, and what do I have to give up to free up that real estate? There’s no better way to scrutinize a purchase. And it guarantees that you are buying with intention.

6. When?

This concept is a little more nuanced in that it asks, “When is the right moment in time for this?” I have written in other pieces before about the impulse we have as first-time homeowners/first-time apartment dwellers/young professionals to bring our life to a polished and completed state as quickly as possible. We have all grown up socially aware of the trappings of success and independence. You want to invest in that “adult” bedroom set (or whatever it is that has been calling to you) but you might not be in the right place. Maybe you don’t have enough space to really appreciate it. Maybe you don’t have a partner yet, and you’re looking to choose a lifelong piece that you will share someday. Maybe you’re just young.

My parents tell me their rags to riches story over and over, and one of the key things impressed upon me is the importance of letting things come in due course. Look at your finances honestly, and consider significant purchases in the long term. Don’t let your desire and ambition overcome the fact that in a few years you will be able to afford this thing more comfortably.

7. How long?

Intention, intention, intention. Purchasing with intention is my golden rule. Buy things that will last. I’m from the South originally and have a very elegant British grandmother beyond that; the culture of heirlooms is a Thing in my life. Whenever I decide to make a purchase, there is the smallest, most sentimental twinge that reminds me, “Is this something a descendant of yours will cherish?”

The New York Times recently published a piece about the dissonance between aging parents with homes full of heirlooms and the children who don’t want them, so I understand that buying with my posterity in mind might be a less-popular concept. But longevity is applicable in any practical sphere. Buy quality clothing now, that you will get good long wear out of before it gets frayed and janky. When choosing items you hope to use for a long time, go with classic looks over trends so that the purchase will make sense over time. If the item in my hand is a flash-in-the-pan type purchase, it instantly goes back on the shelf.

8. You sure?

A last-minute double-check with your personal needs and financial position never hurt anybody!

Caitlin is a 1L year survivor and coffee shop haunt who splits her time between Los Angeles, CA and Austin, TX. When she’s not writing, Caitlin enjoys movies, yoga, and indulging her INTJ/Capricorn bend with research on her many academic passions.

Image via Unsplash

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