Featured, Financial Psychology, Saving

A Guide To Buying What You Actually Want

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Growing up, my mom was a huge fan of the “this will do” purchase. If there were 2 pairs of jeans, one on sale, the other not, she always opted for the one that was on sale. Never mind that the two weren’t the same cut, the same color, or that the more expensive one fit better. She was a frugalista (read more about my mom’s frugality hacks here). She knew how to make it work.

This worked for me while growing up because I wasn’t a picky child. Sure there were times I had a preference or wanted to buy a $10 graphic tee that wasn’t on sale (damn, back “in the day” graphic tees were only $10?!), which was indulged every so often by my mom, but the majority of the time, we only shopped the clearance rack.

I pretty much wore whatever my mom bought me. Inevitably, I caught the fashion bug in college. Suddenly, my mom’s picks weren’t good enough, and I ventured alone into the fast fashion retail world. The only issue was I was still using the “this will do” mentality, when the very fact that I wanted to break free of my mom’s choices proved that wasn’t going to work.

I made many a bad purchase. One that stands out in my mind is this horrendous yellow scoop neck top with a chiffon bow that did not go with my skin tone at all. But I bought it because it was on sale and it was cute…

This Will Do/Make It Work/Good Enough Mentality

You can walk out of Forever 21 with 5 clearance items that seem to fill gaps in your closet. Maybe you see a couple summery blouses that look cute on the rack that are dirt cheap and think “these would be great for summer and I’m sure I have some skirts they’ll go with!”

The issues with these purchases is that I’m thinking “I’ll make this fit into my life”. I don’t have a specific role or plan for it. It’s just so cheap or so cute [on the rack] or such a good deal (fell for this one more times than I’d like to admit) that I must have it! I just have a loose plan based on a 1 second snapshot of how I think it could fit with the things I already own.

You aren’t Cinderella’s ugly step sisters! The shoe ain’t gonna fit, just accept it.

But I’m Saving Money, What’s the Big Deal?

If I buy a top on sale, I can’t just say, “I’ll wear it with a skirt or even just a pair of jeans!” If I make a non-specific plan, I’m not going to realize that the color doesn’t go with any skirts I own. Or that it’s too long to actually wear with jeans. Or I’m not going to realize that the top is high maintenance, easily wrinkled, and I hate ironing, so then I’ll never wear it.

This isn’t necessarily an argument for quality vs quantity. It’s about buying the item you have a plan for, the item you’ll make use of. There are plenty of wrinkly tops at high fashion retailers. And there are plenty of non wrinkly tops at Forever 21.

This also isn’t an argument for buying only what you need. If we just bought what we need, well, we probably wouldn’t even be having this problem! Technically anything will work…But the entire point of financial freedom is being able to freely enjoy things you like, regardless of if they’re a want or need. The point is, don’t buy what you don’t even want.

How to Buy What You Actually Want

Be Brutally Honest With Yourself

Think of your needs. You have to ask yourself what really prevents you from using something. This differs for everyone so you have to be really honest with yourself.

I HATE cord management. I will buy something and not use it if I know I have to waste my time getting cords untangled and set up. That’s why if I’m buying any electric appliance, I make sure there’s some sort of cord management. I use my cordless vacuum cleaner SO MUCH MORE then I would ever use a corded one. It’s just easier to take out of the closet and get going with.

Some people are the opposite of me, maybe they hate having to take out the battery of a cordless vacuum and charge it! It all depends on YOU, which is why it’s really important to know yourself.

Other examples: I’m lazy and need to be comfortable–I hate ironing. I rarely dry clean. I hate stiff pants. I hate tops that feel tight around my shoulders. I hate kitchen appliances that have multiple pieces that need disassembled to be cleaned.

I need clothes I don’t need to iron, dry clean, and that are reasonably comfortable. I once bought a pair of jeans that fit really well, they made my butt look great, they made my waist look small, and they were on sale. Check, check, check. But they were really stiff. I dreaded wearing them and so when faced with the reality they’d be uncomfortable every morning, I never chose to wear them over other jeans I owned. The list goes on.

Does It Fit Your Needs, How? Make a Friggin Plan!

A Shopping Dealbreakers checklist or note in your phone about the above (read: your needs) may be helpful to remind you of your Must Haves when you’re making a purchase.

Beyond making sure it passes your Dealbreakers, you should make a very specific reason for purchase. How will you use the purchase? Does it need some other condition to be met to use it? What’s going to stop you from using it?

Buy It At The Time You Need It +/- A Sale Searching Period

I’m someone who used to be really tempted by end of season sales. The end of winter is the best time to buy winter clothes for next year, and the end of summer is the best time to buy for the following summer. Yes, there are great savings to be had everywhere!

The issue with shopping this way is we constantly fool ourselves into thinking we have a purpose for some item. We even get to put off the question of how exactly we’re going to use it since we buy it an entire season ahead of time. By then, the high of the purchase is long gone (along with the intention to put the item to use).

I rarely specifically shop sales anymore for this exact reason. If I already have something bookmarked in my mind, I’ll wait 2 weeks – 1 month to stake out a deal that’s good.

I buy a little closer to retail price because I don’t wait until something is on absolute clearance. I wait for a coupon or smaller sale with the guarantee that I’ll actually use the item when I have a clear purpose for it.

The One You Use Is The One That’s Worth The Money

I think we’ve all been in that position where we really wanted something, but it was just a little out of our price range, so we ended up buying a cheaper version of it.

Sometimes this works out, and other times–probably most times–the fact that it wasn’t exactly what we wanted causes us to buy multiple cheaper versions of the same thing in hopes that all the different attributes we liked in the original will manifest in each cheaper one we bought. But none of them are “exactly it”. Just buy the one you want (within reason!) It’ll cost you less mental energy in the long run.

Don’t buy something for the sole reason that it’s cheaper or there’s a better sale on it.

Exhibit A

This weekend, I placed an order for 2 crop tops at Outdoor Voices (shoutout to Luxe Strategist for her referral code, not to mention her great post about this very topic!).

I went there for the 2 crop tops. I had sat on the decision to purchase these for weeks. But when I got there, I saw they had a crop top + legging kit for $100. The leggings alone were $70 and the crop tops are usually $50. It was a way better deal to get the combo! I can’t say I wasn’t tempted. I waffled for a good 10 minutes. But what was I going to do with these $70 leggings? I already have all the leggings I need/want.

Exhibit B

I owned a ridiculous number of laptops before my current Macbook Pro. I bought tons of laptops in the past that were on sale.

But I’m a power user–I run 30+ tabs at a time while photoshopping! Not to mention, I was trying to get into web development, and the ecosystem is infinitely easier to setup on a Mac compared to a Windows computer (this was a well known fact).

I have no idea why I kept buying these cheaper Windows laptops that didn’t work at all with what I needed them for. Ok I do, I just couldn’t swallow paying that much for a computer up front, and instead just bought 3 different laptops that were almost the same price combined anyways.

Last Notes

Don’t take free stuff you won’t use just because it’s free. Don’t buy something just because it’s cheap. Don’t force yourself to eat if you’re too full to finish just because you’re paying for it. Don’t force yourself to box up leftovers of a dish you absolutely hated just because you paid for it. These are still things I struggle with, but I’m much better about it. Buy what serves your exact purpose, whatever the purpose is. Period.

Do you struggle with buying what you actually want? What are you methods for combatting bad shopping habits?

Jing is currently a software engineer based in Oakland, CA. She left her job in New York, moved to San Francisco unemployed, and more than doubled her salary in 4 months.

8 thoughts on “A Guide To Buying What You Actually Want

  1. Yesss!

    This is something I’m *fairly* good at now, but have struggled with A TON. I still struggle with it regarding clothes for myself, but I’m going to put part of the blame on clothing manufacturers that seem to never design for my body type in mind. 😉

    Every time I catch myself having made a mistake, I try to think of it mindfully — not getting mad at myself for buying it in the first place. Like “Huh. These pants I bought just do not work. They seemed to work alright in the store, but they stretched out like crazy. I will have to be much more careful in the future.”

    1. Yeah I think it’s important to forgive yourself, learn, and move on. I used to get super stressed out whenever I was throwing things away blaming myself for not using them, but that did me no good at all!

  2. Thanks for the mention! The OV Kit is genius to get people to overspend. I thought about it, but decided I only needed one pair of leggings.

    To combat overspending, I usually put items on a Pinterest board and leave it be for a while. Sometimes I look back at it and think: WTF was I thinking? But over time, most of the want just kind of fades away by itself.

    I don’t really shop based on price alone, so I usually buy whatever I want, within reason. I do really get frustrated when I want something but I can’t find it anywhere. Like, I want an oversized blue striped button down, but all the ones I see have a detail about it that’s not quite right. So, in those cases, I just get mad at designers for not reading my mind and making what I want.

    1. The Pinterest trick is a great one! I have a similar technique–I made a bookmarks folder called DON’T [buy], and I bookmark everything in there so it just gives me the relief of forgetting about it.

      I started realizing the more I give the price the power over my purchase, the more I bought things that weren’t absolutely perfect. You have great self control to recognize the details that just don’t quite work for you! I’m great at convincing myself “that detail is so small it doesn’t matter”, but then of course it ends up bothering me later. Still trying to get good at this one 🙂

  3. Yes to all of these points!! I love shoes, but over the years, I’ve also realized that that’s ok. I’ve tried to be an extreme minimalist, but it’s never going to work for me because I just love shoes. Plus, I live in New England, so I have a genuine need for shoes for all the seasons ranging from waterproof snow boots to sandals.

    What’s really helped is me being incredibly picky about what I buy. I tell myself that if Mr. NavigatingAdulthood gives the ok that the shoes aren’t identical to ones that I already have in my wardrobe, then they have to have arch support, I have to be able to stand and walk for 30 minutes in them, AND they have to fit well.

    By doing so, I have a decent collection of shoes that are functional BUT I’m confident that I’ll actually wear them.

    1. YES! I used to have a serious shoe buying problem! I worked at a shoe store part time before I got my first job, and that did not help at all with all the employee discounts on clearance shoes…that turned into a lot of shoes that were not comfortable enough to wear. For every 5 I bought, there’d only be 1 that actually passed my mental threshold to wear =___=

      Your system of asking Mr. NA seems great–do you think you could sneak a few by since guys think all shoes look the same? 😛

    1. I’m a true convert! It just runs the way I need it to. Windows laptops may have fixed this by now, but the trackpads were completely unusable and jumpy/jittery from day 1!

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