Buying the best, when good enough will do

May 30, 2013

One of my challenges is the desire to buy the best when good enough will do.  I’m fairly analytical by nature, so I’m a thoughtful shopper for most items of consequence.  Like most people, the more costly or important the item, the more effort I put in to making the acquisition.  My level of effort may be more or less than yours for the same purchase, but I suspect that I’m closer to the detailed-oriented end of the shopping spectrum than most.

Note that I’m not talking here about buying something that isn’t really required.  That’s a different issue (see My Struggle with Stuff).  I’m referring to buying something that is required, but buying it bigger, better, or otherwise greater than I really need.  I can think of many cases when I’ve done this, though there are perhaps more that I’m not yet prepared to admit to myself.  e.g. Buying a 60-inch television when a 50-inch television would have been more than sufficient.  Buying a new washer and dryer both with the latest and greatest steam feature, something that I don’t fully understand and to the best of my knowledge that we’ve never used.  Buying a triathlon-specific bike when a road bike would probably have been adequate.  There are many other examples.

When it’s happening, I am usually aware that I am choosing the deluxe option, but I somehow find it difficult to resist.  It is far too easy to rationalize my choice at the time of purchase and characterize it as being justified under the circumstances.  For example, ‘This item is better quality and will last longer’ or ‘It’s something that I’ll use frequently’ or ‘I don’t buy this item very often so paying a little extra isn’t an issue’.  It is impressive what hoops of dubious logic I can leap through in these situations.

Occasionally I’ll get feedback about my extravagant purchase decision.  Sometimes it comes from my wife.  Other times it arrives as a result of natural consequences.  In 2009 my wife and I trekked for 3 weeks in Nepal.  We purchased some high quality, expensive outdoor gear specifically for this trip, though we also intended to use it later.  Due to a delay in shipping our gear failed to arrive in Nepal in time so we were faced with outfitting ourselves in a single day with duplicate (and therefore redundant) equipment.  Through a combination of rentals and purchases, we obtained the minimum kit that we thought was required to complete the trek.  This last minute gear was more than sufficient and was superior to what many others (and specifically the Nepalese porters) wore on the same trek.  It demonstrated very clearly how our original purchases were more than was really required.  Now some of this might be attributed to hindsight (which is 20-20), but it made it apparent that we could have saved money by buying less costly items in the first place.

When I think about it rationally, not during buying fever, I believe that there are a few instances where ‘buying the best’ (or better than the minimum requirements) is justified:

  • where the additional features or quality are absolutely essential (e.g. any lesser item cannot satisfy the primary requirement that the item is intended to fulfill)
  • when safety of life and limb are at stake (e.g. a good rope for rock climbing)
  • when there is a real financial payback for the additional features  (i.e. one’s benefits are increased or costs reduced sufficiently to pay for the extra expense of the item over its life)
  • when there is a real financial payback for the additional quality (e.g. the item will last longer and delay the cost of purchasing a replacement long enough to lower the average usage cost per time period)

It is common to try to cast a non-qualifying purchase to fit one of these, or to justify it with convoluted but invalid rationalizations.

The book The Millionaire Next Door highlights the fact that most self-made, financially successful people understand these principles.  They typically buy high quality items, maintain them properly, and use them for a long period of time, resulting in a low usage cost per period of time (often lower than items with a lesser initial purchase price).

Of course, what one actually purchases (as opposed to what one desires to purchase) is partly impacted by how much money one has.  Everyone, including those afflicted with my condition, are limited by what we can afford or can finance.  Although this may put an upper ceiling on purchasing, it does not limit overspending on particular items.

Note that this challenge is worsened in those areas where items become obsolete quickly.  The latest gadget is almost always better, but it comes at a premium price and loses value quickly.  In these cases, buying more than is necessary comes at a high cost.

So, what are some of the things I do to try to tackle this challenge?

  • Don’t rush major purchases.  Like the old adage ‘sleep on it’, take time to confirm that the item is really required and that the purchase is justified.  Today’s must have items, if not purchased immediately, often turn out to be less than essential.
  • Learn to delay gratification (no, this is not a sex manual).  Often another solution to the requirement will develop.  e.g. I find that sharing my desire with friends will often result in a creative alternative solution being suggested.
  • Evaluate my purchases carefully.  Differentiate between needs and wants (more information on this in My Struggle With Stuff).  Satisfy the real needs and be thrifty when spending on wants.
  • Consider price in the evaluation.  Feature for feature, the most expensive item will often win out, but not when the extra cost is considered.  Benefits-for-the-price should be evaluated instead.
  • Do those things that can result in avoiding the purchase in the first place (see Some Things I’m Doing About My Struggle With Stuff).
  • Save money on inconsequential purchases so as to be able to afford (with full consciousness) the occasional splurge purchase.  Note that there needs to be some hard limit on this loophole as I can always justify why I need to splurge ‘this time’.

Do you share my challenge of buying something better, when something good enough will do?  What do you do about it?


The Best and Worst Kinds of Tourism

December 4, 2011

The Best

  • Getting off the tourist track. Often this only requires a few steps, but finding the right ones can be difficult.
  • Eating what the local people eat, street food, what is fresh, or what is recommended by your server.
  • Free coat checks in museums.
  • Free wi-fi at McDonald’s.
  • Morning markets with fresh local ingredients sold directly by farmers.
  • Meeting local people who don’t want to sell us something.
  • Meeting travelers and sharing experiences.
  • The kindness of strangers.
  • Talking with children who think we’re something exotic.
  • Picnics with wine.
  • Watching the sun set while talking with a loved one.
  • Learning about the history, art, and culture of the places we’re visiting.
  • Walking randomly through a city to absorb its ambiance.
  • Enjoying coffee at a sidewalk café and watching the world go by.

The Worst

  • Carrying around an iPad (which is fine), but then holding it up to use it as a camera.
  • Audio guides turned up so loud that those nearby can’t hear themselves think.
  • Churches that charge for admission. The reason they built these grand monuments in the first place was to attract people to the faith. In general I give these a miss, unless there is a compelling reason to visit (e.g. Rome).
  • Churches that provide free admission for the faithful, only to sequester them in a tiny area, while the majority of the church is overrun by tourists.
  • People who talk in churches, requiring periodic announcements on loudspeakers, “Ssssssssssssss….. Silencioooo. No talking please”. Although talking can distract people at prayer, I’m sure that these amplified admonitions, like an ethereal voice from above, have the same effect.
  • People who take photos in churches when it is forbidden.
  • People who dress inappropriately in churches.
  • 17 countries in 12 days
  • Being forced to exit through the gift shop
  • Charging money to use a bathroom. Especially the gas stations that charge a hefty fee rather than a token amount, then in false compensation provide a gift certificate not quite large enough to buy anything in their shop, almost requiring one to spend even more money. Who knew that elimination could be a marketing opportunity?
  • Having to register or show identification to use the Internet anywhere in Italy due to terrorism paranoia.
  • An Italian pizza in Venice topped with French fries and segments of hot dog.
  • “I don’t know what it is Martha, but git a picture of me with it anyhow”

Things we like about travel

September 22, 2009

In addition to the challenges associated with extended travel, there are a lot of terrific things also. We want to highlight some of these also, in case they’re not obvious from our stories, to keep things in perspective. So here they are in no particular order…

  • Spectacular locations – From the deserts of Jordan and the forests of Uganda to the plains of the Serengeti and the peaks of the Himalayas.
  • Amazing experiences – Many of these we’ve recounted in the blog, and others we’ll share when we return.
  • Meeting other travelers – We’ve met some interesting people along the way and made some friends.
  • Meeting local people – Opportunities for this are more limited than we’d like. We try to find opportunities for this whenever possible, like eating in the restaurants where locals eat, traveling on local transport, etc.
  • Interacting with the children – Diane has a lot of fun playing with local children who generally haven’t been conditioned to fear strangers like in North America.

  • Continuous summer – Since we’re traveling in hot countries, it’s always warm, except when we deliberately go to colder places. A by-product of this is that we spend more time outside in nature.
  • Accomplishment – We’re doing some things that we’ve wanted to do for a long time and achieving the things we choose for ourselves on this journey, all while overcoming the challenges associated with traveling independently in the Third World.
  • Learning about and experiencing rich and diverse cultures – We’ve learned a lot about the countries and the people where we’ve traveled, including their customs and religions, and also about the homelands of some other travelers.
  • The food – tasting the different cuisines, especially in India.

  • Things are so interesting – Every day is a new adventure. Even if we haven’t planned anything, every day is interesting. Just wandering the streets is usually fascinating.
  • Time to read, reflect, and plan – finding time for these can sometimes be difficult when things get busy at home. Although these should be a priority in our lives, they tend to get displaced with more urgent things.
  • The cost of things compared to Canada – We have the opportunity to see and do some amazing things at prices which, although high by local standards, are cheap by Canadian norms. Rooms in India are basic, but typically about $10 Canadian (C) per night. Food is also cheaper, and even a nice meal with seafood and beer costs about $10C for both of us. If we eat local food, the quality of which is generally very good in India, in a local restaurant, it can be as little as $2C for both of us.
  • Cheap beer – About $2-3C for 2 bottles, and we’ve heard it’s even cheaper in South-East Asia!
  • Life seems less complicated – We rely only on the possessions we carry on our backs. As a result, it’s not difficult to choose what to wear each day. There are very few commitments to keep, so we have great flexibility on how we spend our time.
  • No commuting – our day starts wherever we happen to be.
  • We walk every day – except when we choose not to.
  • We waste a lot less time watching television
  • Awareness – we’re more aware of our surroundings, and we take delight in the small things.
  • Being together – To be honest, before leaving home, we weren’t sure how we would handle being together 24×7. We’re pleased to say that things are going very well. We still have disagreements, but no more frequently than we did at home. We are closer now than before we left.
  • There is no grass to cut and someone else washes the dishes!