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?

Some Things I’m Doing About My Struggle with Stuff

May 12, 2012

I wrote previously about My Struggle with Stuff, my challenges with materialism, consumerism, and accumulation.  Apparently, I’m still thinking about it.  I really want to master my stuff, rather than the other way around.  Below are some of the things I’ve tried with varying degrees of success.  Note that I don’t claim to have any sort of mastery in this regard.  It is definitely a work in progress.  Although I’ve read a lot about simplifying one’s life, I still have a long way to go.

  1. Substitute experiences instead of buying things.  e.g. I go for a bike ride rather than buying something.
  2. Try to keep my home clean and organized such that everything has a place.  Accumulations of extraneous stuff then become apparent.
  3. Purge my home periodically.  I always keep a ‘things to get rid of’ box so that excess items have a convenient place.  At least once a year, we go through each room to remove anything we don’t want.  We purge our clothes twice a year with the changing of Vancouver’s two seasons (summer and wet).
  4. Hold a garage sale every couple of years.  Donate anything that doesn’t sell to charity — don’t let it come back into the house.
  5. Try to buy things used.
  6. Rent or borrow things that I’ll use infrequently.
  7. Shop less.  Never shop for recreation.  Shop with a list at specific stores where I buy consumable items, rather than those that accumulate.
  8. When I buy something new, get rid of the thing it replaces (or something else if that isn’t possible).  Ideally, nothing comes into our home without something else going out.
  9. And finally, I’m living for extended periods without my stuff.  Perhaps more than anything else, this reinforces that I’m don’t need most of the things that have accumulated in my life to be happy.

A particular challenge for me are things that I already own that have value but that I don’t use (e.g. furniture, antiques, art, and other collectibles).  Although we display some of these, the remainder sit gathering dust in the dark recesses of our home, unused and unloved.  I find it very difficult to throw them out away because they have value, but even harder to find them new owners.   Finding buyers requires non-trivial work.  Taking them to auction or selling them on Craigslist apparently requires more effort than I’ve been willing to summon.  And so they sit.

Do you struggle with stuff?  What are some of the things you do to manage it?


My Struggle with Stuff

November 6, 2011

I’m a hoarder by nature.  Not a ‘reality television, can’t move around in my house and as a result they are taking me away’ kind of hoarder, but a ‘you never know when you might need it’ type.  I’m hesitant to get rid of things for an abundance of reasons, real and imagined.  As a result, the natural trend in my house is to gradually accumulate more and more things over time, unless there is a concerted effort to counteract it.

When my wife and I returned from our last big trip, where we each lived out of a small backpack for 10 months, our home and the stuff in it were overwhelming.  The space was simultaneously refreshing (after many months in tiny rooms) but also daunting.  Our stuff, unused and unmissed for most of a year, seemed excessive and overpowering.

Currently, we have our possessions in a storage facility.  For your information, virtually everything we own squeezes into a space 10 feet wide by 30 feet long by 10 feet high.  The combined accumulations of our lifetimes fit into 3000 cubic feet.  I figure that’s at least 1000 cubic feet more than it should be.  I think our stuff could be down-sized considerably.  Ironically, we pay a non-trivial amount of money each month to store and insure these unused belongings.  Over the anticipated period of storage, we will have paid thousands of dollars to store things that we don’t need, and yet didn’t get around to purging before we left.

I feel like George Carlin in his famous comedy routine with stuff strung out all over the world.  I have a house (currently rented) with a few possessions inside.  The bulk of my stuff is in storage 10 kilometers from that house, and I have some things on loan or stored at the homes of 4 different friends over a 40 kilometer radius (can you believe it?).  While traveling, I have a carefully selected subset of my things with me, the majority of which are stored in the S&M Motel.   But I was staying in a guest house in Germany for a week, where I had some of this stuff spread across 3 rooms (bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen).  And, when I left for the day, I took a backpack of only the most critical items with me.  I’m a bit like an intercontinental rodent with stuff squirreled away across several time zones.  The time and effort to manage this pack train seems silly.  Reconsolidating and organizing my things, should I ever choose to do it, would require 5 to 15 days of solid effort and thousands of dollars.  But paring my stuff down to what I really need would require even more effort and likely some emotional trauma.

While traveling, and to a great extent while we’re at home, the things that I use on a regular basis are pretty basic – clothes, toiletries, the items necessary to sleep and eat, and a few things that I use for recreation.  My needs are simple and few.  My wants are unbounded, ever increasing, potentially unsatisfying, and move constantly out of reach.

Distinguishing between a need and want is often a challenge.  I need air, water, food, clothing, shelter, and security.  Pretty much everything else is a want –- house, car, bicycle, television, etc.  My wants often include things that I confuse with needs — e.g. “I need a car”, “I need a job”, even “I need my spouse”, or the famous and often repeated advertising slogan, “I need a vacation”.  These are all wants, and I find it useful to remind myself of this fact, in the same way that I find it useful to remember that some things are privileges rather than rights.

For much of my life I have been too materialistic, having more concern for material things than spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or cultural values.  I want there to more to my life than ‘more’.  It is better to emphasize other, more important areas of growth such as thought, feelings, relationships, nature, philosophy, the arts, sport, and science.  There are paths of progress other than growth, expansion, and conquest.  e.g. peace of mind, integrity, tranquility, beauty, a healthy sustainable environment, family, friendships, community, meaningful work, leisure time, good health, fun, and making significant contributions that help others.

Research has shown that having lots of stuff doesn’t buy happiness, in the same way that money doesn’t buy happiness (although it can perhaps rent it for a while).  The spice I get from buying things dissipates rapidly, leaving the aftertaste of reality again, but now with an added dollop of remorse.  So I’m frustrated with consumerism, a preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods, even though I sometimes get swept up in it.  Shopping should be neither recreation nor sport undertaken for the short-lived high it provides me.

The trend to bigger houses, vacation properties, larger and more cars, and more stuff to fill all of them seems to be never ending.  The average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950’s.  I too have a big house.  This has occurred during a period of growth and general prosperity (despite how much people complain about the economy) but has also been achieved at the expense of more work, more stress, and less family time.

Having a lot of stuff also conflicts with my desire to sustain the planet.  It’s contrary to the first item in ‘Reduce, Re-Use, Re-Cycle”.  Even if I buy things used or made of recycled materials, it still requires a lot of resources to make, house, and heat them.  Like many of us, I had a whole room in my house full of junk that I never used.  On this topic, if you haven’t seen the short video The Story of Stuff, I highly recommend it.

George Carlin was accurate when he compared one’s house to a waste processing facility.  New stuff comes in the front door where it is cherished (or hopefully at least used) for a while in the core rooms of the home (bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, family room).  Eventually that stuff makes its way to the lesser rooms of the home (guest room, junk room, etc.) before finally arriving in the garage, the last stop on the way to the garbage heap.  Everything is a consumable item, some just take longer to consume than others.

Some might say that I’m “the pot calling the kettle black”, because I spent most of my adult life trying to acquire resources, and now that I have some, proclaim that this is somehow a baser pursuit.  To this I say, you might be right.  I now have the luxury to place more of my focus on other things and I am being critical of some of the very behaviours that got me to this point in my life.  This is true.  I am struggling to free myself from the rat race of acquisition and retention.

Like it or not, as we age, we all begin a process, gradual or otherwise, of downsizing our stuff.  With many seniors this can be sudden and traumatic when they can no longer live on their own and have to give up not only their house but the things that they’ve accumulated over a lifetime.  It is far better to take ownership of this process while I still have the faculties to manage it.  I don’t want to live in an aging shrine to my past life, dreading the day when they come to take it all away.

What do I really own?  At best I am but a temporary custodian of the things around me.  I do not own them any more than the air I breath.  At some point, everything I have will transition to someone else.

You can’t take it with you. Anonymous

This fact is even more apparent in my case because I don’t have children, so I don’t even have the illusion that my things will ‘remain in the family’, the artifice of somehow retaining ownership across generations.  Now, as on our death bed, we own nothing.  And yet they sit there taunting me, costing me money, and filling my space and thoughts…

Do you struggle with stuff?  How do you deal with it?