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?



November 20, 2011

Leaving France on our way to Spain we decided to visit the Principality of Andorra on the way. It’s a tiny, land-locked, mountainous ‘country’ surrounded by Spain except for its northern border with France. We set out from Limoux, France after a night of enjoying Blanquette and then sleeping in our van down by the river (video link). 

We knew very little about Andorra beforehand (wasn’t she Samantha’s mother on ‘Bewitched’?). We vaguely knew that Andorra was in the area of the Pyrenees, a mountain range that forms the natural border between France and Spain. We naively followed the advice of our Garmin GPS, which soon had us off on a narrow track climbing the foothills of the Pyrenees. Absolutely beautiful country on a glorious sunny morning had me grinning from ear to ear and Diane squirming in her seat squeezing the arm rests because of the steep switchbacks.

We arrived at the Andorran border sooner than expected, after buying some outrageously priced diesel in a tiny village to ensure that we didn’t run out during our jaunt through the back roads. The Pyrenees unfolded before us in all their glory at the tiny ski resort of Pas del la Casa. We stopped at the tourist office and made a quick tour of the town which was busy with French people shopping despite the fact that the ski season doesn’t begin for another 3 weeks.

Our RV parked at ski resort Pas de la Casa

The Alpine S&M Motel

Andorra is known for two things – skiing and shopping. In the summer, you can substitute hiking for skiing and continue shopping. We think that our friends Kevin and Annette would really like it. It’s actually a very weird and interesting place.

Andorra is very small (468 square kilometers or about 5 one-hundred-thousandths of the area of Canada). but it is still larger than 5 other European micro-states (Malta, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City). It has a population of about 85,000 people, about a third of which are Andorran nationals, and almost as many are Spanish (source: Wikipedia). Despite its small size, diminutive population and virtually no arable land, Andorra is a prosperous country due to its tourism industry and because it is a tax haven. About 80 percent of its economy is derived from tourism, serving over 10 million visitors a year, with much of the remaining activity coming from its banking sector.

Andorra has no airports, no railways, and no ports. The only way in or out is by vehicle (or private helicopter, but we left ours at home). There are only 200 kilometers of paved roads in the entire country, with a single main road running between the Spanish and French borders along the bottom of a valley. Part way along this road is the only city in Andorra, called Andorra La Villa. It is known for its shopping and its traffic congestion, as the entire town is squeezed into the narrow valley.

Andorran License Plate

Andorran License Plate

Andorra is not a member of the European Union (these days, who would want to be?), but enjoys a special relationship with it, allowing certain goods to be traded with EU countries without tariffs. Andorra does not have its own currency and uses the Euro. As a strange by-product of its interesting history, Andorra has two co-heads of state – the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell (i.e. the current Catholic bishop of Catalonia, Spain). This means that one of Andorra’s monarchs is elected, but not by the people of Andorra, and the other is appointed by the Pope. Thankfully. they also have a Prime Minister. The parliament meets in his garage (just kidding).
Andorra has a small army, and all able-bodied men who own firearms must serve. All members of the army are treated as officers. The army’s main responsibility is to present the national flag at ceremonies. It all sounds a bit like a Monty Python sketch.

The roads were clear, so we climbed up and over the pass at 2408 meters (7900 feet). After our recent car troubles, we were very pleased and a little relieved with how the S&M Motel performed. We then began a steady descent down through a series of 6 villages to Andorra La Villa. Paralleling the road for the entire 33 kilometers are chair lifts and ski chalets. It’s like the entire country is a single long ski resort!

Andorra La Vella shopping

Shopping in Andorra La Vella

We stayed at the only campsite in Andorra La Villa, which also happened to have a November special (i.e. it’s too cold for the hikers and the ski season hasn’t started yet). The weather was cool, dropping to just above freezing at night. We walked into town and were shocked at the number of stores. There are apparently over 2000 shops in town, one for every 40 residents of the entire country. Everything is duty free, which means that tobacco, alcohol, electronics, clothing, perfume, watches, and other designer goods are all about 25 percent cheaper than in nearby Spain or France. No wonder people flock here. Even the grocery store we visited felt like a feeding frenzy, with people buying in bulk, some of them pulling around 2 shopping carts.

After a few hours of wandering through this retail orgy, we’d had enough. Back to the S&M Motel to watch a movie on our giant 15” screen, and enjoy a nightcap of Grand Marnier (purchased duty-free in Andorra!)