Making Good Purchases

Be honest. How many times have you scanned your credit card or checking account statement at the end of the month and said, "Wow, I didn't realize I bought so much stuff!" It doesn't seem like much day-to-day, but when the compilation is squeezed into two or three sheets of paper, it becomes a behemoth. How does that happen?

Before you predict that this post will be a bashing session in which I ridicule people for being poor decision makers, stick around and read the contrary. We all struggle in this area because we live in a very consumer-oriented society. I'm not against consumerism--I like getting new things. I'm not against spending money--wisely; but I am against people getting hoodwinked by systems designed turn off their rationale and stimulate parts of the brain that support impulse. It's a tricky game, and billions of dollars are at stake. Corporate empires feeds millions (of dollars) into figuring out how you think and are influenced. Then they apply those findings in a way that compels you to waste your money.

I am not a marketing expert, but I can pick up gimmicks; and I have a decent idea when someone is trying to pull one over on me. I've been tricked, and many of the lessons I've learned were from being taken advantage of. But like the old saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."

Here is my list of tips for making solid purchases and avoiding "buyer's remorse".

#1 Have a specific purpose for a purchase.

Whether it's a power tool, a new electronic gadget, decorating materials, or a new piece of furniture, spend time up front thinking about exactly how and when your purchase will be used. Things are marketed to look perfect in the store or in the showroom. They are surrounded with just the right light, the right accessories, and the right surrounding props to make the purchases seem perfect for you. But your life is unique. You want your purchase to fit nicely into your life and fulfill a need or a desire equivalent to the amount of money you surrender. It's the cost-benefit ratio.

If you buy on impulse, you usually fail to think the purchase through well enough to have a specific application or place for your new item. You buy it, bring it home, and after a few days you begin to realize that it was not the best purchase. You really don't have a good place for it in your house. It doesn't really match your current decor. Or maybe the gadget isn't compatible with the other gadgets you have and now you're hosed. Be very careful about digital and electronic purchases too, because many of them have very strict return policies! Thankfully, most major retailers will let you bring your stupid purchases back for a refund, but then you have to calculate how much time you waste running back and forth to stores because you can't make solid purchasing decisions.

When I am thinking about purchasing a tool, or a computer accessory, or something along those lines, I try to make a literal or mental list of what I want my purchase to do for me. After you've made a list of things you want from your purchase, consider that you might already have something that will do that. Then you can save your money! Many items have overlapping capabilities, and it's a little disheartening when you bring home your new power tool to find out that you could have done the same thing with another tool!

#2 Research your purchases

Once you've decided that you really need or want something and you have a specific purpose or place for it, take some time to figure out what the best value is and where you want to purchase it. One retailer can sell the same exact item for 10-20% higher or lower than a competitor. So shop around. I am not a loyalty shopper. Retailers don't care about you, and you should not care about them. It's just a business transaction; unless you're buying from a small business--then there can be an actual relationship established.

More important than the distributor is the product itself. Having the internet is a huge advantage! Go online and read reviews about the product, but not from the product website! You might be surprised what you find out. Products that looked so amazing at Bed, Bath, and Beyond with their colorful, well-marketed display might turn out to be an eclectic form of American-designed, Chinese-manufactured trash.



Once again, impulsive purchases do not provide you with much time to do this type of research. You might pull up a review or two on your smartphone at Kohl's, but that's not very thorough. If you're going to spend your money wisely, it will take some time. My wife and I purchased a queen-sized memory foam mattress a little over a year ago, and we researched them for about two weeks before we finally bought one. We read reviews, went to mattress stores, and talked to probably 7 or 8 "professional mattress salespersons". We learned a lot, and we ended up with a mattress that's awesome and paid far less than the "average price".

#3 Don't assume the most expensive is the best.

People fall into this trap constantly because they're proud and stupid. I'm not trying to be mean here, but this type of marketing is targeted directly at a person's ego. These are mainly "status" purchases, such as Rolex watches, Mercedes sedans, or iPhones. I hope to own one of each of those someday, but not today. They might be the best, but I want to find that out for myself. I don't want to hear it on a SuperBowl commercial, swallow it whole, and donate my ego-money to a seductively-marketed status symbol.


Learning what products are the best is an ongoing effort. I have found several brands and products in my life that I believe are the best. They may or may not be the most expensive, but I stand by them and won't settle for less. See "Ten Things I Spend Extra Money On". My general motto is to try out cheaper, generic versions of things for small purchases. If I find out they're trash, I learn my lesson and buy something better quality next time. More often than not, the generic item works just fine for what I need. If it's a large purchase, I try to find a way to use the product before buying it. Perhaps you can find a friend that has one.

#4 Question marketing claims and associations.

Ask questions when you hear a sale pitch or watch a commercial. Talking to salespeople can be entertaining. Often when you ask them good questions, you find out they're just upchucking a memorized paragraph they learned when the new product line came out.

As far as commercials, these million-dollar productions are designed to make you not think. But think anyways. How is beer related to good-looking people doing awesome activities that are actually prohibited under the influence of alcohol? Good question. When you have that new phone, is every moment of your life really a party in which you can use all the cool features at once and look like the smoothest hipster in all of New York? Maybe, but probably not. Is that arthritis medicine really going to whoosh you away to a beautiful mountain landscape for you to enjoy hiking and leisurely fishing? They are feeding you associations to make you feel good about buying their product. Only buy what they are selling--ignore the rest.

#6 Read fine print.

Oh, the fine print! Usually when deals seem to good to be true, they are. "Free" usually doesn't mean flat out free. It means if you buy something or sign up for something, then they will give you last year's cheap-o version free and then relentlessly spam you to upgrade until death does you part. Every once in awhile companies give away things for free just to get you in their doors or to their website. I try to take advantage of these deals every time, but I've learned that sometimes there is a tricky little scheme at play. Read the details. Ask questions. If you ask really good questions, the salesperson will avoid it and try to dodge around it; then you're on to something. If they don't explain it to your liking, leave.

As I mentioned earlier, the value of a product is entirely based on how it will help you. It doesn't matter what market research says, or how many cool features the product has that don't matter to you. 

I'll give you an example of a recent purchase I made.

A couple months ago I bought a new computer. I shopped online for a couple weeks and found the best deal for us. I already had a monitor, so I didn't need a new one to come with the computer. I already had a printer, a wireless mouse and a nice keyboard. All I needed was a new box! And truthfully, esthetics don't matter to me with computers. So even though there were many nice, fancy, space-ship looking computers out there, I choose a no frills one that gave me more features. Here's the thing: I ended up with a computer that had everything I wanted (because I had made a list) and only payed $300 for it. Equivalent computers at most other stores were going for $400-600. This was true because I made sure I was buying ONLY what I wanted and not forking out for features I didn't care about. I didn't really care about the video card that much. I'm not a gamer. I wanted 6 GB of RAM, hard drive space (at least 1 TB), and a dual or quad-core processor. That's it. So far I'm very happy with the purchase because it's five times faster than my old PC, and it didn't break our bank.

#7 Read the return policy.

As much as I try to get good things for good prices, I fail sometimes. Sometimes I get trash, or I buy something too soon without doing enough thinking. Then I need to return it. Most major retailers (Wal-Mart, Target, Kohls, JCPenney, Amazon, etc.) have great return policies; but if you're buying from small businesses or small websites, read carefully. There may be a restocking fee or you might have to pay for shipping to return an online purchase. The only things worse than making a bad purchase is being stuck with it!
The end.

See also "Tips for Shopping and Banking Online"
See also "Top Ten Reasons I Might Be One of the Cheapest People You Know"

Image credits:
Person stressed about spending image from http://www.allyou.com/budget-home/money-shopping/ease-financial-stress
Cost-benefit ratio graph image from http://slpmartin.wordpress.com/2010/01/22/cost-benefit-ratio/
'Failed' image from http://www.pissedconsumer.com/blog/2013/11/when-good-products-go-bad-product-recalls/
Insanely expensive Mercedes image from http://content.time.com/time/today-in-pictures/0,31511,1954250,00.html
Questioning yellow face image from http://apackof2-theworldaccordingtome.blogspot.com/2010/02/questions-ask-them.html
Read fine print cartoon image from http://victorshaw.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/read-the-fine-print/

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