7 things to consider before you buy stuff

Thoreau said that we will be “rich in proportion to the number of things which we can afford to let alone.” There are 7 questions you can ask yourself every time you think about buying any stuff. By stuff, I mean anything which is not directly required for the continuation of your existence. Food and water are not stuff by that definition. A new pair of shoes is stuff. A heavy winter coat if you live in Vermont is not stuff (but one with a fur collar might be).

Can I afford this stuff? Run down this checklist: I have paid off all of my debts; I have put money in my retirement accounts; I have paid all of the monthly bills; I have added to the emergency fund; I have healthy natural food for my family; I have shared money with those less fortunate than me. If you went down that checklist and answered “no” to any one of those, you probably don’t need stuff.

Do I need this stuff? Sometimes you need to buy stuff, but need is a relative term. If you have a hole in your gloves and winter is coming on, you might say you need new gloves. Fair enough – no one deserves frostbite. But you would have to ask yourself if you really need new gloves, or if perhaps you just need someone to sew up the hole in your current gloves. If I have holes in my underwear, though, I seriously doubt I am going to get far sewing them back up. I need new underwear. The concept is relative.

Will this stuff create or reduce clutter in my life? How often does this happen: you go to the store to buy a pan, and when you come home to make room you throw out an old one? Not often, I would imagine. Sometimes – maybe the old pot is horribly scratched from scouring and it’s no longer useful. When you buy new books, do you give away old ones? Almost all of the stuff we buy creates clutter. In general, every time you buy new stuff some old stuff should go (which is not a good use of your stuff).

Does this stuff replace some other stuff that is still functional? Related to the point above, stuff should not replace functional stuff. I own a very old coffeemaker which still performs its primary function – making coffee. I would love a newer coffeemaker with more features, but at the end of the day I would hate to buy a new one while the old one still works.

Does this stuff somehow make a task or activity easier? We owned a toaster that burned toast. We did not like using it and making toast became a real annoyance. Finally Bubelah went and bought a new toaster. Now we can eat toast when we want it, and it isn’t burned. We also owned a horrible vacuum cleaner that cleaned nothing. We bought a new one and now we can actually pick up pieces of dust weighing more than .0000001 grams.

Can this stuff help someone? There are times when stuff can just be helpful. Better tools are a good example. Flowers for a sick person are another. A better pillow for someone with a back problem. In those cases, the good done by the stuff outweighs issues of clutter or need.

Will buying this stuff hurt the environment more than it will help me? I cringe every time I buy a piece of consumer electronics – my USB flash drive is a good example. A flash drive is a tiny thing, maybe 2-3 inches long. When I bought my flash drive, it arrived in enormous plastic packaging 100 times the size of the drive – a huge rounded disk of hard, thick plastic. That plastic will go in our plastic recycling bin, but I don’t kid myself to think that all of that plastic is 100% recylced and finds its way back to new USB flash drive packaging. A large portion may end up in landfills or our oceans or our atmosphere. The oils and energy used to create that packaging are gone forever. Buying that USB drive, because of the packaging, was an assault on the environment. Many items are like that – and in fact almost all. In the UK there is a movement for consumers to rip open packaging as soon as they buy it, in the store, and throw the packaging on the floor. The purpose is to force businesses to start demanding more minimal packaging from manufacturers. I don’t know if that would ever catch on here. To be honest, I would be intimidated to do it. But it’s a good idea.

Is this high quality stuff or junk? Junk will need to be replaced soon, violating #3. Junk may not work correctly and help make an activity easier, violating #5. And it definitely violates #6. High quality stuff will last longer and do the job better. Knowing what’s high quality is often a tough question – maybe the JC Penny suit is tougher and more classic in appearance than the pink-pinstriped Hugo Boss, for example, making it of higher quality/durability. Evaluate this on a case-by-case basis.

I buy a lot of stuff and certainly don’t pretend that I’m perfect in this regard, but I am trying to move in the right direction. I try to ask myself these questions. If I can’t always answer them because of the “buy me buy me” chorus in my head, it doesn’t make me a bad person, just a person who still has room to develop.

12 comments

  • Another good post.
    I really like your blog. I am going to add you to my blogroll on my site. I hope you can take the time to check my blog out.
    …MG

  • MG – thanks so much, and I’ll definitely check your blog out, and I encourage anyone checking out comments to do the same!

  • I like your thought about packaging, we’ve gotten a few items delivered recently and it’s unbelievable how much packaging there was. I guess delivery is charge by weight – not by volume of the box.

    Mike

  • I think it’s all about the marketing, actually. In my grocery store, for example, the name brand cereal comes in a box and the generic just comes in a plastic bag. Both have the same net weight of cereal, but the name brand one has a half-empty box around it, for no reason I can imagine other than to advertise their brand. A USB flash card looks pretty puny on its own, after all – you need to add flashy packaging. It’s all junk. One of these days I will grit my teeth and just take something out of the box there in the store and give it to the check-out cashier to dispose of.

  • sfordinarygirl

    That’s exactly why I didn’t buy an ipod or an mp3 player. Sure I could use the ipod to help me concentrate on something while I’m running or exercise but I like listening to the noise of a city – cars honking, the sound of immigrant chatter and the neighborhood kids talking loudly or laughing. And I find a plain-old tape recorder or just typing the notes of someone I’m interviewing works just fine. No need for a fancy recorder – sometimes plain and simple works. My sister bugged me for years about getting one and I almost caved in but cancelled my order on Amazon.com right after I made the purchase. I’ve never regretted that choice.

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  • Great post! Thank you!

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  • I’m sure the manufacturer and store owners’ motives are hardly pure as the driven snow, but we should probably avoid overly demonizing them. I suspect, for instance, that one of the reasons packaging for expensive items tends to have a minimum size and a certain awkwardness to it is to deter shoplifting. If that’s the case, then instead of throwing trash on the store floors, we ought to stop stealing (collectively). Secondly, if you don’t like large packaging, then buy items with smaller packaging when there’s any choice, even if it’s inconvenient (if it’s that important to you). Also, someone mentioned in an earlier comment that the packaging doesn’t tend to weigh much, and this is because there really isn’t THAT much material in something like a USB drive package — it’s very thin and long. It could be much worse. Granted, if scarcity of petroleum scares you, that might still be worrisome, in which case an alternative would have to be come up with that is reasonably thief-unfriendly, that transports well and protects its contents, and that people will buy (which includes it not costing too much)

  • I like your blog and esp. your comments on stuff. We all have too much – anyone who is reading this, anyway – and need to learn to get rid of it. Any suggestions?

  • I think there are LOTS of alternatives to overpackaging, regardless of the motives of those making the sales. Although I too hesitate to demonize corporations from trying to sell more stuff, I do think that packaging is designed primarily to encourage consumption. If a store’s primary concern was deterring shoplifting, why not keep the items behind a case and just have one sample that’s tied to the shelf for everyone to look at (like they do with the cameras in best buy?)

    Jim, I recently wrote a post on de-cluttering that you may want to check out. Hope you find it helpful.

    I’ve also used the first point on affordability to develop a metric of my own to examine the other aspects of consuming that I find important; it’s on my blog as well.

    This was one of the best posts on “buying less” that I’ve seen. Nice work.

  • I agree with almost everything you have said. I try to follow the same types of rules in my life, to the point of having accusations of being “cheap” thrown at me. I don’t mind though. I tell people that I am the anti-consumer.

    It is easy to get caught in the trap of thinking that material things you do not currently have will somehow make life better or more enjoyable. When it really comes down to it, it’s not all the “stuff” that makes life worthwhile or worth living. It is the experiences and the relationships that we have. I think people chasing after all the stuff are totally missing the point and I don’t know any that feel truly fulfilled by these things anyway!