8 questions to ask before buying ‘stuff’

Thoreau said that we will be “rich in proportion to the number of things which we can afford to let alone.” There are 8 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 fancy fur collar might be stuff).

  1. 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.
  2. 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 you have holes in your underwear, though, I seriously doubt you are going to get far sewing them back up. You probably need new underwear. The concept is relative.
  3. 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. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.  That stuff actually worked.  The old stuff didn’t.  Some of the stuff, therefore, was more useful.
  6. 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 is another. In those cases, the good done by the stuff outweighs issues of clutter or need.
  7. 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% recycled 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.
  8. 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.