Cut Down on Unnecessary Purchases by Asking Yourself This One Simple Question

Cut Down on Unnecessary Purchases by Asking Yourself This One Simple Question

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Nancy Mitchell
Feb 22, 2016

If you've ever cleaned out your closet, you may know the guilt and shame of finding some past purchase hanging there, accusingly, tags still on. Or maybe there's something that you've only worn once, or used once, and then you decided it wasn't quite right, but you've never been able to get rid of it because you paid good money for it and what would your mother say? I've been there, plenty of times, and after making lots of mistakes and spending lots of money I shouldn't, I've developed a sort of shopping mantra that has helped me, a lot, in only buying things I will actually use.

Here's the question I ask myself whenever I'm tempted to make a purchase: Am I buying this for the life I have right now?

An architect I once worked with explained to me that a lot of American buying (and marketing) is aspirational: you buy things not for the life you actually have, but for the life you want to have. It's a sort of 'if you build it, they will come' mentality: 'if I buy this amazing outdoor grill, I will definitely start having huge backyard parties where I invite all my friends.'

Only a lot of the time, it doesn't work that way. Despite our best intentions, these wishful purchases sit unused, or maybe, since nobody can see the future, the things that you bought in anticipation of some future event turn out to be not quite what you need. Maybe once you actually have a party you realize that the grill you bought before you started grilling isn't really the right grill at all.

I just moved to New York, after waiting and wanting to move to New York for almost two years, and during this time I amassed a ton of New York stuff, things I was sure would be absolutely perfect and necessary for my life in the city. I got all this stuff, not because I think that there are not stores in New York, but I guess because I was anxious about my future in a new city, and I figured I could make the transition smoother by having all the right stuff already. So now I have wool sweaters that I can't wear because my office is regularly heated to a toasty 85 degrees, and giant clunky rain boots that sit in my apartment because I realized after I had been here for a week that ankle boots would do the job a lot better. And I feel kind of dumb.

But I think this is a pretty common thing, aided and abetted by marking: turning your anxieties about and dreams for the future into stuff. Things are solid, they are comforting, you can look at them and say: everything in New York is going to be ok, because I have these boots. It's a little harder to live in uncertainty, to maybe risk sloshing through the rain one day and being kind of miserable and then figuring out exactly what kind of rain boots you need.

But it's cheaper. So I am trying to live this way. I ask myself: would I wear this out of the store? Will I use this tomorrow? And if the answer is no — I put it back.

Re-edited from a post originally published 2.9.15-NT

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