8 Questions I Ask Myself Before I Buy Anything, Especially If It’s On Sale

published Nov 30, 2020
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Credit: Chloe Berk

There’s just something about scoring a deal on something you’ve been thinking about buying for weeks or months, which is why the holiday sales are often like my Super Bowl. I train all year round for the deals my favorite stores are about to roll out—and keep an eye on everything from the Dutch oven I’ve been meaning to snag for myself, to the multiple gifts I still plan on buying my friends and family.

But as my frugal mother taught me, just because something is on sale doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the best deal. In fact, springing for something just because it’s on sale can lead you to spending more money in the long run. After all, who among us hasn’t hit “check out” on a cart full of on-sale items, only to realize you spent so much more than you planned?

So what’s a conscious shopper to do, especially in a year when funds are tight for almost everyone? Here are eight questions I ask myself before I buy anything—whether it’s marked for full-price or a sale—to determine if it’s worth the purchase price.

Is this an item that I need, or is it something that I want?

Asking yourself this question straight out of the gate is useful—to a point. There are certainly things that you need, in terms of how they relate to your survival and general well-being: Nutritious groceries, paying your rent every month, and picking up a new lightbulb when your old one has blown out certainly all count. Sometimes the things we want can also add plenty of joy to our day-to-day lives, and that pleasure can also be described as a need in and of itself.

This question is most useful when it comes to clothes. If I were to ask myself if I needed another black dress, the answer would almost certainly be “No.” Categorizing the potential purchase as a firm “want” helps me better interrogate why I want the dress, which leads me to…

Am I buying this item because I will use it, or because it’s on sale?

If it’s the latter, I already know buying the item will more often than not be a recipe for disaster. Do I ignore the voice in my head and buy the item anyway? Sometimes, yeah. (I’m only human.) But knowing my habits has helped me curb this impulse in the long run, and now after plenty of practice, I’m better equipped to walk away.

How much use will this purchase serve me in my daily life?

Because I’ve been cooking more than ever in the past few months, a Dutch oven is going to get a ton of use (and I already have a list of soups, braises, and even breads that I plan to cook in it). That black dress I mentioned? Probably not, given I’ve been spending the bulk of my time in the same pair of sweats.

Sometimes it makes sense to buy something you’re planning on saving for a special occasion, especially if you’re thinking ahead (perhaps to all the weddings you’ll be asked to attend in 2022). But if you’re trying to cut back on unnecessary spending, focusing on your day-to-day essentials can help you decide when to hit the “buy” button and when to wait.

As for gifts this holiday season, I really try to put myself in my loved ones’ shoes before I buy gifts for them. Some presents are fun novelties, sure, but I also try to put plenty of thought into the most useful presents I can for their lives.

Do I already own something like this item?

I am a creature of habit, which means that many of my purchases can be best described as “variations on a theme.” All of those candles I already have? They can do without my adding another one to their number. Is my itch to my tableware born out of the fact that my forks have truly seen better days, or do I simply want to swap their rose gold hue for a more muted silver?

This question doesn’t apply itself so neatly to items that are meant to be unique—books, for example, though if I have a stack of purchased-but-still-unread books on my nightstand, I know to work through those before I buy another. The more I can interrogate why I want to either add to or replace something I already own, the easier it is to decide if this purchase is worth it.

Where will this item live in my home?

My apartment is pretty small—and I know that if I bring another piece of furniture into my bedroom, I’ll need to do some serious rearranging. By asking myself if I already have a space in my home for something, or if I’m willing to create one, I avoid plenty of unnecessary clutter before it can even begin.

Would I buy this item if it was full-price?

If I wouldn’t, then I know the itch to snag a good sale is probably getting to me. Sometimes, this answer is rooted in a good reason: I might not spring for a major name brand if it was being sold at full price, but I could be swayed if it was on sale for the same amount as a similar product from a smaller label.

How long will this product last me?

Sometimes when you’re buying something name-brand, you’re also investing in quality, such as the famed lifetime warranty that comes with Le Creuset cast-iron cookware. Though other enameled Dutch ovens can work just as well and might certainly be cheaper, it might be important to you that you waste less in the long run by buying something that will last you years, over something you will invariably have to replace.

I’ve also made an effort over the past year to buy eco-friendly versions of the products I know I’ll need to throw out sooner rather than later, such as bamboo toothbrushes and wooden dish brushes over plastic sponges. Otherwise, I try to invest in things I know I will take care of, and which will last me longer than not.

How much of a deal am I really getting?

Some sales, such as taking an additional 20 percent off an item that is already marked down 70 percent from its original price, are undeniable. Others, like a 10 percent promotional sale, are really just saving you the sales tax, and not much else. If that’s okay by you, you’d probably buy that item at its full price (see above) and that might be enough to justify your purchase. Otherwise, doing a bit of simple math can save you from buyer’s remorse in the long run—especially given that many sales have that “final sale” fine-print.