4 Questions to Ask Before Buying Anything

A quick update on my no shopping, no buying March experiment: things are going fairly well, though I slipped up once and bought some locally made artisan chocolates (we were the only people in the shop, and having accepted a free sample, I found there was no getting out of it graciously — not that I tried very hard). I’ve also window shopped socially twice — a craft fair with a friend, a used bookstore with Kevin. Nothing too egregious.

Mostly what I’m finding out is that not buying is a matter of attitude. Previously, when I needed anything, my first impulse would be to go out and get it. Not having that option is making me explore other possibilities before buying. I’m thinking this is a good habit to get into and may extend my experiment into April. Here are four questions that I’ve been asking myself whenever I want to buy something:

1. Do I really need it? (This question, by the way, is a lot easier to ask before you see something you desperately want, so avoiding temptation is a good precaution.)  I thought I needed a new oven mitt because the neoprene bit on mine seemed to be melting, but I do have another oven mitt and lots of pot holders. I thought I needed a super lightweight cardigan/wrap to keep mosquitoes away in Hawaii, then realized that most of my wardrobe is lightweight but long sleeved anyway. I’m getting better at telling the difference between what I want and what I need…and I realize, once again, that I don’t need much.

2. Can I make it? I cook, sew, and, er, potter. (There must be a better verb for ‘flinging mud around and shaping it into usable items.’) Between the three of those things, the answer is often yes. (And if not yes, that I can jerry-rig something that works fairly well.) Two of my favorite potter’s tools at the studio are what used to be the steel binding straps around a package and an Ikea butter knife with a bent tip, made by my teacher. What the heck am I doing buying $10 tools at Clay Planet?

3. Can I get it for free?  If I can’t make it, I might have friends who can and would be willing to swap. Or they might have it and be willing to lend or give it to me.  Then there’s always Freecycle and the library. I was tempted by a book at the used bookstore yesterday called The Concise Book of Lying, all about the ins and outs of this most interesting human phenomenon. I put it down when the brilliant thought occurred to me that I could probably borrow it from the library. The fact is, our society is brimming with free resources that we often don’t even think to draw upon.

4. How much of my life energy is it worth? This question is taken from Your Money or Your Life (join the book club going on at Min Hus if you’re curious). It makes the simple but important point that we put a lot of our lives and energy into earning money, so we’d better make sure that what we’re spending it on is worthwhile. Pottery is absolutely worthwhile to me. But a new dress that will spend most of its time in the closet? A new oven mitt? Not so much.

There are other questions, of course. Questions about the item’s impact, about my long term plans for it, about how ethically (or not) it was manufactured. All of them are worth keeping in mind, too, but these four questions are often enough for me to decide not to buy something, and everything else becomes superfluous.

If you’re cutting back on your buying, how do you do it? 

(Also, I’ve been thinking about either adding a page on this blog or starting a separate blog for my pottery. If you’re interested in keeping up with my projects, which form would you prefer? Here’s my latest…)


19 responses to this post.

  1. Congrats on your no shopping movement! When I’m looking to purchase a new item, I try to do a life cycle analysis (aka cradle to grave). Is it inexpensive, but will fall apart in one year? Is it expensive, but will last a long time? Regardless if the item is “green” or not green, I generally will pay more for an item that will last longer or can be recycled/re-purposed after it has fallen apart. Keeping junk out of landfill is important.

    By the way, after years of using rags to move hot pans out of the oven (and frequently burning ourselves), Mark and I finally broke down last year and bought pot holders. I kicked myself because just after I bought them, I learned that my friend makes pot holders out of reused wool scraps and sells them on Etsy. I totally could have bought/bartered them from her or perhaps even made my own. Impulse purchasing is seldom ever satisfying. -Emily



    • Hi Emily,

      Great suggestion. I think once you have decided that you need something and are going to buy it, doing a cradle to grave analysis is one of the most important considerations in choosing which version or type to buy. I’m still at the stage of preventing unnecessary purchases!

      If I go for the new oven mitt, I’ll look for locally handmade ones instead of going to Target. 🙂


  2. Posted by myrl on 03/19/2012 at 10:36

    Your bowl is lovely! Porcelain? I regularly use the library and sometimes feel guilty about taking the same book out soo many times, usually a how to book. I enjoy making and fixing mostly creating stuff. When i was younger and working steady I would try to always ask myself,” Are you welling to work X amount of hours to pay for this?”. it helps. I enjoyed your post. Little reminders to be conscientious, thank you.


    • Thanks, Myrl! Yep, it’s porcelain. Nothing else looks quite like it.

      I do tend to buy books that I check out repeatedly from the library. I figure if it’s a resource I’m going to use often, it’s not worth the gas to keep going to the library. However, there are plenty of books I’m never going to read more than once, even if I liked them. Those are prime library candidates! Knowing the difference between books I liked and will never feel tempted to pick up again and books I will want to revisit often has been one of my biggest challenges in reducing my book collection and changing my buying habits.


  3. Well, I’m realizing that I have more of a strategy than I though I did. Thinking about it for a long time is the main part of it, because I often either decide I don’t really want/need it, or I find a way to get it for free or almost free.

    But the other part is I tend to save up the stuff I really do want for special occasions like birthdays and Christmas. My birthday was this month, so instead of getting a bunch of crap that I really didn’t want, it was an opportunity to get some things that have been on my wish list for the past year or so. CatMan got me a few things that he knew I’d been wanting, and I spent about half of the birthday money my parents sent me on a telephoto lens and a bike pack to carry my camera in. All things I’ve wanted for a really long time and couldn’t figure out how to get for free/cheap. (Plus, I discovered that I had enough “points” at the bike store from getting presents for CatMan etc, that the bike pack was almost free!)

    Giving presents is so much more fun when you know you can give someone something they really, REALLY want… and it’s WAY more fun to get presents when it’s something that you’ve wanted for a long time, instead of just some junk that someone felt obliged to buy just so they’d have something to give you.


    • Hi Cat,

      Waiting is definitely helpful when it comes to not making frivolous purchases! I have things that are a year or two old on my Amazon wish list, and as I was going through it the other day, I realized that I don’t actually want most of the things on it very much. However, I’m also slightly obsessive and have noticed that waiting can make me even more obsessive about something, and then I waste a lot of time doing more research or reading about it and end up getting it anyway.

      Happy birthday! It does sound like you’ve got a great strategy going.


  4. Posted by Julie on 03/19/2012 at 12:47

    It can be really tough sometimes making decisions about what to make vs time as well. I actually have a sick tendency not to buy things that maybe I should because I have a litany in my head that says “Oh, I could make that.” But then the list of things I need to make gets kindof long, and I start to feel pressured, and what I really need is time to relax. So I have to make compromises so I don’t actually stress myself out over trying to make *everything*.
    Being eco friendly and thrifty I made us a set of washcloths out of a towel I purchased from the thrift store. 1 towel = about 12 washcloths. Awesome! It still took an hour or so of time to cut it and serge the edges of each though.
    I also recently needed a laptop bag for taking my computer on a plane flight. Despite the fact that laptop bags are plentiful and cost only $35 to $45 at Office Depot I made it instead out of leftover fabrics and used an old sweater and corduroy to create a recycled padded lining. It was a huge pain in the hiney, as it needed to be really sturdy and hold my computer well. Probably took me about 8 to 10 hours to make? But I do feel good that no slave labor was used and it was made from items that were otherwise sitting around useless.
    Same story with my boyfriend needing a shoe rack in the closet. Instead of buying a $25 shoe rack I spent about 20 hours with some pieces of leftover wood that were laying around the house. It took 8 hours alone to sand. Then cut, glue, screw, stain, and varnish. Again, feel great it came from what was otherwise waste but wow, lot of time!
    In today’s world so many of these choices honestly just don’t make fiscal sense. I love making things but sometimes it stresses me out and I’d rather have a little time to just chill. Oh well, part of me always feels like I’m giving in to the system if I do that though. It definitely limits consumption when you make things yourself though, as you can only make so many things in a given amount of time! 🙂 You consume at the exact rate that you produce.
    I am most prone to spend on supplies and tools. I have rarely ever regretted those expenditures, as every one makes me more self sufficient.


    • Hi Julie,

      Good point about the time and effort involved in making things. Laptop bags? Shoe racks? You’re way more ambitious than I am! I think I probably would have tried to borrow a laptop bag from my dad (he has many) or get one on Freecycle before I tried making one. Zippers are the bane of my existence, sewing wise. If making stuff takes too much time or causes too much stress, I think it’s helpful to remember that there are other options besides making and buying — our culture doesn’t think much of lending, but it might be a good choice for something you only need every now and then.

      That reminds me, I have a laptop bag that was for my old laptop and no longer fits. I should offer it on Freecycle. 🙂

      Thank you for your kind words about my pottery!


    • Posted by Debbie M on 03/20/2012 at 19:09

      The whole I-can-make-it-myself strategy works best with stuff you don’t need, like delicious empty calories. There are so many things I don’t buy at the store because I can make it better myself (yummier, healthier, more cheaply), and then I don’t get around to making it, so I end up eating fewer (unneeded) empty calories.

      But it’s also nice for things where customizing it makes a big difference. For example, if you love the fabric you used for your laptop bag a lot more than anything you could find in the store, that helps it be worth the time (plus working with favorite fabrics is more fun), but if the fabric was merely handy and appropriate, it’s not as exciting.


      • Hi Debbie,

        That reminds me of Michael Pollan’s food rule about only eating junk food you make yourself. I looked up how to make Samoas recently, though, and think I might have to make an exception for them.

        I agree that projects you’re excited about tend to produce things you value more and perhaps end up keeping longer. Also, I get around to them more quickly! Sometimes in the time I put off making something, I discover I don’t really need it after all.


  5. Posted by Julie on 03/19/2012 at 12:48

    PS – LOVE the bowl! 🙂


  6. Great post! I’m going to put it on my Facebook page because I can think of many others who might like it too! Regarding the first comment you got mentioning “cradle to grave” assessment before buying… Have you written any posts on the cradle to grave idea? If so can you put a link in these comments? If not, I’d love to read one. It’s such potentially world-changing idea. I’ve read some about it, but I’d love to read your take. Thanks!


    • Thanks, Suzita! I appreciate the share. Unfortunately, I don’t know all that much about cradle to grave type assessments. I believe they’re quite complex and hard for lay people like me to do more than guess at. I do still think there’s value in simply thinking, ‘how was this product made, and what will happen to it once I’m done using it?’ Often the answers to those questions, and accepting full responsibility for what and how we consume, can point the way to making better decisions. I agree that it could be a world-changing concept if we applied it to more of our actions!

      Let me read up on this and get back to you. 🙂


  7. I was already set to write a post on blog about shopping for unnecessary things when I received your email (via subscription). So, I linked up my post to yours.



    • Hi Jordyn,

      Great minds must think alike. 🙂 I don’t think there can be too much said on the subject, anyway. It sounds like you’ve come a long way in your shopping habits. That’s terrific!


  8. Posted by Andrea on 03/22/2012 at 11:21

    I’ll tell you what: I’ll trade you something for that gorgeous bowl, and then we will both have cut back on buying new stuff!

    I told you a few weeks ago about how I’ve gotten into swapping, and recently I gave up four books I no longer wanted for a digital camera that had only been used a handful of times by its owner (who runs a camera store, so obviously she’s been playing with digital SLRs instead). Swapping also got me a free consultation on how to maximize my balcony for growing herbs and veggies this summer, in return for my knowledge of loose leaf tea (how cool is that). This is probably the way that I’ll be able to get a much needed laptop bag, laser printer to replace my inkjet, and shelving for my den. I really can’t be bothered to buy brand new things anymore, not when it’s obviously that lightly used items are just as good!


    • Cool. I’ve never done much swapping (although I guess I freecycle, and that involves similar amounts of human contact, so it’s not out of the question). Swapping expertise is a great idea! Our communities are full of resources we rarely use or think about.


    • Andrea- great to hear that you’ve had some successful swapping/bartering. I remember last year we were trying to brainstorm different ways you trade your items or skills. I’m glad it has worked for you! I need to do more brainstorming on that myself.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: