Buy Less Junk!
When I was young and broke, carrying undergrad/grad school loans, I lived in Manhattan — an expensive city I couldn’t really afford. My first apartment on 17th street near 3rd Avenue was a 3rd floor walk up studio that cost $400 per month. I moved into a 2 bedroom at 90 Lexington Avenue & 27th street — $1100/mo, with a tiny galley kitchen, one bathroom, and I shared it with 3 other people. It had a great terrace and view, but no space or privacy.
It didn’t matter: When you are young, immortal, and having fun, you can live a great “rent poor” lifestyle. Bargain hunting for necessities while enjoying city life. Indeed, New York provided endless free (or cheap) entertainment, parties, socializing; Dining was usually inexpensive, ethnic and always “Cheap & cheerful.”
You could get by on very little cash. When you have more time than money, you spend that time in wasteful ways. When you are broke you develop a keen eye for a bargain. You don’t mind lines if it saves money. You find books at the Strand, haunt the bargain racks at The Gap, buy all sorts of stuff at brand sample sales, get cheap suits at Rothmans, see what last year’s winter coats go for at Century 21.
And yet . . .
There was an unrealized cost to this lifestyle. When you are broke, there is an entire underlying psychology of unfulfilled desire. It creates a danger of wanting what you cannot have simply because you cannot have it. And when you are poor, you cannot have nearly everything.
This leads to some questionable decision-making.
Take your closet as an example. Some organization guru suggested this trick: Take all of your clothes and hang them backwards – the opening of the hanger hook on the bar towards, instead of away from you. Wear something, return the hook to the normal. After a year, the clothes you have worn are on hooks facing away from you, while the clothes you have not worn for a year are facing towards you.
I did this, and the results were both shocking and informative. Shocking, because I realized how little of my “wardrobe” I actually wore; informative because I instantly realized how much money I had wasted chasing “bargains” – things I did not necessarily need or even want, but rather had been on sale. This was 75% of my closet.
I vowed to change my purchase habits immediately.
Rather than shop price first, and thereby allow the retailer’s bag of tricks to influence my decision making, I refused to even look at prices – at least until I got to checkout. If I still wanted something at XX dollars, then I must really want it, and so I buy it. If I decide its too expensive for what it is relative to its quality and my wants/needs, I don’t.
I began this experiment when young(ish) and of limited means and have continued this approach now that I am old(ish) and of less limited means.
This was incredibly freeing. The most challenging part of being broke was the mental bandwidth — I found it psychologically exhausting to watch every penny, and when I eventually just stopped bargain hunting, I put that capacity to much better use. Anytime I backslid I regretted it almost immediately.
The results it has yielded are interesting :
1. I buy much less stuff. I make far fewer purchases than I was prior in my bargain hunting days. The fact something appears to be on sale is irrelevant to my calculus.
2. I only buy better quality. No more crap, no more outlet “B” goods, nothing discontinued. Only very fine quality items I actually need and/or really want.
3. I limit what I own. I only buy what I truly want. And for each new item that comes in, something old goes out – often (shockingly) unworn and donated to local thrift shop.
4. I save mental bandwidth. I don’t waste time and effort bargain hunting. It frees up brain cycles for mroe creative and fulfilling efforts.
5. I save time. I don’t give shit about Black Friday or a care about Cyber Monday. If something is on my wish list and Amazon Prime Day sends me an email, I think about making that purchase. But I find the mere act of putting something on a wish list is nearly as fulfilling as the empty gesture of purchasing it.
This is not a finger wagging lecture on the evils of materialism; I am not in the FIRE contingency; I don’t own a tiny home. I do have a beach house and a boat and too many cars and if it made sense, I would add a plane to that mix.
As we have discussed prior, I prefer experiences over goods in general. But my materialistic impulses have evolved over time, and for the better.
I am in the valley between two generations — the boomers are few years older than me, while Gen X are a few years younger. For better or worse, I see traits of both in myself.
‘Never Buy a Boat’ and Other Misguided Financial Advice (October 3, 2015)
Buy Yourself a F*^king Latte (April 5, 2019)
Best Route to Wealth: Savings or Earnings, a Debate (May 26, 2020)