Smart SpendingSmart Spending

The difference between 'want' and 'need'? 3 months

The lesson: Wait before you splurge on that new toy.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 26, 2009 4:31AM

A year ago, a regular reader who calls herself "SC CDF" really wanted an ice-cream maker. These days she can barely remember having wanted it. She proposed that we write down what we want and then check back later to see if we still want it. That's why in April I started a Smart Spending message board thread called "What do you want? Will you still want it a year from now?" 

Readers posted their burning desires: a great camera and printer, electronic gadgets, new cookware, computers, automobiles, furniture. Most of those who reported back later on the updated thread said they did not get what they wanted. But all of them were OK with that. 

The reasons varied, but all of them were good reasons. They changed their minds. They made do with what they already had. They decided to save up to satisfy those wants without going into debt.

Bunks and bags
Some wants were easier to dismiss than others. A reader posting as "Snoozematchit1" claimed to want a television. Several months after posting that, Snooze still doesn't have a TV but is "getting a good amount of reading done." 

SC CDF, who started this whole thing, wanted a leather tote bag from L.L.Bean. However, someone gave her an Urban Outfitters bag for free and she found a leather Coach tote bag for 50 cents at a yard sale. SC CDF says she'd take the L.L.Bean bag if she could get it really cheaply. "But I think life will go on without it."

Making do and making plans are working for "YosemiteMom," who wanted a fenced yard, an elaborate bunk bed/climbing wall combo and a couple of extra mattresses. Her family had a garage sale to raise funds for the bunk bed, but they still don't have enough. So they'll keep saving. The good news is that YosemiteMom's parents are tearing down a fence, and she'll inherit the materials to build her own. 

"Lehughe2" really wanted a new couch, but hesitated to pay the $1,000 or more that her favorite styles cost. Since she and her husband plan to buy a home in two years, she also hesitates to pay for sofa delivery and then have to move it again. "We'll eventually get the new couch, but the current hand-me-down couch is still doing the job," she says.

Save now, spend later
Sometimes there are good reasons to postpone a "want." Reader "jsjjkelly" craved a rain barrel even though she and her husband didn't have much in the way of landscaping. "I have nothing to water," she admitted, but even so had saved up $100 for the rain barrel. However, she couldn't "justify spending it." 

Since then, the couple put in some raised beds -- and now she's "deliberating" about the rain barrel. The fact that it hasn't rained much lately may have something to do with her current hesitation.

"LibraryGoddess" originally wanted a new laptop plus a fancy picnic basket with dishes, silverware and napkins. Although the basket still sounds neat, she notes that she and her boyfriend "have gone to the park for a picnic exactly once … and paper plates and reusable water bottles in a Wal-Mart bag worked just fine." As for the replacement laptop, LibraryGoddess has set up an online savings account to save for it. 

Reader "Sam O Ting" already had the money in the bank for the camera and printer he wanted, but he simply couldn't bring himself to spend $2,500 all at once. That's just as well. Sam had the chance to refinance a rental property at a favorable interest rate, and the closing costs ate up his photography fund. 

Instead, he bought a smaller camera for $400. "In retrospect, for the little professional photography I do anymore, it suits me just fine," Sam writes. "I am still planning on getting the printer, though."

Holding off paid off for reader "GabbyMom," who wanted a graduate certificate in gerontology and a hybrid car but preferred to put the money she would have spent into her home. Since then she and her husband have paid cash for a new stove plus some new kitchen cabinets, countertops and flooring. 

She has also set aside $3,000 in an education fund and investigated scholarships and other ways to knock down the tuition from $7,000 to as little as $4,500. (For help on reducing the price of higher education, check MSN Money's "Managing college costs" page.) In the past, GabbyMom writes, "I would have just applied and borrowed money for it." 

Delaying tactics
How to avoid impulse buying, or at least lessen the pain of purchasing? Readers suggested a few tips:

  • Touching and talking. "MDSFL04" and her husband have a "three-time rule." They have to either handle the item three times or have three discussions about it before buying. They talked about a car for a full year before purchasing. "It really helps save on buyer's remorse," she says.
  • Score someone's discards. Check garage sales before buying retail, but keep in mind that a low price is no guarantee of satisfaction. "Lookylurker" had thought that grinding coffee beans at home would be great, so finding a new-in-box coffee grinder for $1 was cause for celebration. Thus far, it's been used to pulverize one small bag of beans. "The grinder sits in my cupboard," Lookylurker admits. "Thank goodness I only paid a dollar for it."
  • Wait it out. Suffering from new-car fever, "cat00" decided to pick out a fabulous ride and wait for the price to drop. "Fabulous" turned out to be $40,000 worth of wheels, and even after five years the price had dropped only to $30,000. Cat00 thought about wants (a fabulous car) vs. needs (how to fit car payments into the budget) and decided on a used car for $10,000. Waiting and shopping around meant no car payments, which can make any vehicle fabulous.
  • Don't buy it -- try it. Borrowing an item can be "the best way of scratching that itch and not purchasing something," notes SC CDF. Or consider renting. A four-hour contract on a rototiller could save money if, for example, it helps you realize that the machine is not a good match for your arthritis or repetitive strain injury.

In the original thread, I posted that I wanted a laptop -- kind of. It might make my life a little easier. I could write and/or check e-mail on the bus or between classes. But it would be one more thing to carry -- not good for my repetitive strain injury -- and paying for it would have made a big dent in my emergency fund

The upshot is that I didn't buy it and I'm doing fine. My grades are excellent and I haven't yet missed a class assignment or Smart Spending deadline. I doubt that I'll buy a laptop as long as I can make do without one.

The above readers seem to have come to the same conclusions: Do I really need this? If I get it, will my life be significantly improved? If I don't get it, will my life be substantially diminished?

It's up to you what you buy. But being cautious about how you buy may keep your life free of clothes you don't wear and appliances you rarely use. Or coffee you don't grind.

Published June 16, 2008



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