How to Stop Buying Stuff You Don't Need

Most people own more than they need. Yet they keep buying anyway. Owning too much is costly, and not just in financial terms. Here are ways to stop buying things you don’t need. Here’s a quick run-down of the topics.

  • Take inventory of what you already have

  • Express gratitude for what you own

  • Buy only what you need right now

  • Calculate your cost to buy something in hours worked

  • Spend money on quality over quantity

  • Stop thinking of shopping as a fun activity

  • Need less

First, know what you already have

How many times have you bought an ingredient for a recipe at the grocery store, only to come home and realize you already had it? Or how about buying a replacement for something you were certain was lost, then finding it a few months later?

Most people don’t know how much they have unless they have to pack it up to move. Then it seems like the contents of their drawers, cabinets, and closets are bottomless pits that take forever to empty. Look back at my story about my friends Rene and Jim from when they moved from a house to an RV. They thought they’d gotten rid of most of their stuff—until they came to pick up the remainder with the largest U-Haul you can rent, and it didn’t all fit.

So first, use my 5-step decluttering system to clear out the excess, then take note of what you have already.

Be grateful for what you have now

At the risk of sounding like your mother, “There are starving children in Africa.” So appreciate what you already own, rather than thinking you need something better. You may not have everything you want, or even everything you need. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be thankful for what you do have. Honor it for how it serves you, and find a place of contentment that exists outside of your possessions.

How do you do this? Take the time each day to find three things to be grateful for. Write them down, say them out loud, or just close your eyes and think. They don’t have to be big things; you can be glad that a stoplight turned green, or that a stranger smiled at you. For some people, waking up each day is enough to be thankful for. If you have trouble, think globally. Some examples are “I’m thankful to live in an age that has plumbing and electricity,” or “I’m grateful that penicillin was discovered.” You can even express gratitude for the same thing from one day to the next.

Figure out what you need right now, and only buy that

If you’ve ever seen an ad for something on sale and suddenly “realized” that you didn’t know you needed it, you’re probably a victim of marketing. Coming up with a reason to buy something because you saw it in the store does not equate to having a need for it. This is a sneaky type of impulse buying that occurs when marketing nudges us in that direction.

So plan out your shopping trips. For groceries, plan your meals for the week and then look in the fridge and cabinets. Write down the ingredients you don’t already have and buy only those. You’re protecting both your wallet and waistline that way.

For items other than food, research the heck out of things before you even step into a store. First of all, determine whether you really need it. If it’s a big purchase ($100 or whatever amount you decide), I recommend a purchase pause. Wait at least 24 hours (I prefer a week or a month) before buying. If you haven’t needed it during the pause, you probably don’t need it at all.

If you decide it’s a necessary purchase, go through the internet and look at product options. Don’t just buy the first one you see. Check features, benefits, and price. Look for coupons or other discounts. If buying online, figure tax and shipping into the total cost as well. If in person, call the store before you go to make certain it’s in stock.

If you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, don’t settle. Wait. You will find it, or discover that you didn’t actually need it.

Consider how many hours you’ll have to work to pay for something

What’s your hourly rate? Will it take you three hours of work to purchase dinner out? A week’s pay to buy that dress? It’s not so appealing when you think of how much time you’ll have to slave away at your job to buy something. I’m sure you have to work hard for your money. Make certain what you’re spending it on is worth it.

Also take into account that your investment of time and money into ownership doesn’t end when you buy it. What will it cost you to house, use, and maintain what you bought? Will it take time, money, and space away from something (or someone) else that is more important?

If you’re using credit to buy something, add interest and fees to your cost in labor to pay for it. At that point you are toiling away to pay for something you don’t even own yet.

Lastly, consider the cost of lost opportunity. You spent this money, so you can no longer invest it to create revenue through interest or dividends. Will this affect your retirement or other savings goals?

Buy quality now, save more later

It’s a myth that buying the cheaper item saves you money in the long run. The adage “You get what you pay for” is often true, especially these days. Manufacturers are spitting out items faster than ever, while cutting down on quality control. If you’re thinking that inkjet printer you bought is wearing out faster than its predecessor, you’re right. Planned obsolescence infringes into more places all the time, from clothing to electronics to houses.

So it’s better to save up more now for something of higher quality. Otherwise, when you’ve bought three of the lesser quality over the same period, you’ve lost out.

Sometimes, you just won’t find something good in what’s offered new. That’s why I buy most of my clothes used at thrift stores.

Stop viewing shopping as something fun to do

Some people claim to like or even love to shop. But it probably isn’t the shopping they love. Maybe they enjoy the socializing that happens when they go with people they like to the mall. Or if they’re socially isolated, maybe interactions with the store clerks are pleasurable because they’re lonely. Maybe they’re bored, or nervous, or stressed out, and are using “retail therapy” to feel better.

Or maybe the enjoyment is the temporary high they get from spending money, the sense of satisfaction you receive from making the purchase itself. But it can be a hard fall when you need that money for something else and it’s no longer available.

There are many better ways to spend time with friends, or by yourself, without shopping.

  • Cook a meal together at home

  • Go for a walk or hike

  • Watch reruns of your favorite show

  • Read a book

  • Just sit and talk

Need less

We all have a baseline of necessities required to function in our daily lives. But most of us overestimate how much we actually need to get by. Over the years, I’ve stopped spending money on many things that I used to use on autopilot, thinking that I needed them As I get older and wiser, that list of “what I need” gets smaller all the time.

I’m sure if you think hard enough, you can find something you’re buying that you don’t need. I wrote an article a while back called 14 Things to Stop Buying to Save Money. It has way more than 14 things in it. The article may inspire you with more ideas.

Final thoughts on buying stuff you don’t need

It’s probably been a long, slippery slope of consumerism to get to where you are now. I’ll advise as I always do with being more minimalist: it’s ok to go slowly. Focus on something small—like resisting buying that extra bag of chips at the store. Work your way up from there.

Eventually, you will get to a place of equilibrium. You will know when you’ve reached that point. Until then, count each small step as a win.

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