This article was first published here. It has been republished with the author’s permission.
I used to fill my life with a lot of meaningless crap.
Another fancy watch. A new smartphone for no reason. Clothes I only wore once. And that was nice for a while… But over time, I realized a disquieting truth: I’d filled my life with empty stuff to feel better about myself, externalize my worries, and impress people I didn’t care about.
This was because I didn’t have the right tools to confront end-stage capitalism’s favorite dilemma:
“Should I buy it or not?”
In fact, this is a vastly overlooked issue. Every year, the average American spends $18,000 on non-essential items. We also spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches than on higher education. In India too, people spend, on average, 25-30% on retail and shopping. In a nutshell, we:
- Waste money on things we don’t need.
- Clutter our lives with meaningless stuff.
- Sacrifice time for meaningful activities to go shopping.
If that sounds familiar, this 3-question method might help. It’s based on everything I’ve ever learned about minimalism and money. Using this tool, I stopped dreading the “should I buy it or not” dilemma — everything I buy now carries meaning and worth.
All it takes are three questions:
- Why am I discontent with what I already have?
- How will this thing help me flourish?
- Would I take the cash instead?
Let’s break these down in detail.
Why Am I Discontent With What I Have?
Every purchase you make is a reaction to discontent. Think about it — our goal of spending money is to live better. But, of course, it’s not that easy. We get sidetracked.
This is because our consumer behavior isn’t rational (even though that’s what we like to believe). In reality, most things we buy are purely based on emotional impulses. We make a subconscious decision and then invent reasons to justify it.
Figure out the root cause of your dissatisfaction. Why do you feel like your current situation is not good enough? Here are three common triggers:
- Manipulative marketing. In the neighborhood I used to live, the streets were plastered with ads for a fitness studio. They pictured an attractive woman looking over her shoulder and sticking out her butt. The message was clear: “If I sign up for that gym, I’ll look like her.” Many marketing schemes are like this. They trigger a lack of worth. This tricks you into thinking you’ll finally be happy if you just buy that thing.
- The need for approval. We all play status games, even if we’re oblivious to them. And what’s one of the easiest ways to channel our status in the modern world? Shiny things. Ferraris. Villas. The rise of social media has poured gasoline over the bonfire of status because suddenly, everyone has an audience. It’s never been easier to shout, “Look at me, I have all these new things!”
- Filling the void. When we’re lonely or depressed, we’re much worse at managing our own behavior and emotions. We become far more likely to smoke, eat fast food, and… buy meaningless stuff. Worse, we can feel bad about these things afterward, which sends our mental health into a downward spiral.
The antidote to these three problems is the same: Awareness.
Once you notice the itch to buy something, look deeply at the trigger of your discontent. I’ve found it helps to fire a shotgun blast of questions at your monkey mind:
What is it you hope to attain with this purchase? What gap does it fill in your life? Is this just a quick fix to make you feel better? Is it a boost for your ego? Is there any chance the marketing scheme manipulated your emotions?
When you know your motivations, you can control your intentions.
I recently felt the urge to buy a new laptop. Initially, I reasoned I needed one because my current laptop had felt too heavy. Too clunky. But when I looked deeply at my discontent, the uncomfortable truth emerged:
- I needed the approval to look stylish, smart, and trendy. I could already envision it: I sit in a fancy cafe, hammering into the soft keys of my designer laptop, feeling like a million bucks.
- It had been a while since my last big purchase. Also, I’d been feeling lonely, and in a strange way, I thought a new laptop could fix that.
- The more I stared at the beautiful images of the laptop, and all the benefits explained on the company’s homepage, the more it won me over.
This “should I buy it or not” debate was purely emotional.
Now, the goal is not to suffocate your emotions. A new laptop might actually be a good idea for me. But only if I base the purchase on rational arguments, not emotional impulses.
How Will This Thing Help Me Flourish?
When thinking seriously about the question “Should I buy it?” we often swap it for a simpler one: Do I need this or do I want this?
The approach of substituting questions is good. But questioning our needs is wrong.
Why? Because we’re deeply confused about our needs and wants. As we’ve seen, it’s easy to justify a need when your emotions are in charge. Conversely, needs can snare us in modesty. (“Yeah, it crashes whenever I make calls, but overall it still works, so I don’t need a new one.” — A humble friend on his 10-year-old phone.)
This is not productive.
Here’s what we should ask ourselves instead:
How will this thing help me flourish?
How can this help me reach my full potential in life?
How good will it be to have this in 1/3/5 years from now?
If you find it hard to answer these questions, it might be a sign that you don’t know your real objectives in life. And that’s completely normal. Finding what matters to you is a constant process of discovery.
Whenever I feel insecure about my priorities, I find these two reminders helpful:
- Double down on the basics. These are the things that help you thrive on a daily basis: sleep, nutrition, exercise, work, and relationships. Almost every investment I made in these areas was worthwhile.
- Identify bigger themes. Looking back on the past years of your life, what things brought you long-lasting joy? And is there a theme among these things? I recently discovered that painting, playing the piano, and web design are more absorbing than I originally thought. The theme here is creativity, and it’s worth pursuing.
Think of it like this: everything you buy should pay long-term returns that improve your life. That’s also why tell-tale signs of meaningless purchases are feelings of emptiness and hunger. They mean that something didn’t help you flourish.
My brother owns three different bicycles. I used to think that’s absurd. What kind of person needs three bikes?
Turns out, exercise is an essential theme in my brother’s life. He told me biking helps him detach from work and worries because it’s not as short-lived as running or swimming. You can sustain it for hours. And all throughout, you catch fresh air and discover beautiful spots.
Biking helps my brother flourish immensely. And so, it makes sense that he owns a bike for every occasion: climbing mountains, racing the road, and commuting to work.
To other people, it might seem crazy. But in his life, these purchases carry meaning.
Would I Take the Cash Instead?
Counter-intuitively, the price should be your last consideration when answering, “Should I buy it?” Here’s why:
- Prices can deter you from buying something before you’ve even figured out if it would help you thrive. Sometimes, it makes sense to buy something outrageously expensive — provided it adds meaning to your life.
- Prices distort your perception of value. When offered a choice, we often go for more expensive options, even though the cheapest option would do just fine.
- Prices reflect demand and thus, make us chase (irrational) trends.
So: Define your objectives first, then look up the price, and then decide if you’re willing to pay it. Now, how can we make this decision?
One popular question is, “Can I afford this?” But I think we should substitute it for a better alternative:
Would I take the cash instead?
Here’s what I mean. Imagine you have the following choice:
- You can either have that thing you want for free or
- You can get its exact price in cash.
If you prefer the item, there’s a good chance it actually benefits your life. And that you value it enough to choose it over money. If, however, you’re drawn to the cash, it’s a sign you move on shaky financial terrain. Chances are, your money is better saved or spent elsewhere.
A few weeks ago, I went canoeing with a few friends. At this point, I already knew that time in nature and relationships are two vital objectives in my life.
But then I gulped at the price tag: $40.
For some reason, this seemed like a stratospheric amount to pay for a little weekend fun. But then, I imagined the choices on a pedestal: Either spend time doing something fun with people who matter to me. Or sack an extra $40 in my wallet.
This radically simplified the decision.
The money won’t matter in the grand scheme of things. But the quality time I spend with friends? I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.
Recap: Should I Buy It or Not?
This process has helped me make fewer but more meaningful purchases — I hope it can serve you the same purpose. Here are the three questions to consider:
- Why am I discontent with what I already have? Become aware of your motivations and driving emotions.
- How will this thing help me flourish? Figure out if the purchase will help you reach your full potential in life.
- Would I take the cash instead? Test if the benefits of a purchase outweigh saving money.
And if you’re still racking your brains about a “should I buy it or not” situation, here’s one last suggestion:
Wait one month. Then, return to this process. If marketing tactics (think: “This offer ends today!!”) make you feel stressed, that’s probably a sign you don’t need it in the first place. Any purchase that will sustainably improve your life can wait.
At this point, you might ask yourself, “Isn’t it exaggerated to put this much thought into everything I buy?” Maybe. And I admit: spending money without mulling over it can be fun.
But ultimately, the rewards of conscious consumption are priceless. Removing all the clutter creates a space to breathe.
A room for joy.
An opening for meaning.
This article has been written by Stephan Joppich, an engineer turned writer. Every piece that Stephan writes is driven by the question – “How can we live a more intentional, fulfilled life?” The article first appeared on his website.