Impulse Spending: The Present and the Past

I had a wave of nostalgia on Friday. My brother called to tell me that there was a problem with the computer network at the box factory. Though I no longer work for the family business, I'm still the company's computer guy. So, I drove out to the office, tinkered with the network, and ended up having to make a run to Fry's Electronics to pick up some parts.

Not so long ago, Fry's was the source of much of my impulse spending. I bought computers and computer accessories, computer games and computer books. I bought compact discs and DVDs and stereo equipment. I burned through a lot of money in that store. Walking through the doors on Friday brought back a flood of memories.

I picked up the computer parts I needed and then, on a whim, I decided to look at the computer games. I've felt a little burned out lately, and I've been thinking that a good single-player game might be the perfect way to blow off steam. (I'm afraid to begin playing World of Warcraft again because I know I'll just get sucked in.)

I stood in the Mac games section (mercifully a fraction the size of the PC games section) and looked at the options. There was a time when I'd know everything about each of these games. Gaming was my hobby. Now, though, I know nothing. Is Call of Duty good? What about Age of Empires III? I used to love Star Wars games — maybe I should pick up one of those?

In the end, I didn't buy anything. I could easily afford the purchase, and I wouldn't feel guilty about it, but I just couldn't justify buying a game blindly. Plus, I would have been making the purchase on impulse. It's one thing to buy something I know I'll love; it's something else to buy something just for the sake of buying it.

Back at the box factory, I spent a couple of hours getting the network up and running. As I waited for various machines to reboot, I looked though a big box of CDs I'd left behind when I quit my job.

The box was filled not only with music CDs, but also with a decade's worth of computer software. There were dozens of games, many of which I had bought for full price ($40), installed on my computer, but never played. There were $400 database applications I had purchased because I might teach myself how to use one. There was a full version of Adobe Illustrator that I had never figured out how to use.

“There must be close to $5,000 worth of CDs in this box,” I thought, flipping through the dusty jewel cases. But then I corrected myself. I had spent about $5,000 to purchase the CDs in that box, but they're worth almost nothing today. A few of the games have sentimental value (Re-volt is one of the best games I have ever played and I'm tempted to get it running on my Mac), but most of the software is worthless now.

As I drove home, I thought about the J.D. of 1999 and the J.D. of today. The J.D. of 1999 could not have walked out of Fry's without buying something. Or many somethings. But then he would have felt guilty and dirty for days afterward — until he forgot about the purchase and it just became another debt that he owed.

But my attitude is completely different today. Today I'm out of debt. I can afford to purchase the music and games that I want. But mostly I don't. I'll buy something if I know I'll use it, but it's rare now that I make an impulse purchase. I no longer shop just for the sake of shopping.

I'll admit that there are times that I long for the free-spending days of years gone by. But you know what? That J.D. of 1999 could never have afforded a Mini Cooper (used or otherwise). He was trapped in a job that he hated. He dreamed of travel but could not go. He spent a lot on Stuff that did not matter — but spent very little on the things that did.

I prefer the man that I've become. I like knowing that Kris and I will have no problem saving for our trip to France and Italy next year. I like driving my Mini and knowing that it's mine (and not the bank's). And I also like knowing that I can do a little research, find a computer game that looks promising, and then buy a copy — all without an ounce of guilt.

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Jason W.
Jason W.

I think you hit it on the head here. This feeling is so hard to describe to someone still living within the realm of ever revolving debt (try explaining it to the girls you date who inevitably fear that you are secretly a cheapskate). I love buying things. The old me gets bored and goes to the used game store, a Best Buy, Nebraska Furniture Mart, or (scariest of all) Cabella’s seeking something to do and talking myself into a significant purchase. Yesterday in a similar fit of seeking something to do and not happy with the natural options I… Read more »

J Brown
J Brown

The road to your today is not easy. I am in the journey now, and see the light thanks to guidance of others. At the moment, I am really fighting back an urge to buy a ‘toy’. I do not need it now. I could have used it 2 weeks ago, but now I am done with the deck via borrowed tools. The debt snowball is working well and we have 3 debts to go. The progress is slow, but meaningful and powerful. Nearly every weekend, we are trying to clean out our history of stuff. This helps with some… Read more »

Foxie
Foxie

Great post!! This is how I try to live my life now, even though I never really went into debt with a “previous life.” Had a little bit of consumer debt, killed it in just over a year while it was small, and have moved on from that sort of thing before we got stuck! Most of the time I’d rather have my savings in the bank. But I also built in a tiny bit of money for those, “Oh! I have to have that!” moments… Only a tiny bit, though. I cap myself at $35 every two weeks, and… Read more »

Richby30Retireby40Blog
Richby30Retireby40Blog

Nice post JD. You’ve changed your mindset which is what’s most important.

A game is not just the cost of a game, but the time spent playing that game when you could have done something more productive.

If ever you throw a garage sale, you’ll think twice about spending full retail and purchasing new things too.

Best,

RB

Sarah Vela
Sarah Vela

So inspirational, really. I’m happy for you!

I’m also shocked at the wasteful purchases I’ve made over the years – and then dragged around with me from house to house. After this move, I finally am going through boxes and getting rid of that clutter – my version of your CD box left behind at work.

Feels good to walk into a Fry’s, or a Gap, or even the supermarket, knowing exactly what I’m doing there, and walking out with exactly what I came for.

Grampa Ken: 7 Decades c/w potholes
Grampa Ken: 7 Decades c/w potholes

Impulse buying is such a widespread problem. It would be so much easier to resist without the intense and excessive advertising we’re faced with every day.

Much of the stuff we buy brings no personal achievement or lasting happiness and often is unnecessary and wasteful.

With billions of advertising dollars directed at kids impulse buying will be around for a long time.

Advertising can sell junk as needs, garbage as food.

Malisa
Malisa

I’m trying to figure out where to link, copy, or keep a print of this. I’ve just started my journey and have a hill to climb. I’m prepared (excited?) about the journey. I think dh will tire of the journey quickly (particularly when we venture into someplace like Fry’s). And J Brown #2 “The progress is slow, but meaningful and powerful.” My journey will not be quick. It was a long trip to get here and it’ll be a long one to leave here. But that’s how I’ll make sure I don’t end up back. Several previous quick fixes were… Read more »

CarolH
CarolH

I’m at a different point in my life, just transitioning from a full-time career in education to part-time work as an independent consultant as I ease into retirement. I do understand, though, how you feel about visiting the computer store–especially the flood of emotions–like visiting an old friend you missed more than you realized. Although my husband and I use credit cards (and pay them off in full each month), we’ve always saved up in advance for big purchases, home improvement projects, trips, cars, etc. It’s the week to week smaller purchases for my hobbies of sewing, quilting, cross-stitching that… Read more »

KC
KC

I think this post gets at the root of impulse shopping. I’ve enjoyed a few games (mostly text driven baseball and football management games) and they can be quite time consuming. So if you really are a gamer and try a lot of games how do you have time for it? Seems like the 2-3 games you enjoy most would occupy all your free time (and likely some of your work and family time). How could you have time for more games? Well I think that question gets to the root of the spending problem. You don’t need the new… Read more »

Don
Don

Hi, thanks for this post. It makes a lot of sense. This affected me not so much about spending less money on videogames, but spending less time. A lot of times I find myself playing out of procrastination from doing other tasks or anger that I didn’t achieve a high enough score. The motivation to play by negative feelings leaves me empty and unfulfilled even at the end of whatever scores I was setting out to accomplish. More recently I have been trying to approach videogames with more of an active, I want to have fun, mindset than a passive,… Read more »

Tyler@FrugallyGreen

I’ve never had a debt problem, but I can certainly identify with the impulse spending problem. It was a few years ago that I realized if I bought every new little gadget that I wanted, I’d never have any money to buy the bigger, more important things that I’d eventually want. Although you got a little ribbing from some, your post the day you bought the mini-cooper with cash is one of my favorite posts on the site. Like you said, if you hadn’t changed your mindset, you would have never been in a position to do that. Getting control… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski

I’ve recently been put in the annoying position of having planned out purchases in advance that all seem reasonable, but still need to be purchased. We recently moved into a new home and bought a barbeque, patio set, and two bicycles. Part of the motivation for moving was *because* we’d be able to have these things at the new place (we moved from an apartment), but the purchase of all of them makes me feel uncomfortable about the amount of money I’ve been spending lately. I didn’t buy any of these things on credit, but I realize keeping up this… Read more »

Mike
Mike

JD,

This is probably your very best post. Your post is an inspiration to me, as I barely just crossed the point at which I have stopped all my fluff spending. Kudos!

-mike

Bryan
Bryan

If you want a video game to blow off some steam, find a library that checks out video games. You won’t have to buy the game, and when you get bored with it, you just take it back to the library. Most of the bigger libraries have online catalogs and you can reserve the popular games without even leaving your house.

Egirl
Egirl

Excellent post JD! As a nearly reformed impulse shopper, I fully identify with your walk down memory lane. I too have looked around at things I never used but spent good money on. Most of that stuff ended up in the trash or given to charity. It feels great to be a different person now, but I still struggle with impulse purchases on occasion. I’m particularly vulnerable when I’m frustrated or have worked especially hard for a long period of time and feel like I haven’t gotten a “reward for all my suffering”. One of my favorite treats is an… Read more »

Mario
Mario

Call of Duty is a helluva lot of fun, but you’ll need a PC with great specs to enjoy the visuals, which are amazing. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 2 comes out this Fall. But, it’s a violent game.

Tarek
Tarek

Not only can I almost always come back to buy the game later, but I can go home and comparison shop at other stores and online to see what other prices are offered. This desire for a better price, cuts down on impulse buys at the store.

I also don’t “comfort” shop too much. The best way to reduce impulse buys, is for me not to the store in the first place. And even when I do, I don’t buy because I always think of this website!

seawallrunner
seawallrunner

I was flipping through the pages of an older issue of Real Simple last night, and came across an ad from Lowe’s (home supplies, building supplies). A picture of a very elegant living room graces the full page ad. The copy below reads “You popped in for a gallon of paint. You walked out with a new living room.” And then “Our commitment to providing low prices that can’t be beat means that you’ll find home decor comparable to upscale design stores at a fraction of the cost.” That is catnip to my eyes. Younger Seawallrunner would have gone in… Read more »

Erica Douglass
Erica Douglass

Hi J.D.,

The good news is you may be able to sell some of those (particularly the Adobe products) for more than you’d think on eBay…especially if they qualify for upgrades to the latest version. Also, some folks want the older versions since they have older computers or kids who want to learn but don’t need the latest.

-Erica

Nathan Hangen
Nathan Hangen

This is a great post. I remember reading your blog years ago, long before I started making my own living online. Your experience at Fry’s is like my experience coming back here. Amazing how life changes, especially if you can dare to take chances.

...
...

Indeed. Never buy anything on purchase, get the most bang for you buck. In the example of video games, read a variety of reviews first, and watch videos of gameplay. If it’s good, but not replayable enough, just rent it or buy it when the price has dropped enough.

Tim
Tim

let’s not forget the lost revenue from the box you stole from the family’s box company to store the cd’s and software in. so, JD’s family also paid for JD of old’s impulse purchases.

Sam
Sam

I had a similar experience when I was at the mall right before Christmas last year. I was there to return something and the excess consumerism really almost made me sick to my tummy.

While I still shop I do most of it on-line and with research and a well thought out plan. Hitting the mall, TJ Maxx, or Target used to be a habit but now I only go if I’ve got a list and a plan.

Richby30Retireby40Blog
Richby30Retireby40Blog

Also, I actually think it’s ok to impulse buy and such at times…. so long as you ask clearly “WHAT IS THE RETURN POLICY?”.

I bought a $435 pair of Tod’s loafers yesterday. Ridiculous, I know, but it’s a darn good looking loafer with the rubber sole i like. However once I see the bill show up on my CC, I know i’m going to just return it. I have 30 days. Better to just not be lazy and find a nice $60-100 pair of loafers!

Rgds,

RB

Rich By 30

Jon
Jon

This is the true story of what freedom really means. Not being slaves to ‘stuff’, but making the choices about what we want to bring into our lives.

Great stuff.

The Tim
The Tim

Aw man, you tricked me into reading a post that I thought was about the awesome Wilsonville Fry’s, but it just turned out to be another excuse to talk about your Mini!

;^)

Gina
Gina

I struggle daily, I just purged so much STUFF from my house and have a lot more to go before I feel great about my house.

Then this morning I opened up the newspaper and rushed out to buy STUFF that I may use in my classroom, but I certainly didn’t need.

It’s a hard cycle to break, that’s why I’m still reading about other people’s journeys.

Cormac
Cormac

Hmm, well on the game front, send me an email J.D. if you are interested in getting into the closed (for a little bit longer) beta for Champions Online. It’s an MMO, but since we’re in closed beta we’re currently only open for players two days a week. 🙂 Granted we’re turning the servers on 24/7 soon so I guess there is some risk if you find a superhero MMO overly compelling.

a.b.
a.b.

JD,
I truly loved this post. It did leave me with a couple questions. Did it take you 10 years to get out of debt? Were there more impulse hiccups on the way or fewer than you expected? I’m currently navigating through what I estimate will be six years to debt freedom, and I’m worried about the endurance needed and how I will overcome the inevitable setbacks.

Thank you to all!

Manshu
Manshu

I like the way you distinguish between the price you pay and what something is worth. That distinction alone can take years to dawn upon.

Chiot's Run
Chiot's Run

I would buy Diabo II, or wait for Diable III. It’s a favorite Mr Chiots and I play together. We’re also big fans of Caesar III, we’ve been playing that for years! Sometimes there no use buying a new game if you can keep playing the old ones and having fun! We’ve only bought a few games in our years of playing and we take a break for a year or two and then get back into them.

Austin
Austin

Haha! Fry’s Electronics…I can remember a couple years back when I would go to make many purchases at that store because of all the promotions and discounts. However, the annoying part would be that by the time I got to the store (even sometimes on the day the promotions were announced) the item would be out of stock. After multiple trips like this, I realized how foolish I was being because more often than I didn’t need the promotion items. I had allowed myself to be lured by “The Deal”, which goes something like, “Oh I can get this on… Read more »

Kevin
Kevin

JD,

I’ve been reading your blog for over a year and this story is the first time I think you’ve truly rounded the corner. You should be proud of yourself for curbing the impulsiveness that can at times be your achilles heel (financially speaking).

Jay
Jay

What has always killed me, and my weak link is electronics as well, is that as soon as you buy something a newer better version has come out. In the past 10 years I have purchased 5 laptops, and on top of that used another 5 from my work. That’s access to 1 laptop per year, and I still couldn’t keep up with the technology curve. Now after chasing the newest, fastest, shiniest thing on the block I am learning to be happy with what I have. The last purchase was a 300 dollar laptop that Wal-Mart was running a… Read more »

jtimberman
jtimberman

“If you eat enough lobster, it tastes like soap”

“I go into the Mall and can buy anything in there, but I just don’t want any of it”

Both quotes from Dave Ramsey, after getting out of debt and having money to buy things, he found he just didn’t want things. Its an aspect of financial maturity. I’m glad I’ve reached the same position, I have less crap filling up my life and my house.

Maya
Maya

Amen to that! What I have found that works for me is if I go into one of my favorite stores, I walk in there with the exact CASH for what I need to purchase. I leave the credit/debit card at home or in the car. That way I know that I cant really but any more stuff. It has worked wonders for me because sometimes I used to walk into Trader Joes (one of my favorite grocery stores) to get milk and I end up spending $50-60 because they have something that if I come in next time they… Read more »

Terry
Terry

How many times have I innocently walked into a store and found a million reasons why it’s okay to purchase something? This is the last time I will buy this. My credit card balance is low; it’s okay. I love it and it’s on sale! I’m not doing this for me, I’m doing it for them. Hey, I have some extra cash! We all have these emotions and thoughts coursing through our heads at some time. Real millionaires with solid finances realize that spending money on stuff doesn’t buy lasting happiness. In the short term, it’s pleasurable but financially disastrous.… Read more »

Kevin
Kevin

There is a way you can still scratch that gamers itch. Why not just reclaim some of those unplayed games from the box of stuff you left behind? That way you can finally get some value from the dollars spent years ago, without the need to feel guilty on a new purchase and find you need a PC hardware update as well.

Sara
Sara

Conversely, once you have adjusted your spending/saving behavior so that you are financially responsible, the rare (relatively inexpensive) impulse spend is so much more pleasurable 🙂

Stephanie
Stephanie

Thanks so much for this post. I am getting out of debt and, while the sacrifices sometimes hurt, I am relieved that I don’t have to think about money as much any more. I, too, have experienced this – I had to drop my son off at a music class, and kill an hour in a shopping centre before picking him up and driving him home. Previously I would have hit the stores and picked him up laden with bags (probably blowing anywhere from $50 to $200). Now I generally go have a coffee and *maybe* buy a magazine and… Read more »

Lily
Lily

@Jay
“People just need something that works for them, not every one needs a laptop (the Mac) that’s been washed in Unicorn tears”.

Hahaha! But Mac computers in general are “what work for people”. Mac users appreciate their computers for their simplicity, reliability, user-friendliness, despite their being viewed as snobs who look for “unicorn tears” or whatever. And not everybody want every new model. I’ve had my first Mac laptop for 5 years, I plan on using my 2 yr old one for many years to come.

Trevor
Trevor

I think it is good that you change and evolve with your spending. I think when you first start to make money you want to spend because you havn’t had this much money before then as you make extra money you realise that you already have a lot of impulse buys and may be saving to buy the expensive items is more important to you know. I can’t really remember the last time I bought something and sometimes that makes me sad because I would expect to see more money in my account! But it is nice to know that… Read more »

DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad
DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad

JD good job at getting in and getting out– no need to linger in a place that once provided irresistable temptation.

Chetan
Chetan

Great post and it applies completely to me as well. In fact, you could have substituted my name in for yours in the post and it would be been right on the mark. I’m currently struggling with GPS-itis. This disease affects people who don’t have a GPS and want to buy one – even if they don’t really need it (myself being the prime example) since they travel out of town thrice a year. I’ve been affected by this disease for the past 6 months but so far the medication (aka will-power) has won out and I think I’m almost… Read more »

Moral in Question
Moral in Question

One way I save money is when I am at best buy or another game store, is knowing that if i just wait and go home I can get it for free. By downloading it off a torrent. Now, I know to most that’s morally wrong, but i found that is a great way to save. Everyone gets rich slowly in their own ways, some ditch out on charity others just infringe on copyrights..

-Subjective Reality.

Jenny
Jenny

I know exactly how you feel! I ran in to the mall with a friend to pick up on item and I left with only that one item while my friend left with over $100 in impulse purchases. I was so proud of myself. I saw several things I would have liked but did not make those purchases because they weren’t in my budget just now.

Kevin@OutOfYourRut

The impulse thing is tough to manage. There’s some sort of (cheap) sense of power or independence or something that comes with it, and that’s what makes it hard to beat. Boredom adds an element of motivation. JD–good job being “there” already. For those of us who aren’t, it’s probably a good idea to invest some time finding a hobby or two that don’t cost any money, but can fill the free time in our lives. Excercise comes to mind, as long as you don’t join a gym or buy a bunch of excercise equipment to get you in the… Read more »

mike
mike

The trick is to not get trapped at retail stores. Everyone looks forward to big purchases. It’s why hordes of iNerds hang outside of the Apple store at the launch of the iPhone (I can’t hate – I was one of them). And it’s a big deal. You’ve been looking forward to this day for a very long time. This is where a little planning goes a long way. Walking into the store, buying your expensive item, and then buying whatever accessories that you need/want completely screws you big time. It’s one of the biggest retail traps. Do a little… Read more »

mbrogz3000
mbrogz3000

Video games aren’t the same as they used to be. Its all about the game company making as much money as they can. The norm now is to develop a killer game (aka GoW), and give you a little taste of the experience with the first go around. This is done by making the main game campaign only 5-6 hours. The game ends with an open ended ending which doesn’t quite provide closure to the story in the game, and you end up wanting more. And you get more in the sequel, which is usually nothing more than a refined… Read more »

Dar
Dar

RE: #45 — I really get disgusted by people who think that they’re entitled to other people’s work for free. I don’t care if it’s music, games, movies, or software–people worked to produce it, and they deserve to be compensated for their work by the people who use their product.

You’re not frugal. You’re just cheap.

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