How self-centered shopping has made me happier with the things I buy
I've changed the way I shop over the past few years. And although the shift has been subtle, I've found that I'm much happier with the things I buy.
In the past, my approach to shopping was simple. If I wanted a new thneed, I would go to a store (or, with the advent of the internet, a website) and choose from the available thneeds. I'd look at the store's selection (or the website's selection) and pick the one best suited for me.
If the thneed I wanted was particularly expensive or important, I might expand my search to multiple stores or multiple websites. But usually, I stuck with the first store I visited.
The key point here is that I allowed the places I shopped to impose limits on the thneeds available to me. I think of this approach as “store-centered shopping”. Whatever the store has in stock defines my universe of options.
Now that I'm older, I've flipped the script. Instead of allowing the marketplace to define which thneeds are available to me, I decide exactly what I want before I begin my search. I put myself and my needs first. Once I know what I want, I take the time to locate it. What I want is almost always out there somewhere — if I'm patient enough to track it down.
I think of this approach “self-centered shopping”. I'm putting me first, and that's a Good Thing. In fact, that's an Excellent Thing! This method consistently leads to greater satisfaction with the things I buy. Instead of picking up cheap, mass-market thneeds, I'm buying thneeds that feel as if they were specifically made for me.
Let me give you a concrete example.
Buying a Wallet
Every five years or so, I need to replace my wallet. The old one wears out (or gets lost), so I buy a new one.
The way this has always worked for me is simple. My wallet falls apart (or turns up missing), so I head to a nearby department store to look at their selection. I browse the wallets on display, pick the one I like best, then buy it. It becomes my wallet for the next five years.
This is how I've always bought wallets since my very first one. I've been doing it for more than thirty years.
In 2019, I noticed my wallet was beginning to fall apart again. “Time to buy another,” I thought to myself, and I realized I was dreading the experience. Just as always, I'd go to the store and choose from a wide selection of sameness. But here's the thing: I don't like most wallets. They work for other people, but they don't work for me.
I'm not George Costanza. I don't carry a lot, and I certainly don't pack much cash. I just need something that fits in my pocket and allows me access to a few cards. I don't want bulk, and I don't need leather. I wanted to buy a wallet that worked the way I worked.
Around this time, I happened to walk past a Secrid store. Secrid is a Dutch company that manufacturers minimalist, metal-based wallets. Intrigued, I stepped inside to browse their selection. I nearly bought a Secrid Cardprotector that day, but ultimately decided they were too minimal. (The Cardprotector lets you carry six cards, but that's about it.) When I left the store, though, I knew I'd use a different approach to buying this wallet.
I made a list of the things I wanted in a wallet. I wanted:
- The slimmest form factor possible. I used the Cardprotector as a baseline: 63mm x 102mm and 40 grams.
- A clear slot for my driver license.
- The ability to carry both my personal credit cards and my business credit cards.
- A place to carry three or four banknotes.
- A little bit of extra room for things like insurance info, my library card, and receipts.
With these parameters in mind, I scouted Amazon. I checked REI. I visited other stores and sites. I found plenty of minimalist wallets – including lots of Secrid knock-offs — but nothing that met my needs.
Then I remembered Tom Bihn. The Tom Bihn company specializes in travel gear. Their Synapse 19 is my go-to backpack not only for daily use, but also for extended international travel. (No joke: I've used this simple 19-liter bag for three weeks of European travel before.) Tom Bihn is terrific at packing a lot of features into a small amount of space. Did they sell a travel wallet? They did!
The Tom Bihn minimalist wallet was exactly what I was looking for: three pockets and the same size as the Secrid Cardprotector (but half the weight). If I were to design a wallet for myself, this is what I'd design. I bought one. I've been using it ever since, and I love it. (Kim loves it too. She ordered one for herself, and she'll now often carry that instead of a purse.)
My wallet story is a simple example that illustrates my new approach: self-centered shopping. I used to allow stores to define my universe of options, which meant that I rarely bought the thneed I actually wanted. I simply bought the closest thing available to my ideal.
Today, I'm fussier. I've learned to take the time to think through what it is I truly want in a thneed before I buy one. I quite literally take out an index card and make a list of requirements so that I don't forget something important while I'm shopping.
Yes, this self-centered shopping approach is often more expensive, but I'm okay with that. As I get older, my patience for poor quality grows shorter and shorter. When I buy things — especially things I use every day — I want quality. I want them to meet my needs. And, if possible, I want them to be a pleasure to use. To quote Marie Kondo, I want the thneeds I buy to “spark joy”.
I feel like self-centered shopping is one of those things that some people will consider blindingly obvious: “Of course that's how you should buy things! Why would you do otherwise?” But for me, this is a new concept.
When I was young, our buying choices were limited. We lived in a small town in rural Oregon. Plus, my family was poor. When I wanted to buy a thneed, I could choose from those available at Mangus Variety or Parson's Pharmacy. That's it.
Today, though, I'm older, which means I'm more patient. I have more money than I did when I was younger. And, most importantly, the internet exists. When I want a thneed, I'm not limited to the stock on hand at the pharmacy and department store. Without exaggeration, I can buy any thneed in the world…if I can find it. And that's why I start by defining exactly what it is I want before I begin my search.
This self-centered shopping approach has also drastically reduced my impulse shopping. Turns out I mostly succumb to impulse shopping when I don't actually know what I want!
Becoming Product Loyal
There's been an interesting side effect to this self-centered shopping. It's made me very loyal to specific products from specific companies. When I find something I like, I buy it again and again and again. When it's time to replace my wallet, for instance, I'll buy the exact same wallet from Tom Bihn.
Or, take my hiking boots. Every five to seven years, I replace a pair of Timberland Chocorua. (The Amazon history belo0w makes it look like I'm ordering them more often, but that's because I have two pairs in rotation at once: a “work” pair and a “dress” pair. Each pair lasts five to seven years.)
I've been wearing these boots almost daily for fifteen years, much to Kim's chagrin. I'll be sad if they're ever discontinued.
So, my old shopping process was: Realize I need a new thneed, go to the store (or website), and buy the best match.
My new self-centered shopping process is:
- Take time to decide exactly what I want in a thneed.
- Search extensively to find potential matches. Buy one.
- If the thneed works, great. If not, return it and buy something different. (I almost never have to return anything, though, if I've taken the time to list the features I want.)
- When I learn a thneed is a perfect match, I buy it over and over.
Looking around my writing desk this morning, I see that most of the things I use every day have now been acquired through self-centered shopping. Here are a few of the tools I bought by searching for exactly what I wanted. These are tools that I buy (or plan to buy) repeatedly because they're perfect for me.
- Pentel GraphGear 1000 0.5 mm mechanical pencils (except I buy them in blue and red, not pink)
- Pigma Micron 005 pens
- Hobonichi Techo daily planners (although fellow notebook nerd Tanja Hester has convinced me to try the Kokuyo Jibun Techo for 2023)
- Exacompta 100×150 index cards (and Oxford mini index cards)
- Grovemade leather desk pad (and a wool deskpad for the desk return)
Actually, my desk itself was bought my self-centered shopping method. I'd been using a $90 IKEA desk for more than a decade, but it was woefully inefficient. And messy. I hated it. When we moved to Corvallis last year, I took the time to figure out what my “dream desk” would look like. Then I spent a couple of weeks shopping online and off to locate a match. I eventually found an excellent L-shaped traditional desk at a local furniture store, and that's what I'm using today.
There are still a few tools at my desk that I acquired with my old “buy whatever the store has” method: my microphone, my second monitor (so awful!), my pencil sharpener. But you know what? These things work just fine. I'm in no rush to replace them. When I do replace them someday, I'll use my self-centered shopping method.
Here's another reason I think self-centered shopping works so well for me.
When I take the traditional approach to buying a wallet, for example, I go to the store and look at the options. There's usually forty or fifty wallets from which to choose. It's overwhelming. I'm paralyzed by the paradox of choice.
With self-centered shopping, though, I don't have a lot of options. Often, it's a struggle to find even one perfect match. This means that I can search until I find one product that fits my criteria, then call it a day. I'm not overwhelmed, and I don't experience the regret that usually comes when you have too many options.
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Yes. I am done with things that don’t really work for my needs. I think of it as getting rid of the alligators in my life from the Happy Philosopher https://thehappyphilosopher.com/alligators-and-kittens/ but the result for purchasing is what you describe as selfish shopping. Previously I would just add more stuff to try to make up for the deficits of what I had already. I might call it discerning shopping instead of selfish though. 🙂 I am also leaning towards the “buy it once” concept too – as in purchasing durable high quality products that will last, especially for things that are not really having innovation cycles.
Hey! Here’s a real-life example of when I want to use self-centered shopping. Today on the dog walk, Tally’s retractable leash broke. The spring sprung. We have a back-up retractable leash, so we’re okay for now. But assuming I’m unable to repair the leash (and I’ve never been able to in the past), then I need to buy a new one. So, time for me to start thinking about the features I want in a retractable leash. How long? What material? What capabilities? Yes, I could just go down to the pet store and by a new one. That’s what I’ve done in the past. But the leashes I’ve bought in the past have all been pretty junky. I’m looking for something better. That’s where self-centered shopping comes in.
It’s tempting to just search the web for “best retractable leash” but searches like this are worse than useless. They don’t actually return the best anything. They return page after page after page from sites that have simply collected a list of leashes and labeled them as “best” so that they can earn sales commissions when people link through. (I harbor a great deal of anger to folks who have built web sites like this because they’ve ruined the web for everyone.) So, once again, the smart thing is to make a list of features I want, then track down leashes that have them.
I always buy “tape” retractable leashes vs cords because I find the leash fabric to be more durable and less likely to get a rope burn from 🙂 I’ve had one with a gel handle that I’ve had for quite a few years that I found at a nearby farmer’s co-op!
I actually think this approach can save money in the long run, because when I buy something that is almost, but not quite what I want, I often end up buying several more iterations before I finally get it right. I’m just not really being honest with myself when I think, “Oh, close enough, this one will do.”
I took this approach when buying my new place. I wrote a very LONG list of features that my ideal place would have than carried it around to all the viewings I went to. I ended up buying the place that checked off most of the items on the list. But I was really unsure. The previous home that I bought, I had walked into the place and new immediately, in my gut, that I wanted to live there. I did not have that visceral feeling with the new place I was buying. But I went ahead with the purchase anyways because I was desperate for a place to live. For the first year after moving in I would walk up and pinch myself every morning to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. It’s turned out to be a great place to live. Moral of the story – put in place a good process and then trust the process!
I think this is excellent for the buying of practical things, and I think I will try and adapt some of these concepts. However, I have some hole that I fill with beautiful clothes that I can’t apply these rules to because I’m rarely shopping for a need, I’m just blind sided by the beauty of something that has been inserted into my web reading.
Now, I will state up front that this is not a financial issue, I have a budget, within which I stay, and I don’t do designer duds. But I know I’m buying far more than I need. We are retired and doing quite well due to a lifetime of frugality.
I realize this is an entirely different issue from that which you raised, I guess it is spending guilt, but your thoughts on that would be appreciated. Maybe it’s somewhat like when you were buying comics decades ago, only it really isn’t causing any problems.
Fabulous food for thought. Keep up the good work and sharing the treasures that you discover. I like the wallet and may have to give it a whirl next wallet around.
Agree with all of this and will add that once I am sure I like something, I will buy a few to have as future replacements to save me from having to look around all over again. Also, I am a dedicated card protector user – I carry 4-5 cards (2 credit cards, license, bankcard) and a folded $20. I realized that by just keeping the other cards I need fairly often (library card, insurance card, gift cards for coffee or wherever etc) in my car saves me from carrying a bunch of stuff around with me all the time. I also store all my receipts in a small coupon folder thing in my glove compartment. The thought being that if I am going to return something, I will be driving there, so can just get the receipt from the folder in the car. If I am going to pick up a prescription, I just gram my insurance card from the car.
I use https://paperwallet.com/pages/micro-wallet-lp for a minimal wallet. It works well. Their coin pouch is pretty good as well.
Can you use this same mentality when house shopping? It seems there is always a tradeoff in price, location, or condition with the purchase of a home.
I didn’t know you are a Hobonichi fan too!
Love, love, love the belroy slim sleeve wallet. https://bellroy.com/products/slim-sleeve-wallet?color=cocoa-java&material=leather#slide-0
I love this approach, but find it very difficult to execute. Not sure if this is because I’m at a lower price point, or because I’m a woman with women’s preferences. For example: I know exactly the wallet I would like to buy to replace the falling-apart one I’ve had for years. But I can’t FIND it. I have a very specific style and a reasonable budget in mind, but have not found anything that fits.
When I find shoes I like, I buy 2 pairs. But eventually even those 2 pairs wear out, and inevitably, when I go back to Clarke’s to buy them again, they’ve been discontinued. Same for my purses (though I only buy 1 of those).