Should you buy it? A flowchart for evaluating potential purchases

My husband and I are in the process of building a home on 4.5 acres in the Texas hill country. At the moment, we’re still in the planning phase — not quite ready for blueprints.

Last month, our architect asked us to start thinking about the make and model of the kitchen appliances we want for our home. Visions of sleek, Thermador cooktops and double ovens danced in my head. Even when I saw the hefty price tag, I thought maybe we could find other ways to cut back so that we could afford the dream oven. After all, we’re both avid cooks. To us, eating well is one of the best ways to enjoy life. There’s no doubt we’d use it, so the purchase makes sense. Right?

Reality Check From a Minimalist

Then I happened upon an article by Mark Bittman, who writes The Minimalist column in The New York Times. In “So Your Kitchen is Tiny. So What?” he describes how he makes do with 42 square feet of kitchen space, precious little counter space, and a stove that sometimes doubles as storage for pots and pans. It is in this space that he develops most of the recipes for his cookbooks.

But when he posted a photo of his kitchen on his blog, readers were shocked. Bittman writes:

[Chefs and food writers] know that when it comes to kitchens, size and equipment don’t count nearly as much as devotion, passion, common sense and, of course, experience.

To pretend otherwise — to spend tens of thousands of dollars or more on a kitchen before learning how to cook, as is sadly common — is to fall into the same kind of silly consumerism that leads people to believe that an expensive gym membership will get them into shape or the right bed will improve their sex life. As runners run and writers write, cooks cook, under pretty much any circumstance.

With my feet firmly back on the ground, the fancy cooktop and double oven were erased from our kitchen plans. We don’t need top-of-the-line appliances to do what we love. Sure, I’ll have to cope with the quirky nuances of our oven, which loves to cook my cupcakes unevenly just to spite me, but I’ve learned its ways and I work around it. We know where the hot spots are on the stovetop, and we’ve learned how to position the racks just so for even browning. Surely if we’ve managed with a slightly cantankerous oven for this long, we’d be just fine with a new, moderately-priced range.

We do love to cook — and we like to think we’re pretty good at it — but we don’t need a 36″ Thermador to let the world know that, hey, in case you weren’t aware, we’re serious about food. That wasn’t my conscious thought as I was drooling over appliances at Lowe’s, but Bittman’s article made me question my motives (and probably saved me a couple thousand dollars). Anything that could be cooked on a fancier stove can be cooked on a standard one.

Curbing Wants, Focusing on Needs

Because we’re building a house, it dawned on me that this is just the beginning of a long list of decisions we’ll have to make — each one with a price tag. Our goal is to keep expenses down as much as possible so that we don’t feel owned by our mortgage payment. We want to pay off the house early. We want to travel. We want the flexibility that a lower house payment affords us. My fear is that we’ll be faced with so many decisions that we might lose sight of our goals.

To help us stay on track, I started thinking about questions to ask ourselves as we’re faced with more and more building decisions. I organized the set of questions into a flowchart, which we’ll use as a tool to help ignore emotions and evaluate need.

My “Should I Buy It?” Flowchart

Let’s look at how this would work using my cooktop example:

  • First, we’d ask ourselves whether we can afford it. Technically, yes, we could.
  • Is it something we need? Yes, our house will need a cooktop of some sort.
  • Is there a less expensive option? Yes, a standard range is much less expensive.
  • Is the alternative durable? Yes, there are durable ranges. (We researched Consumer Reports articles on ranges for their top picks.)

Our result? The flowchart suggests we should purchase the less expensive option.

This chart could be used for small, personal purchases, as well. For example, I’ve been coveting a blue YogiToes towel for my yoga practice. Can I afford it? Yes. Is it something I need or lack? No. I have one in red. Flowchart says don’t buy it.

I know we’ll want a few nicer features in our home, but it’s important that our spending decisions are made consciously. Little upgrades here and there could easily add up to a sizable mortgage in the end. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being in credit card debt, it’s that the seemingly small things accumulate quickly. The only way to combat this is to be conscious of what we buy — and why we are buying it by constantly keeping a check on our credit report.

Photo by LifeSunDeath.

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