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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Baker
Baker
10 years ago

Fantastic concept, April.

This simple flowchart is a great technique to help you minimize that effect that emotions will have on the buying process. It’s especially important for those big ticket items like kitchens!

Tangible tools that help lead to conscious spending. It doesn’t get any better than this :-).

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

We lived in a house with the fancy Thermador stove and oven. It looked good, but it absolutely failed as a cooking appliance. The gas burners were constantly in need of adjustment and put out too much heat, even on the lowest setting. Need to gently simmer something? Forget about it. The oven couldn’t hold temperature and cookies inevitably burned on some racks, undercooked on others. Cleaning the thing was a major hassle, as well. We now live in a house with a GE Profile smoothtop stove. The stovetop heats and allows a wide range of cooking, the oven heats… Read more »

DeborahM
DeborahM
10 years ago

Great post. I think that if I kept Bittman’s words in mind, I’d save even more than a few thousand dollars… if I made it a lifestyle, I’d save potentially a hundred thousand or more over my lifetime! One of my favorite books, ten years ago: The Tightwad Gazette. The author and her hubby wanted the proverbial Big House in the Country and a Passle of Kids on one salary. This was their holy mission and keeping that in mind allowed them to accomplish it, even though it seemed impossible at first. The success of her (2) Tightwad book(s) helped!… Read more »

ryan
ryan
10 years ago

This is a very interesting post to me, and I’d like to see more of this flavor. I’m not interested in “How I got into/out of debt” but rather “I’m fortunate to have alot of extra room in my budget now, I’m working to become independently wealthy, but I also enjoy certain material things.”

Collette
Collette
10 years ago

We are in the process of looking for a new place for the first time together and think that this post is PERFECT for us as we start shopping for furniture, down to new curtain ties. What’s really important is what we should be looking at… we have a year/year and a half before the actual move so this will help immensely. Thanks so much for the advice!

Deborah
Deborah
10 years ago

Great article, and great flowchart. I hope you continue to keep up updated on the house building process!

Matt
Matt
10 years ago

My wife and I just finished redoing the kitchen of the house we recently moved into. The previous kitchen was old, badly designed, and ugly. We would not have enjoyed cooking in that space. The new kitchen, which is nice but not top-of-the-line, gives us significantly more space (both cupboard and countertop), and is a joy to work in. Strictly speaking, we could have functioned in the old kitchen. However, we would have been frustrated with it, and would probably have eaten out more as a result. I’m not going to claim the new kitchen will save us money over… Read more »

Little House
Little House
10 years ago

What a great flow map. It makes me think of the ‘thinking maps’ I use in class to help kids organize their thoughts before writing.

This flow map could be useful in so many situations where you have to make a decision to spend money or not. Having a visual aid is definitely useful.

Good luck on your new house!
-Little House

Erika
Erika
10 years ago

We’re rehabbing a house and I really identified with this. There are so many decisions to make it starts making your head spin, and even though we have a budget, there are tons of times when I say, but I really WANT that. In addition to the flow chart, a chart of expenses, expected and actual, is helpful. It makes me happy to save a few bucks here and there, and if I’m under, sometimes I’ll splurge on something (like tile) because I love it and because I can. Overall, though, some unexpected expenses from rehabbing (mostly electrical/water issues) have… Read more »

ABCs of Investing
ABCs of Investing
10 years ago

I love this post.

A friend got an expensive new kitchen a while back and although he said they were happy with the kitchen – “the food still tastes the same”. 🙂

As for the flowchart – I would suggest putting your brand new house purchase to the test. New custom built houses are VERY expensive.

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
10 years ago

Another factor to consider is timing. Some things can be added later, some can’t.

I’ve been considering a kitchen remodel, but I decided replacing the roof (which needed replacement anyway, badly) with a metal one and adding gutters and a rainwater collection system was a higher priority for me. I did replace the range vent hood at the same time, since it vents through the roof, and I’m very happy with that upgrade (old one didn’t really do much except make noise).

Kelly
Kelly
10 years ago

My mom has a double stove like this one, the Maytag MER6741BAW – White 30 Inch Freestanding Electric Range. It’s got two ovens in the space of one. (No under-stove storage area.)I’s around $800, so it’s a bit more than a single stove, but I know she finds it really useful. She can bake a casserole in the top while cooking a meat dish in the bottom.

http://www.google.com/products/catalog?q=double+oven&oe=utf-8&cid=3228456804211954955&sa=title#p

Mary
Mary
10 years ago

Love the flowchart. It is such a great, simple tool. I just applied it to a purchase I want to make and got stopped at the first box (“Can you afford it?”)

I know I need to ask myself that, but it’s a helpful reminder to see that I should ask myself that FIRST — before picking out the perfect model.

Dustin
Dustin
10 years ago

I love the flowchart! Our house currently has a tiny kitchen, so this article really hit “home” with me. We have struggled with “stuffitis” and resisted the move up to a bigger house that would stretch us financially. Instead, we’ve chosen to simply enjoy life in our current little house…at least for a few more years!

Dustin
EngagedMarriage.com

Tyler@FrugallyGreen
10 years ago

Great flowchart that could apply to any purchase, really.

We always hear the mantra, “buy the very best you can afford and you’ll never regret it,” but I don’t know if that applies to every situation. I think a better principle would be “buy the very best you can afford and you’ll never regret it…as long as it’s something you actually care about.”

ebyt
ebyt
10 years ago

Maybe I’m just in a bad mood this morning, but I think that designing a flow chart is a bit much, and probably unnecessary. It seems like a fairly standard thought process for people who have a brain (like you seem to). I love to cook and I have a small kitchen in a one-bedroom apartment (I’m a recent university grad). I hate the small space. I don’t like making things work. If you can afford a better kitchen, do it. I totally disagree with you being frugal in an area that you really don’t have to be. I think… Read more »

Alexandra
Alexandra
10 years ago

Maybe due to the fact that I create decision matrices for work, the actual layout and design of the flowchart itself is so flawed and hard to read that it bothers me. And I also have to agree with # 16 – does a purchasing decision actually warrant digging this flowchart out and checking it? These are just logical thinking processes that should happen without any need for a flowchart. This should just be a conscious checklist. Do I really need it? Can I afford it? Are there other options I should look into? It seems like something pretty simple… Read more »

April
April
10 years ago

@ABCs of Investing–“I would suggest putting your brand new house purchase to the test. New custom built houses are VERY expensive.” We are not building a large home, just a right-sized one with room to expand later, and we’ve paid off a great percentage of our land already. We’re also in a unique position because my dad is in construction. Our goal is to be able to pay all bills on one salary. @EscapeVelocity–We’re going with a metal roof and rainwater collection, too! @ebyt–We definitely plan to budget for some wants, but we don’t need the Rolls-Royce of ovens when… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy
10 years ago

Some of my most enjoyable times in my life have been on trips staying in modest cabins and beach houses. What I liked about them was that they were simple, on the small size but extremely functional, with durable and long wearing but not high end materials and furnishings. Everything was easy to clean and maintain, and there wasn’t so much “stuff” so you could spend more time doing stuff you wanted and relaxing than being owned by the house. That’s my ideal for housing, and we keep that in mind while in the process of remodeling our house. Surprisingly… Read more »

Linear Girl
Linear Girl
10 years ago

I think your flow chart could be a big help in a long project like your house. After you’ve made so many choices and seen the giant numbers you’ve spent it’s easy to think what’s another $200 for this and $500 for that. I also quite like Erika’s (#9) suggestion to keep your actual and budgeted expenses so you know as you progress if you’re saving or overspending, as that will help inform your final decisions on some items. I empathize with your oven situation. We’ve got an oven that only we can use because the temperature control knob temps… Read more »

Scott
Scott
10 years ago

I kinda like this, it makes sense especially with the added step of “is the lower cost option high quality” However, the point of being frugal, the point of managing money well, the point of doing all the the things we do to build wealth is to enjoy some of the fruits of our efforts. I think at some point we need to include the evaluation of “Will I enjoy it” or “Which will I enjoy more”. If cooking is an important hobby there’s nothing wrong with making a purchase to upgrade for a more ejoyable experience as long as… Read more »

Brian
Brian
10 years ago
Rich
Rich
10 years ago

and this needs a flowchart? Maybe the flowchart helps force people to make these decisions instead of glossing over them…..

meh

good article though on checking your spending and doing a little research and internal dialogue before buying

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
10 years ago

First of all, the 42 square foot kitchen makes me laugh. Our Times Square apartment had a kitchen that was MAYBE 18 sq ft. It was literally a small closet, with french doors to hide it from the living room. We didn’t even have a full-size fridge, just a large dorm room style mini fridge under the counter. Still, we cooked many extravagant meals there–the stove and oven worked same as any other kitchen. 🙂 Secondly, as someone who’s looking forward to building a new house down the line, I’m curious about the overall budgeting process for such an enormous… Read more »

ebyt
ebyt
10 years ago

@April: I totally agree with the decision process, just something about putting it into a flow chart hit a nerve – that’s all lol.

I do think that as you go along with this huge project and discuss how you actually made the decisions (like one upgrade vs. another) will be interesting.

@Rich (#23): My thoughts exactly.

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
10 years ago

A flowchart? That’s way to much for my simple mind to handle!

On the topic of making due with what you have though, great points.

Brilliance flows from those who are able to improvise around what they don’t have, including and especially under duress.

I’ve long been suspicious of the investment in top equipment by ordinary people.

Craig
Craig
10 years ago

Pretty interesting approach and can be used in a lot of situations. i think everyone may have their own personal mental chart that is a process they go through in their head when making a decision like this.

STL Mom
STL Mom
10 years ago

Layout is more important than appliances. I remodeled the kitchen in my last house, and although I loved my new ovens and induction cooktop, the change that made the biggest difference was moving the island one foot further away from the fridge. If possible, mock up your kitchen plan and make sure you can move around comfortably. In the book “Creating the Not So Big House” they show several houses that were designed to be upgraded later, one to be enlarged, the other to have nicer finishes. There’s some ideas about which things you are better off investing in right… Read more »

Carol
Carol
10 years ago

A flow chart can be helpful (at the very least as a demonstration method for making logical decisions), as long as you fully define the goal and know what the constraints really are. While it might seem that ‘buy a stove’ is the goal, it’s really more ‘make our kithen an efficient, non-frustrating and enjoyable workspace for us to work in at the same time, on a budget of $##,000, so that we can eat healthy at home and have fun cooking together’. Then you can look at each of the options and determine how each choice fits the goals… Read more »

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

There is a reason why the AVERAGE cost overrun for building a custom home is 30-50%. For most people, they only build one custom home, we’re in the very early stages of planning a custom home – to be build in probably 10 years, and it is so easy to upgrade appliances, upgrade windows, add green technology (expensive but saves money), custom build-ins (again expensive, but can reduce size of home if building smart), fancy closets, upgraded design elements, etc.

Vince
Vince
10 years ago

One important consideration that seemed overlooked with the oven as well as the flowchart is resale value. I’m no real estate expert, but a consistent message I hear from the real estate agents I’ve spoken with and from almost every HGTV show I’ve watched, are that kitchens with modern appliances help sell a home. So, yeah, I suppose you could go with a lower end oven and get more bang for your initial buck, but when you sell the home, that oven may take away from the lustre your kitchen has for potential buyers. So I would propose an amendment… Read more »

April
April
10 years ago

I think the flowchart is useful for people who are new to the world of frugality. Anyone who is fighting a daily battle with spending/debt should consider this a tool before making a new purchase. However if you are a long time and experienced saver the flowchart is already part of your lifestyle. As far as purchasing stuff goes, my personal philosophy is the more frivolous and expensive the purchase (jacuzzi, guitar, game console) the more waiting time required to decide if the purchase is worthy. The only ways I can justify spending extra money on any given item is… Read more »

Moneymonk
Moneymonk
10 years ago

I love that flowchart!!

trb
trb
10 years ago

Tell us more about buying land and planning for the house! Like @24, I’m curious about the whole process by which you decided to do it, looked for and acquired the land, and settled on home site/design. Really hope to here more about this in the future. As to the flowchart, I think it works well for one-off decisions like buying a new jacket. But how would one put in in perspective with the bigger picture of “given that we previously bought a suit and new khakis, but found used shoes…” or “we kept the home to 1500 sq ft,… Read more »

Claire
Claire
10 years ago

Great post! I really like the flowchart. I have an additional way of evaluating a future purchase: I ask myself whether the purchase will solve a problem I have, or allow me to do something that I couldn’t do before. Keeping in mind the problems you are trying to solve is a great way to make the right decisions when remodeling, and I imagine it could be applied to building new, too. As far as kitchen appliances go, we just remodeled our kitchen, and like Jason, we bought GE Profile and I’m really happy with them (I bought a gas… Read more »

Foxie@CarsxGirl
10 years ago

Okay, here’s my thing: I see the concept. I relate to the ideas. I like the flowchart idea. And I still can’t apply it to my life right…. Here’s my issue, though: I’m not overspending at all. I just can’t bring myself to spend my money in large chunks. Period. (Unless it’s on a car. If it’s for just me, I feel insanely guilty.) My current dilemma: I found a beautiful fall/winter (it’s cotton, so maybe winters where I live it’d make due) coat that I’m coveting. Horribly. It’s white, with big black buttons and in a classic cut, something… Read more »

Karen
Karen
10 years ago

I disagree–I think kitchen remodels can be a great investment that yields an enormous value in ease and delight of use! Take away anything in my house and sure, I probably won’t miss it that much. But I spend hours every single day in my kitchen feeding my family (even though I work full time). After spending 12 years cooking (a lot) for my family in a kitchen that was barely functional when we first moved into the house, I am *totally* enjoying every single thing about my renovated kitchen. Which I paid for without problem, in cash. And it’s… Read more »

April
April
10 years ago

@Sam–So true! And then people blame the contractor or the architect when the home costs more than originally quoted, even though the owners were the ones adding the “extras.”

@Karen–I would never suggest buying cheap applicances. I think (and Consumer Reports agrees), that there are quality, mid-priced options. Also, what I’ve found from reading Consumer Reports and Cook’s Illustrated is that the most expensive appliance or gadget isn’t necessarily the best performing.

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

@Karen — the problem with kitchen (and bathroom) remodels, as well as other consumer goods (like wine) is that people forget a couple of things: 1) The value/money equation is not linear — it’s asymptotic. For a kitchen remodel, is it worth it to spend $2-300 more for the model with the high ranking in Consumer Reports versus an entry level model? Probably. Is it worth it to spend $2-3000 more? Probably not. 2) The relation between expensive appliances and quality is tenuous at best, an outright lie at worst. 3) I’m sorry to inform you, but by buying Kenmore,… Read more »

Paularado
Paularado
10 years ago

Having built a custom home, complete with cost overruns, I don’t think the chart is that helpful. When making decisions on home construction, ask yourself these questions: -can I upgrade it later? If not, seriously consider spending the money. We spent big bucks on the foundation, upgraded insulation, soundproofing in the floors and walls, high end radiant heating system, etc. -is this a flaw that really needs to be corrected? designing something on paper is so different than reality. You may discover that you really don’t like something on your floor plan. Change it. -will this ultimately save me money?… Read more »

Erica Douglass
Erica Douglass
10 years ago

My only feedback on this is that my boyfriend really pushed “gas stove” hard. When we found a bigger house to rent in our new location, his main criterion was “GAS STOVE!” And, using it every day, I totally see why. We had a Ceran stove previously and I do like the gas one better. I’m a convert. So go cheaper on the stove if you want, but DO run the gas line. Also, a gas dryer will save you a bundle on your electric bill. Our current place has the laundry room just steps away from the master bedroom… Read more »

Adrienne in CA
Adrienne in CA
10 years ago

“I’m no real estate expert, but a consistent message I hear from the real estate agents I’ve spoken with and from almost every HGTV show I’ve watched, are that kitchens with modern appliances help sell a home. ”

Vince at #31, you do realize that HGTV is paid by those same high-end appliance sellers to deliver “programming” (really, program-length advertising) to convice you of that. Good grief, that’s what 99% of whatever is on television is trying to do!

*****A

David/Yourfinances101
David/Yourfinances101
10 years ago

I think its a fantastic idea. While I was digging myself out of debt, I went thru a similar process for anything over $50. I was amazed at how many “little” purchases I ended up not getting.

Great concept and great post

Zee
Zee
10 years ago

“Surely if we’ve managed with a slightly cantankerous oven for this long, we’d be just fine with a new, moderately-priced range.”

The problem with this logic being that a moderately-priced range from somewhere like Lowes will probably last you less than half the time a more high-end stove, like a Viking, would. There’s being frugal, and then there’s being so frugal that all the products you buy need to be replaced in five years (or less). Spend more money on quality and you’ll spend less money in the long run.

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
10 years ago

Wow, what a concept! I guess once it’s done, just print it out and stick it on the fridge and resort.

I just buy things, and sit on it for 2 weeks, or whatever the return policy is and return it, if i think it’s not worth it. Generally it’s not.

Linda
Linda
10 years ago

I definitely like this flowchart. What I think is helpful about this chart is that all these same thoughts float through my head when I make a purchase. However, they tend to swirl around like buzzing bees in annoying random order. This chart corrals them sequentially which greatly increases their effectiveness.

kenyantykoon
kenyantykoon
10 years ago

this thing looks like that thingamajig that programmers use to make software. that stuff just used to pass over my head and its nice to see that there are other applications other that geeky computing but be that as it may i think to some extent that it is unrealistic as one has to follow such a set pattern like a robot of a piece of software. While i advocate frugality and wise money management, it is not bad to splurge on a “sinful” extravagance

Bunny
Bunny
10 years ago

The lesson my mother and grandmother pounded into my head (refugees in WWII) was to always buy the best quality you can afford and then keep it forever. So my Viking range is 8 years old and has moved house with me 3 times. (Houses will sell without the high end appliances thrown in.) My knives are 10 years old (from when I set up housekeeping on my own.) My pots and pans were purchased one at a time — usually on sale or from a Marshalls or TJMaxx. And the non-stick frying pans come from the restaurant supply section… Read more »

kipper
kipper
10 years ago

I can definitely relate to the flow chart. Personally, I have been using it a lot lately but with a slight twist. Normally, I will consider only whether I can afford it and whether I need it/can live without it. For the second questions, normally a cooling period works wonder! After passing this 2 questions, I will normally buy the item that I wanted and not look for cheaper alternatives. Not sure whether is it just me but from experience, I realise that I always spent more money buying the brand/item I wanted in the first place after compromising for… Read more »

Karen
Karen
10 years ago

@Jason, I am very aware that Kenmore isn’t considered “luxury”! However, the stainless Kenmore line and the dual fuel Kenmore range are significantly more expensive than many others available from Sears. I could have easily paid $2500-3000 less total for the appliances by going with the lower-quality models with the white fronts, etc. But they’d be ugly, less functional (& for me, ugly also translates into less functional–asthetics matter!), and less likely to wow” a later buyer. My home is a modest one in a lower-middle class neighborhood that I purchased for $140K several years ago. A Viking range would… Read more »

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