Spend Based on Who You Are, Not Who You Want to Be

Last Thursday, on April Fool's Day, I wrote about my obsession with gadgets and how much that's cost me over the years. As always, your comments and stories were more entertaining (and instructive) than the post itself. In fact, a comment from chacha1 gave me a flash of insight. She wrote:

The thing that's a *headdesk* for me is the digital piano in my dining room. It's an excellent instrument, but at the time I bought it I hadn't played regularly for over ten years. And I've had it over six years and have barely played it.

Oh my word. I've done this sort of thing so many times in the past, and I continue to make this mistake even today. But it wasn't until reading this comment that I realized what exactly I was doing wrong.

My problem is that I buy something in order to pursue a hope or a dream, and then expect that this new thing to somehow change who I am. If I buy a new camera, I expect it to make me a pro photographer. If I buy a bunch of Latin books, I expect I'll be somebody who spends his time reading Latin. (In 2004, I bought a bunch of Latin books just for this purpose; I still don't know Latin.)

Perhaps the worst example comes from the early 1990s, back when I was struggling most with my spending. I decided I wanted to become a computer programmer. To that end, I spent thousands of dollars on programming books and software tools, as well as subscriptions to programming magazines. Guess what? None of these things made me a programmer. They just put me further into debt. It was as if I'd traded a few thousand dollars for nothing.

Note: In the late 1990s, I eventually did become a computer programmer. But I didn't do it through buying Stuff. I did it by taking classes at the community college, using free Linux-based tools on old computers, and then getting a couple of programming gigs. You know what? I only had to buy a handful of textbooks to make this happen.

 

“You are the master of buying something in the hopes that it will create a need,” Kris said after I told her about this post. “Look at all the Stuff you own because you hoped it'd make you become a different person.”

She's right: chess sets, woodworking tools and books, camera equipment, exercise gear, and more. I write a lot about my battle with Stuff; much of this Stuff can be seen as monuments to my hopes and dreams. In a way, it's like “keeping up with the Joneses”, except the Joneses are some idealized version of me.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for big hopes and dreams, and I think it's great to find ways to motivate yourself to success. But it's important to be smart about how you spend on this sort of thing. Yes, tell yourself that if you learn to play the piano, you can buy a keyboard. If you learn to cook, you can buy some fancy kitchen gear. If you lose 40 pounds, you can buy a new wardrobe. (I have stacks of clothes that are several sizes too small; I bought them because I thought it would motivate me to lose weight.)

Buy these things as rewards, not because you expect merely having them will change who you are. Or, another way to think of it: Buy things as you need them instead of buying them with the expectation that you'll use them. If you find you need a treadmill because you ran all summer, and now the weather is poor, then buy a treadmill. But don't buy a treadmill just because you think it'll motivate you to run. Become a runner first.

There's a part of me that really wants to learn to play the piano. I love the idea of putting an upright piano in the corner of our living room; it'd look great in our hundred-year old house. But I'm older and wiser now, and I know better. It makes no sense to buy a piano just because I want to learn to play. Buying an instrument won't make me a musician. The first step is to take lessons. If I'm able to stick with piano lessons for a year or more, and if I think I'll continue to play, well, maybe then a piano would make sense. But not before.

Tangent: This subject also reminds me that many times it's the amateur hopers and dreamers that buy the fancy equipment. When I took photography classes, the instructors — who were professionals who made their living at this stuff — had the oldest, most outdated equipment of anyone. The students all had the latest gear, but the instructors knew that the equipment doesn't make the picture — the photographer does. And how do I write? I use a pad of paper or a text editor. I don't need a fancy word processor or a whiz-bang computer. I don't need books to teach me how. I take a community college writing class now and then, and I write. More than anything, it's actually doing the thing you hope and dream about that will make you better — not the equipment.

 

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Twiggers
Twiggers
10 years ago

This really hit home…..but in a bit of a different way. We went 66K into credit card debt trying to keep up with the Joneses. So, in essence, we were trying to be someone we weren’t. It’s been very hard trying to ignore the Joneses and just be ourselves.

Joseph | kickdebtoff
Joseph | kickdebtoff
10 years ago

I have never thought about it this way.Thanks for putting it on perspective. Will have to examine ‘my stuff’and see what have accumulated over the time in the hope of changing myself.

Jus
Jus
10 years ago

I don’t often comment on blog posts I read, but this one REALLY reasonated with me – thank you.

The next time I think about a purchase, I’ll ask myself whether it’s necessary to complete the task at hand, or whether the basics can accomplish the same.

DonB
DonB
10 years ago

This is a wonderful post. Looking back, I think I’ve probably only been bitten by this a relatively few times, but boy can I see the temptation to it.

Deborah M
Deborah M
10 years ago

That post should encourage people to think twice about spending a small fortune (unless they can afford it in spades) on fancy kitchen renovations. In fact, if you are a person who cooks, you know that you can cook the most amazing meals with the most minimal equipment and a smidgen of organizational skills. Aside: Guilty of the faulty piano thinking, but at least the darn thing was given to me. The problem is that it takes up way too much space in our small living room. The other problem is that I did take lessons a lifetime ago, but… Read more »

EconGrrl
EconGrrl
10 years ago

This is a great post.

I most often spend poorly when I am thinking, “if only I have X, I will finally be Y”. The Y is happy, organized, more leisure, etc.

You hit the nail on the head- change behavior first, purchase to support the change second.

thanks!

Steve R
Steve R
10 years ago

I think back at a recent job I left and saw this occur. For the job, we were all issued cell phones. The boss received a Blackberry, while the rest of us received a quite nice flip phone. By the following week, 3 of my “colleagues” had purchased their own personal Blackberry. I asked why they would go out and buy one to use at work, when they just received a phone from the company. Their reasons included: don’t like the style, calls were dropped, etc. All bogus. Needless to say, I wasn’t one of the flock, that was just… Read more »

Diana
Diana
10 years ago

This is so on the money (both literally and figuratively). Nowadays, when I want to begin a new habit or hobby, I make myself wait to buy anything related to it until I’ve exhausted free resources and still want to do it. Then it’s used equipment first. Well said!

Lisa
Lisa
10 years ago

This was an amazing post. I’ve definitely fallen prey to this mindset before, and I see it quite a bit in my friends. I think it’s also related to the amount of clutter most people tend to keep around them. I remember a few years ago I was moving and had to do a huge purge. There were so many fancy dresses I had bought, and had worn once or not at all. I was actually really sad to get rid of some of them, because owning those dresses was a way of telling myself that I was someone who… Read more »

Allison
Allison
10 years ago

This post had me laughing for how true it is. For example, about 6 months ago my husband bought a tent. I asked him why the heck he bought a tent when we never go camping. He said it was because he wanted to go camping. Except that a month after he bought it winter kicked in, and 6 months later it has never been used. Of course, I’m guilty of this too. When I graduated college I bought a really nice suit to wear to job interviews. I have had three jobs since I bought it and have not… Read more »

Spencer
Spencer
10 years ago

I don’t normally comment on blog posts, but today I feel compelled. It’s a constant amazement to me how often I do not realize the reasons I am doing things and merely just feel the need to do them. This is one of those things I’ve probably been doing all of my life, but never really “noticed” before. The photography gear is a pristine example. It may be one of the worst areas I’ve seen for folks going gear-crazy. I was partially infected several years ago. I started out with my first digital camera, an “SLR-like” superzoom point and shoot.… Read more »

Euan
Euan
10 years ago

This is a great article! Yes, I know this all too well, and it applies to all sorts of intangible things as well. It’s generally the ‘silver bullet’ idea – that you need just one more bit of kit or one more class, one more book before you can ‘make it’ as a photographer/entrepreneur/cook/musician/whatever. Photographers actually have an acronym, GAS, otherwise known as ‘gear acquisition syndrome’ which describes this and if you go on a photography board people will talk about their own struggles with it. Half the time, it’s a good way of putting off taking action, and the… Read more »

Carol
Carol
10 years ago

Thanks for the great post. Most of us have purchased something in the hopes that it would take us to another level and then we ignored the doing-the-hard-work-part. Takes time and elbow grease more than fancy gear. I have struggled with the idea of selling my 88 key keyboard. But it’s my one extravagance. And after all, my mom did pay for 12 years of lessons! I recently began using it again after a break. Just 20 minutes of playing is great meditation.

Suzanne
Suzanne
10 years ago

So true! 10 years ago I went backcountry camping with my sister and her friends. I didn’t have the proper clothing so I went to REI and bought capilene, fleece, hiking boots, etc.when I got there I was wearing the fanciest clothes of anyone there. Today I wear the capilene as pjs and the fleece almost never. My sister only recently started buying such nice gear, after 15 years of backpacking and several job promotions.

Emily Horner
Emily Horner
10 years ago

There’s a lot of truth to this and I have often bought things because of who I wanted to be rather than because of what I needed. I still have a lot of lust for kitchen gadgets, but living with a roommate and no storage space means I’ve mostly kept it under control. Still, I think you have to be willing to recognize it when you’re at a place where your tools are holding you back. I would never tell someone just starting on piano to get a cheap keyboard with less than 88 keys or without a decent imitation… Read more »

Ryan Waldron
Ryan Waldron
10 years ago

I want to learn to fish, and I have several friends who fish. When I ask them to teach me, they tell me that first I need to go buy a rod a reel. I finally caved and made the purchase (although I only HOPE to be a fisherman), and have yet to use it because no one will take me out. Certain hobbies require the gear to even begin (but a $30 fishing pole is a far cry from a $600 camera). I feel that there should be some limit on what is allowable. I.e., if you want to… Read more »

Sarah J.
Sarah J.
10 years ago

This post completely resonates with me too– my biggest personal problems is with clothing. I work in a job that is just that– a job. In a restaurant. I am working on a more professional degree right now (accounting), and I have the hardest time not buying business clothes, because I am so looking forward to the day when I can wear conservative business attire rather than casual pants and t-shirts– yes, I know, I’m strange. For me, its not really about the clothes. It’s about wanting a career that I can’t have just yet, and the clothes are the… Read more »

Khadijah
Khadijah
10 years ago

Not sure about the point to take lessons first in music. Maybe. I need to take actual piano lessons. But the reason I havent played in the longest time is because I just dont have one around.

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett
10 years ago

This post is of huge importance, in my view. I think this is the single biggest cause of overspending. We all want to improve ourselves and we don’t have the time. So we spend money instead. That doesn’t improve us. But it gives the appearance of having improved us. We often feel that that’s the best we can do given the pressures that apply. I’d like to put forward one note re a pet peeve of mine. When we fail to save, it is often argued that the reason is that it is because we lack willpower. The point made… Read more »

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
10 years ago

When I was young and foolish, I wanted to do everything. So I bought lots and lots of cheap stuff to try everything out. As I got a little older–but still just as foolish–I realized that the really cheap products were so shoddily made that it was wasting money to buy them. The rollerblades hurt my feet, the art supplies had lousy consistency, etc etc. So I started insisting on buying the more expensive products. Problem was that I still hadn’t settled on what I liked to do. I’d buy lots of expensive things, and then never really use them.… Read more »

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

I think it helps if you divide up your purchases into wants and needs. If you are purchasing a want, I want a new camera, you are probably more likely to budget for a less expensive purchase because your brain understands this is a want not a need. For example, I would really like to learn Spanish, I took Spanish in school and I live in South Florida, so learning how to speak Spanish would be helpful both in my day to day life and in my career. So learning how to speak Spanish is a want not a need.… Read more »

Money Reasons
Money Reasons
10 years ago

What cracks me up, is I’ll borrow books from library, intending to learn something, but then I’ll also get an entertaining book (maybe a biography on Ben Franklin). Next, I end up reading the fun book and ignoring the learning books. It’s frustrates me to no end when I do this!

I’m weak this way…

uncertain algorithm
uncertain algorithm
10 years ago

I could not agree more: “if only” is dangerous. I tend to buy things I use, but my trouble in the past was that I convinced myself that I needed things I didn’t need. Still, the temptation to buy something in hopes that it changes your behavior is always there.

Dona
Dona
10 years ago

I’m much better about this than I used to be. But I find myself having these thoughts as I’m contemplating buying a new(er) car. I’d like to think of myself as much sportier and athletic than I really am, so I keep looking at sporty cars, when all I really need is a sedan to get myself around town. But it’s definitely rolling around in my head somewhere that if only I had a car that could carry around mountain bikes and hiking gear, I would be an outdoorswoman.

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

I agree and disagree. (Like a few other posters above.) On the point of the piano… we’re renting a house this year that came with one, and I’ve been playing a lot. That’s something I totally did not expect and would not have predicted. It also seems to help my wrists when I’ve been on the computer too long. DH has been teaching himself some (with my help– he already reads music from high school band). DS has enjoyed pounding on the keys. We will be in the market for a piano next year when we move back home. So… Read more »

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

I’m with you… However, I try to indulge my wishes on a budget on the few purcahses to which I just can’t say no. I buy the books I wish I had time to read at the semiannual library book sale. Yes, I have a bookcase crammed with books collecting dust, but they cost $50. (And that’s only because I’m including one book purchased at retail price of $20 in the case.) When I wanted a sewing machine with more features than the one I’ve had for 35 years, I bought a 1950s classic Singer for $200 on Craiglist instead… Read more »

Jen
Jen
10 years ago

Timely, relevant post. I’ve been in the process of purging my belongings down to what I actually use and need. This morning, prior to reading this post, I was pacing the copy room while a 100+page document printed, giving myself a pep talk about getting rid of the clothes that don’t fit. I have a few things that I keep saving for that “when I lose 15#” day. The way you framed it in this post was helpful and tonight, when I go home, I will throw a few clothing items in the thrift store pile. Thanks!

Ryan Waldron
Ryan Waldron
10 years ago

One trick I’ve utilized to curb this sort of thing (although, not prevent it) is as follows. Keep a List (mine is in google spreadsheets because I kept loosing the paper one. I ended up finding about 5 versions all at once). When you decide you want something. write down a detailed description of what you want, the current date, and the price. Then add a second date, which is the current date plus a number of days equal to the number of dollars the item costs. This is the day you are allowed to buy it. I.e., if something… Read more »

Jackie
Jackie
10 years ago

Yup, it’s easy to fall into the trap of buying things because you hope it will motivate you, or because you think you need them in order to do a new hobby. There are very few things that we really need. I finally ordered a bunch of oil paints after borrowing my aunt’s for a couple of months. I still probably should have held off longer though, because I told myself I was buying them so that I could paint at home too instead of just during class. The reality is though that I don’t have the time to paint… Read more »

Erika
Erika
10 years ago

Totally agree with Lisa (#10) that this also applies to not being able to get rid of stuff. On “Hoarders” (one of my favorite shows – can’t stop watching!!) a therapist was helping someone articulate why she needed her houseful of stuff. Each item was attached to a “someday” dream — someday I’m going to use this, someday my grandchild will want this, etc. Giving up these dreams is hard, but it somehow seemed to get easier for this woman once she said it out loud like that.

Online Discount Groceries
Online Discount Groceries
10 years ago

I would say that one of the biggest culprits is exercise equipment and DVDs like P90X. You see the TV commercial and think that if you had the exercise product you would use it.

Garage sales are full of ‘barely used’ exercise products, so if you’re going to buy something to try to inspire yourself to exercise, get it at a discount.

Ashley
Ashley
10 years ago

I’m guilty of this with travel items–luggage, day packs, comfy neck pillows, etc. I went through a phase of buying nicer suitcases and duffels only to have them last for a year of travel. At the end of the year, at least one of my big duffels would have a completely broken zipper, a huge rip, or otherwise be “busted.” The duffel that has lasted 4 years? $27 at Wal-Mart and still looks nearly new. My expensive carry-on? Broken zipper on it’s first trip and after a few trips, the fabric looked very beat up. So much for ballistic nylon!… Read more »

Allison
Allison
10 years ago

Sam @ #21, if you aren’t sure you’ll have time for Rosetta Stone then don’t get it! I have free access to it through my husband’s work, and barely used it. It’s a great program, but only if you are willing to commit to it. Based on my experience, here are some good learning alternatives: 1. Shop in Spanish-speaking areas. Buy your groceries or go out to dinner and try to practice. Review a few phrases each time before you go. 2. See if your community center or local college offers classes. 3. Do an internet search for the 100… Read more »

Andrea
Andrea
10 years ago

I do this with books–I have shelves and coffee tables and desks and nightstands loaded with books about who I want to be and what I want to do. It’s as if I think I can absorb their information by osmosis just by having them in the house, but I can’t possibly read them all even if I quit working today and spent the rest of my life reading. I have books on writing and editing and Buddhism and meditation and knitting and exercise and cooking and organizing, plus my field of work, and plenty of fiction. And somehow it… Read more »

steven@hundredgoals.com
10 years ago

Great post JD! I’d hate to sit down and figure out how many times in my life I have bought Stuff in hopes that it would motivate me to “become” someone else. I have never thought about it exactly the way you wrote about in the article but eventually I was able to realize I was just wasting my money and Stuff I didn’t need, use, and eventually, even want anymore.

partgypsy
partgypsy
10 years ago

I’ve seen this with alot of people, so it must be pretty common. The only thing I disagree with is the idea of taking piano lessons with no piano. Pretty useless if you don’t have a piano to practice. As a kid, my sister wanted to take piano, so they bought a piano for her. She quit within a year (oh crap bought a piano for nothing!) but fortunately I was interested and ended up taking lessons for 5 1/2 years until moved out for college. For many years did not have a piano available until about 8 years ago… Read more »

Mike
Mike
10 years ago

A different angle on this: Recognise early that you’re not using the new gear and SELL IT before its lost too much value. As a photography buff and technology follower, I too sometimes purchase gear that I “must have”. But, when the excitement has worn off, I click the “Sell Yours Here” button on Amazon and put it up at the lowest price. It usually sells in a couple of days and I recoup a large part of my cost. I figure the money I spent is an ‘evaluation’ cost. Some tips for making this work: * keep all the… Read more »

Debbie M
Debbie M
10 years ago

One possible exception: running shoes. Though, admittedly, maybe you could make yourself jog at least a few minutes a day for at least three days in the same week before shopping for better shoes. It’s rare anymore that I read a personal finance blog entry and find an idea that might help me. But now I’m writing down all my hobbies and seeing which ones are current, which are past, and which I’m hoping for, for the future. I cycle through hobbies on a regular basis, so it’s hard to tell when I’m really finished with a hobby–and a lot… Read more »

Sonja
Sonja
10 years ago

I want to thank you for your thoughtful article. This subject is very close to my heart because I’ve always struggled being me, not the image that I wanted to be. I tried so hard to buy that image in my mind. The result was debt and a long battle against my twisted beliefs.

Nell
Nell
10 years ago

Your example of buying a camera reminds me of what my dad says to me whenever I want new golf clubs. He says “it’s not the arrow, it’s the Indian”. And then I ask him why he got new clubs and he says “good Indians sometimes need new arrows”. In any regard, I have taken this approach to a lot of things I want to pursue. I don’t need a super fast car to drive faster to the next stop light and I don’t need expensive golf clubs when I can barely break 100. I like your idea of buying… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy
10 years ago

Photography example reminds me of my sister who has an amazing eye. Taking a HS photography course and later a college course, both times other students would muse out loud about her photos that she must have some “special” kind of camera, to have taken those pics. Nope, just some outdated all manual camera that my Dad had lying around from years back. To tell you the truth it was probably a benefit for her to learn on such a basic camera, because she had to learn everything (focusing, light, exposure times, etc) from scratch.

RMoM
RMoM
10 years ago

I bought the piano about 20 years ago, still have it and still hardly use it. I keep planning to take piano lessons and perhaps one day I will. The plan is to eventually hand it down to my eldest daughter who occasionally gets on it to bang out her version of a ‘Death Cab for Cutie’ or ‘Final Fantasy’ song. That’s about it. I’m in the market for an elliptical machine now and, at the price they sell for, I’d better use it.

Brian C.
Brian C.
10 years ago

I have “Bought to Become” something so many times, and avoided it on occasion. Most notably, I have (and have sold) a bunch of books, magazines, articles, DVD’s, etc. that I thought would help me become a best-selling writer, celebrity filmmaker, and successful cartoonist. None of those helped. It wasn’t until I actually started writing with an everyday word-processing program and started drawing with a generic mechanical pencil on a piece of normal paper that I actually started making progress to being a writer and cartoonist. Additionally, post #10 and #14 mentioned camping. I love camping and I “want” all… Read more »

Cam
Cam
10 years ago

I love this post and the comments. My future self is an accomplished bassist, who does portraits and charcoal nudes in her spare time, is fluent in sign language and Italian, swims daily in the summer, and throws the most amazing dinner parties. My present self has a bass guitar she hasn’t touched in months, an easel that hasn’t been used since it was bought, sign language classes long forgotten, software package for Spanish (if I can learn that, it’s more practical than Italian and it’ll prove I can stick with it *rolls eyes*), hates having chlorine in her hair,… Read more »

Stephanie F
Stephanie F
10 years ago

It was art that taught me, years ago, that art is in the eye of the artist, and not in the materials. I run into a lot of young artists who think they want the expensive Copic art markers, and I advise them that if they don’t already have a lot of experience with markers, they may be wasting their money. They need to buy a few of the cheapest art markers they can find, practice and learn with them for a while, and once they realize that they’re going to be doing this for a good long time, then… Read more »

Debbie M
Debbie M
10 years ago

@partgypsy, mmm, sometimes it is the camera. I remember when a friend could take beautiful, clear pictures of something as ugly as a creek and his secret was that he had a 35-mm camera and I had a 110 camera. Actually, probably all modern cameras are awesome compared to an old 110, so I guess you’re right after all and it’s not the camera that matters (anymore).

@Cam, I am sorry, but I laughed at your pain. Best wishes on creating your future self from your current self rather than from your current stuff.

Jessica @ Life as I See It
Jessica @ Life as I See It
10 years ago

I find this really interesting and would have, without thinking, said that I totally agree with this… but upon thinking about it I realized I did exactly what you’re advising to not do – but it worked for me. 1.5 years ago my husbands co-worked bought a $3,000 camera. I had always been interested in photography but other than taking pictures of my son with my point and shoot I knew NOTHING about it. This co-worker offered to LEND me his brand new camera for a day (I still can’t believe he did that!!) I spent the entire day taking… Read more »

Ted
Ted
10 years ago

I laughed at the photography parts. My wife and I started a photography biz this year. We run into people all the time that have better equipment than us but dont know how to use it! With out older equipment and less expensive lenses- we are making money off it- hoping to get the best equipment soon. Sometimes it makes me mad to see others that have wealth buy stuff that we desperately want to increase our business. But I know that waiting, developing the business, gaining the income to pay for the newer equipment is so much more beneficial.

KarenJ
KarenJ
10 years ago

My version of this is the various businesses I’ve always wanted to start, so I’ve gone out and bought all sorts of programs, downloads and books. I also took courses to become a life coach and a divorce mediator. My new thing is that I need to take Dave Ramsey’s course, so I can feed my desire to become a financial counselor with all the proper credentials. I’ve decided the best credentials I can have is to be out of debt myself, so the goal is not buy anything or take any additional courses or classes until we’re out of… Read more »

Marisa
Marisa
10 years ago

This post is the perfect example of why I read your blog. Your dialogue with the readers plus your personal experience make this one of the best “personal finance” sites around. Many thanks.

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