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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There are 110 comments to "Spend Based on Who You Are, Not Who You Want to Be".

  1. Twiggers says 05 April 2010 at 04:31

    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.

  2. Joseph | kickdebtoff says 05 April 2010 at 04:31

    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.

  3. Jus says 05 April 2010 at 04:53

    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.

  4. DonB says 05 April 2010 at 04:56

    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.

  5. Deborah M says 05 April 2010 at 04:57

    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 stopped playing due to lack of access. It’s not easy getting back into it, especially when there’s always something plonked in the way (in this case, a couch!) I don’t have a solution… yet.

  6. EconGrrl says 05 April 2010 at 05:03

    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.


  7. Steve R says 05 April 2010 at 05:09

    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 one of the reasons I left.

  8. Diana says 05 April 2010 at 05:15

    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!

  9. Lisa says 05 April 2010 at 05:16

    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 went to lots of fancy events… when in fact I’m not! I now own a few nice dresses, and change them up with accessories.

    I would bet that most clutter that people find really hard to get rid of can fit into the category of ‘purchased it in the hopes that it would change who I am as a person.’

  10. Allison says 05 April 2010 at 05:39

    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 worn it once!

    Buy for the life you actually live – good advice!

  11. Spencer says 05 April 2010 at 05:41

    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. I loved it so much and go so into the photography stuff that I just HAD to move up to a DSLR to take better photos. The problem with that is the body is expensive, and then lenses are typically even more expensive (and you can’t just have one). I even started buying up old film cameras, etc. Eventually it hit home that all this gear wasn’t doing me a bit of good — mostly since the DSLR and a few lenses is quite a burden to carry around, especially through the woods, etc. where I would normally want to use it. I sold everything off and bought a Canon G10 and I take just as good photos as I ever did and it pretty much fits in a pocket so I am rarely without it.

    But yes… the photography gear bug is the worst! I am lucky I only had a mild case of it. Peruse some photography forums and you will see some people who are truly ill with bodies, lenses, flashes, etc. (and usually don’t take very good photos to beat it all).

  12. Euan says 05 April 2010 at 05:41

    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 other half of the time it’s about trying to get started on something you’ve no motivation to do, but think you ‘should’.

  13. Carol says 05 April 2010 at 05:54

    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.

  14. Suzanne says 05 April 2010 at 06:00

    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.

  15. Emily Horner says 05 April 2010 at 06:08

    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 of keyboard action, because you’ll run into problems at the first piece of music that requires you to play some parts softer or louder. I’m one of those people who keeps buying storage stuff in the hopes that it will make me organized, but there have also been times when extra storage stuff actually improved my life a lot. It’s important to ask myself when I’m buying, “Am I buying this because my current life creates a need for it, or because of some vague wish for a different life? What can I actually do to get to a different life without spending (as much) money? Can I start working on that right now?” — and then, if I really truly do want a new hobby I’ll try to get into it cheaply, but without cheaping out on the things that are genuinely useful.

  16. Ryan Waldron says 05 April 2010 at 06:11

    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 become a runner, don’t buy a treadmill; but you do need a decent pair of running shoes.

    For the topic of “buying a product, thinking the use of the product will teach you something” – This is why training and education exist. If you want to know how to do something, take a class. (This especially goes for Latin. I had 3 years of Latin in High School and 4 semesters in College. I could today barely translate a simple sentence. Latin requires serious training and lots and lots of dedication).

  17. Sarah J. says 05 April 2010 at 06:15

    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 closest I can come (well, that and all the classes I’m taking– but those are actually useful!). It got to the point where I wasn’t buying clothes for the job I have now, because it meant I had to come to terms with the fact that I’ll be in it for a couple more years. Now when I go shopping I ask myself “is this something for my life right now?” if the answer is yes, I get it. If the answer is no, I hold off.

  18. Khadijah says 05 April 2010 at 06:20

    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.

  19. Rob Bennett says 05 April 2010 at 06:26

    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 in this blog entry cuts the other way. We generally overspend for perfectly good reasons. In most cases it’s not that we lack willpower. It’s often because we want to improve ourselves (which is of course a good thing).


  20. Nancy L. says 05 April 2010 at 06:33

    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.

    Now that I’m finally older AND wiser, I’ve come to realize that there’s a middle ground. I can borrow or rent equipment to try a hobby out, and if I like it, I can figure out once I’m doing it regularly if I really need to own the supplies or not. I’ve also learned that many times, what I really was enjoying was the social aspects of a class or meeting up with the friend who had the equipment. I’d do something regularly when I had nothing and had to go beg stuff off of other people, but once I kitted myself out, I’d find that I just never was in the mood anymore. It wasn’t as much fun being home surrounded by tons of stuff as it was going to meet friends and share supplies.

  21. Sam says 05 April 2010 at 06:33

    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. I know I don’t have time to take classes so I’ve been leaning towards buying the Rosetta Stone program which runs about $500. I’ve been thinking about buying Rosetta Stone now for more than a year but I have yet to do it because (1) its a want and (2) I know that it is likely to collect dust since I don’t really have time to undertake lessons. I also know that I could use the Rosetta Stone system at my local library which I haven’t done either. I’ve also talked with both my sister-in-law and a friend about splitting the cost of the Rosetta Stone program. I’ve also thought that this is something I might be able to pick up on Craig’s List or EBay.

    My point is, I know this is a want and I know I really don’t have time so this purchase continues to circulate in the back of my head. I want to learn Spanish, it would be helpful, but I recognize that this purchase, based on who I am presently (someone with little time) would not get used.

  22. Money Reasons says 05 April 2010 at 06:36

    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…

  23. uncertain algorithm says 05 April 2010 at 06:47

    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.

  24. Dona says 05 April 2010 at 06:53

    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.

  25. Nicole says 05 April 2010 at 07:04

    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 yes– silly to spend a ton of money on something you don’t know if you’ll use. But, on the other hand, sometimes having something there does lower the hurdle to using it, so you do become a little more like the person you want to be.

    Some other people have such strong loss aversion that spending money on something forces them to use it (like people who buy annual gym memberships and actually use the gym).

    And isn’t spending money on a class spending money on who you want to be, but forcing accountability from a professor or group of students? In a way, just like weight watchers?

    So, like deciding whether or not to make a budget, spending based on who you are vs. who you want to be isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription.

  26. HollyP says 05 April 2010 at 07:15

    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 of the $1000 state of the art model at the store.

  27. Jen says 05 April 2010 at 07:23

    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!

  28. Ryan Waldron says 05 April 2010 at 07:23

    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 costs $365 dollars, you are allowed to buy it a year after you added it to the list. Don’t just set it and forget it though. Practice, study, participate… figure out if you really are into the activity the item is for. Also use the time to research the product. Does this specific brand and item provide the best value. Is there a more affordable item of the same quality? A higher quality item for the same price? Where is the best place to purchase the item?

    This trick should help out with those wants a little.

  29. Jackie says 05 April 2010 at 07:29

    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 at home.

    Regarding photography, what you really need is a good eye. You can’t buy that, but you sure can learn it by practice and study. As a former pro wedding photographer, the only thing bad about old equipment is that the clients often want to know how many megapixels the cameras are. They don’t often get that more does not equal better after a certain point. Probably that applied to life too.

  30. Erika says 05 April 2010 at 07:29

    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.

  31. Online Discount Groceries says 05 April 2010 at 07:31

    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.

  32. Ashley says 05 April 2010 at 07:47

    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! My $50 eBags Weekender? Been using it myself for several years, loaned it out to friends to take on months-long backpacking trips, and it’s still in great shape.

    No more trying to look the part of the frequent flier here!

  33. Allison says 05 April 2010 at 07:48

    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 most common Spanish words, make flashcards, and practice a few each day. 4. Watch a little Spanish language TV each day.

    Try these first before paying for an expensive program :-).

  34. Andrea says 05 April 2010 at 07:55

    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 seems like the more books I have the less I read. I love books, I grew up surrounded by them, they are maybe a form of security blanket for me, but they are meant to be read, not used as a form of decoration. Books are great for learning new ideas, but real change comes in the doing, and I am doing few of the things my books are about. I am in serious need of rethinking my relationship to books and the money they cost–thanks for your ideas. By the way, your new book is among my recent purchases, and I have actually started reading it.

  35. [email protected] says 05 April 2010 at 07:59

    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.

  36. partgypsy says 05 April 2010 at 08:02

    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 we bought a used (Young Chang) piano for $2500. It’s been well worth the money. There is nothing so relaxing as playing on the piano.
    If you are curious, look on Craig’s list, sometimes people get rid of pianos for extremely cheap. It probably won’t be a great piano, but you have something to get better on and can move to a better piano if you end up becoming serious about it.

  37. Mike says 05 April 2010 at 08:10

    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 packaging and accessories and open only what you need to
    * regularly review what stuff you have that you’re not using
    * personally, I find selling via Amazon pays a little less than Ebay, but its so much easier (no photo to take, no listing to write) that I tend to do it on impulse rather than waiting until I have several things to sell
    * sell it sooner rather than later – tech items devalue quickly

    And, yet another angle:
    * buy used
    * buy that hot item you couldn’t wait to get LAST YEAR – i.e. don’t get the latest greatest. You drooled over it then, its still the same thing now — but *much* cheaper!

  38. Debbie M says 05 April 2010 at 08:13

    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 of it does depend on what my friends are doing–but I’m starting to get a few really good ideas on how to seriously, yet painlessly declutter. Decluttering is very important to me so I can enjoy my cheap (and almost paid off) but small house. Yet I’ve had real trouble getting rid of stuff. Maybe that all changes today.

  39. Sonja says 05 April 2010 at 08:19

    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.

  40. Nell says 05 April 2010 at 08:31

    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 things as a reward. Thanks!

  41. partgypsy says 05 April 2010 at 08:46

    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.

  42. RMoM says 05 April 2010 at 08:48

    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.

  43. Brian C. says 05 April 2010 at 08:50

    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 the cool expensive gear, but I’ve gotten into the good habit of going camping first, and then making note of what I feel would have fit a need when I get back. That includes trying out gear that my friends have and deciding whether or not that would be good for me. It only took one rainy windy night on a rocky camp ground to realize I needed a tent that didn’t leak and didn’t have verticle walls that blew in the wind along with a cushioned sleeping pad and a camp pillow. Live and learn.

  44. Cam says 05 April 2010 at 08:54

    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, and has all the serveware but nary an invite extended.

    I’ve been pondering who I am and what I want for myself alot lately and this post has helped me see how much my spending in the past and my present really differ.

  45. Stephanie F says 05 April 2010 at 09:04

    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 they’re ready to make the investment. (Copics are good at that point, because while they tend to be more expensive per marker than others, they are refillable so in the long term are a better investment.)

    The materials won’t make the artist, but if you do the majority of your learning of the basics with cheap materials, you *will* see a difference in your artwork when you jump to the better materials … one you *won’t* see if you started with the better materials, because when you’re just starting the materials are less important than training your hands and eyes.

    That’s why I’m currently using my boyfriend’s 44-key MIDI keyboard for practicing on while I take piano lessons. I’ve promised myself that if I get through all 4 semester-long courses offered by the extended education department of the school at which I work, I can drop the money on a really nice one with keys that feel *so* much nicer than my practice keyboard.

  46. Debbie M says 05 April 2010 at 09:11

    @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.

  47. Jessica @ Life as I See It says 05 April 2010 at 09:12

    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 pictures. I borrowed friends, I dressed up my kids, I posed my husband – I literally took over 1,000 photographs in that one day. And some of them were pretty decent.

    Inspired by that single event I decided I wanted the $3,000 camera. I sold a bunch of stuff on craigslist and three days later had made $400. It was a huge headway, but not nearly enough.

    I drooled over the camera in the local store and talked with a sales rep at great length. He convinced me that I didn’t actually need the $3,000 camera (what an awesome sales man! He was looking out for me, not his sales!) and I went home and researched the lesser expensive one, which, with a kit lens, was $1,500.

    I attempted various ways to come up with more money, but as a stay at home mom with two young boys I didn’t get much over $500 in two weeks time.
    Then my husband said – “I am just going to buy it for you.”

    I had used a DSLR ONCE in my life.
    I had no idea what aperature or ISO or bokeh was.
    But he bought it for me (we did have savings, it wasn’t debt.)

    I have used that camera nearly EVERY single day since I got it almost 1.5 years ago. I have taught myself how to shoot manually and what was once a mere interest in photograph has turned into a passion.

    I know for certain that I wouldn’t have sat down and figured out the intricacies of better picture taking if I didn’t have a nice camera in hand to challenge me.

    So while I agree with the principle of what you are saying I believe there are most definitely exceptions… I just don’t know how to define what those exceptions are 😉

    Maybe have your spouse buy the expensive gadgets for you and then you’ll not want to let them down and have them “Waste” their money on a hobby you don’t use?!?!? 🙂

  48. Ted says 05 April 2010 at 09:12

    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.

  49. KarenJ says 05 April 2010 at 09:29

    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 debt and earning enough to cover our monthly expenses (we’re both in sales).

  50. Marisa says 05 April 2010 at 09:40

    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.

  51. sarah says 05 April 2010 at 09:44

    Great post — Sometimes maybe with these purchases we somehow also imagine buying the time to do the things, too? I have lots of craft and art projects yet to be made…it’s finding the time. When I’ve bought the items I usually imagine how much fun, creative and interesting it will be…I’ve stopped purchasing, and now see my most precious commodity is time.

  52. Becky says 05 April 2010 at 10:00

    I agree with the basic premise of the article…except for the piano issue.

    My mom is a teacher and I’ve played since the third grade (I’m almost 50 now). Mom wouldn’t take a student who didn’t have a piano to practice on.

    I suppose you think you can do it on a Casio cheap keyboard. That has got to be a huge discourager as those things are hard to play on. So, if you want to learn to play the piano, choose a decent one to learn on, or a good keyboard–which means more than $10 at a yard sale.

    However, there may be people who would loan you one for a year to see if you really like it.

    But otherwise, yes, I agree, wholeheartedly with the basic premise here.Use what you have and upgrade only as it becomes necessary and as your skills increase in the chosen field/hobby.

  53. Jessica says 05 April 2010 at 10:04

    On the piano issue: I am a piano teacher, and I also won’t teach anyone who doesn’t have an instrument to practice on every day. (For beginners it can be a dinky little keyboard until they become more serious.) I also practiced on an upright for many years growing up, and only got a grand piano after I had become super serious about it (after I had given some significant professional performances). I do, however, have middle-school students I WISH would get a better instrument because it would help their development more – but these are students who are fairly serious and already practice every day.

    On the kitchen issue:
    Mark Bittman, food writer for NYTimes, author of many cookbooks, has a TINY kitchen. picture:

    and his comments:

  54. Nocturnal says 05 April 2010 at 10:15

    Pretty much explained me to a T. I’ve owned a pair of turntables and a mixer before and had to sell them due to financial reasons. Well I finally saved enough money to pick up another pair. I spent a lot and went all out and still want to buy two more that are much higher end models. The thing is, like you said, I expected that this would motivate me to turn me into a DJ that could eventually maybe play small parties for friends and family but I don’t even practice. This is the first post that I felt connected to. It really explained me well. I’m also ecstatic to find out I’m not the only person who goes through this. I can relate to the piano, exercise equipment, clothes, cameras, I have an entire Amazon.com cart waiting to be bought with hopes and dreams that one of the items will make me a rich man.

  55. Ernesto Schnack says 05 April 2010 at 10:19

    I have to disagree about the piano bit. If you plan on learning a musical instrument, you HAVE to have one at home to practice. It’s just the way it works.

    Of course a real piano is a very expensive instrument, so it’s probably best to start with an electric one…but a good one with the full 88 weighted keys. There’s no point in buying an instrument if it’s not going to feel and sound good when you play it.

    (I’m a guitar teacher btw, I’ve had this conversation with a few parents)

    Otherwise, love the post. I really relate to it…though the last few years I’ve been learning to control myself. But my first instinct is always to buy, buy, buy.

  56. Michael Crosby says 05 April 2010 at 10:20

    JD says: “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”.

    This post is a home run. A game changer as they say.

    This really answers a lot of questions. That piano, pool table and who knows what else I’ve bought that I never (or rarely) use, it all falls squarely into JD’s premise.

    I bought the Ipad and I was thinking if I should download the “World’s Greatest Books”. Now it’s not even a passing thought.

    Excellent article. This one’s going on my blog.

    And by the way:

    The #1 comment says:

    Twiggers Says:
    April 5th, 2010 at 4:31 am
    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.

    That’s an interesting take on JD’s post. It shows that it all gets back to living below one’s means, and being happy with who we are.

  57. Rachael says 05 April 2010 at 10:26

    Hi J.D.

    Not that I want to encourage you to buy “stuff” you don’t need, but the piano might be one of the few exceptions to this rule, at least in my opinion. Too many people try to learn to play on beat-up, crappy instruments and it’s completely demoralizing. They sound terrible no matter how good you are and they don’t hold a tune. If you’re really interested in playing, I would definitely recommend buying a decent quality instrument. It will be much easier to play and will produce a more encouraging sound. A keyboard of decent quality is OK, too, but not as interactive – but at least it won’t go out of tune.

    If you’ve always wanted to learn to play, go for it. I’ve played for years and I’m no Chopin, but it’s one of the most enjoyable, relaxing things in my life!

  58. partgypsy says 05 April 2010 at 10:42

    Debbie I have no idea what a 35 mm versus a 110 is, but can agree with your statement as well. My sister was attached to her camera (not because it was great, but because she knew it inside and out) but at some point she invested in a better lens fo it. Probably the more you know or learn, the more likely you can tell those kind of differences. When I got better at piano I actually looked forward to my piano lessons, because it was a pleasure to play the really wonderful, perfectly tuned pianos of my piano teacher(s).

  59. Kent Thune says 05 April 2010 at 10:43


    You’ve illustrated quite well the fact that financial success, defined prudently, has little or nothing to do with financial skills and strategies and everything to do with self-awareness.

    A wealth of information exists on “knowing” and “acting” but there is a poverty of information on “being.”

    Thanks for stressing the importance of self-awareness.


    Kent @ The Financial Philosopher

  60. Adam says 05 April 2010 at 10:51


    I could have sworn you were writing about me. Oddly enough, I was thinking about this very thing earlier this year. I’ve never been concerned about what other people have. However, I’ve always been quick to drop a ton on the best equipment (and accessories too, of course!) for whatever new hobby I’ve chosen. It’s pretty scary when I look back on it.

    I’m reminded that our sequence of events should be:

    1. Want.
    2. Then, Work.
    3. Finally, Get.

    Unfortunately, most of us (my old self included):

    1. Want.
    2. Then, Get.
    3. Finally, Work (or not).

    As an example, you WANT to learn to play guitar. Borrow one, rent one, or buy a cheap used one to WORK at learning to play. Once you’ve learned to play, GET one. You’ve earned it and will get value from it.

    What I’ve done in the past is WANT to learn to play guitar. GET a guitar (or two, yes, I have two). WORK on learning to play it for a little while, get frustrated, and stop. What a waste!

    Want, work, get is the natural cycle. If you WANT to eat, you WORK to plant vegetables before you GET to harvest. Wow! What a novel idea!

    I keep that little list (Want, Work, Get) as one of my personal values. It’s a great reminder. I hope it’s helpful to others.

  61. bethh says 05 April 2010 at 11:00

    hah! this was me with gym memberships. Over a course of about 8 years I joined at least 3 gyms. It might even be closer to five, I’m truly not sure. I’ve just had to admit to myself that tempting as it is to imagine that THIS time will be different, I loathe gyms and would rather be out on a hike. (or sitting on the couch or going to the dentist)

    I’ve struggled to figure out how to get myself from point A (not so fit) to point B (fit) without telling myself expensive lies in the interim. I haven’t figured it out yet.

    On the other hand, I have gotten increasingly into cooking and baking (which couldn’t possibly be related to weight/fitness issues, could it?), and have purchased some nice equipment (KitchenAid mixer, food processor, Dutch oven) to support this interest.

    However: 1. I have bought each piece after wanting it for a solid year; 2. I didn’t go into debt for them; 3. I found good prices for each item; 4. I actually use them at least once a month! I do feel self-imposed pressure to use them more, but I feel monthly usage is a baseline for ‘proving’ that I’m using them.

  62. Josh Wheeler (Music Teacher) says 05 April 2010 at 11:05

    Great post. This is so true, one of those real light bulb moments! The only thing that I thought I’d add is (a little input from a music teacher) anyone wanting to learn to play the piano really does need an instrument before you start to take lessons. However, this doesn’t have to be a $80,000 Steinway… There are certain things we do need “gear” for to start or do and music lessons are definitely one of those. It’s hard to practice when you don’t have an instrument. Of course, sometimes this just means setting up access to one. (Some of the world’s great organists used to hike for miles every day so that they could practice)

    I often encourage my students to start with a simple keyboard and then if they find they (or their child) do indeed stick with music lessons to upgrade to an upright from there. The other whole side of this is that music is also one of those areas where the quality of your instrument often will influence your enjoyment of the activity.

    A 16 key plastic keyboard can ultimately result in the demise of an otherwise motivated musician. The key as with so much is to strike a balance between ability and quality.

  63. LisaD says 05 April 2010 at 11:06

    I went through a rough spot in my marriage and fell into a huge ‘nesting’ phase. If our household goods were perfect then surely our lives would be as well….right? Fortunately most of the things I bought are being used since they were all “practical” in nature. But I still have a set of dishes, a couple different flatware patterns, and some lovely sheets that never made it out of their boxes. Oh well…SOMEDAY…

  64. GayleRN says 05 April 2010 at 11:20

    An echo of LisaD. In retrospect, I realize that some of my most intense hobby phases sprang out of frustration with parts of my life that were out of my control. By that I mean unemployment periods, unexpected and unwanted divorce, emptying of the nest etc. I would plunge into some hobby and expend a lot of energy on it. Eventually the crisis would resolve, I would move on with my life, and the hobby would be relegated to a closet. On the plus side, I did pick up some skills.

  65. Carla | Green and Chic says 05 April 2010 at 11:25

    As someone who has taken piano lessons on and off since childhood, its almost impossible to really learn without a REAL piano of your own. My advice is to scan Craigslist because there are always someone who is willing to give away (or sell very cheaply) an older upright piano. Maybe an older relative who owned it passed away and its too much of a hassle to try to sell it. You will only need to pay for the cost of shipping/delivery to your home and to tune it up. In a lot of cases, you are doing THEM a favor by just getting it out of their space.

  66. MJ says 05 April 2010 at 11:58

    This is a really great post, JD. I’ve seen couples do this on their wedding registries by registering for cookware when you know they don’t cook. I overheard one couple asking about cookware that no experienced cook would ask (e.g. which pan should I stir fry in?), and proceeded to add the most expensive set ($1,000+) to their registry! I guess the couple reasons that by having all this nice equipment they will cook gourmet meals or something.

    At least I can end up finding this expensive cookware at thrift stores in a few years when they throw it out from disuse 😀

  67. Michael says 05 April 2010 at 12:02

    Thank you so much for this great article! For the past five years, I have managed my money well, but every now and then I fall into the trap you just described. This article helped me explain why I sometimes purchase in the hopes of having my life changed.

  68. chacha1 says 05 April 2010 at 12:13

    “You are the master of buying something in the hopes that it will create a need,” Kris said.” Oh LOL!

    In my own defense, I used to play piano A LOT and I was pretty good. But this particular case was really just me satisfying an urge to have something I used to have – and really didn’t (and don’t) need.

    It’s pretty hard to learn to play any instrument if you don’t have one of your own. But the reality was – and is – that I had other things in my life that were a higher priority and were returning more happiness to me than pursuing the piano, which is why it has served primarily as part of the cat superhighway for so long.

    Love this!

  69. Patrick says 05 April 2010 at 12:24

    The piano…or whatever, bought so that you will eventually do something is the wrong motivation. You do not want to guilt trip yourself into learning to play the piano just because you spent thousands to buy one. You’ll only feel like you are doing it to justify the cost. And that will not be any fun.

    Then comes the other conundrum. I took years and years of lessons and then went away to college where I didn’t take the opportunity to keep current on my talent. After I graduated I bought a piano. I thought, I played it forever growing up and surely, buying one now that I can afford it will help me play again.

    While it is true that I do sit down and play on occasion, I should have realized that my priorities changed. It wasn’t that I didn’t have time to play — you can always make time if it is a priority. I didn’t really miss those opportunities as much as I simply did not take advantage of them. Today, I have a beautiful piano in my living room and I am still not taking advantage of the opportunity to play.

  70. Tiffany says 05 April 2010 at 12:24

    This is hilarious…and so true. All the shopping I used to do with an image of my REAL self if mind:

    Long blond hair, killer high heels, fantastic jeans, flowy blouse, cute trench, awesome bag…the problem?

    i love jeans and t-shirts, and tennis shoes! all the money i wasted trying to get to some better fantasty “version” of myself who takes her fabulous hair to fabulous lunches…

    thank goodness i realized that woman is NOT who i am! it saved my wallet, my sanity, and the two hours I was spending on my hair each morning!!!

  71. Dan says 05 April 2010 at 12:26

    free pianos.

    There’s lots of these in many towns… most need tuned, some are junk, but quite a few are good for learning on.

    Musicians have GAS also. but my rule is I only pay 1/3 to 1/2 of list for a guitar or piece of equipment, so if I need to get rid of it, I can get my money back.

    Cameras and cars are different, cause they depreciate so much after you buy them (new one is out).


  72. Kristine says 05 April 2010 at 12:29

    Great article post! I too am guilty of buying clothes a little too snug, because I think that’s going to motivate me to lose weight! 🙂

    This reminds me of the saying – “Be, Do, Have.”
    First, we “be” the person we want and can be, to “do” the things we like to do, and lastly to “have” all that we desire. Too often we go backwards, and in my experience, it didn’t work out.

  73. Karen says 05 April 2010 at 12:46

    Re piano—It’s hard to practice if you don’t have one! You might investigate renting a used upright, though. Many piano stores also do “rent to own” which in this case might actually be a bargain (in case you don’t actually want one).

  74. partgypsy says 05 April 2010 at 13:22

    Two more words of advice when shopping for cheap or free piano.
    a) bring along a piano tuner because they can tell you what shape it’s in. If a piano is out of tune, it’s hard to tell if only out of tune or something very expensive that needs to be fixed. If you can’t do that, next best thing is bring someone who knows how to play well to give it a test drive.
    b) If you decide to get the piano, even if you got it for nothing, spend the money to have it professionally delivered to your home by someone experienced in piano moving. Seriously.

  75. Shane says 05 April 2010 at 14:00

    One of the best posts I have ever read. I think we can all personally take something away from this. My personal experience, I bought a gym membership because I wanted to be one of those people who exercised daily and got bigger. However, I rarely exercised before I had the membership. So guess what? I’m stuck with a gym membership contract that I never use and am unable to cancel until the term expires. I can’t wait to get rid of that one.. Stupid Me!!!

  76. Dar says 05 April 2010 at 14:08

    This post and the comments are definitely a classic!

    To Sam (#21) re: Rosetta Stone

    RS is pretty fierce about tracking down and eliminating any posts on eBay and Craig’s List advertising used version of their product because the EULA (End-User License Agreement) prohibits resale. It’s rather difficult to find it at a bargain price. Good luck!

  77. Michael says 05 April 2010 at 14:31

    I grew up playing piano (8 years of lessons) and have played intermittently since going to college in 2000. Now married, when we bought our home last year one of the first things we did was get a free upright piano from Craigslist.

    It was out of tune and one key didn’t work. I took it apart and repaired the cracked hammer. Then I bought a tuning wrench ($30) and tuned it myself. Google taught me how.

    It’s not the world’s best piano, but it sure beats playing on a keyboard, and it sure beats the cost of a keyboard.

    Eventually we might buy a newer, better, piano but this one fits us well for now. And both my wife and I play it at least a few times a week.

  78. Andrew Choi says 05 April 2010 at 14:53

    when i was really short on cash, i used to never have this problem. I bought photography stuff and used the heck out of them b/c i’d spent so much money on it. but now that i have a little disposable income, i catch myself buying totally useless things for the reasons you state above and i don’t feel that bad about it b/c i look at it as sunk cost.

    it’s particularly scary b/c i want the ipad so badly X_X

  79. Amber says 05 April 2010 at 15:08

    I’ve found that this same tendency you’re talking about is a great way for those of us who don’t do it to score great deals on barely used equipment. I needed a bike for a triathlon I was training for, and I found one on Craigslist from a girl who had invested quite a lot in the bike and various accessories but never used them. I got a great bike for little to no money, and she got the guilt of never using the bike out of her house. I guess it was a win for both of us in different ways.

  80. Scott says 05 April 2010 at 15:09

    Excellent Post. I so fall into this category of buying some “thing” in hopes that it will help me achieve some task.

  81. Khadijah says 05 April 2010 at 15:34

    There are many *free* spanish lesson resources on the internet. really, they ARE FREE. All you need is the *WANT* to do it. I taught my self spanish and greek (just conversational, i can’t write an essay or anything) just with the internet.

    I have not used the FSI govt language program yet but someone shared this link with me…

    The best thing I ever did was to learn salsa dancing and listen to spanish music and date a latino. If the latter is not an option, listen to some latin rock or salsa. But seriously if you can find a latina chic who can teach you spanish, that is the best investment ever.

    Worthy purchase: dictionary
    Hang out at borders and do grammar exercises.

  82. Kathleen says 05 April 2010 at 15:43

    It is amazing what can be learned without the expensive equipment – pianos, for example, can be hired or bought second hand (sure, old nasty ones are hard to tune, but that won’t matter for a few years!). My piano teacher taught a girl who didn’t have any piano at all at home – she had a piece of paper with keys drawn on it taped to the edge of the kitchen table and practiced on that.

  83. Matt Ainslie says 05 April 2010 at 16:20

    This is a frequent phenomenon, and one that advertisers count on. (Like those buff folks shown working out on Exerciser commercials?) But the thing is that that effect occurring in your mind can be destroyed by asking yourself, “Am I really going to out-do everyone in this new field, just because I have this new piece of equipment?”

  84. Sassy says 05 April 2010 at 16:47

    This blog is so true!!

    I went to Everest last year with a friend of mine. We took almost 12 months to buy our gear as we knew what we needed and waited until it was all on sale.

    In our group was a guy who had spent thousands of dollars on top of the range hiking equipment and clothes and latest versions of everything, he had to leave half of it in Kathmandu because the porters can only take 12 kilos per bag!

    He also only lasted a couple of days on the walk because he had all the latest gear but hadn’t done much exercise to train for the trip.

  85. Marvin says 05 April 2010 at 18:18

    Hi J.D.,

    Great post as always. My experience with this topic is sort of a happy medium. In 2007, the idea of becoming an elite triathlete was “cooking” in my mind after watching the Ironman on TV.

    Unsure if this was something that would “stick”, I introduced myself to cycling by investing $200 in a basic used bicycle. While that sounds like a lot, even a used entry-level racing bike will run about $1000.

    Well, fast forward to 2008, and I did end up spending $2000 on a mid-grade carbon fiber bicycle and all the other fixings a triathlete needs(wetsuit, running gear, etc.). And in 2009, I completed the Ford Ironman Triathlon in Florida, a grueling 15-hour race, considered the holy grail for triathletes…and for some, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

    It’s okay to spend based on who you want to be, but it’s important to take exploratory “baby steps”, by buying used on craigslist, ebay, and the like. This will allow you to feel out if who you want to be is realistically within reach, and not have you break the bank in the process of figuring that out.

    Of course, this is not a universal rule. I am merely sharing my own experience that with my $200, I would have been able to learn whether or not to get out of this sport early on before spending a few thousands.

  86. Dotty dot dot says 05 April 2010 at 18:56

    Best. Post. Ever.

  87. Stephanie F says 05 April 2010 at 19:32

    To the commenters above who are talking about a 35mm camera making better pictures than a 110 … no, it doesn’t. A 35mm camera just makes DIFFERENT pictures than a 110!

    You’re comparing a pencil to oil paint: oil paint produces some beautiful pictures, but if you try to use oil painting techniques with a pencil, you’re not going to end up with an oil painting, but with a bunch of pictures that look like *%^&%. But if you use techniques designed for the pencil, you can end up with art.

    The secret to making good pictures with a 110 is to rethink what you want from the final image. 110 film captures much less detail than a 35mm camera (a frame of 110 film contains 1/4 the space that a frame of 35mm film does), so you need to work with that: you’re not going to get a sharp, clear, smooth photo, so you look for pictures that are enhanced by graininess, blurriness, and so on. Think pinhole cameras: you can make art with a 110 cartridge and a piece of tinfoil with a hole punched in it.

    There’s a photography movement called Lomography, which is pictures inspired by low-resolution snapshot-style cameras of the past. Click on my name in this comment to see a gallery of photos that you can browse to see some high- and low-resolution film and digital pictures.

    Art is in the eye of the artist, not in the materials.

  88. Robin L. says 05 April 2010 at 20:08

    I had this epiphany at a Deseret Industries store in Salt Lake City about 15 years ago when shopping with a friend. We had loaded our carts up with frou-frous, cake plates, etc. Somehow we ended up laughing over how we were always buying stuff for the lifestyle we thought we wanted, not the one we really had. We put it all back all the while laughing about it. So now whenever I see something luxurious I think I want I ask myself if it really fits my lifestyle and I usually laugh and decide I don’t really want it.

  89. JFR says 05 April 2010 at 20:16

    I found myself doing these mistakes over and over. I was buying quality stuff for everything I wanted to be. If I wanted to become a scientist, I bought a telescope, a microscope and a chemistry set without really using them. I wanted to be a musician and while I played seriously, I found my home flooded with an excessive number of instruments. The same thing happened with books about a lot of different subjects.

    One day, I finally realized that I expected the stuff to transform me into what I wanted to be. I bought things to change the way my life was flowing but I didnt took the time to commit myself into change…

  90. Sami jo says 05 April 2010 at 22:06

    I’m a piano teacher and I require students to have a piano they can practice on… BUT I’ve found really good results with families who decide to Rent a piano at first.

    It’s not very expensive (about $25-$40/month at many places) and helps the parents get over the worry that their child will tire of lessons after 6 months and then they’ll be stuck with a big, expensive, unused piano.

    Also, most companies have a Rent-to-Own option, where the money you give them monthly accrues toward buying a piano (not necessariy the older ‘renter’ you have either), should you decide in a while that you want to go ahead and take the plunge.

    Also, these places usually deliver the pianos for you, and you’re assured they’re in tune, which is something you can’t take for granted with a used craigslist piano.

    (That said, I’ve found several great pianos on craigslist that were free, the owners simply stipulated that you pay to have them moved out and then they’re yours… it costs about $200-$500 in my city to have a piano moved, depending on the company and the number of stairs!;)

    Hope this helps anyone who isn’t taking lessons simply because they can’t afford a piano. Have a rental delivered, try it out for 6 months, and during that time you’ll have figured out if it’s just going to be a big dust-catcher or if you’ve just discovered a relaxing new passion!

  91. BobJ says 06 April 2010 at 00:42

    Mystery Solved.. now I know why I have 12 guitars on my wall as art.

  92. David/Yourfinances101 says 06 April 2010 at 01:46

    Staying “financially fit” and “keeping up with the Joneses” are two mutually exclusive things. Its not gonna happen, unless you have tons of discretionary income.

    You have go to make a choice.

    Guess what? I could care less about the Joneses.

  93. Jeffrey says 06 April 2010 at 03:48

    Your post is SPOT ON.

  94. Annette says 06 April 2010 at 05:17


    Your insight is spot on – again.

    I reckon this phenomenon also applies to buying books on subjects you want to know more about, but then never actually reading the books you buy. It’s like hoping that just owning the book will mean the knowledge is absorbed by osmosis rather than by taking the time to actually read them.

    I also wonder whether there’s a buying-addiction or a marketing aspect involved? Becoming interested in a new topic creates an excuse to buy the necessary stuff, generating the pleasure (there’s no other way to describe it) of seeking out, buying, setting up and playing with new stuff. And marketers are happy to feed the beast, by trying to convince us we need this stuff if we ever want to be what we aspire to.

  95. Lily (capital L) says 06 April 2010 at 05:21

    This is very true, and made me think of “Confessions of a Shopaholic”, where the chick buys an expensive scarf to become the kind of sophisticated girl who’d wear such a scarf, or buys yoga clothes before signing up for lessons 😛

  96. Jacob G says 06 April 2010 at 05:48

    Excellent post! When I go back home today, this will hit hard. Looks like it’s time to put these items up on eBay!

  97. wil says 06 April 2010 at 06:12

    Thanks for this wonderful post!
    It really hit home the things we do in hope of becoming someone but are in actual fact avoiding the real hard work that’s necessary to achieve it.

    This article is deliciously saved.

  98. No Debt Plan says 06 April 2010 at 09:07

    Oh man, what a great post. You’ve inspired me to write a post myself. What you are describing is like putting the reward before the work. And I don’t think you are alone!

  99. ebyt says 06 April 2010 at 11:47

    Very true. I can relate to this. Even from when I was a teenager and decided I wanted to start my own web design company (granted, I did tinker with html code so I wasn’t completely putting the cart before the horse), and got my mom to shell out hundreds of dollars for various software programs, the guilt is still with me that I didn’t fully use the programs. And my mom still reminds me. I did manage to recently land a contract to design a website for a friend’s company, and got paid for it, so that lessens some of the guilt… but I can definitely agree with the whole spend who you are thing. I am definitely not a web designer nor will I ever be. Some of the programs my mom bought helped me out with computer skills in general, but Macromedia Flash, for example, is still collecting dust somewhere.

    I find instances where I still do the whole spending what I want to be thing: buying clothes a size or two too small to motivate me to lose that last 10 lbs. Luckily I don’t do this a lot, but I have never worn some perfectly good clothes just because I bought them too small and never lost that weight. Silly, but I don’t think I am the only one who does this. At least I am now taking boxing lessons so perhaps I will lose that 10 lbs after all 😛

  100. Budgeting in the Fun Stuff says 06 April 2010 at 13:03

    This is a great point. My husband and I made the decision before we even got married to live on only one salary so that we’d never suffer true damage from trying to live a dream life. Realism and money go well together.

  101. Ely says 06 April 2010 at 14:04

    The comments about buying clothes too small makes me laugh a bit. I found that I could not lose weight until I got rid of all the favorites I had hoped to wear again. I kept them for years and years, but just got bigger and bigger.
    One year after finally letting go of the last pair of skinny jeans, the weight is gone and they would fit me again. I miss those clothes some, but I am quite certain that if I’d kept them I’d still be overweight.

  102. TR says 06 April 2010 at 16:04

    I think there are a few approaches to starting a new hobby that requires gear.

    1. Look at what you have, and figure out if you can use any of that for now even if it’s not ideal for the job. (For example, if you want to start lap swimming and you only have beach bathing suits, as long as they’re suitable for the pool, suppress your ego and use them for a while until you get into enough of a routine to justify buying racing trunks.)

    2. Figure out the lowest possible initial investment to set yourself up for success. Sometimes this means buying “throwaway” entry-level gear. (For example, if you’re a musician, buy a student instrument rather than a pro model.) The issue here is that this level of gear doesn’t hold its value very well. Don’t spend what you’re not comfortable losing.

    3. Buy quality equipment used. Even if it’s more expensive, you will probably be able to sell it for close to what you bought it for if it doesn’t work out. (Of course, this means you need the willpower to throw in the towel and get your money out.)

  103. Maus says 07 April 2010 at 11:15

    Repeat after me: -us -i -o -um -o -e
    -i -orum -os -is -os. Now you have mastered the second declension endings of Latin. The only book you really need is any edition of Wheelock, which you can get used for a few bucks.

    Then again, as I am neither a classicist or a Vatican beauracrat, I’ve used my Latin skills about twice in a twenty year career. So maybe all that work in college would have been better devoted to something in finance or engineering? You’re post brought a smile of nostalgia to my face. Gratias ago.

  104. Bella says 07 April 2010 at 16:12

    It sure is all about priorities, I like to think that I have made significant progress in this realm since my early freshly graduated (wow I can’t believe I’ll ever be able to spend all this money I’m making) optimism. I spent lots of money on gadgets that eventually got donated (the yogurt maker, fitness equipment) that continue to not be terribly well used (the bread maker, XL cuisinart), but on the same note – I took LOTS of classes and have a full art studio in my basement – that when I make it a priority – I really enjoy spending time there, and create some really wonderful things that amaze my family and friends, and all of our friends LOVE coming to our house for dinner because I’ve become such a good cook.
    I think it’s all about balance – and recognizing why you want to purchase something – because you’ll actually use it – or because you HOPE you’ll actually use it.

  105. Levi says 07 April 2010 at 19:43

    There is a great Charles Bukowski poem that I immediately thought of when I read this.

    air and light and time and space

    “—you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,
    something has always been in the
    but now
    I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
    place, a large studio, you should see the space and
    the light.
    for the first time in my life I’m going to have
    a place and the time to

    no baby, if you’re going to create
    you’re going to create whether you work
    16 hours a day in a coal mine
    you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
    while you’re on
    you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown
    you’re going to create blind
    you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
    back while
    the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
    flood and fire.

    baby, air and light and time and space
    have nothing to do with it
    and don’t create anything
    except maybe a longer life to find
    new excuses

  106. Zian says 08 April 2010 at 02:27

    > Figure out the lowest possible initial investment to set yourself up for success.

    I second this remark.

    As a musician myself (piano & violin), I can tell you that when you reach the limitations of your current equipment, it will be _very_ obvious.

    1 (or both) of these things will happen:

    1. Your teacher will start commenting on how your equipment is holding you back…and do so for several weeks.
    2. You will try to do something that you were able to get working on the teacher’s instrument and find it utterly impossible to reproduce at home.

    with portable instruments, #1 kicks in. For pianos, #2 will generally become painfully obvious and then you can talk to your teacher to confirm the problem.

  107. Maddy says 08 April 2010 at 03:55

    Agree with Dotty dot dot. Best post ever!! It reminds me of my late husband who always wanted to own his own business and knew nothing about business at all. He spent thousands on how to start your own business manuals and never did any thing with them. He always worried about leaving me without some type of inheritance. If he had put that money into the bank, I’d be a lot better off financially.

    I’m not really complaining because he left me with many beautiful memories and I told him I never resented him spending the money because I considered it his hobby, besides he never neglected family obligations. Family and bills always came first.

    Now all I have to do is remember this post whenever I make a purchase.

  108. Cat says 08 April 2010 at 04:47

    Great article, and I agree with the general premise. I’ve also fallen into the trap of buyings lots of stuff I didn’t need when taking up a new pursuit.

    Although the piano example sounds a bit odd to me – anyone learning to play an instrument will need to practice regularly between lessons if they want to progress as well as possible, so not having a piano at home (or at least daily access to one elsewhere) would be a problem. I know there are exceptions where people have learned to play even without having their own piano, but learning an instrument is challenging enough in the early stages – why make it more difficult for yourself?

    In such a case, it would maybe make sense to rent one or get a cheaper ‘student’ model initially, rather than buying the super-expensive option – but not having an instrument to practice on at all is a bad idea, IMO.

  109. Ricardo Patrocínio says 22 April 2010 at 07:32

    Great post J.D., I have my house full of stuff I don’t use because of that. Nowadays I’m more critical on purchases that I do.

  110. nyxmoxie says 15 June 2010 at 20:40

    I have to say this is one of my favorite posts. I’m guilty of this as well. Thanks for writing about this.

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