It can be hard to evaluate recent purchases, but I realized that with my entire spending history in YNAB for the past three years, I can actually look back further and use the power of hindsight to evaluate my purchases. I thought it might be fun to look back at the things I bought a year ago and determine whether I (a) use them, (b) remember them, and (c) think they were money well spent. I hope that this exercise will help me figure out principles for predicting good purchases that I can apply before I spend.
Here are my November 2014 personal purchases. Note that I'm only counting material (and some digital) items, not donations/experiences/bills/food/etc. I'm avoiding brand names because my intention is not to buzz market anything but learn lessons for myself.
Black work pumps - $70.62
I got these because I was about to go on job interviews. I'd tried these on in the store in another color (a blue which, come to think of it, would have been a better color for me) and I thought they were really comfortable, so I didn't spend much time evaluating the comfort of the pair that I bought. It turned out that they were not comfortable and after I wore them to one job interview, I was hobbling. By that time, of course, it was too late to return them. I kept them around for awhile because they looked nice, but eventually gave them away. I probably wore them twice.
Money Well Spent? No
Lessons Learned: Walk around the house in your new shoes before wearing them outside. Walk around a lot. If the shoes are the least bit pinchy in your trial, they will only get worse. Don't assume that an item will fit the same in different colorways.
Ankle boots from Zappos (returned) - net $0
I knew pretty early on that the pumps were not going to cut it so I shopped for more work shoes on Zappo's a few weeks later. I ended up returning everything from this purchase.
Money Well Spent? N/A
Lessons Learned: This is a positive example of me taking advantage of a good return policy on shoes that were okay, not great. I didn't end up finding great shoes until the following month, but I'm glad I returned these to make room (financially and physically) for the truly great pair I later got.
Pointelle silk long underwear bottoms - $26.55
This was my attempt to get affordable, lightweight long underwear bottoms for days when it's not that cold. But the thing is, if it's cold enough to wear long underwear, it's really cold and I just want to be as warm as I can be. Very lightweight, flimsy long underwear like this is useless in this case. If it's a relatively warm winter day, say in the 30s or 40s, I just don't wear long underwear at all. I should have returned this, but I'm pretty sure that, instead, I wore it a few times and then just starting wearing my heavyweight wool long underwear (see below) all the time.
Money Well Spent? No.
Lessons Learned: If you're going to do something, do it right. Go for the most extreme weather gear that you need for your environment. That way, you can dress appropriately for extreme weather and wear normal clothes the rest of the time. Medium-level weather gear (e.g. lightweight long underwear, water-resistant jackets) seems like it would be more useful more of the time, but actually it's just useful none of the time.
Merino wool heavy weight long underwear bottoms - $81.99
I did and do love these. I wore them daily throughout last year's crazy Boston winter. I was wary about spending so much money on long underwear when I had never been particularly happy with any long underwear in the past, but these just excelled in every way: very warm, so my legs were never very cold, even on the coldest days; breathable, so I never felt sweaty or itchy; extremely soft, not itchy at all; heavy enough to do their job well but thin enough that they fit comfortably under my normal pants without making me look puffy or bulky. It was these that allowed me to wear ordinary pants (jeans and slacks) throughout the winter, and not have to buy special winter pants (I'd previously worn a pair of flannel-lined jeans that weren't all that much warmer than normal jeans, yet made me feel like a marshmallow. No more!)
Money Well Spent? Emphatically yes.
Lessons Learned: It can be worth it to spring for high end, "cadillac of" items in categories that are practical and important--such as an item of clothing that keeps me warm, that's close to my skin, and that, if it does its job well, I'll wear on a daily basis.
Tights and socks - $41.77
In YNAB's memo area, I wrote: "tights and socks #clothing #stuffidontneed #winter" I guess it was probably stuff I didn't need, because I now don't remember what it was. I don't currently wear any tights that I purchases prior to this year, and most of my socks are worn through.
Money Well Spent? Probably not.
Lessons Learned: Spending a moderate amount of money on a pile of unmemorable, unremarkable stuff is more wasteful than spending a large amount on one really good item.
Winter boots - $200.55
I said I wouldn't buzz market but anyone who lives in a cold climate probably knows where I got these ten-inch-tall, waterproof, shearling-lined winter boots. They are perfect and wonderful, and I have no idea how I got through past winters without them. Somehow, I happened to prepare appropriately for winter for the first time just before the roughest winter I've ever known! If I hadn't gotten these last year, I'd just be getting them now.
Money Well Spent? Definitely.
Lessons Learned: Again, this is an instance where going for the known-to-be-high-quality item was a good choice. In previous years I've gotten cheap-ass winter boots that were both uncomfortable and ineffective. I expect these boots to last me for years.
Mittens - $26.96
This continues the theme of "winter is coming."
Money Well Spent? I still wear them. So, yes.
Lessons Learned: Mittens may make you look like a child, but they are warmer than gloves.
Skinny jeans on eBay - $14.84
I have no memory of these.
Money Well Spent? Hard to say. I probably wore them for awhile, but I don't own them now. I'm not even sure when I gave them away or what they looked like. I'll go with "no."
Lessons Learned: I don't even have enough memory of this transaction to have a lesson. See, this type of transaction is why I'm glad I'm doing this from an exhaustive spending register. If I'd just tried to remember what I bought a year ago, I would have been prejudiced in favor of things that I still own, so they worked out.
Flowy cotton sweater - $32
This wasn't a sweater so much as a lightweight knit wrap. I guess you can tell from the past tense that I don't own it anymore. I never wore it because there never seemed to be a good occasion; it was an in-between item that was neither particularly casual nor particularly formal. It was in-between seasonally, too; it was lightweight so I didn't wear it when I needed warmth, but then if I didn't need additional warmth it didn't occur to me to put on a topper at all. What I do remember is that I was over budget when I bought it, but I got it anyway.
Money Well Spent? No.
Lessons Learned: Like the silk long underwear, this illustrates the principle of min-maxing your clothing--that is, getting items that fit a particular occasion to a "T" and avoiding in-between items. It may be different for other people, but for me, I want to be formal when I'm formal, casual when I'm casual, warm when it cold, and cool when it's warm. In-between items are just items that aren't good for anything.
Phone - $63.74
It looks like I was making a lot of changes this time last year. I needed a new phone because my old phone had been paid for by my job, and when I left my job, I had to give it back. I considered phones in the $200-$300 range, but in the end, I bought the cheapest smartphone I possibly could, and felt proud of myself for getting such a bargain. I still have it, like it, and brag about how cheap it was.
Money Well Spent? Yes.
Lessons Learned: Okay, this is the opposite of the other lessons I learned, since I cheaped out and didn't get the "cadillac of" phones--not by a long shot--in fact I got the cheapest one I could find. It has been perfectly serviceable and I have no desire to replace it one year later. I guess I learned that it's fine (and desirable) to cheap out when it is a category item you do not especially care about. All I want from a phone is that it does basic functions, like calling and getting on the Internet. I can't really tell if it has good or bad specs. Meanwhile, I'm highly attuned to how cold I am when I go out in the winter!
Smart light bulb system - $90.21
My wife and I both have trouble waking up in the winter when it's dark in the morning, and I was particularly concerned about this problem because I'd gotten a job with a one-hour commute and had to wake up earlier than ever before. So we got these dimmable LED light bulbs that you can set on a timer so they fade in, gradually, while you're still asleep in the morning. The gradually increasing light helps to wake you up gently. It's not as a good as waking up naturally to sunlight streaming through the window, but it's much, much better than waking up to a shrill alarm clock in the darkness or a superbright light that suddenly and jarringly pops on.
I'm almost embarrassed to admit I have this because it seems like such a ridiculous luxury gadget, and my wife and I went back and forth a lot before we took the plunge, which is usually a bad sign. But I actually think this was a great purchase. We're so used to this now that we kind of take it for granted, but we really like it and miss it when we sleep away from home.
Money Well Spent? I hate to admit it, because I'm always badmouthing gadget purchases, but yes. Yes, it was.
Lessons Learned: Sometimes ridiculous gadgets are really nice to have.
The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Tidying by Marie Kondo - $7.99
Okay, I said I wouldn't buzz market specific products but I've already pimped this one quite a bit. I'd already started my decluttering journey and gotten rid of a bunch of stuff before I read this book, but I was surprised by how much more I was able to let go of after absorbing Marie Kondo's philosophy (including big things that had been weighing on me for a while). I could have gotten this book out of the library, but it's so popular that I would have been on the waiting list for a long time, so after reading the sample I caved and bought the ebook.
Money Well Spent? Yes, I think I got my money's worth for sure!
Lessons Learned: Reading the sample can be a really effective way to tell if it's worth buying an ebook or not. I've definitely read samples where I was like, "Eh." I was raring to continue reading after this sample. That said, if it is a book that it's possible and reasonable to get at the library, don't start reading the sample because that little "buy" button is really tempting.
Total Spent on Material Items: $657.22
Total Money Well Spent: $471.44
Total Money Poorly Spent: $185.78Percent Well Spent: 72.84%
Summary of Lessons:
- It's worth it to spend on well-made, quality, durable items with features that you know will make a big impact in your life.
- But it's also best to stick to low-end and bypass high-end features in categories you particularly don't care about (like fancy phone specs for me).
- Delay wearing clothes or shoes out of the house until you have given plenty of time to make up your mind. If you get something and you already (or very soon) plan to replace it, just do your future self a favor and return it for as much of a refund as you can get. You will just give it away for nothing when you replace it anyway.
- Match clothing to specific occasions in your life. Get the best thing for cold weather, the best thing work work, the best thing for lounging, etc. Avoid in-between.
- If you are already tagging something "#stuffidontneed" when you record it in the register, you are probably right.
- But sometimes ridiculous gadgets are nice to have.
Hm. Altogether, not a month of unambiguous lessons. It's certainly sticker shock to see such a large total! Yet, I still don't regret most of my individual purchases when I evaluate them one-by-one; several are things where I still think, "I'm so glad I have that!" I think I might actually be learning the opposite lesson that I intended from this. I thought that this exercise would show a lot of dumb mistakes, but for the most part, I got things I needed and that I still use and no longer think about because they just work. I guess it's still hard to tell if I'm succumbing to lifestyle creep, or if I was (and am) on a "buy it for life" kick that will ultimately save me money in the long run.