"Panic" - image on Flickr by photographer Nate Steiner

Have you ever suffered “buyer’s remorse?” God knows I have. I’ve made a number of colossally idiotic purchases during my adult life.

What follows are just a few choice examples, starting on a small scale and escalating from there, and as Dave Barry always says, “I am not making this up:”

  • I once purchased a pair of rental bowling shoes (the type with the size emblazoned on the back of the heel) on eBay not because I need bowling shoes (of course not!,) but because I thought it’d be amusing/cool to wear them…  but I never have.
  • I once purchased an $1800 Paul Reed Smith guitar in spite of the fact that I could barely play the guitar.
  • I once purchased a used Alfa Romeo Sprint Veloce as a family car despite the fact that there was no dealer within 200 miles of our home AND the first time I ever laid eyes on the car it was being towed into a garage. Brilliant!

Why does a seemingly intelligent person DO stuff like this? It certainly isn’t rational – what’s the explanation?

One explanation can be found in 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.”  According to Maslow, there are layers of needs in all of us. Once a lower need is satisfied, a person attempts to satisfy the next level of need. As you can see below, the process – often represented by a pyramid – begins with the most basic, physiological needs. When those needs are satisfied, we move on to satisfying the next need level, the need for safety, and so on. You can read a decent overview of Maslow’s theory here.

Illustration:  Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

What does this have to do with my purchasing an $1800 guitar that I didn’t need and couldn’t really use? I think many of us get caught up/messed up when we get to the 4th level of need, the need for esteem.

Have you ever bought something to keep up with a neighbor or a friend? “Bob got a new iPod; you know, I could use one.” “The couple next door have a brand new SUV that’s nicer than our old minivan; maybe it’s time we stepped up to an SUV.”  “Geez, Joe really has some nice dress shirts – I think I need to get some just like that!”

Have you ever bought something because you thought – or more likely, feltthat it’d make you feel better? OR as a reward for completing something or reaching a milestone?

Have you made a purchase because you felt it would somehow distinguish you from everyone else?

All of these relate to Maslow’s 4th level – ESTEEM. Sometimes our buying gets all caught up in our need for esteem and our feelings about ourselves. We end up buying stuff we want but that we don’t truly need.

When I bought the Alfa, I needed a car. About the last thing I needed was an Alfa Romeo, however. I needed a dependable, reasonably sensible 4 door sedan. Instead, I let some twisted combination of what I thought would be cool, how I felt about myself, how I believed others would react to the car and old memories of Dustin Hoffman bombing around in a red Alfa Spider Duetto in The Graduate influence my decision. Was the car fun? Yes. Did it make good financial sense & did it make sense for my family and my family’s safety? (Level 2)  Absolutely NOT.

Another way of putting this is we sometimes buy not because of what we need, but we buy because of what (we perceive) others think about us. Trent Hamm over at The Simple Dollar captured this nicely in this recent post.

This goes back to the age-old contrast between buying what we truly need and what we simply want.  The only things we truly need are represented on the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy – water, food, shelter, safety, and so forth.

I’ve finally reached a point in my life when I’m much more rational about purchases that I want but frankly don’t need:

  • I want a fancier iPod, but my 240-song, $79 iPod shuffle works just fine
  • I want an HDTV flat panel display for our great room, but our 10 year old Toshiba TV works just fine – and frankly when I think about it rationally, I don’t watch that much TV anyway!
  • A year or so ago I wanted to put a Hoover “GUV” (Garage Utility Vacuum) in our garage – but the old vacuum cleaner a friend was discarding – and gave to me free – works just fine. This sort of item (the “GUV”) is the kind of thing I would have bought in the past and within days of installing it I’d have recognized it as an utterly preposterous, nearly worthless purchase (nothing against the fine folks at Hoover – I just plain don’t need this!) It would add virtually no value whatsoever to my life, and is the sort of thing I would have purchased in the past because 1) it would be useful once in a while, 2) it’s unique and 3) no one else on the street has one. In other words, a purchase that would make me feel good for a short while but which I’d soon be regretting.

So how do you stop?

I can’t prescribe exactly how you can move from buying stuff you want to just purchasing things you need, but here are a few thoughts:

  • Recognize the difference. Do you truly need the item you’re contemplating?  Or is it just something you wantfor reasons which may be murky?
  • Give yourself a “sanity check” period. If you’ve got a sudden desire to buy something, STOP and require yourself a “time out” period to reflect on the reasons you want to make the purchase. Double the amount of money you make an hour; divide the price by that figure, and wait that many days before committing to buy the item. Make $25 an hour and want to buy a $500 electronic toy? Give the matter further thought for 10 days. You may discover you don’t really need it.
  • Keep in mind – as Trent points out – that the people who truly care about you don’t care if you have the latest electronic gadget, flat panel display, sportiest car – they care about YOU, the person they love …in the end, all that other crap is extraneous.

Now’s the time to make a change, particularly with the economy a mess.

Good luck – and if you have experiences with your buying decisions or how you’ve controlled your spending, please share in the conversation by commenting.

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2 Comments on Why we make stupid purchases, and how to stop it

  1. Greg says:

    Perhaps something else that should be mentioned:
    If you can’t afford it, DON’T BUY IT.
    This is one of the simplest considerations, but seems hard for many people in this age of credit. But if you only buy what you’re able to actually afford, you’ll go a long way in not making stupid purchases.
    I also like the idea of waiting X number of days before making a purchase, very good advice.

    – Greg


  2. Kevin says:


    Absolutely. In the heat of the (buying) moment, though, many of us are unable to be wholly rational… and our concept of what we can “afford” gets fuzzy. If someone’s really got themselves in trouble financially, the best solution may be to just cut up or otherwise remove credit cards from consideration. See #2 in this rather extraordinary story: http://url.ie/sht

    The “cooling off” period is a good one, if you’ve got a little self discipline.

    Thanks for visiting and commenting!



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