The Bargain Hunter's Dilemma - The Big Picture

By Barry Ritholtz

When I was young and broke, carrying undergrad/grad school loans, I lived in Manhattan — an expensive city I could barely afford. My first apartment 17th street near 3rd Avenue was a three floor walk up studio at $400 per month. I moved into a two bedroom at 90 Lexington Avenue & 27th street — $1100/mo, with a tiny galley kitchen, one bathroom, and I shared it with 2-3 other people. It had a great terrace and view, but no space or privacy.

It didn’t matter: When you are young, immortal, and having fun, you can live a great “rent poor” lifestyle, bargain hunt necessities while enjoying city life. Indeed, Manhattan provided endless free (or cheap) entertainment, parties, socializing; Dining was inexpensive, ethnic and always “Cheap & cheerful.” You could get by on very little cash.

When you are broke you develop a keen eye for a bargain. You have more time than money, so you don’t mind lines if it saves cash. Find books at the Strand, haunt bargain racks at The Gap, stuff at Sample Sales, see what last year’s winter coats go for at Century 21, get cheap suits at Rothmans.

And yet . . .

There was an unrealized cost to this lifestyle. When you are broke, there is an entire underlying psychology of unfulfilled desire. It creates a danger of wanting what you cannot have simply because you cannot have it. And when you are poor, you cannot have nearly everything. This leads to questionable decision-making.

Try this organization trick for your closet: Take all of your clothes and hang them backwards – the opening of the hanger hook on the bar facing towards, instead of away from you. Wear something, return the hook to the normal. Wait 1 year. The clothes you have worn are on hooks facing away from you, while the clothes you have not worn for a year are facing towards you.

I did this, to shocking and informative result. Shocking, because I realized how little of my “wardrobe” I actually wore; informative because I instantly realized how much money I had wasted chasing “bargains” — things I did not necessarily need or even want, but rather had been on sale. This was 75% of my closet.

I vowed to change my purchase habits immediately.

Rather than shop price first, and thereby allow the retailer’s bag of tricks to influence my decision making, I refused to even look at prices – at least until I got to checkout. If I still wanted something at XX dollars, then I must really want it, and so I buy it. If I decide its too expensive for what it is relative to its quality and my wants/needs, I don’t.

The results it has yielded are interesting :

1. I buy much less stuff. I make far fewer purchases than I was prior in my bargain hunting days. The fact something appears to be on sale is irrelevant to my calculus.

2. I only buy better quality. No more crap, no more outlet “B” goods, nothing discontinued. Only very fine quality items I actually need and/or really want.

3. I limit what I own. I only buy what I truly want. And for each new item that comes in, something old goes out – often (shockingly) unworn and donated to local thrift shop.

4. I save mental bandwidth. I don’t waste time and effort bargain hunting. It frees up brain cycles for mroe creative and fulfilling efforts.

5. I save time. I don’t give shit about Black Friday or a care about Cyber Monday. If something is on my wish list and Amazon Prime Day sends me an email, I think about making that purchase. But I find the mere act of putting something on a wish list is nearly as fulfilling as the empty gesture of purchasing it.

I began this experiment when young(ish) and of limited means and have continued this approach now that I am old(ish) and of less limited means.

This was incredibly freeing. The most challenging part of being broke was the mental bandwidth — I found it psychologically exhausting to watch every penny, and when I eventually just stopped bargain hunting, I put that capacity to much better use. Anytime I backslid I regretted it almost immediately.

This is not a finger wagging lecture on the evils of materialism; I am not in the FIRE contingency; I don’t own a tiny home. I just am choosing to spend my dollars on things I really want, rather than falling into the bargain hunter’s dilemma.

Previously:
‘Never Buy a Boat’ and Other Misguided Financial Advice (October 3, 2015)

Buy Yourself a F*^king Latte (April 5, 2019)

Best Route to Wealth: Savings or Earnings, a Debate (May 26, 2020)