Here’s A Thought: Evaluate Your Cart Before You Check Out

With each passing year I find myself more and more attracted to the principles of minimalism. As I’ve mentioned before, minimalism doesn’t look to get rid of everything. It looks to prioritize those possessions or activities that are most valued and then removes the rest. Keep the flowers but pull the weeds is a mental picture I often use.

Yet…this tendency toward minimalism doesn’t mean I’m immune to the siren song of a new throw pillow or fancy storage container. While I appreciate the potential impact of small aesthetic decisions – I also know the subtle regret of coming home with stuff I did not really need (or want).

You know. Those little impulse purchases from Walmart or the DollarStore. Things that I thought I might like/want/need, but that very definitely hadn’t shown up on my shopping list.

Lately, I’ve been trying to curb some of that behaviour with a simple hack: I evaluate every item in my cart before checking out. As in I physically stop and assess each item in the cart (unless I’m at Costco and have one of those giant carts full of things in which case I might as well just drain my bank account and hand it all over to Costco because there is no turning back. When I see people leaving with one item in their giant cart, it blows my mind. How do they manage this sorcery? Costco, if you’re listening, I’m sorry, but I just can’t walk out without spending large amounts of money on giant quantities of things and I kinda, sorta always feel guilty walking through your enormous sliding doors. But I do love your jumbo bags of pumpkin seeds).

I’ve been doing this for a long time via online retailers – I’ll add items to my cart and let decisions simmer for a few days. I often end up moving items to “Save for later” or delete them entirely. But it can be hard to duplicate that delayed check-out experience when you’re standing in line at the pharmacy and happen to see an adorable pair of slipper socks or a festively wrapped box of Lindor’s.

When I take a quick inventory of the items I’m going to be spending cold, hard-earned cash on, I try to think through a hierarchy of questions, including some or all of the following:

  • Was this on my list?
  • Do I want or need this?
  • Is it aesthetically pleasing or of practical use?
  • Does it feed a passion or interest?
  • Is this item built to last/of good quality?
  • Do I want to handle rehoming this item (donating or selling or consigning or – perish the though – trashing).
  • And finally, though we may all be a bit Marie Kondo’d out, I think it helps to ask if the item sparks joy – which can be a sort of umbrella over all the rest of the questions.

Here are a few examples of this reasoning in action:

  1. Abby bought a ukulele this summer, after months of saving up her allowance. It was a wonderful purchase but I knew it wasn’t going to be a long-term passion. Sure enough, aside from a week of near-steady practice when it first arrived, this item has largely stayed on her closet shelf. And that’s okay. At the time of purchase, it fueled an interest and we let it runs its course. It’s aesthetically pleasing, it’s good quality and will be VERY easy to rehome if she decides to completely abandon this hobby (sell or donate).

2. Usually, a plastic action figure selling for $3 that is bound to break in a week would not meet my testing criteria but years ago, when we were taking a long family roadtrip, I wanted to get the kids a few small toys for the drive. I try to avoid plastic toys like the plague and we’ve managed relatively well thus far. But Levi loves Transformers and we couldn’t find one at a local thrift store in time. So I bought one of the $3 variety at the DollarStore. I knew it was cheap. I knew it would break. But I also knew I needed this toy for a very specific purpose. I didn’t need it to last a long time. It was liable to get lost in all the chaos of traveling. I just wanted something, short-term, to fill a specific need. And so I bought it. It broke after about 8 hours, but he spent those 8 hours happily playing with it. I haven’t bought another DollarStore action figure before or since, but don’t regret the decision.

At IKEA last week I opted against buying the sock hanger dohickey for the laundry room (after it had found its way into my shopping cart) and set aside the desk organizer that wasn’t quite right. I made the decision to say “no” quickly and easily by running through the questions listed above in a matter of seconds (neither were on my list, I didn’t need them, they weren’t high quality, and I didn’t want to rehome them) – but it is definitely a muscle that builds over time.

When I’m wheeling toward the checkout I’ll ask myself if I really want to buy those price-reduced bananas (which means I’ll have to make muffins ASAP) or that new painting for over the couch (it’s nice, but do I really want to spend my Friday evening trying to find a stud behind drywall and fighting with drill bits). I still refer back to the concept from Fumio Sasaki of a Silent To-Do List: every single item in our house sends subliminal messages which can lead to physical and emotional clutter.

Sometimes I vote “yes” to the bananas and “yes” to the plastic action figure. But hopefully only after I’ve paused. Because bananas and action figures can morph into big new houses or shiny new cars and I’d rather test these value-driven financial decisions on $1.50 worth of bananas first.

What about you – any frugal hints to help with overbuying/impulse purchasing?

Header photo by Eduardo Soares on Unsplash

14 thoughts on “Here’s A Thought: Evaluate Your Cart Before You Check Out”

  1. This is similar to what you do – I put everything I want into an online cart… and then I walk away. Usually, I forget about it and never remember that burning desire to possess it. If I come back to it (a time or three), I might buy it. But often, for me, putting an item in the cart — “I CAN buy this, if I want to” — scratches that itch.

    Like you, I am totally susceptible to the magic of Costco and cannot walk out of there without spending a ridiculous amount of money. HOW do they accomplish this???

    1. Costco blows my mind in so many ways…I feel equal parts love and frustration. Some of their products are so wonderful…but I feel anxious just thinking about going there (especially over the holidays).

      And definitely, I feel you on the “scratching the itch.” I do this online a lot, but find it can be hard to recreate the experience when at a store. Making a list helps, for sure, but also forcing myself to validate a decision to buy each items (while it might seems like too much effort to someone else) has been a really good fit for me. I still bring home things that I regret, but definitely less than I used to, which is a win 🙂

  2. I’m a minimalist at heart and my husband is a super minimalist. It’s never more apparent to me how atypical we are than the holiday season when there is a sense of ‘buy buy buy’ everywhere! I think for me, the key is to be really thoughtful about things and to not get swayed by what others do/what your parents did/etc. In this stage of life, we are really taking advantage of how clueless our kids are about who is giving them gifts. Since they can’t read yet, they pay very little attention to the ‘from’ part of each gift. They get so many gifts for birthdays and Christmas that we don’t feel like we need to get them much. So far, we’ve only gotten them a Santa gift and books for their stockings. I know we won’t be able to get away with this forever, but I want to be very careful about what we bring into our house and what sort of traditions/expectations we set on gifts. It’s easy to add, it’s very hard to cut back on the # of gifts, etc. My parents were very generous with us so we always had lots of gifts to open – usually a couple from them, plus 1 “from” each siblings (which was obviously just from mom and dad, too). But if you ask me what gifts I remember, I can’t even really tell you anything that stands out. I remember the sense of abundance of gifts under the tree but not the gifts themselves. I have stronger memories of our traditions, like the typical meal we’d have on Christmas Eve and the homemade ice cream we’d eat for dessert with Christmas cookies, etc. So I tell myself that our kids will hopefully remember the traditions we are making and think less about the gifts? Maybe that is wishful thinking, though. There likely will come a time when they really pay attention to the # of gifts they each get and who they came from, etc, but I want to make sure we don’t commit to getting them a huge number of gifts. I’ve also tried to get our parents to give less. My parents now give money for their college account and one gift.

    I am glad that things like Facebook market place exist at a way to get things out of your house. It’s a pain to use at times, but I’ve gotten rid of a lot of stuff on there. I have certainly not made money on what I’ve sold but I like to know it’s actually going to be put to use. So I will put things on there for free just to make sure it goes somewhere it will get used as I’m often skeptical about what is going to happen with goodwill donations!

    1. We love using similar options to Facebook market place (both to BUY items, and to sell them). I also have a pretty good handle on what might be welcomed by friends (for example, when we upgraded our home entertainment audio equipment we gave our old set to a friend who had nothing and was VERY happy to receive a set of speakers/receiver).

      I get the sense you’re even more minimal with me in terms of gifts!! Our kids definitely still get a lot of things at Christmas (to me at least), but a lot of items are practical (and sourced second hand) and, also, they’re old enough they definitely are aware of what they’re getting. Also, because we don’t swap gifts with other family members, aside from us + grandparents, they aren’t going to get a lot of gifts. I think the idea of getting money for the college fund is great.

      And I agree – aside from a few memorable gifts as a kid, it’s the traditions (mostly around food and church Christmas concerts) that stand out most distinctly and give me the warm fuzzies.

      1. We will see how long I can manage to buy very few gifts for Christmas and birthdays! I am definitely taking advantage of this stage for as long as I can! But I know a time is coming when that won’t fly! Hopefully by the time we feel the need to get them more gifts, we can get my MIL to get them less? She gets them probably 3-5 gifts each! This year I gave her a wish list to sort of rein in what she buys. She does get high quality gifts and a lot come from Lakeshore Learning which has pretty educational gifts. But for the first couple of years she would get things from Costco that were plastic which is not my preference. My parents are great at sticking to the list!

        When we do buy more, I want to do the want it/need it/wear it/read it theme.

        1. I never go for the want/need/wear/read thing…but I think it still happens regardless because all of those items seem relevant at Christmas!

          My kids just don’t have many “toys”. Abby is so into art and creative pursuits, so art supplies are the go-to, but she has never been into plastic items/dolls etc that much. Levi has a lot of LEGO and some action figures, but no big pieces of plastic equipment? I’m not sure if that is just their personalities or the fact I’ve never encouraged that sort of thing?

          I say go for the minimal gifts as long as possible and definitely having a tailored wish list for other people is great – I am always happy to provide suggestions to people when they ask what my kids want/need! It feels like a win, win. Especially since even if you name something – a throw blanket, a notebook, a LEGO set – there is still so much scope for creativity when selecting the exact one.

          A few years ago Abby really needed a new towel and so when someone asked what to get her for a birthday, I suggested a towel. They got her this adorable watermelon one (which she now uses as her go-to swimming towel); it was fun and whimsical…but also really filled a need. And she was THRILLED to receive this gift 🙂

  3. I’ve been doing that for years, especially once we moved to Manila, where shopping in person and online is not as convenient as in the US. My criteria to deciding:
    1. is it experience or material? experience always gets bonus point
    2. is it plastic? single use? try to minimize it, this comes especially handy when deciding on gifts for the girls.
    3. does it bring me joy that last longer than few days? new clothes excite me only little nowadays, but my new CGM brings me so much joy to understand my health. Similarly, the aura ring was my best purchase last year.
    4. how long can I expect to use/it? if it’s not a 5 years or more, reassess.
    5. does it make someone else happy? all the above criteria might not apply when getting gifts for my loved ones.
    6. if I can’t decide on 1-5, then I’ll hold the item in the cart for few days before making final decision.

    1. These are all great. I feel like this comes intuitively to some people…and then is a lot harder for others? I’ve done it online for years, but only recently have I started applying the same principles when I get in-store. Almost always I regret something I buy far more than I regret something I DON’T buy!

  4. Oh, Costco. I once was there on a Sunday afternoon (NEVER AGAIN WILL I DO THAT) and the person behind me just had a package of those big muffins they sell. That’s it! I couldn’t believe it. (Obviously I let them go ahead of me.) One package of muffins! My mind was blown. I buy so much groceries these days, with two teen boys, that I am constantly amazed by people with tiny amounts of things. What must that be like.

    1. Who are these people? And why do they have Costco memberships? Are these the same people that can stop at eating one or two potato chips?

  5. I couldn’t love this post any more if I tried…. I’ve been known (among friends) to completely overthink (most) purchases. To the point that I think about things I really want way too long (and sometimes these items are not available anymore when I am ready to buy – go figure (and go read the story about my Christmas tree from last year).
    That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy an impulse purchase now and then. But it’s usually inexpensive items (I never just drop more than $20 on anything unplanned) and I do ask myself some of the same questions that you listed.
    Was this on my list? Do I really want or need this? Is this item built to last/of good quality? And I also always ask myself: how long do I have to work for this? Putting it in perspective in terms of “time worked to earn this money”, items often turn out to be not “worth” my hard-earned money.

    I am one of the people who walks out of Costco with a few items, but I think that is just because we’re a 2-person household and I can only buy things that last/keep for a longer period of time. I definitely still feel like I am leaving more money there than intended.

    1. That’s an interesting perspective – to consider the time worked to earn the money. It does help evaluate if something is worth the sweat equity. Is that cute throw pillow reallllyyy worth 2 hours of work at the office?

      Good for you for beating the Costco system. I only go a few times a year (I’m too cheap to have my own membership, but various friends have one so I tag along). Since I go relatively infrequently (it’s an hour away, or I WOULD have a membership), so I have to stock up. But I inevitably leave with lots fo things that I did not plan to buy and it always makes me feel anxious being there because the investment always seems so much higher. Do I want 2 lbs of salted caramels? Because if they’re not that great…it’s a lot of salted caramels…

  6. I love this posts. So much to think about.
    I never shop online by putting things in the cart. They always go to a whish list where they will sit for a while. Often times they are sold out but every once in a while the prices drop and I am happy to buy then. If not it wasn’t meant to be.
    When shopping in real person eg clothes – which I hate – I rarely by immediately. I always ask if they can hold until end of day. Then if I am done shopping and have seen it all I can decided which was the best. And then I have to make extra effort to go back and get it. Often times I realize I am too lazy and I don’t really need that item that much.
    My downfall are craft stores. I always by more than I need or will ever be able to use. And a close second is the drugstore. But I am getting better here.

  7. I can completely related as I do this, too. More often for non-necessities – and I find it kind of interesting that I really just use Amazon for regular purchases that I would make elsewhere (e.g., Walgreens, Target) but that are cheaper on Amazon. Most recent order – hard candy (OK, not a necessity but something I do love), electrolyte powder that’s available at Whole Foods for $$$$$, and generic Flonase. But for something like clothes from Old Navy? Or non-necessities? I dither for days about spending the money. I HATE spending money unnecessarily, and I am sure you and others do, too.

    And yes, I’m a 1-2 item at Costco kind of person. But it is just me – I can’t fit many of their items in my apartment, they’re just too big! So I stick to dried fruit, Zyrtec (cheapest there), and the occasional bra or sock purchase, when they are in the displays near the front. If I can’t get it in one reusable bag, then it’s very unusual. Gone are my days of half-filling-up a cart! 🙂

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