The Bargain Hunter’s Dilemma


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 was a three floor walk up studio on 17th street near 3rd Avenue 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. Dig through the piles to find great books at the Strand, haunt bargain racks at The Gap, find stuff at Sample Sales, see what last year’s winter coats go for at Century 21, get a cheap suit at Rothman’s.

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 the danger of wanting what you cannot have simply because you cannot have it. And when you are poor, you cannot have nearly everything. This inevitably leads to questionable decision-making.

There are ways to manage the lure of consumerism.

Here is a neat trick: 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. When you wear something, return the hook back to the normal (opening facing away from you) position. Do this anytime you wear clothes for 1 year. 12 months later, the clothes you have worn are on hooks facing away from you, while all the clothes you have not worn for a year are on hooks facing towards you. If you have not worn these clothes for a year, you probably will never wear them again. Why do you even own them?

Throw (or give) these away.

About a decade ago, I tried this experiment. The results were shocking and informative. 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 acquired because they had been on sale. This was 75% of my closet.

I immediately changed my purchase habits then.

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 the 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 of the experiment are interesting :

1. I buy much less stuff. I make far fewer purchases than I did 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 fine quality items I actually need and/or really want.

3. I limit what I own. I only buy what I truly want or need. 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 more creative and fulfilling efforts than saving a few pennies on a worthless item.

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 greater means.

This was incredibly freeing. The most challenging part of being broke was the emotional drain on my limited 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 and/or need, rather than falling into the bargain hunter’s dilemma:

Do you really want or need it, or is it just on sale? 





‘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)


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