Lessons from my worst money blunders: buying stuff you don't use

Many people purchase items they never, or rarely use, leaving them with closets full of unused clothes and toys.

Anders Krusberg/AP/Nintendo of America
Sure it looks fun in the store - but will you play that video game once you get it home? In this July 10 photo released by Nintendo, Viviana Ramirez plays Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies in New York.

Along my financial journey in life, I made a great number of mistakes. In this ten part series which runs from July 19 to July 30, I’m going to focus on ten of my worst mistakes and the difficulties and successes I’ve had in overcoming those mistakes.

I bought many expensive (and inexpensive) items without adequate time to enjoy them.

One of the most cathartic things I did in the immediate aftermath of the choice to turn my financial life around was to simply go through our apartment in order to collect stuff to sell in order to give a big initial boost to our debt repayment.

What shocked me wasn’t so much the amount of accumulated stuff, but the amount of stuff that I owned that I had invested virtually no time or energy in. Piles of unplayed video games, some still in shrink wrap. Mountains of nearly-new paperbacks, many with just some sunlight exposure, most of them unread or barely-started. Piles of CDs listened to maybe once or twice. Multiple sets of golf clubs – and piles of golf balls. A large trading card collection and a large vintage baseball card collection, neither of which had been touched in years. A closet full of nearly-new clothes. Pieces of computer hardware uninstalled.

Simply put, there were tons of things that I had purchased and barely used. Why? I had so many things that I could be using that I didn’t have nearly enough time for them all.

Obviously, my situation is a bit extreme, but over the last few years, I’ve been repeatedly shocked to find how many of my friends and family members have done similar things on a much smaller scale. Unused exercise equipment. Unused DVDs. Barely-worn clothes jammed in the back of an overstuffed closet. Video game consoles played for about five hours and then stuck into a closet. One friend had a never-used Dyson vacuum cleaner in the closet that had been sitting there for more than a year.

These experiences reveal several very vital personal finance mistakes.

First, I used shopping as a substitute for actual entertainment and other experiences. Instead of enjoying the things I already had, I devoted time and energy into the acquisition of more things. A much more worthwhile use of that energy would have simply been directed towards enjoying the already-acquired items.

Second, those purchased items, left unused, are an incredible waste of an investment. As soon as most of the items were purchased, they became much less valuable, passing from “new” to “used” in terms of resale value. They then sat around for a long time, doing nothing more than taking up space, not even repaying some of their value in terms of the entertainment or joy they could provide. Even if I had just mindlessly bought a new game when I defeated the previous one or bought a new book when I finished the one I was on or bought a new CD when I had listened to the one I previously purchased a few times or bought a new DVD when I watched the last one I bought, I would have been in much better financial shape. This doesn’t even touch on the fact that I would have been even better off wisely using rental strategies and other techniques to still get all the enjoyment I would ever want with even less financial investment.

Finally, the clutter of unused stuff takes up time, space, and energy. How do you keep 500 DVDs organized? It’s much, much easier to keep ten organized. It takes less time and space. It takes less maintenance to dust them and keep them clean and presentable. The same is true for everything else in your home. The more you have of something, the more time it takes to maintain it – and the more it costs to maintain it, too.

What can you do to avoid this trap?

The first step is to get your shopping habits under control. Eliminate the purchases you’re making that don’t directly address needs. If you’re buying something that you’re not going to go home and use immediately, reconsider the purchase. Consider instituting a “one in, one out” policy for your non-essential items. In other words, if you buy something new, you have to swap out or sell something old to make room for it.

The second step is to seek out less expensive sources for the things that you do actually buy that fulfill needs and direct wants. If you’re a movie fanatic that buys four DVDs a week, subscribe to Netflix instead. If you’re an avid reader, hit the library to get your new release fix. If you’re a gamer, join GameFly. If you like music, use services like Pandora. Join community groups that focus on your particular hobby. Look for online groups that seek out bargains in your area of interest.

The next step? Thoroughly use items you acquire before you move on to another one. If you pick up a book, read it (or at least give it a fair shot) before getting another one. Even better, get rid of the items that you won’t pick up again. Make your collections consist of the ones that you truly love and intend to revisit with some frequency in the future.

Doing this for the things you accumulate will make a tremendous difference in your financial state as well as the space, time, and energy you have to devote solely to maintain your stuff.

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