How I trained myself to buy less 

Ask yourself these 5 questions before buying something new

Last year, I decided I needed to get my impulse shopping in check. The inciting incident? I accidentally bought an album I already owned for the second time in a year. It was a used record, so the realization when I got home didn’t sting as badly as if it was a freshly shrink-wrapped vinyl. But twice! In one year! 

The record (Wings at the Speed of Sound, if you care to judge me) wasn’t the issue. The problem was that I was buying without thinking, which is a lapse I’m very much not alone in. It’s a pattern in consumer culture in the world’s wealthiest nations that’s helping drive the planet toward ecological catastrophe. Taken as a whole, stuff Americans buy accounts for 26% of our personal contribution to planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions, second only to transportation. Even if our homes aren’t visibly bursting, landfills sure are. Case in one datapoint: In the U.S., we create 82 pounds of textile waste per person every year, and we make impulse purchases across all product categories that the majority of shoppers wind up regretting

I’m really into creating systems that make doing right by the planet simple, repeatable, and achievable (see my step-by-step plan for quitting paper towels), which is why I decided to develop a method to reach for when some shiny new bauble strikes my fancy. For help strategizing, I talked to Kristian Steensen Nielsen, an assistant professor at Copenhagen Business School whose research sits at the intersection of behavioral science and climate change mitigation. His advice? “Add friction to your purchase decision. Make it more difficult.” 

It sounds painful, but I promise it’s not. Here’s how: 

Step 1: Make yourself wait 

When the urge to buy pops up, postpone it for a few hours or, better yet, a few days. That way, says Nielsen, “you can sit a little bit that desire to purchase.” Delaying gives you time to get past any emotional sways or FOMO. Five days or so is a decent benchmark.  

Step 2: Phone a friend 

Buffering, however, might not be good all on its own, because it can also leave you with plenty of time to rationalize. “Sometimes you can make up a big story about why something is super necessary,” Nielsen says. In those moments, he recommends calling in reinforcements—recruiting an ally to keep you honest. 

Step 3: Answer these five questions 

As a person who craves structure, I also find it helpful to weigh a handful of checks and balances as I think and talk through a purchase. For me, the decision to buy something new boils down to these five questions:

1. Do I already own something that can serve the same purpose? Prioritize function over form, which means considering what a product’s fundamental job is and seeing if you have something that can get it done. Marketers have a way of slicing product categories into superfine slivers, which can convince us that it’s positively necessary to own, say, a different water bottle for the gym and our desk or that we need a set of acetate containers specifically for organizing our bathroom drawers. In reality, though, hydration is hydration, and an upcycled cardboard box can divide up a drawer. 

2. Is it something I could borrow? Some needs are ephemeral, which means an item might not merit a permanent place in your home. For example, if you’re going on a one-off camping trip, you probably don’t need to purchase your own full kit. Ask around—someone you know might have what you need. If not, find a rental service. You can get camping gear from REI, tools from Home Depot or Lowes, and there are tons of options for renting special-occasion outfits you’ll honestly (truly) only wear once.

3. Can I get it secondhand? A used thing will almost unfailingly have lower emissions than a new thing. Even if browsing the thrift or garage-sale circuit holds zero appeal for you, online secondhand shopping is thriving—as are organized Buy Nothing and Freecycle groups. A ton of brands run their own certified pre-owned markets (complete with product warranties), but a whole new crop of person-to-person marketplaces like WhatNot and OfferUp have joined the ranks of eBay, Etsy, thredUP, and other reselling mainstays.  

4. Do I know where I’m going to put it? This one’s a multiparter: Is there literal room for the new item in your home? If you’re at max capacity, what are you giving the boot for it to fit? And, if something’s getting the ol’ heave-ho, what’s your plan for finding it a new home or getting rid of it responsibly? (Here are our guides if the ousted item is clothing or electronics.) 

5. Will it make my life better in the long run? 👈This is where you’re going to really need your accountability buddy. “Better” is a judgment call and can mean a zillion different things depending on your goals and where you’re at in your life right now. Will you still be using and loving this whatchamacallit in a year? What about in five or 10?  Because if the joy of the purchase only lasts until it goes out of style or the new edition comes out, the answer is probably “no.”