How I Make Purchasing Decisions

Despite being a pretty severe minimalist for a long time, I think I’m now known a lot for what I buy. I worry about this a little bit sometimes, because I don’t think being a great consumer is very meaningful. On the other hand, buying the right things is a good substitution for buying a lot of things, and I do take some pride in my habit of buying great things irrespective of any sort of advertising or hype. In this post I want to share my process for choosing what to buy.

There are two different ways in which I tend to begin a buying decision. The first is looking to solve a problem, and the second is upon finding an opportunity.

Take, for example, my tea set that I travel with everywhere I go. My old set was beautiful, but it was ceramic. That meant that it was heavy and also that it could break. The housekeeper on a cruise broke the lid of my gaiwan once and it made it very difficult to make tea for the rest of the trip. In this case I began the search for a new tea set that would solve this problem.

A real estate agent friend here in Vegas posted an ad for a house she listed on Instagram. It had huge decks, a fire pit, and was nestled amongst massive pine trees. It looked like the opposite of a typical house in Vegas, so I dug in and realized that you could buy houses on Mt. Charleston, which is a tall mountain right outside of Vegas. The opportunity here was that I live under an hour away from a pine forest and mountains — maybe there was a cabin I could purchase to take advantage of having access to a totally different climate.

No matter how I start the buying process, I try to establish what factors I actually care about before doing my research. These may change as I go if I learn something new, but if you don’t start knowing what you’re looking for you’re more susceptible to letting sellers tell you what you should care about, which is often not in your best interest.

In the case of the the tea set, I cared about the normal things that inspired the previous set (compact size, stacking cups so I can share with friends, good enough quality that it doesn’t drip everywhere, etc), but I also cared about something that would be much more durable.

My vision for the cabin was that I could go there in the summer to escape the heat, possibly even living there for a week at a time, and that it could serve as a base for ski trips in the winter. That meant that it had to be accessible, close to hiking and skiing, and be big enough that my wife and I could live there for a week and continue to work or bring a couple friends up for a weekend.

Next I cast a really wide net and consider as many options as possible. I searched everywhere on Mt. Charleston and actually found a neighborhood I liked better than the original one. I even drove up there to see what they felt like. For my tea set I searched for every possible type of travel tea set, considered making my own, and even considered things that weren’t meant for tea, like titanium sake cups.

When I was in the process of buying a boat I initially wanted a pontoon boat, because my main criteria was being able to drink tea on the lake and go swimming. Because I cast a wider net I discovered a whole class of boats I didn’t realize existed and were affordable, cabin cruisers, so I got everything I initially wanted but also gained the benefit of having a vessel I could do overnight trips on.

Once I finish this process, I will usually have my options narrowed down to just one or a few items. In the last phase of my buying process I consider what I would pay for the purchase and whether it would be worth it and provide more value than I could get by spending that money in other areas.

I found a great cabin, but then discoveed that it had some big hidden costs that would run to about $6k per year, and I ultimately decided that it didn’t offer enough value to justify the cost. In the case of the tea cups there was a clear winner so I just purchased it. When I’m researching for the gear post I often buy several different options so that I can make an even better decision, since I know that hundreds or thousands of people will also benefit from that small edge.

When I was in my teens my father gave me a great compliment and said that he had never met anyone who was less influenced by advertising than me. I think it’s very much due to this process, which I’ve been doing to some extent even since I was a teenager, that has allowed me to ignore advertising and hype and to buy the thing that is actually the best. You can see a real-life example of this process when I bought my car.

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Photo is from Mary Jane Falls on Mt. Charleston

I will be doing another Tea Time with Tynan this Sunday at 10am PST. We’ll discuss buying things for the first half and open it up to any other questions for the second half. Please join us!

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