4 Golden Rules for Buying Stuff: What Big Tech Doesn't Want You to Know

By Michael Comeau  JAN 02, 2014 10:36 AM

Spend smarter in 2014.

 


The technology world is good at providing us with a never-ending stream of shiny new objects that all seem to scream, "Buy me!"

Every day, there's a new smartphone, tablet, video game, 3-D printer, e-reader, or piece of wearable technology competing for our money, and let's face it, sometimes it's just fun to buy stuff.

Heck, we can get high off it. The act of shopping can cause our brains to release endorphins and dopamine, which are natural opiates.

But as someone who has spent plenty of money on less-than-sensible products because they were new or supposedly innovative, I know that mindless tech spending will bring you zero happiness, and plenty of financial pain.

So I'm going to deliver to you what I call my four ugly golden rules of tech spending. They're ugly because they took me a decade of buying junk to learn, and they're golden because, well, they make a lot of sense if you think about them.

Heck, if I'd known this stuff years ago, I'd have never owned this dumb HD-DVD player:



Now if you're a serious techie or simply filthy rich, ignore this article; it isn't for you.

But everyone else, let's go.

1. If You Can Still Use It, It's Not Obsolete

I like David Pogue's writing, but I was quite disturbed by this Scientific American article in which he stated the following:

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) releases a new iPhone model every year. For the first few years, that big event was in July; these days, it’s early October. In other words, if you worry about obsolescence, don’t buy a new iPhone in September.

Excuse my language, but that's a bunch of malarkey. The existence of a newer, better product never makes the old one obsolete.

Let's say you have a BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) Curve from 2007. If you bought it for email, phone calls, and texts six years ago, and it's still capable of performing those same tasks today, then it's not obsolete.

A new iPhone 5S can surely do more, but that takes nothing away from the ability of the Curve to get certain tasks done.

Now what does qualify as an obsolete product?

Well, a Polaroid camera with no film would be one. A typewriter that you can't find ribbons for would be another. And that Curve would be obsolete if the battery stopped working and you couldn't fix or replace it.

There's always going to be something new on the horizon that's a little better than what you've got.

But the mere existence of a fresh alternative is never a good reason to buy, or to be any less happy with your existing purchase.

So you think you need an upgrade? Ha! Think again

2. Buy Tools That Solve Problems

Not owning an iPad is not a problem.

You know what is? Having a sore shoulder from carrying a big laptop around, or not being able to watch Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) in bed late at night.

You see, I think people need to look at technology products as solutions to problems or as sources as convenience, not as objects of interest and/or desire.

So before you buy a particular product, actually think long and hard about how your daily workflow will be impacted.

For example, every time I go to the Apple Store, I'm reminded that I'd love a new iPad Air. They're just so beautifully designed and fun to use.

But the reality is that no aspect of my life will be improved by owning one. It solves no problems for me. I have computers at work and home, and I know I'm not going to want to carry it around or bring it to bed. And when I'm traveling, my iPhone suits my fairly basic mobile-computing needs just fine.

So as attractive as the iPad Air is, it's just not worth $499 for me.

3. When in Doubt, Go on Vacation Instead

Let's say you're thinking about buying a new digital SLR camera, and you're on the fence for a fancy $2,800 Nikon D800 (OTCMKTS:NINOY).

Maybe it would be better to stick with the old camera and hop on a plane to Tokyo or Paris or Rio? What do you think? What's more important? Getting sharper and more vibrant pictures of the same old stuff, or seeking something completely new and having an incredible life experience?

A 2003 study by researchers Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich delved into the happiness-producing effects of spending money on experiences rather than stuff.

The results?

In two surveys, respondents from various demographic groups indicated that experiential purchases -- those made with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience -- made them happier than material purchases.

In a follow-up laboratory experiment, participants experienced more positive feelings after pondering an experiential purchase than after pondering a material purchase.

In another experiment, participants were more likely to anticipate that experiences would make them happier than material possessions after adopting a temporally distant, versus a temporally proximate, perspective.

The discussion focuses on evidence that experiences make people happier because they are more open to positive reinterpretations, are a more meaningful part of one’s identity, and contribute more to successful social relationships.

So if you're on the fence about a big-ticket tech purchase, just say no to the object and yes to a vacation. It's cheaper than therapy and works faster.

4. Most of the Time, the Details Don't Matter

Now, if you're actually ready to buy a new smartphone or tablet or TV or whatever, I'm going to offer you some advice about researching your product decision: Do as little as possible. It's mostly a waste of time.

Just figure out the basics: Will your apps work on that new tablet? Is that TV going to look absurd in your living room, and will it connect to your other devices? What is the company's reputation for customer service? What is the resale value? How is the battery life?

Your goal should be to buy something that fits into your daily life without being an eyesore or inconvenient. That's what you need to worry about. Nothing else -- especially the specifications sheet -- really matters.

If you do too much research, you'll end up running around in circles, obsessing over ridiculous minutiae that you don't even understand. It also increases the probability of suffering from buyers' remorse; you may end up worrying about whether you should have gone for something with more Megahertz or resolution or whatever.

There's one exception -- maxing out computer memory is usually a very good investment. It's typically best to buy it from a third-party company like Crucial and install it yourself, which can save a tremendous amount of money. However, note that for some computers, like some of Apple's iMac models, memory upgrades are extremely difficult or even impossible.

The reality is that these days, within most competitive product segments (smartphones are great examples), the vast majority of gadgets contain very similar or identical components. For example, Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) supplies its latest Snapdragon processors to many smartphone and tablet manufacturers. And several camera makers use Sony (NYSE:SNE) imaging sensors.

Furthermore, many are produced by the same contract manufacturers, or even by robots.

So don't believe the hype: For the average user, most stuff is pretty much the same.

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