The Life Cycle Of A Purchase – From Desired Object To Tossed Clutter

RDS of left an intriguing comment in response to a recent weekend post asking readers if they would be willing to sell all material possessions to become debt free.  RDS mentions that when it comes to their possessions “the transformation from desired, valued item to clutter happens very suddenly.”  It forced me to reflect on the life cycle of a few of my own purchases in the past, and how I feel towards those items today.

The Object of My Desire

I had it bad.  I looked at pictures of her in magazines, videos online, and often rode by during lunch breaks just to catch a glimpse of her. Her name was Silverado, as in a Chevy Silverado.  After a teenage obsession with wanting a car I quickly decided I needed a truck.  And not just any truck; I wanted a Chevy truck.  One with four doors and a big cab with a comfy interior, but enough power to haul whatever I wanted to wherever I needed.

This truck fever stayed with me through the early years of marriage, though I resisted the temptation to buy. That was until, in a moment of weakness, I stopped at the car lot and test drove the truck model I had been watching for all those years.  This particular truck was sporty–shiny black exterior with tan leather seats and a chrome sports package.  It also had a dual exhaust which gave the engine a throaty sound on acceleration.  I was in love.

So I pulled the trigger and financed the truck, ignoring the little voice in the back of my head telling me to walk away.  I told myself I could afford the $350 a month payments, and the increased insurance premium.  After all, I worked hard.

For those first few days and weeks I thoroughly enjoyed that truck.  I looked for excuses to drive places.  But after a few months the payments started to catch up with me.  Our insurance premium renewed and I saw a noticeable increase when projected over the full six months.  The thing was pretty, but it did use up gas, and because I was doing more “pleasure driving” I burned even more of it.

We still had some debt hanging around from my journey to finish school.  My wife was staying home with both of our kids.  In what now seems like an overnight epiphany the shine wore off that truck.  I sold it two weeks from the time I decided I wanted to sell it, and felt only a slight twinge as the new owners backed out of my driveway on a Saturday morning.

The Life Cycle Of A Purchase

What happened with my truck inevitably happens to all of our purchases.  The shine begins to fade, our enjoyment of them lessens over time, and eventually they become more of a burden than they are worth.  Call it what you want–the law of diminished returns, buyer’s remorse–the only variable in the equation is time.

Occasionally things retain sentimental value long after the useful life is lived up, and we hang onto them for posterity, knowing that future generations of family may have some interest in our heirloom.  However, given enough time all of our prized possessions wind up in the landfill next to a forty year-old styrofoam cup.

Does knowing this ahead of time keep us from buying too many things now?  Of course not, else all the people who say “You can’t take it with you” wouldn’t have to remind us.  That still doesn’t mean that things cannot be enjoyed while we are here.  It simply means that objects of our desire are just that, objects.  Their only value is the one we assign to it, not what a marketer has priced it to be.  Try to focus your life energy on acquiring only things that have a lot of value to you, not someone else.  Through this lens, things like paying premiums for a name brand, or buying just to impress others will seem like a monumental waste.


  1. This post brought back a memory for me: going through my great-grandfather’s possessions with my family after he died. There were lots of tsochkes and things that people didn’t want, which were eventually given or thrown away.

    It seemed strange, because obviously those things were important to him at some point. But his heirlooms were junk to us.

    Now when I buy something or am hesitant to get rid of something for sentimental reasons, I think to myself, what would my kids do with this after I died? I’m only in my 20’s, so it’s kind of a morbid thought, but who would want to leave a lot of crap for their family to deal with?

  2. I love posts like this because I’m able to learn from other’s mistakes. To date I have not made a big purchasing decision that I regret. I’m young so it can still happen.

    Thanks for making the mistakes for me!

  3. I used to be the same way! I would buy things on impulse because I had so much descrtionary income to blow through.

    After marriage, getting out of debt and now my first kid on the way I stop myself from picking up that cd or dvd, new pair of jeans or video game.

    The shine does fade and having the money in savings for a rainy day is never a let down.

  4. I don’t know. I have some objects–art, clothing, books–that I still love after 20 years. Not everything has that sentiment in me, but I know that some of the “stuff” in my house (and I’m working to get rid of it) becomes more dear than dreary. If I am still paying for it, I think I have more resentment for it than if I own it outright.

  5. It is definitely more valuable to invest your money into things that will bring lasting gratification (education, photos, video camera) rather than fading (expensive dinner out, brand new car).

  6. At one point in my life, I packed everything I could fit into a couple of bags, and the rest was left behind. Yes there are things I wish I had brought with me and still had today, but in the end it is just STUFF. I did not need it.
    I want to tell you thank you for your wonderful blog. I have been reading for several months now and you have inspired me in so many ways. We do not have much debt at all. Just my car payment. We have no savings though and because of blogs like yours I am now working on getting an emergency fund set up. I toko the first step yesterday by opening an account with ING and setting it up so that money will transfer every time I get paid. It is not a big amount of money, but over time, it will add up. So thank you, for inspiring me to better plan for our future.

  7. That’s too bad FD, it’s not always a good thing to have such a disconnect with the things you own. Even P.O.W.s and nomads have items that they will not part with. It is human nature to cling to things. In many cases though, our fast-paced society likes the disposable aspect of our possessions. It allows us to have more things and many people have an insensitive view of those possessions — they think that what they have makes them who they are. This is why one should limit their purchases to those only things that they really will want, use and appreciate. I know that I do that with almost all of my purchases. I have not thrown away much in my lifetime that I have purchased. I keep my things for a long time and appreciate my time spent with them.

    Keep in mind that many items we buy, even when we limit our purchases, must be bought again at some point. Clothes, pots & pans, oft-used mechanical items, etc all have some sort of limited life so just make a wise purchase and don’t overspend knowing that you will have to buy it again at some point.

  8. Great discussion.

    I think as we’re standing in the store, we think that this item is THE item that will never be tarnished or get old in our minds. I’d love to see brain scan of the human brain in tne midst of a purchse – it’s a rush and a bizarre hobby we North Americans have!

    But human-nature is such that most stuff loses it’s lustre and there is always the newer, improved model. As soon as something is inferior, we want to discard it.

  9. A lot of things you buy though are for the moment or for the time period. I don’t think anyone expects them to last too long and I think when buying you usually have a set time table in your mind that you will get use out of it. Whether it’s a car, clothes, PS3 or ipod. I think you have to look back after the fact and decide if you got the value out of that or not.

  10. Sometimes it is hard to know – would you have thought when you bought it that the truck you once coveted would become a burden? I have things that I bought on a whim that turned out to mean a great deal to me – and others (like your truck) that I thought would be very special, that weren’t.

  11. @FrugalDad, it almost sounds like you bought the truck before you were financially ready. Perhaps if you’d waited until you could really afford it, the situation would have been very different.

    • @DavidK: That’s exactly what I did–I bought the truck before I was ready. If the circumstances had been different I probably would have enjoyed owning the truck (rather than it owning me). As it was I grew to resent the thing and its many financial burdens. I haven’t entirely given up on the idea of owning something I really want, but next time I’ll pay cash and be prepared. Lesson learned.

  12. My weakness is gadgets, particularly when I was younger, they were so addictive.

    Now I feel I have learnt from my past experiences of purchasing shiny new toys and realize that the thrill wears off around 2 weeks after the purchase.

    Another factor is that gadgets become obsolescent so quickly, they bring out a newer, bigger, better model with 4 times the features a few months after I buy something.

    I still buy gadgets occasionally but I try to buy products that have a bit of longevity and I put a lot of thought into buying something now, no more impulse buying for me.

    Apart from gadgets I am very frugal in other areas of my life.

  13. Ahh, the purchase. How good it feels. Face it, marketers control our brains. You have to shut them out. Start with the TV, get rid of it! Our public spaces are littered with ads. Adbusters calls it mind pollution. To be free of it would be another life.

  14. Gee John, I’ll bet you’re just a bucket ‘o fun.

    No one controls your mind but you. If they did, New Coke wouldn’t have been a flop. General Motors wouldn’t be posting billions in losses right now. They could just spend a few more dollars controlling our minds and getting us all to buy a new car or truck. I watch television, and I don’t watch ads. I have two things, a mute button and a fast forward button on my DVR that allows me to skip the commercials and watch only the show I have recorded. I also know that only I control what I buy and when I buy it. Except for food — that’s a slightly more time-sensitive purchase.

    Strangely enough, I don’t really see many ads in the Australian outback or in the plains of the Serengeti yet I see the natives out there wearing western and eastern-asian made clothing. I wonder why that is. It’s probably all that TV they watch.

  15. It’s funny how quickly we forget the discarded portion of this cycle. My Wii is sitting over there and I remember how obsessed I was with it before I had it. Now it’s there, and that’s enough, and I don’t play it nearly as much as I thought I would.


  16. I argued recently that there’s often something lost when we succumb to the impulse for immediate gratification. Back in the days pre-credit cards, you usually had to save for something you wanted and the anticipation during the time when you were saving made the experience all the more rewarding when you finally were able to buy the coveted item.

    It’s unbelievably easy to be swayed into “miswanting” things just because your friends have one or the media lavishes praise upon that thing. My wife gets a desperate itching for new gadgets, but then often finds little use for those cool gizmos after the new has worn off. Granted, she makes very smart choices so there’s quite a bit of longevity to the purchases, but still, they’re often less thrilling to own than they were to want.

  17. I was at a garage sale last year (don’t happend too often here so the place was stuffed to the gills) and it struck me the sheer amount of junk there, each and every item there had to be purchased new with money earned by someone getting up and going to work each day.