Many products we buy are really social signals first – and material objects second. Our social-primate brains evolved to pursue one central goal: looking good in the eyes of others – especially those who might protect or mate with us. Buying impressive products in a money-based economy is just the most recent way to fulfill that goal.
The standard self-display strategy in most developed societies is to seek the highest-paying full-time employment permitted by one’s intelligence and personality, and to use the resulting income to buy branded goods and services at full retail price. Weekdays are usually spent working; evenings and weekends are often spent shopping. The purchases must serve a conflicted dual role in signaling. On the one hand, their price must testify to the traits of rational intelligence, conservatism, conscientiousness, and amorality demanded by most high-paying professions and corporations. On the other hand, their style and leisure use(s) must testify to the opposite traits of emotional warmth, openness, spontaneity, and virtue demanded by most mates and friends.
As a self-display strategy, it is very inefficient to buy new, branded, mass-produced products from stores at the full manufacturer’s suggested retail price.
Whenever you think you want to buy a new physical product, consider these options instead:
1. Just Don’t Get It
2. Find the One(s) You Already Own
3. Borrow It from a Friend, Relative, or Neighbor
4. Rent It
5. Buy It Used
6. Buy It in Generic, Replica, or Trickle-Down Form
7. Make It Yourself
8. Commission It from a Local Artisan
9. Wait Three Years Before Buying New Technologies
10. Ask to Get It as a Gift
If you do decide to buy new, acknowledge the “display premium” built into most retail products.
Rather than buying more products, almost everyone can simply improve their conversation skills. Most of us need to listen less to our iPods and talk more with those nearby.
Dale Carnegie suggested “six ways to make people like you” in his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People:
1. remember the person’s name
2. listen well
4. make the other person feel important
5. talk in terms of the other person’s interests
6. become genuinely interested in the other person.
Few people master these skills, so many people strike others as self-centered and boorish.
If you’re looking to get the most value for your dollar, it would do your wallet good to check out secondhand options. Many used goods still have plenty of life left in them even years after the original purchase, and they’re usually resold at a fraction of the retail price, to boot.
Here’s a list of at least 21 things that make for a better deal when you buy them used:
1. DVDs and CDs: Used DVDs and CDs will play like new if they were well taken care of. Even if you wind up with a scratched disc and you don’t want to bother with a return, there are ways to remove the scratches and make the DVD or CD playable again.
2. Books: You can buy used books at significant discounts from online sellers and brick-and-mortar used book stores. The condition of the books may vary, but they usually range from good to like-new. And of course, check out your local library for free reading material.
3. Video Games: Kids get tired of video games rather quickly. You can easily find used video games from online sellers at sites like Amazon and eBay a few months after the release date. Most video game store outlets will feature a used game shelf, as well. And if you’re not the patient type, you can rent or borrow from a friend first to see if it’s worth the purchase.
4. Special Occasion and Holiday Clothing: Sometimes you’ll need to buy formal clothing for special occasions, such as weddings or prom. Most people will take good care of formal clothing but will only wear it once or twice. Their closet castouts are your savings: Thrift stores, yard sales, online sellers and even some dress shops offer fantastic buys on used formal wear.
5. Jewelry: Depreciation hits hard when you try to sell used jewelry, but as a buyer you can take advantage of the markdown to save a bundle. This is especially true for diamonds, which has ridiculously low resale value. Check out estate sales and reputable pawn shops to find great deals on unique pieces. Even if you decide to resell the jewelry later, the depreciation won’t hurt as much.
6. Ikea Furniture: Why bother assembling your own when you can pick it up for free (or nearly free) on Craigslist and Freecycle? Summer is the best time to hunt for Ikea furniture – that’s when college students are changing apartments and tossing out their goodies.
7. Games and Toys: How long do games and toys remain your child’s favorite before they’re left forgotten under the bed or in the closet? You can find used children’s toys in great condition at moving sales or on Craigslist, or you can ask your neighbors, friends, and family to trade used toys. Just make sure to give them a good wash before letting junior play.
8. Maternity and Baby Clothes: Compared to everyday outfits that you can wear any time, maternity clothes don’t get much wear outside the few months of pregnancy when they fit. The same goes for baby clothes that are quickly outgrown. You’ll save a small fortune by purchasing gently used maternity clothes and baby clothes at yard sales and thrift stores. Like children’s games and toys, friends and family may have baby or maternity clothing that they’ll be happy to let you take off their hands.
9. Musical Instruments: Purchasing new musical instruments for a beginner musician is rarely a good idea. (Are you ready to pay $60 an hour for piano lessons?) For your little dear who wants to learn to play an instrument, you should see how long his or her interest lasts by acquiring a rented or used instrument to practice with first. Unless you’re a professional musician or your junior prodigy is seriously committed to music, a brand new instrument may not be the best investment.
10. Pets: If you buy a puppy (or kitty) from a professional breeder or a pet store outlet, it can set you back anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. On top of this, you’ll need to anticipate additional fees and vet bills, too. Instead, adopt a pre-owned pet from your local animal shelter and get a new family member, fees, and vaccines at a substantially lower cost.
11. Home Accent: Pieces Home decorating pieces and artwork are rarely handled on a day-to-day basis, so they’re generally still in good condition even after being resold multiple times. If you like the worn-out look of some décor pieces, you can be sure you didn’t pay extra for something that comes naturally with time. And don’t forget, for most of us, discovering a true gem at a garage sale is 90% of the fun!
12. Craft Supplies: If you’re into crafting, you probably have a variety of different supplies left over from prior projects. If you require some additional supplies for your upcoming project, then you can join a craft swap where you’ll find other crafty people to trade supplies with. If you have leftovers, be sure to donate them to your local schools.
13. Houses: You’re typically able to get better and more features for your dollar when you purchase an older home rather than building new. Older houses were often constructed on bigger corner lots, and you also get architectural variety in your neighborhood if the houses were built or remodeled in different eras.
14. Office Furniture: Good office furniture is built to withstand heavy use and handling. Really solid pieces will last a lifetime, long after they’re resold the first or second time. A great used desk or file cabinet will work as well as (or better than) a new one, but for a fraction of the cost. With the recession shutting down so many businesses, you can easily find lots of great office furniture deals.
15. Cars: You’ve probably heard this before: Cars depreciate the second you drive them off of the dealership’s lot. In buying a used car, you save money on both the initial cost and the insurance. It also helps to know a trusty mechanic who can check it over first. This way, you’ll be aware of any potential problems before you make the purchase.
16. Hand Tools: Simple tools with few moving parts, like hammers, hoes and wrenches, will keep for decades so long as they are well-made to begin with and are well-maintained. These are fairly easy to find at neighborhood yard or garage sales. If you don’t need to use hand tools very often, an even better deal is to rent a set of tools or borrow them from a friend.
17. Sports Equipment: Most people buy sports equipment planning to use it until it drops, but this rarely happens. So when sports equipment ends up on the resale market, they tend to still be in excellent condition. Look into buying used sporting gear through Craigslist and at yard sales or sports equipment stores.
18. Consumer Electronics: Most folks like shiny new toys, but refurbished electronic goods are a much sweeter deal. Consumer electronics are returned to the manufacturer for different reasons, but generally, they’ll be inspected for damaged parts, fixed, tested, then resold at a lower price. Just make sure you get a good warranty along with your purchase.
19. Gardening Supplies: This is an easy way for you to save money, and all you need to do is be observant. Take a look outdoors and you’ll likely find such gardening supplies as mulch, wood, and even stones for free or vastly reduced prices. Used garden equipment and tools are also common goods at yard sales.
20. Timeshares: Buying timeshares isn’t for everyone, but if you decide that it suits your lifestyle, purchasing the property as a resale would be a better deal than buying it brand new: on average, you’ll save 67 percent on the price for a comparable new timeshare. If you’re new to timeshare ownership, give it a test run first by renting short term.
21. Recreational Items: It’s fairly easy to find high ticket recreational items like campers, boats, and jet skis being resold. Oftentimes, they’re barely used at all. As long as they’re in safe, working condition, they’ll make for a better value when purchased used than new.
When looking to save money, keep in mind that not all second-hand purchases are good deals.
Stay clear of these 20 used items that will end up costing you money – or even endanger your health:
1. Cribs and children’s furniture: If there’s any chance that you’ll put your children at risk by buying used, just buy new. Used children’s furniture, especially cribs, can be a safety hazard because you can’t be certain of a potential recall or if the crib was installed correctly.
2. Car seats: Even if a used car seat looks OK, damaged car seats aren’t uncommon. Considering that safety technology improves every year – and the fact that car seats can go for as little as $50 – buying new is usually the better option.
3. Bicycle helmets: Usually, a crash would only crush the foam inside the helmet casing, so the damage to the helmet may not be visible. However, since helmets are meant to protect against one accident only, buying new would be a safer bet.
4. Tires: Sometimes it’s hard to tell if used tires were once part of a totaled wreck. If they have been in an accident, they’re bound to be unstable and unreliable. Putting your safety at risk for the sake of saving a few bucks just doesn’t add up.
5. Laptops: Because of their portability, laptops are prone to all sorts of abuse and problems. When you buy a used laptop, unless it’s refurbished, you have no idea what it’s been through or when important parts will die on you. You also don’t get the warranties and tech support that come with buying new.
6. Software: Most software comes with a serial number that you register with the company when you activate the software on your computer. If the serial number on your use software has already been registered, you can’t use it again.
7. Plasma and HDTVs: The cost for fixing or replacing the parts on plasma or HDTVs is high. Sometimes, it costs as much as buying a new TV. Considering the repair costs, you’d want to get an extended warranty, but that isn’t an option if you buy your TV used.
8. DVD players: While it’s smart to buy used DVDs, this doesn’t apply to DVD players. DVD players have lasers that will eventually wear out. The cost to repair or replace may cost more than the player is worth.
9. Digital and video cameras: Like laptops, used digital and video cameras are likely to have been dropped and banged around. It may not be obvious, but once the damage kicks in, it’ll be expensive to repair. If you know what to look for in a digital camera, you can get a great new camera without breaking the bank.
10. Speakers and microphones: Speakers and microphones are sensitive audio equipment that don’t stand up well to blasting and mishandling. Like laptops and cameras, the damage may not be obvious, but their performance would be severely compromised.
11. Camera lenses: An SLR camera lens is the most expensive part of a camera. It also directly affects the quality of your images. Any damage to the lens, however slight, will show up in your photos.
12. Photo light bulbs: Not the ordinary light bulbs you use at home. We’re talking about the light bulbs used with photography equipment. They’re relatively expensive, but their life span is short enough that you likely won’t get much use out of them if you buy second-hand.
13. Mattresses and bedding: Just think: You may be sleeping with other people’s mold, mites, bacteria, and bodily fluids. Besides, even the really good mattresses are only supposed to last eight to 10 years, and it’s hard know for sure how old a used mattress may be.
14. Swimsuits and undergarments: This is probably a no-brainer, but it needs to be said: Do not, do not, do not buy used swimsuits or undergarments. They’re worn too close to the body – someone else’s body – to consider buying used.
15. Wet suits: Wet suits lose the ability to keep you warm over time. If you’re a scuba diver, or the last owner was one, the constant change in water pressure will eventually wear out the wet suit and make it more likely to tear.
16. Shoes: If you get used footwear, it’s likely they’re already molded to the last owner’s feet. Poor-fitting shoes are not only uncomfortable but can cause all sorts of health problems, as well.
17. Hats: Hats are likely not cleaned before they’re resold or donated. If you buy a used hat, you don’t know if you’re also getting skin infections, old sweat stains, hair products, and other cringe-worthy remnants. Now that’s a deal you don’t want.
18. Makeup: A good thing to remember about used makeup is that it’s a breeding ground for bacteria and a number of contagious diseases. The great deal you found may come with pink eye and cold sores. Instead of buying used, consider making your own beauty products (it’s easier than you think) or skip makeup altogether.
19. Pet supplies: Old stains and odors continue to ferment even if used pet supplies are sitting around in storage. If cleanliness is ever an issue, just say no.
20. Vacuum cleaners: Vacuums are among the heavy-duty household appliances that tend to get a lot of use and abuse. They can also cost more to fix than if you bought them new right from the start.
© 2010, Oren Pardes. All rights reserved.