How I Shop: The Best But Free Strategy

Sun Nov 20 2022

On our path to financial independence, we have had many conversations about the way we save and grow our money. However, equally important, is the way we spend our money. When I first thought about the road to financial independence, the first thought I had was, beans and rice and rice and beans. Instead of owning more “things”, shouldn't we just slash our costs so we could put those savings to work in the stock market and achieve what we really wanted; the freedom to quit our jobs and spend more time with our family? The answer is Yes. Yes of course this is true and important to keep in mind when considering purchases large and small. However, the general approach is to use self discipline by reminding oneself of these goals in order to curb spending just didn’t necessarily work for me.

In fact, while I certainly believe my time is more valuable than my things, I do enjoy owning certain things. In some cases I also believe in stretching the budget for some of these things. Perhaps it’s because it is something I will use very frequently so I want it to be of a higher quality, or maybe it’s made more sustainably, or maybe quite simply, I just like it better than a lower cost option.

"What is the highest quality item I can get for the lowest possible price?"

In a nutshell, I utilize what I call the “best but free” strategy. It’s a bit of a joke in our family because when do you ever get the “best” for “free”? Not very often. But, when I make a purchase, I usually think to myself, what is the highest quality item I can get for the lowest possible price, that is within the confines of the budget I’ve allocated for this item. If I have a budget of $50 for a pair of running shoes, I wait until the pair of Nikes I want goes on sale for that price. If weeks go by and they never fall to that price point, then I consider my options. Would I be happy with a different brand? Would I be happy with a different model? Could I find what I want in decent shape on the second hand market? Can I find these similar shoes in a child size? Is there budget I earmarked for something else I’m willing to take from to add to the purchase of these shoes? As I run through these questions internally, I think it lends to smarter and more thoughtful purchases.

Here are a few examples.

  1. Leather goods: For years, and I mean YEARS, I used a cardholder from a small leather goods store in NYC. It was falling apart and every time I pulled it out there was a risk all my cards would come flying out. Not very practical when you think about any situation where you need to pull out your wallet. When I decided I was going to pull the trigger on a wallet I knew I wanted to invest in a quality piece that would be timeless in both design and quality. I went down many rabbit holes but ultimately decided to hone in on Bottega Veneta. I know it is quite an expensive luxury brand, but weaved leather is a real weakness of mine. Spending $500-$800 on a new Bottega wallet was just simply above the threshold I felt comfortable with. So, I scoured the Real Real for months and waited very patiently. After a purchase and subsequent return and waiting for several months, finally the day came when I saw a style I liked for a price I could stomach ($142 - including shipping). I could very well have saved the time, energy and maybe money to buy a wallet from a different brand new. To me though, a wallet is something I use every single day and it felt worthy enough to “splurge” on something special but still at a cost aligned to my financial goals. I used Poshmark, ThredUp and the Real Real in the US and have been eyeing Vestiaire now that we’re in Geneva any time I’m looking for a luxury or designer piece.
  2. Baby / Toddler clothes and stuff: When I first got pregnant I guess I could have made a registry and planned a baby shower for friends and family to contribute towards. I think in general, everyone in your life is pretty excited for you and happy to bestow gifts upon you. For me however, in addition to being extremely uncomfortable in baby shower settings, I felt this approach to be wasteful and inefficient. We had our first baby in the densely populated and very high income earning city of New York and I would see every parent on the street with the exact same stroller, carseat, baby bunting, you name it. The crazy thing is you only use these items for a very short period of time and then your baby outgrows it. This is why I am a huge advocate of best but free thinking on any and all items for babies and kids. This is especially relevant when you live in a dense city with very active parent groups to buy or trade used items. I also rely heavily on hand me down items. As a parent, I have to say, the best feeling in the world is giving away kids stuff you no longer need. Most are happy to do it. With our first we were laser focused on trying to secure an Uppababy stroller. We knew we would have more than 1 child and loved the versatility of the whole set. Plus, almost any piece on the stroller was replaceable so if I could find one used I could refurb it pretty easily. After some heavy Craigslist trolling, I found one for $250 in 2018 that was 3 years old. 4 years later, it’s still going strong after investing only $100 for a new seat frame. I have purchased 75% of all our baby and kid items used. I have bought everything from breast pump parts to baby bottles to our high chair second hand. I rarely sacrifice on the brands or quality or design I want, but do put in a little extra time and effort to search for what I want. Facebook marketplace seems to be the destination for parents on the hunt for used goods, but in Brooklyn I lived on Park Slope Parents.
  3. Our Car: Maybe the most prominent example of best buy free strategy. Some people think a car is a vehicle that gets them from point A to point B so there is no point in investing a lot of money on it. Some people think of their car as a second home and invest in such luxury to the point that their identity is dependent on it. For us (as this was a joint purchasing decision), we thought about how much time we spend in a car and what we would want that experience to be like. Since having kids, our car time is at least 20 min a day and longer on weekends as we are more keen to car trips than flying somewhere because of those said children. We chose our car based on 3 factors. We wanted a hybrid, a car that could fit 2 carseats with enough trunk space for a road trip with our family, and something rated very highly for safety. This led us to the Volvo XC 60. The only hitch was we did not want to spend $58,500 for a brand new car. We also don’t believe in taking out a car loan as you are paying interest on a depreciating asset. We looked at other models and makes pricer and cheaper than the Volvo XC 60, but this car fit the bill for all of our needs so we became determined to find it used. We were in the Geneva, Switzerland market without a lot of inventory, but after about 1 month of searching we struck gold at a dealer about 90 min away from us. In the end we spent $43,700 on our 2018 XC 60 hybrid with 70km on it. It’s blue, not a color we would have chosen, but a detail we could live with.

What I want to get across is, financial independence does not necessarily mean a life of austerity and sacrifice. Sometimes you will spend more money on certain things that bring you value and are important to you. In these cases you can even get what you want at a significant discount, but just need to put in a little effort and patience and be OK with someone else breaking in that item for you. Get the best, but free (or as close to free as possible).

Does this relate? What do you think about this mindset for shopping?

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