Worth It, Reasonable and The Whole Picture

I wrote before about how many past purchases have been made with the hope or expectation that an item could Make It Better. I have bought many a thing because I believed it could solve a problem or improve a challenging situation. Making It Better is probably one of my biggest spending motivations.

But it’s not the only one. I have bought a lot of things in my life because they felt Worth It, as in the product provided me with enough of something good (ease, pleasure, convenience) to validate how much I spent on it. Sure I might not need a new {insert shiny specimen here} but I sure would use it a lot, and frankly that was all that mattered.

I also bought a lot of shit because I wanted it, and the price seemed Reasonable. Hey, I would wear a new pair of shoes if I owned them and at 50% off that price sure is Reasonable. Why not buy the shoes when I’m clearly getting a good deal?

I bought a LOT of shit in my life because it would be Worth It or Reasonable. For almost my entire life I’ve judged the merit of a purchase on whether or not I used the item enough to justify how much I spent. If I used something regularly, even if I didn’t need it, it was absolutely worth what I paid for it. Necessity was never a part of the equation. (If that isn’t a symptom of financial privilege, I don’t know what is.)

Lately I’ve been asking myself (and all of you) all sorts of questions about whether or not I should be spending money on something. I’m realizing that Worth It and Reasonable are not applicable anymore. I need a new measure.

Nicoleandmaggie had an insightful comment on my last post, which echoed the sentiments of a comment they left on Ana’s post last week (and was expanded upon in a post put up yesterday). In the end, the answer to the question, Should I spend? is never justified (at least not absolutely) by whether or not something can be deemed “worth it” or “reasonable” or “deserved,” (another qualifier that has green-lit spending for me in the past); in the end all that matters (at least initially) is whether you can afford it. Taking into account all your financial obligations–past, present, and future–can you buy that thing without borrowing from someone else (or your future self)? If the answer is no, then it doesn’t matter if it’s Worth It or Reasonable or Deserved. What matters is The Whole Picture.

It’s amazing how long it took for this to sink into my thick, spendy skull. I would like to say it’s because my spending freeze was not anchored in a working budget, but I tried to follow a budget for months earlier this year and I still didn’t figure this out. It quite literally took me half of 2015 to connect these dots, to put these pieces together (and I only managed it because others kept showing it to me, over and over again).

{Another reason I think it took me so long to figure this out is because I was raised believing that I’d always have enough, that I didn’t have to take The Whole Picture into account because The Whole Picture was just fine, thankyouverymuch, so I skipped that part and went straight to my metrics of Worth It and Reasonable. Yet another unabashed example of my financial privilege.}

When I said I wasn’t sure how to handle purchases that I believe would be therapeutically beneficial for my daughter, I was trying to apply my old standards of Worth It and Reasonable to the spending freeze, a situation that stripped them of their faculty. I was trying to apply them to a situation in which they quite literally no longer applied. In the end it doesn’t matter how Worth It or Reasonable an item may be, in the end, all that matters is if we can afford it.

Perhaps it makes sense that I didn’t see this, given that my spending freeze has not involved a specific budget of any kind. The spending freeze was, in fact, a pre-budgetary exercise which was supposed to help me create a  budget I could confidently follow. Maybe if I had a budget in place I would have figured it all sooner. In the absence of a budget I floundered, throwing around Reasonable And Worth It in contexts where they absolutely didn’t apply.

Now I (finally!) understand what I need to do. I (finally!) understand that I need to look at The Whole Picture. I (finally!) understand that only in the context of “what we have,” can I answer the question “Can we buy it?”

This is a big step, having this understanding. Unfortunately I’m still a few months away from really knowing Where We Are financially so that I can answer Can we buy it? And double unfortunately, my husband has to take some important and time consuming steps before I can paint an informed picture of Where We Are. But that’s okay. In the meantime, I finally understand that I can’t answer the question of Can we buy it? So if it’s a significant enough question, then the answer is unequivocally, No, we Can’t, until I have The Whole Picture, and can be sure.

It’s amazing how much clarity this brings me, as I throw out my old metrics and start applying (or preparing to) the new. I am now more motivated than ever to create a budget that BOTH my husband and I can follow, so that we can responsibly determine what kind of life is available to us right now, in this city, under our current circumstances. Now if only I can get my husband to actually start using the joint accounts we opened, I’ll be set.

What metrics help you determine if you can buy something? Have you even fallen back on Worth It or Reasonable?


  1. You took the thoughts out of my head and turned them into words! This is exactly the mental shift I’ve been working on. “it’s worth it”, “its reasonable” and “I deserve it” led to me spending oh-so-much money on things I really did not need (though I liked and use them). It is the difference between viewing each individual purchase on its own merit vs. how it fits into the values/goals/priorities for our family life. Though for me, it goes even beyond “can we afford it?” (because technically, we COULD afford a lot of things) to “will this fit into our goals?”—the answer to that is often NO.
    I have some thoughts on the getting-spouse-on-board front. 1) don’t wait to have the “big conversation” and for him to “get it” before you start the budget. just do it, and work on YOUR spending at the very least. It seems like you are doing much of the family purchasing anyways, so that should cover a large amount of the spending going on even though his is missing. Again: “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” and just put some numbers into the budget, compare that to your spending and then adjust as needed until it seems right 2) bring it up as something YOU are working on (so you don’t need anything from him, and you have no expectations of him, at least initially). “I want to learn more about financial stuff” “I want to reduce my spending and want to make a budget” “I feel less anxious when I can see where our money is going” and get him to at the very least give you access to his accounts or connect them to YNAB or Mint so you can see the spending. 3) Then work from there, in baby steps, showing him the budget, how to enter spending (if he agrees), what areas you need work on.

    1. I think you’re right that “can we afford it?” Is not he accurate question, because we can afford these things too, but not if we want to save. So when I say, “can we afford it?” I actually mean, “can we in the context of our broader financial goals.” It’s definitely an important distinction.

      You’re absolutely right that I can’t wait for my husband to get started and that I do purchase a lot of the family stuff (that has definitely been the case this summer, as I’ve done all the grocery shopping which he used to do a lot more of). I have a tentative starting budget idea, a way to get started with more intentional spending (I almost used “restricting!”) which will require I ask myself “Can we afford it (within our greater financial goals of saving)?” I’ll write about it more soon.

  2. My husband tends to think of purchases one at a time, as you said by asking if something is “worth it” or “if you deserve it” or if we can afford it. And of course if you ask this question for one item at a time, and forget the BIG picture, you can justify almost any purchase. I joke that if we have $500 extra cash, he spends that same $500 5 times on 5 different things that are all worth it!

    1. Oh my. That is so what I used to be like. If I got an extra $200 for something in my paycheck I’d green-light $600 worth of spending with it. So ridiculous.

    1. Ideally I would hope he would meet you there eventually…but you’ll be so much further along than if you waited for him to decide to take even one step!

      1. I think he will. He’s already taking baby steps… He just needs to think that it was his idea to get there. That is how I have to play it. Slow and stealthy wins this race. 😉

    2. I know. I’m not waiting. I’m going to unveil my preliminary budget plan this weekend. It’s already in effect.

    1. Thanks. And don’t worry too much about my husband. He is already starting to mention that he made a different decision than he would have because he knows “we’re” trying to be better about money (even though I’ve been careful to always say “I’M trying to be more careful with money.” Mostly I just want him to move his money over so I can track his spending. I’m not even trying to get him to change the way he spends yet.

  3. Yes! This makes so much sense. And I think it highlights what was bothering me about your budget posts, which I couldn’t quite put my finger on before. I do tend to make my decisions primarily based on what we can afford, although if I limited purchases only to what we really could safely afford, it would feel so restrictive and miserable that I find myself justifying purchases more often than I should. It’s hard to only buy absolute necessities!

    Anyway, I’m glad you came to this realization and that the budget project helped you to get there.

    1. I’m so glad too. I mean, the whole point was to figure out what my budget should look like, but I think I kind of forgot that at some point along the way. Now I am putting something together. I’m hoping to share it in my budget post this weekend.

  4. Don’t beat yourself up for getting there slower than you think you should! The reason this is so hard to learn is that we have entire industries repeating over and over and over that it’s not the budget, it’s the justification. Learning that the first question is “can I afford it” (or really, “is this more important than whatever I’m going to have to cut to make it happen” – sometimes it is, even if the cut is “future me’s freedom” or “past me’s commitments”) goes against almost our entire culture.

    1. Yeah, I see where I was getting all the WRONG ideas from, I just wish someone had been whispering the right ideas into my ear.

  5. I keep thinking about this discussion. And I think one big question is “what creates a want that is not a need”. What is triggering the want/desire/temptation.

  6. This is pretty much what I mean when I refer to affording something…not literally do I have the 10$ in the bank. So the secretaries who make 1/3 what I do and buy lunch every day (!) look at me funny when I say I can’t afford to eat out…I mean big picture.

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