25 Products You Think You Need, but Really Don’t

By Paul Michael on 7 February 2013 32 comments

As someone who has worked in advertising for over 17 years, I can tell you that my industry is responsible for creating an awful lot of need. There are some things in life that we actually do need, like food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and so on. But even within those basic necessities, needs are created for things that do us no good. No one needs Adidas shoes over Nike shoes. No one needs a Big Mac. No one needs a Lexus. And no one needs a theater in their basement. These are wants, created by the ad industry to convince you that you will be unhappy if you don’t have them. (See also: What You Need vs. What You Want, and How to Tell the Difference)

As George Carlin once said,"Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body."

So, in an effort to bring a little balance to the shopping world, I present a list of 25 things that advertisers, manufacturers, and retailers insist you need, but actually don’t. And, for ease of browsing, I’ve split it into categories. Let’s start with the multi-billion dollar cosmetics industry.


Where would the beauty industry be if not for its skill at manufacturing desire?

1. Aftershave

I shave once or twice a week. And when I do, I rarely splash on aftershave. The reason you are told you need it is to close your pores, but they’ll do that on their own with a splash of cold water. Aftershave has one purpose, and that’s to make you smell nice. If that’s what you want, buy it for that. But you don’t actually need it.

2. Body Scrub

Those fancy scrubs filled with crushed peach pits or other granules are not required at all. A simple washcloth or loofah will do the job just as well.

3. Leave-In Conditioners

They promise silky-soft hair, but in actuality they can coat the hair in fragrances and other ingredients that can build up over time, making your hair look and feel worse. And you’ll buy more leave-in conditioner to combat it!

4. Cellulite Creams

It’s snake oil. It’s silly. It’s nonsense. Nothing you can buy in a bottle or tub will get rid of cellulite for you, so don’t go out and buy it. Seriously.

5. Toner

In the old days, soaps used to leave a nasty film on your face. They don’t any more. So toners are a waste of time and money.

6. ChapStick

Any lip balm really. Did you know that lip balms contain alcohol? Guess what alcohol does to skin? Dries it. You’ll be reapplying your lip balm all day to combat the effects of your lip balm. Lips, 99% of the time, are self moisturizing. So leave them alone.

7. Shower Gel

Crammed with petroleum by-products and chemicals, shower gel may smell nice but it isn’t necessary. Keep it simple. Use a bar of decent soap and a washcloth. And if you're out of soap, water and a good scrub with your washcloth will do the job.

Sports and Fitness

We really do need to get fit and stay fit, but we don't need to spend a lot of money on athletic apparel and fitness supplies.

8. A Gym Membership

You don't need a gym membership to get in shape. Most people don’t get anywhere near the use out of them that they should. If you’re hell bent on getting fit, save yourself a lot of money and jog, take the stairs, do pushups and sit ups, and find other ways to stay in shape without the need for an expensive monthly fee.

9. "Diet" Meals

Those low calorie meals are quick and easy, but they are nutritionally lacking what you really need. The process involved in making them — freezing, defrosting, and so on — kills flavor and nutrients. Eat a healthy balanced diet and eat smaller portions.

10. Exercise Gadgets

Ab toners, butt lifters, and all those other fitness inventions prey on your wish to get fit quickly and easily. There’s no such solution. They are gimmicks, they never do what you think they will, and you will sell them for a quarter of the price in a yard sale, or let them rot in the basement.

11. Fancy Athletic Clothing

You’ll see people spending a fortune on wicking materials, silver-infused fabrics, breathable name brand clothing, and all sorts of other designer gear. All you need is a pair of sneakers that give good support, a cotton T-shirt, and a pair of socks and shorts. That’s it.

12. Miracle Pills

Don’t be fooled by fat burners and "silver bullet" remedies. With a balanced diet and exercise, and a lot of hard work, and you’ll get the results you need. Pills just shrink your bank balance.

Baby Stuff

It's easy to fall prey to marketers' come-ons when children are involved.

13. Crib Bumpers and Bed Sets

They’re pretty, cost a lot of money, and will never get used. They’re also unsafe and shouldn’t be in the crib. Don't bother.

14. Wipe Warmers

You can warm wipes in the palm of your hand for a few seconds if you want, but honestly, babies really don’t need them.

15. A High Chair

These things are bulky and end up in the basement or garage. Buy a strap-in booster seat to use with your regular chairs. And when you don’t need it, you can store it in the corner and still have full use of the dining set.

16. Baby Monitors

Unless you live in a Bill Gates style mansion or have a hearing issue, there’s really no need to buy a baby monitor. As a parent of three, with one still under a year, I can tell you that whenever my youngest cries, my wife and I both hear it. Sure, we bought a monitor, like "good parents" do. But we don’t use it any more. The interference was more annoying than anything else, and we have never, ever slept through our infant's crying. As these things can set you back several hundred dollars, you should really save your money.

17. Walkers

Think about this — we have been walking for centuries, and we didn’t need walkers to assist us. Babies will pull up on furniture, your leg, anything they can find, and will figure out walking on their own. You can help, using your hands to guide them. Walkers are fun, but not necessary.

18. Changing Pad

At about $30, they’re not that expensive, but you don’t need one. A lot of moms I know create them using folded towels or blankets.

Household Items

Look around your house. There are lots of opportunities to reuse and repurpose instead of buying chore specific products.

19. Washing Machine Cleaners

First, they sell you the latest, greatest way to wash your clothes. Then you find out the new washer needs regular cleaning, too, with expensive packaged cleaners. Don’t bother with them. Just add two cups of white vinegar into the drum and run a regular cycle.

20. Silver Jewelry Polish

Want to brighten those valuables? Mix a little toothpaste with baking soda, scrub with a toothbrush, then rinse with warm water and buff with a dry cloth.

21. Cord Organizers

As our lives get more cluttered with gadgets, they also become filled with cords and wires. Don’t buy fancy cord organizers. A simple toilet paper tube will do the job. If you cover it in black tape, it won't look like a toilet paper tube, either.

22. Paint Remover for Hands and Skin

You’ll see a lot of products offering great solutions to the painted hands problem. But it’s not such a problem at all. A dab of olive oil will remove the stains just as well.

23. Hard Water Stain Remover

Products like CLR will do that job, but for a price. You can do it with products you already have at home. Combine a teaspoon of vinegar with two tablespoons of salt, and mix into a paste. Then, scrub it in, and watch those hard water stains disappear.

24. Drain Uncloggers

When you buy these, you really do pour good money down the drain. Baking soda is your friend here — just pour a 1/2 cup down and watch it go to work. If it needs a little help, a wire coat hanger can help.

25. Dryer Sheets

A little dab of fabric softener on a hand towel will actually do the same job. The towel is reusable, and fabric softener is way cheaper than dryer sheets.

Now, over to you. What have you discovered you can pass on, or substitute with something far cheaper?

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32 discussions

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Guest's picture

Great list! I never use aftershave for the exact reason you mention - I can just use cold water.

The diet meals you mention are also usually loaded with sodium. Next time you are in the grocery store, just take a look at how much sodium is in those things!

You can use conditioner as shaving cream to save money on that expense.

Guest's picture

As someone who runs a lot, I would say that a moisture-wicking shirt makes a really big difference in comfort. But, if you're not running very often then I agree that cotton is sufficient.

My husband are struggling with this right now in our house hunt. We want a better location in the city and close to the trails/parks because that fits with our lifestyle; however, we can't seem to back off on the other 'needs' - like a certain number of bedrooms, open floor plan, etc. It's easy to get hooked on wanting all the newest and greatest. I just keep reminding us that our current house isn't our dream home and we wish it had a different layout, but it doesn't really impact our overall happiness level.

Guest's picture

Tooth paste. Use a dab of baking soda.

Partially prepared foods. It takes almost as much time to make a muffin from a mix as it does from scratch if your pantry stuff is set up for it.

Special containers to keep refrigerated goods. Clear glass jars with screw on lids work fine.

Expensive cleaners for ceramic top electric ranges. Use baking soda, some water, and rub.

I did like my changing pad though, as we didn't have a changing table. We got a few of those ancient rubberized felted mats from the thrift store. Just throw them in the bleached wash load.

Window cleaner. There are tons of formulas out there but we just use a combo of ammonia and water.

Paper towels. Use rags. A quicker picker upper and it's free.

Air freshener. If it's really bad, light a match or open a window.

I would add a half cup of vinegar to your baking soda clogged drain trick.

Guest's picture

A bit of vinegar in the wash is a natural fabric softener. If your front-end washer gets a funky smell, leave the door open so it can dry inside. While unusual, I use a baby monitor to listen for when my sheep are lambing. They prefer to lamb at night, in the dead of winter, and I can get listen for any signs of trouble in the barn:)

Guest's picture

I'm a frequent wetshaver who uses straight razors and double-edge razors. After shave balm is essential for keeping my skin soft all day. Without it, my skin just doesn't feel the same.

On a side note, more people need to give witch hazel a try. Great for cleaning your skin and closing the pores (since it's an astringent) both after a shave and before bed.

Guest's picture

Good stuff. However, I have one disagreement, lip balm. There are those of us with sinus problems. At night we breathe through our mouth during sleep. The result is severely chapped, cracked and peeling lips. Lip balm at night, applied right before going to bed, works wonders. Pick a quality balm, bees wax if you can. On the other hand, during the day, generally I agree with you about lip balm being unnecessary.

Guest's picture


Guest's picture

I disagree with the analysis of moisture-wicking athletic clothing. Run a marathon in a cotton t-shirt and let me know how your nipples feel at the end. You don't, however, have to spend a fortune. Target has fantastic workout gear for cheap.

Guest's picture

I agree completely about moisture wicking clothing. I am a big sweaty mess at the end of every run. The chafing problem from cotton is certainly a problem with improper clothing. Once I tried moisture wicking, I knew I'd never run in cotton again (especially in the hot and humid south).

Guest's picture
Jennifer B

I take issue with a few of these recommendations. Lip Balm is essential when living in a very dry climate. I use an inexpensive body wash instead of shaving cream to shave my legs. Soap is too drying and a bottle of body wash lasts for months. Finally, never clean silver with toothpaste and baking soda! That combination will scratch the heck out of silver and make it look bad. Buy a cleaning cloth at the jewelers for $6.00, it will last a year or two.

Guest's picture

I totally agree! I've gotten rid of a lot of these things and my life is just...easier. Less clutter, less money out, and more multipurposing.

One point of contention, though: Chapstick. I don't agree lips are self moisturizing - at least not to the extent that in certain climates they need a little extra help (having grown up during bone-dry winters in Minnesota myself.) Same with skin - you need lotion. But I do agree that lip balms can be addictive, though I've never heard the alcohol thing. I recommend trying an all natural or handmade lip balm - Etsy has a lot of seller that have lip balms made with lots of oils and butters and no alcohol or addictive ingredients. I make my own (I'm one of those Etsy sellers) and it's literally four different oils (jojoba, macadamia nut, sweet almond, and safflower) plus beeswax and cocoa butter. That's it, unless you want a flavor. :)

Guest's picture

I agree with those who have already commented that moisture-wicking shirts are often worth it! I usually only run about three times a week for 30 minutes, tops, and for my purposes, plain cotton clothes work fine. But if you exercise a lot, or do things where you're sweaty for hours at a time (like skiing or snowboarding), the difference is huge. Moisture-wicking fabrics aren't just mumbo-jumbo, like some of the items you rightly mentioned- they do work!

The only other item I really took issue with is shower gel. I sometimes use plain bar soap, but it leaves my skin *incredibly* dry, and I end up regretting it all day. I have no such problems when using shower gel. I try to use products without too many artificial ingredients or scents. Otherwise, lots of great things on this list! I use either baking soda or vinegar (or both combined!) for so many household cleaning needs, and they work great.

Guest's picture

What a great list and most people do get sucked in with all the advertising. Diet meals are just convenience and a waste of money in my opinion.

Guest's picture

W C Fields once said.......

Guest's picture

Uh! Paul ... apparently you do not play sports, or participate in any real mannor. These 'wicking' clothes are essential. But, as a few other posters have pointed out, you do not need to spend a fortune. But 'moisture wicking' clothes should not be on this list. Just "Say No to Cotton."

Paul Michael's picture

Hi guest. I'm actually at the gym 5 days a week, for 90 mins. I do cardio and weight training, and so far I've never had an issue with the simple cotton clothing I wear. Having said that, if you can afford them, and they work for you, I have no issue with anyone wearing wicking clothing, or shirts sprinkled with silver and other such devices. But what I am saying is, are they absolutely essential? If you're (not you guest, but people in general) one of those people who must have all the latest gear before you hit the gym, then you are putting barriers in your way that don't need to be there.

Guest's picture

Great list ! Here's an addition to the Baby Stuff: Changing table. Don't need it. I've been through three kids and used the floor every time. It's the safest place to change diapers, when you think about it. The child can't fall if they are already on the floor !

Guest's picture

Most of your ideas I agree with. But, because of joint issues I swim laps for exercise. I *like* to swim, which is good because it keeps me exercising. I don't own a pool. The county fitness center does.

Guest's picture

This is a mostly helpful list with some good advice, but I don't agree with everything on it.

-Getting a gym membership was the single best thing I've ever done for my health. Some people can motivate themselves to work out at home on their own, but many can't. Group fitness classes are FAR more fun and motivating for me. And spending the monthly membership fee was actually a motivator too.

-As others have pointed out, lip balm is a wonderful thing for those of us who live in cold, dry climates. My lips may be self-moisturizing in the balmy summer, but in Canada in February? Not so much.

-Specialized athletic clothing (wicking, breathable) is MUCH more comfortable for a long workout. It doesn't have to be an expensive brand-name though - there are plenty of generic brands that make perfectly decent athletic wear.

-I have tried the baking soda method in my ancient drains. Did nothing. Whereas Drano cleared it out in minutes.

Guest's picture

Remove grease, make-up, etc. easily with a bar of Ivory soap. I've used it on garments, carpets, make-up bags, etc. Just wet the affected area with some cold water and rub the bar of Ivory over the area. Work into the stain with a brush in both directions, and wipe up or launder. May repeat steps a second time, but usually once does the trick. I now try this first on any hard to remove stain. Ivory is my new best friend and saves me on a multitude in stain removers.

Guest's picture

Quickest elimination we've ever done: bags that came with the shredder. Not only were these difficult to install but the catch bin is easily removed and dumped in an already bag-lined kitchen trashcan.

And, of course, the replacement bags cost three times that of a similar-sized ordinary waste bag. No thanks.

Guest's picture

I disagree that athletic clothes are unnecessary. When I switched from a cotton t-shirt and socks and cheap shorts to good athletic gear, my workouts improved substantially, and I stopped getting blisters while running. It my not be *necessary* to exercise, but it improved my quality of life to a degree that I won't workout in cotton shirt again any time soon.

Guest's picture

Somewhat related, I don't think it's necessary to buy name brand over the counter meds as long as the ingredients are the same as store brands. Store brands are often cheaper. I think a lot of items can fit into this category to help people save money.

Oh, and do we really need deodorant? :)

Guest's picture

Good list! I never use expensive forms of body wash, shaving cream or anything like that. I buy regular old bar soap and it works perfectly well for everything, even washing my face!

Guest's picture

I use aftershave for that reason. Sure, it's unnecessary. But the problem is more that people use the $50 bottle, rather than the $3 bottle I use.

Sure, you can get fit without a gym membership. But can you practice a training plan to exercise particular muscles? Not so easy. You could of course buy the bars and weights and machines yourself of course, but then it's a case of choosing between the gym and the gear.

And your advice for running is only partly true. In good weather all you need are a good pair of running shoes (seriously, don't skimp on these), socks and whatever else you need to stay decent. But you seriously appreciate the athletic clothing in wet or sub-zero conditions.

Guest's picture

When I got shopping and I spot something that I didn't plan on, I stop myself to think if its something I really need or if I can get by without for a bit longer or just for good. Chances are if its an impulse purchase....you don't need it at all.

Guest's picture

Hi Paul,

Yes, there are lots of things that we think we need but are really not important to us. maybe, its all because of the advertising and media hype that tells us to buy products which are not essential . We need to be prudent. Balance is the key to logical shopping. Consumers will get good points from you.

Guest's picture

You can make a lot of the cosmetic products such as scrubs, facials, and leave in conditioners at home for the fraction of the cost!

And quitting a gym is also a great way to cut extra expenses, with the applications that are available through technology these days you can use workouts found online to get the same workout at home for free!

Guest's picture

Please beware with the athletic clothing comment. Not all activities require technical gear, but if you don't outfit yourself appropriately for certain things, you're asking for misery and/or trouble. The real frugal answer here is to not buy more than you actually need and never pay full retail for the specialized things that really do make a difference to you via thrift stores, sale racks, clothing/gear swaps, and online comparison shopping.

Ever do down-dog or a shoulder stand in a regular t-shirt and shorts? No bueno. You don't need a closet full of $100 lulu lemon pants, but a top that will keep itself (and the girls!) in place paired with bottoms whose hems won't succumb to gravity in inversions and leave you feeling exposed are essential.

Enjoying snowplay sports? Please wear wool, silk, or synthetic material for layering and appropriate breathable/waterproof outerwear, not plain old cotton, or you could increase your risk of discomfort at best and hypothermia at worst.

You clearly stick to the gym for your exercise, and that's great if it works for you, but this advice is TERRIBLE for anyone who actually, you know, goes outside.

Guest's picture
The Scoutmaster

As an avaid camper/hiker in FLORIDA....i love wicking shirts and chapstick. I wouldn't dream of going to the beach with out suntan lotion and my chapstick. I agree with the baby stuff. I've even changed my infant on a pile of pinestraw with my bandana on top while out camping. It worked great!

Guest's picture

Body scrubs/Shower gels - if you use a shower gel that has minimal harmful ingredients and a scrubbing agent in one you don't need to buy a puff or loofa every few months

Cellulite cream- use it for several days before you plan to show off your thighs or whatever, despite being temporary, it gives you results when you don't have the time to work it out or were just too lazy to begin with like ..some...one..0:)

Chapstick - yea a lot of them are crummy but the right one can help when you're not ontop of your fresh (not distilled or boiled) water intake. Just look for simple ingredients or eat a greasy lunch :)... But seriously just drink more water!!

Aside from that, useful post, ty

Guest's picture

I have addictions to two of the above, the rest I can (and mostly do) do without. First, Chapstick. Ugh, I'm an addict, it's serious. Second, I love gym wear. I'm willing to spend money on quality wear because first off, it looks a million times better, secondly, it makes me feel more jazzed about working out, and thirdly, it's what I wear to work (I'm an actress). Just like it's professional for businessmen to wear suits, I feel I'm presenting a more put together and professional image when I'm flattering workout wear than sweats.