Consumer Consciousness: Questions to Ask Before You Buy


You would think that in a land where most of the economic activity rests on the shoulders of ordinary consumers, the U.S. would have the smartest, savviest shoppers in the world. We could spot a deal from a mile away, easily calculate the true cost of ownership, translate complex marketing speak to our mother tongue, and determine price per ounce with our calculators tied behind our backs. Alas, this is not the case. Most consumers continue to be swayed by the “dazzle” — manipulated by misleading advertising, influenced by trends and friends, and driven by impulse. (See also: Impulse Shopping: A Controllable Handicap)

To avoid making purchases I'll only regret later, I created a list of 14 questions I ask myself before I buy. They’re designed to cut through the consumer noise and get at the true value of the item or the true motivation behind purchasing behavior. The questions don’t fit every buying situation, but they work most of the time. Amend as needed and watch your regrets and credit card bills shrink.

1. Can I get this at a better price somewhere else?

Are you shopping at the right place to get the best price? Is there a less-expensive retailer in your area that you haven’t checked out?

2. Can I get this at a better price at some other time?

Are you buying your lawn furniture in the spring or waiting until autumn when there are deals to be had? If your timing is predictable, retailers have you right where they want you.

3. Do I already own it?

This may seem like an odd question, but often we buy replacement items when we can’t locate things we already own. Does your home need an organizational makeover? Is it time to declutter and discover the wealth of items you already own but can’t find in all the chaos?

4. Is this product about to be improved upon?

This is a tricky one. On one hand, if an object is about to be improved upon, you may want to wait for the more feature-rich model to come out and avoid upgrades later. On the other hand, older models tend to decrease in price when new versions are released and there are deals to be had if you can postpone the purchase. In either case, biding your time can pay off.

5. Can I borrow this product from someone else or buy it used?

Is it even necessary to buy an item or, at the very least, buy it new? Can you borrow a vacuum from a neighbor for that single room in your home that’s carpeted? If you hit a few yard sales this summer, could you find a good used vacuum for pennies on the dollar?

6. Does this product make my life easier or more complicated?

It took a brilliantly evil mind to reinvent the broom by attaching a glorified paper towel to a stick and making a simple device something that required constant refills. Any product that promises to simplify your life by eliminating a single object you already own and replacing it with an object you must "feed" should be relegated to the dustbin of history. It’s not cost-effective and definitely not simple.

7. Does this product function independently or require add-ons to work?

Are you buying a single product that works on its own or one that requires more features, attachments, and upgrades to do the job? Avoiding wallet-hungry products is the best way to go.

8. Do I have to use credit to pay for this item and is it worth it?

Even the best deals are soured once you factor in credit card interest. If you have to use credit to pay for an item (and can’t pay that credit card bill off completely during your next billing cycle), the deal better be worthy of a Facebook status update.

9. Am I an educated consumer of this product?

It’s about time the Information Age did something more than show us funny videos of dancing cats and giggling babies. Use the tools available at your fingertips to research consumer data on products before you buy. Leverage the power of communication to make smarter buying decisions.

10. Is there another product that’s just as good and less expensive?

This question requires an understanding of how you’ll use the product based upon your habits and behavior. Do you need the deluxe MP3 player if you’re just using it while you jog for 30 minutes a day? What’s a simpler, less expensive solution that would fulfill your specific needs just as well?

11. Will this product still be useful in six months or a year?

Fast-forward through the life cycle of this product and see where you envision it in six months or a year. Be realistic — is it still being used? Has it become abstract lawn art? Is it in the garage with the rest of the yard sale stuff?

12. If I waited two weeks, would I want this item just as badly?

In other words, is this an impulse buy? Is this something that you truly need or just feel compelled to buy at this moment?

13. Does this product carry a warranty?

What’s your recourse as a consumer if this item doesn’t work or malfunctions after purchase? Is the manufacturer confident enough to provide a warranty, or are you on your own the minute you hand over your cash?

14. Is this product disposable when there is a non-disposable solution?

This question focuses on the environmental and budgetary impact of what we buy. Opting for reuse and rejecting single-use items whenever possible may be slightly less convenient, but more beneficial for our planet and our pocketbooks.

As we all try to leverage the power of our dollars, screening our purchases through the filter of tough questions can be the smartest thing we do for our budgets.

What are some questions you ask yourself before you buy? What have I missed?

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Guest's picture

Very good post. Even though some of the questions seem obvious or common sense, it's easy to forget to think about these.

Guest's picture

Great Questions to help consumers think before they shop. I would like to add a level to your questions with a theme. We as consumers cast a vote every time we make a purchase. We are telling businesses and governments what is important to us. We can bring change through our consumer habits.

Q1. Not only a better price but how do we want that money distributed. At a national chain store 43% of the money stays in the community but 68% stays in the neighborhood when shopping at a local independent store. Almost 0% goes to your community when you buy online.

Q5. Borrowing or buying used saves our natural resources.

Q8. Credit is adding to the cost of items even when paying it off in full. Merchants charge more because people pay with credit and these credit cards charge the stores for their service. So now we are all paying more for an item because of credit cards. Check out gas station prices that give two prices. One for cash and the other for credit. Big price difference.

Q9. Educate yourself so you know the facts about the effects on the world around you. Is it environmental, were fair labor practices used, where is it produced, etc..

Q10. Are their other products that are the same but have a better social, economical, environmental impact.

Q14. Disposable Vs. Non-disposable which is more environmental. Neither one guarantees environmental. Disposable Diapers are less environment than Re-usable cloth but disposable paper broom cover is not better than a good old fashion bristled broom.

Every dollar you spend says what is important to you. Let governments and companies know what you believe in. Vote with your money. Vote for what you believe in. Help spread the word.

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