Money Down the DrainI've always been a bit obsessed with my own thought processes, but I think my life-hacking days probably started when I was a bachelor and bought a Ronco food dehydrator. It's hard to resist the siren song of Ron Popeil, and let's face it – that thing could literally do everything. Plus, those people on TV just looked so happy.

It couldn't do everything.

I'm not bashing Ron – the guy can sell, and most of his products work. The problem wasn't the product – the problem was me. How much food-dehydrating did I actually need to do? Of course, I dehydrated everything I could get my hands on in the first month, just to prove that the dehydrator actually was a miracle device.

Unfortunately, my "miracles" were a bit shy of walking on water. Dried apricots – yum. Dried apples – not bad. Dried cantaloupe? Save your money and just chew on a deflated basketball. In retrospect, I could have just eaten all of these things fresh – I wasn't exactly short on refrigerator space or planning a hike up Kilimanjaro.

I also bought one of the early versions, a fanless model that took about 48 hours to dry anything other than a Saltine. The biggest problem, though? The thing was huge, and and after that sad first 2 months of trying to prove why I needed it, it mostly just sat in the cabinet, reminding me of my poor decision-making abilities.

Give it 24 hours.

So, I made a simple rule. If I saw something that I just needed to buy, I'd wait 24 hours and see if it still sounded like a good idea. I never bought anything from an infommercial again. It's funny how sensible a screaming Aussie can sound at 2am. Not so much in the light of day.

These days, as a 40-year-old dad of a 7-month-old, I'm not up late enough to watch many infomercials (I restrict my insomnia TV to mature, educational programming, like Cartoon Network), but I still use the 24-hour rule almost every week. Think you have to have that iPad2 just because Steve Jobs made it look so awesome? Give it 24 hours. Your friend just upgraded his Droid, and now it has 1.6% more contrast? Hold that thought.

We're under constant pressure to consume, and we all get caught up in the moment now and then. Sometimes, it's fun, but when you're sitting on credit card debt and spending thousands on a pile of buyer's remorse every year, maybe it's time to wait 24 hours.

Make a shopping list.

Of course, sometimes waiting isn't practical. I'm not about to go to the grocery store, write down everything I want, go home, wait 24 hours, and then go back to buy it. That's where post-thinking needs to be replaced by pre-thinking. Make a list, and stick to it. Do it for every store that makes money on impulse buys – grocery stores, big box retailers, electronics stores, even the gas station (you went for gas, remember, not a Big Gulp and 2-lb. bag of Combos).

Budget your impulses.

Another option – set a limit on your impulse buys. It's ok to have a little fun, but you know that 6th latte of the day or after-work Cheesecake Factory habit probably isn't the best use of your money (or calories). So, set a limit – maybe you get $20/week for impulse buys. Make a list of what counts – there's no one to cheat here but yourself and your bank account.

Most of all, think.

You know what 24 hours does? It lets you clear your head and think. We believe we're great decision makers, but we're not. We're riddled with cognitive biases, and most of them kick in when we have to make a decision fast and under pressure. It may not seem like it, but that guy yelling at you on the TV while the timer counts down – that's pressure. Remember that snack shelf at eye-level you have to stare at while the person in front of you pays with 14 expired coupons and 2 personal checks? That's pressure. Advertisers know it, stores know it, and they take advantage of you.

So, stop and think – you'll be amazed at the difference.

Image licensed from iStockPhoto (FreezeFrameStudio, ©2009)

10 Mar – MikeTek

I used to get a kick out of the Cajun linguini guy

What about impulse buys that you sit on for weeks before jumping in. Like my PC upgrade. Do I need an Intel Sandy Bridge 2500K overclockable CPU with a GTX 460 video card and 12GB of RAM?

No.

But think about how epic Black Ops will look on it.


10 Mar – Dr. Pete

@Mike - Yeah, I know what you mean. You behave and put off a big purchase, like a PC, for months, set aside the money, and then, when you finally go to buy it, here come the offers. "Oh, just another $100 for an extra 4GB of RAM. What, only $50 for the wireless mouse? Just $78 for a monogrammed keyboard?! Sweet!"

There's always temptation, I guess, and e-retailers aren't stupid. I've found that these rules started me on a habit of thinking before I buy, and now it kicks in on auto-pilot. Sometimes, a deal really is a deal, and it's worth doing. I actually upgraded my last PC more than usual, because I only do it every 4 years and I've got a business to run. Still, I tried to think it through.


10 Mar – MikeTek

There's no future-proofing PC components, but I think it makes sense if you're going to upgrade to get the best you can afford - I don't think you're saving money, necessarily, but you're pushing the next inevitable upgrade farther down the line.

I find I'm not much of an impulse shopper in most situations...but in Costco, I'm dangerous. They trick me, because it seems like a grocery store (and groceries are why I go). Next thing I know I'm walking out with a new jacket and a set of giant dry erase board.


10 Mar – MikeTek

A "set of giant dry erase board." Time to step away from the computer.


10 Mar – Dr. Pete

@Mike - If anyone would sell them by the set, it's Costco. I try to remember that I don't need 4 metric tons of Whoppers and a bulldozer.


16 Mar – Mark

This is a great post. It's really challenging. I get stuck thinking, and I think many do, that mastery takes a mega-commitment. But consistency is arguably more important, which I guess is your point. I'm already actively working to restructure my time and this will definitely influence that.


16 Mar – Dr. Pete

Thanks, Mark. I find that I can't really trick myself, but if I set up some simple rules, it's easier to stick to my goals. Once I end up with a multi-worksheet Excel file, I generally know I'm in trouble :)


30 MINUTE CALCULATOR