Impulse Spending: The Present and the Past

by J.D. Roth

I had a wave of nostalgia on Friday. My brother called to tell me that there was a problem with the computer network at the box factory. Though I no longer work for the family business, I’m still the company’s computer guy. So, I drove out to the office, tinkered with the network, and ended up having to make a run to Fry’s Electronics to pick up some parts.

Not so long ago, Fry’s was the source of much of my impulse spending. I bought computers and computer accessories, computer games and computer books. I bought compact discs and DVDs and stereo equipment. I burned through a lot of money in that store. Walking through the doors on Friday brought back a flood of memories.

I picked up the computer parts I needed and then, on a whim, I decided to look at the computer games. I’ve felt a little burned out lately, and I’ve been thinking that a good single-player game might be the perfect way to blow off steam. (I’m afraid to begin playing World of Warcraft again because I know I’ll just get sucked in.)

I stood in the Mac games section (mercifully a fraction the size of the PC games section) and looked at the options. There was a time when I’d know everything about each of these games. Gaming was my hobby. Now, though, I know nothing. Is Call of Duty good? What about Age of Empires III? I used to love Star Wars games — maybe I should pick up one of those?

In the end, I didn’t buy anything. I could easily afford the purchase, and I wouldn’t feel guilty about it, but I just couldn’t justify buying a game blindly. Plus, I would have been making the purchase on impulse. It’s one thing to buy something I know I’ll love; it’s something else to buy something just for the sake of buying it.

Back at the box factory, I spent a couple of hours getting the network up and running. As I waited for various machines to reboot, I looked though a big box of CDs I’d left behind when I quit my job.

The box was filled not only with music CDs, but also with a decade’s worth of computer software. There were dozens of games, many of which I had bought for full price ($40), installed on my computer, but never played. There were $400 database applications I had purchased because I might teach myself how to use one. There was a full version of Adobe Illustrator that I had never figured out how to use.

“There must be close to $5,000 worth of CDs in this box,” I thought, flipping through the dusty jewel cases. But then I corrected myself. I had spent about $5,000 to purchase the CDs in that box, but they’re worth almost nothing today. A few of the games have sentimental value (Re-volt is one of the best games I have ever played and I’m tempted to get it running on my Mac), but most of the software is worthless now.

As I drove home, I thought about the J.D. of 1999 and the J.D. of today. The J.D. of 1999 could not have walked out of Fry’s without buying something. Or many somethings. But then he would have felt guilty and dirty for days afterward — until he forgot about the purchase and it just became another debt that he owed.

But my attitude is completely different today. Today I’m out of debt. I can afford to purchase the music and games that I want. But mostly I don’t. I’ll buy something if I know I’ll use it, but it’s rare now that I make an impulse purchase. I no longer shop just for the sake of shopping.

I’ll admit that there are times that I long for the free-spending days of years gone by. But you know what? That J.D. of 1999 could never have afforded a Mini Cooper (used or otherwise). He was trapped in a job that he hated. He dreamed of travel but could not go. He spent a lot on Stuff that did not matter — but spent very little on the things that did.

I prefer the man that I’ve become. I like knowing that Kris and I will have no problem saving for our trip to France and Italy next year. I like driving my Mini and knowing that it’s mine (and not the bank’s). And I also like knowing that I can do a little research, find a computer game that looks promising, and then buy a copy — all without an ounce of guilt.

Updated: 19 July 2009

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
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