Worth Every Cent

There's more to being a smart consumer than simply slashing your budget

Have you ever bought something on a friend’s recommendation only to see it languish on your shelf? Or perhaps you’ve spent extra on the full version of a product only to use the most basic features? If so, you’re not alone. The last five years have seen an increase in consumer spending, with Americans buying more products than they’ll ever use.

“Materialism is prevalent in today’s society, which makes us susceptible to the bombardment of advertising and marketing,” says Cynthia Jasper, a consumer science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She explains, “this creates an artificial need which drives us to spend more than we can afford to feed a false sense of self.” Food, clothing, and electronics are among the biggest culprits of wasted money. For example, says Jasper, “sometimes people buy clothes, and by the time they get home, they decide that it’s not as fashionable as they thought it was. They wear it once or twice or not at all.”

Here are five tips to help augment the enjoyment and usefulness of your purchases:

Do your homework. “Think through each purchasing decision carefully,” advises Jasper. Make a thorough inventory — not a wish list — of what you need in a product. If you’re in the market for a digital camera, list your priorities before entering the store or browsing online. This will ensure that you won’t leave with a multi-lens professional model when all you need is a point-and-shoot for Junior’s kindergarten graduation. Once your list is complete, cross-reference it with product features online or in a store until you find the perfect match. Independent comparison sites such as www.consumer reports.org and www.lowermybills.com are also a big help.

Use it or lose it. Sell or donate unwanted products so that others may benefit. Check out Websites such as www.freecycle.org and www.zunafish.com. As novel alternatives to eBay, Freecycle coordinates free trades among community members while Zunafish provides a marketplace for CDs, DVDs, videogames, and paperback books for just $1 per trade.

Limit special purchases. Many products bought for special occasions are quickly abandoned. This may include decorations for future events or special ingredients you bought to try that dish you saw on the Food Network but never had the time to make. A study by Brian Wansink of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab found that 12% of purchased groceries are never used. To avoid creating waste, the report recommends buying multipurpose ingredients as often as possible. For example, if a recipe calls for canned okra or corn, choose the corn. When planning special events, purchase related items as close to the date as possible just in case your plans change.

Try before you buy. “The brain and emotions are incredibly powerful in imagining a wonderful experience with a product before you actually use it,” says Larry Compeau, a marketing professor at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. The imagined product experience often surpasses the real deal. Much like you would test drive a car, Compeau suggests trying out products before you buy. Retailers

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