Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Conquering the gazingus pin

One of my favorite bloggers, Emily Guy Birkin, recently posted at Live Like a Mensch on the topic of "gazingus pins." This concept comes from the classic personal-finance work Your Money or Your Life, by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, which has taken on the status of a near-sacred text among the frugal set. The authors use the term "gazingus pin" to refer to "any item that you just can't pass by without buying." This isn't the same thing as any item you buy regularly: shopping for groceries and gas on a weekly basis, for instance, doesn't make them gazingus pins. What sets the gazingus pin apart is that it's something you're always prepared to buy another of, even if you already have all you could possibly use and then some.

Everyone's gazingus pins are different. For example, some people—mostly people of the female variety—can't resist new shoes, no matter how many pairs they own already. Others keep acquiring shiny new kitchen gadgets or technological toys. Birkin confesses in her post that she personally has an incurable addiction to books, calendars, and office supplies. So when she concluded the post by asking her readers to share their "personal gazingus pins," I tried to come up with some equally amusing quirk that I could disclose...and came up blank. Not only couldn't I think of a single thing that falls into the category of "mindless spending" for either of us, I couldn't even really wrap my brain around the concept. We're both such compulsive analyzers that we can't make even the smallest of purchases without considering all the angles first; I don't think we could spend mindlessly if we tried.

It's true that we are currently rather oversupplied with books; thanks to several recent sales, we have two good-sized piles of them in our soon-to-be guest room that are either waiting to be read (the pile on the left) or waiting to be passed on to other readers, having failed to earn a place on our overcrowded bookshelves (on the right). But the only reason we've accumulated so many is that we've had an unusual run of luck at finding them secondhand or otherwise dirt-cheap. If we go to Barnes and Noble, by contrast, where even the paperbacks cost $9 and up, we almost invariably walk out empty-handed. We can enjoy a carefree hour of browsing, but when it comes to actually carrying something to the checkout, we can never quite convince ourselves that it's worth the money. Even if we happen to see something we like, we generally prefer to hold off on buying it at least until we can look for it at the library instead.

The thing is, we weren't always like this. When I brought up the topic with Brian, he came up with three gazingus pins he used to have: books, comic books, and CDs. He used to binge on these regularly, buying ten or twelve at a pop. These days, he still buys all of these things occasionally, but only in a measured, thoughtful way. He will actually think about how much he wants a particular book or CD and, more often than not, will leave it on the rack. He's not sure quite how he made the shift from buying compulsively to analyzing obsessively, but at some point it just became a habit. These days, he more often needs to be talked into buying something when it's clearly worth the money than to be talked out of it when it isn't.

One thing that many people say they find helpful for dealing with their gazingus pins is to set ground rules. Birkin, for instance, says she now has a "one in, two out" rule with books: every time she acquires a new one, she has to purge two from her shelves. (This doesn't necessarily limit her spending, but at least it keeps the size of her collection in check.) In similar fashion, I have tamed my coffeehouse habit (not exactly a traditional gazingus pin because it's not something you amass a huge collection of, but it does run into money) by training myself to buy coffee only with the money I earn from survey rewards. Since I only accumulate survey rewards at a limited rate, I now enjoy these treats only once a month or so—which is good news for my waistline as well as my wallet.

Many people on the Dollar Stretcher forums have mentioned a different rule: when they get the urge to buy something, they must put it in their online shopping cart and then leave it there for at least 24 hours. By the time they come back to it, they say, they often find they can abandon it without regret. I've never tried this exact strategy myself (I'm always afraid I'll somehow hit the "check out" button by accident and find I've already paid for something without having a chance to reconsider), but I have a similar trick: when I see something I like, I add it to my wish list on Amazon.com. I find this sort of equivalent to "bookmarking" the item so I can find it again if I decide to buy it. Sometimes I end up buying it, sometimes I manage to find it for free (e.g., at the library) instead, and sometimes I conclude I don't really need it after all—but just the act of putting it on the list is enough to satisfy that urge to "get this, now." The simple act of bookmarking removes all sense of urgency; I know that if and when I decide it's worth the money, the item will still be right there waiting for me. And of course, as a side benefit, if anyone asks me what I want for my birthday, I can just direct them to the list. (You might wonder whether it's really reasonable to send my family and friends to Amazon to buy for me when I refuse to shop there myself on account of their evil labor practices, but I've actually found a way around this. Amazon now allows you to add items from other sites to your Wish List as well—so I went through my list and replaced all the items I'd found on Amazon with identical items from other sites. Now I have all my potential purchases stored in one convenient place, and I'm not actually directing any revenue to the mythical monster.)

So on the whole, it seems that, with a little retraining, it is possible to break (or at least control) a gazingus-pin habit. Some people, like Brian, can just gradually modify their spending habits over time; others need to trick themselves into behaving differently. Just as everyone's gazingus pins are different, the strategies that work for breaking free of them are likely to be different as well—but with a little trial and error, I'm convinced, anyone can hit on the right one sooner or later. Shoppers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your massive collection of gazingus pins!
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