How to Buy Things
“Money doesn’t buy happiness.” This proverb is spoken by people who prioritize other things over money. Sometimes this proverb is also spoken as slight upon people with a lot of money. Are people wrong to prioritize things over money? Probably not. Is the proverb true? Probably not. It seems a tad too cynical to say that money buys you no happiness at all.
But the scientists have polled the populous and it does seem approximately true that after a certain level of wealth, additional money does not buy you additional happiness. This is not that surprising to me. If you doubled my yearly income, I would probably donate more, but not really be any happier; I currently have enough money that there is almost nothing that I want to own but do not have.
Those who have read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up may have glimpsed Marie Kondo saying “you could be happier, but you have buried the things that make you happy. I will teach you how to find them.” Kondo says that people are unhappy because they own too much stuff that they don’t like. I think Kondo is correct, but incomplete.
My current theory is that people’s happiness is basically the average of the amount they like their environments. One way to increase the average quality of your environment is to get rid of the low quality stuff. Another way to increase the average quality of your environment is to acquire high quality stuff.
My philosophy towards objects is: If it doesn’t spark joy, throw it away. If it does, buy it.
One of my friends once told me that I seemed particularly good at buying things. I also think that I’m better at buying things than most people. This is the part where I teach you how to buy things.
The main framing I use when deciding whether to purchase things is estimating an upper-bound on the value per use and the number of times I’m likely to use it. Using upper-bounds implicitly implements the upper confidence bound learning algorithm, putting you in a good place on the explore-exploit tradeoff.
The implication is that you should buy things that either give you a lot of value a few times, or a little bit of value over a long period of time. I find that most people are fine along the former category, but are score insensitive with respect to the amount of times they might use something and thus fail to properly exploit the latter category. If an object saves you a single minute every day, then it saves you 6 hours per year. Assuming you make minimum wage, if an object only lasts a year, then you should be willing to pay $60 for it. There are likely many objects that save you more than one minute and last more than one year. Objects that save me time are: a specialized water boiler, a fast computer, and a digital scale, along with other things that increase my productivity, like a nice keyboard and a large monitor. If you value your time enough, very tiny marginal productivity increases are worth a lot of money.
When figuring out how much value something gives me, a heuristic I often use is “will I be less annoyed?” If there is any noticeable daily annoyance that could be alleviated by that object, then it’s probably worth spending at least $100, if not more. Things I own that I bought primarily because they would decrease annoyance are: a nice pillow, a nice chair, wireless earbuds, a writing slope, and a phone stand. Sometimes I also buy things because they will make me slightly happier and will last a long time, like a tungsten cube,
If you’re taking reasonable upper bounds on potential value, you should also be eager to buy things that are probably not that useful, but might pay off extremely well. Examples of this category for me are: an Ergodox keyboard, a Magic Trackpad, a Battlestar roller, a Chillipad, dictaphone, and a Kitchen Safe, along with a myriad of things that I have returned (even if you have to pay for shipping, buying to try then returning is extremely worth it). Two of these objects continue to make my life better. The other four languish on shelves or in closets, waiting for better homes.
As a final note, I encourage you to buy things that eliminate trivial inconveniences. Anecdotally, my mother was skeptical about the benefits of a specialized water boiler because our electric kettle can boil water in about a minute. I got frustrated with having to wait one minute every time I wanted to make tea, so I bought one. My mother now drinks hot water much more than she used to.