Returning back to American culture after a year of exploring many others sent me thinking about the how and why of buying stuff. Returning reminded me that parts of our western world have a love affair with shopping as a pastime—rather than it being an errand or a task that fulfills a needed purpose (though that’s still a thing).

It’s also completely normal to buy new things just for fun.

When we came back from our travels, we went through all the stuff we kept in storage, and it did me good to handle every. single. thing. we owned, to ask once more whether we really needed it. Backpack living had its challenges, but I loved it much more than I thought I would.

Don’t get me wrong—shopping for the right thing, the thing you need, can sometimes be a fun endeavor. I’m down with that. But I’ll also say that shopping for the heck of it, to stave off boredom when nothing is needed, and to add it to the clutter at home, really is a first-world diversion.

There are times when I enjoy shopping, even when I don’t need anything—flea markets, for one, or when it really is a cultural experience (local street markets, indie shopping districts, farmer’s markets, and the like). But I do my absolute best to keep my wallet in check, and to only pull it out after I ask myself a few questions. I’m not perfect at this, but I’ve gotten better, and asking these questions has made shopping more peaceful for me.

pyrex bowls
Photo source

1. Do I want to mess with this?

By “mess,” I mean take care of—clean, maintain, protect, restore. Am I willing to deal with the effort necessary to make this item worth the space and time it’ll take in my life? Good stewardship in my life means taking care of what I own.

Do I want to take the effort to strip the stain off this wood table, sand it, repaint it, and seal it? Will it be worth the hassle of protecting this breakable, somewhat pricey vase from my smaller kids? Would I be willing to flat-dry this sweater?

If the answer is yes, that’s a good sign it might be worth my money. If it’s no, then it’s really not worth the expense. I’ll be happier without it.

2. Would I come back in 24 hours to get it?

I’m not saying I have to wait a whole day and make the effort to head back to the store—but would I? If I were to set the thing down and walk away to mull over it, would it still have that draw I’m feeling right now?

mugs for sale

I find that more often than not, I’m swayed by the ambience of the store and my particular mood when I’m there. It looks amazing at the store, but it just doesn’t work in my home. I might be with friends or my mom, and it’d be a fun experience to buy jewelry with them—but once I head home, I don’t regret leaving behind those earrings. Or that chipped teacup looks really cool in the flea market booth, but once I’m in my car, I can think back to it and honestly say “meh.”

But sometimes, something will stay in my mind, like a magnetic pull. If I’m willing to walk away and then make the effort to head back and buy it, it might be worth going ahead and buying it now.

Honesty is key here—asking this question forces me to observe my surroundings, inventory my senses, and evaluate if I’m swayed by the here and now. And admittedly, most of the time I am. But every now and then, I can honestly say, yep, I’d really and truly come back to buy it. So I pull out my wallet, guilt-free.

3. How was this made?

It’s not always easy to tell, but the things we buy cheaply so often come at a high price. If there’s a chance something was made unethically, for me, it’s just not worth it.

I’m not perfect at this, but I’m getting better—we’re slowly collecting brands and shops we endorse in our Ethical Shopping Guide because they pass muster, and I really love shopping at thrift stores, both local and online. I also check The Good Shopping Guide or Better World Shopper (and Skin Deep Database, while I’m at it) to see the current grade of a store or brand.


Asking this question reminds me that my purchase affects others, and if there’s any doubt, that shirt/lamp/toy/gizmo really isn’t worth my convenience. Plus, buying ethically often means better quality, which means my dollars are better spent anyway.

As always, grace is key here, and it tends to be hardest to give it to ourselves. I’m reminding myself of this as we go through our storage unit—as I declutter I do best with a nice blend of ruthless determination and life-giving generosity. No need to beat myself up over past decisions, but it’s always a good idea to make sure my present-day actions align with my convictions.