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Save money with an 'alternative list'

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Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File

(Read caption) Agnes, 5, right, plays a dulcimer with her sister Lucia, 3, in New Orleans, La., in this November 2011 file photo. As Hamm and his wife contemplated buying a dulcimer, they wrote a list of questions that compare personal values directly to financial costs.

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Whenever Sarah and I are considering a major purchase, we agree to wait thirty days before making any kind of move.

I’m sure that’s a familiar idea to many of you. I’ve talked about it many times and called it the “thirty day rule.” It’s a brilliant way to keep yourself from spending money on something that’s a fleeting desire.

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What’s happened over the years is that we’ve settled into a very interesting routine during that thirty days – or I have, at least. I build something that I call the “alternative list” during those thirty days.

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The “alternative list” is a pretty simple idea. An alternative list is just a list of different options that can fulfill whatever it is we’re hoping to fulfill in our lives with the purchase we were considering. 

So, let’s say Sarah is considering buying a dulcimer. She recently inherited one and is actually teaching herself how to play it at the moment, so it’s a timely example. 

The first thing is to figure out what’s actually desired from this purchase. “I want a dulcimer” doesn’t really suffice for an answer. Why does she want a dulcimer?

That alone usually provides some significant thought, and if there’s not a straightforward answer to that question, there’s no need to purchase the item.

However, let’s say she wants it so she can play backing music for a musical group she’s involved with. What are her options?

Well, she could just head to a music store and buy a dulcimer. That’s straightforward. It will get her a good dulcimer, but it’s the most expensive option.

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She could start hunting on used instrument sites, eBay, and Craigslist for a used dulcimer. That would reduce the price, but it might also alter the quality. However, she intends to use this instrument to learn, so a high-end dulcimer probably isn’t the most reasonable option here.

She could simply adapt the music she wants to learn to another instrument we already own. You can find several harmonicas, a flute, a keyboard, and an acoustic guitar in our home already. Will any of those work for the musical needs she has? This would eliminate the cost of buying a dulcimer entirely, but it would alter the produced sounds.

One can come up with lots of alternatives along those lines. I usually write these down as they come to me.

In the end, an alternative list boils down to a list of questions that compare personal values directly to financial costs.

Is the prestige, aesthetic value, and theoretical quality of a new dulcimer really worth the cost premium when it’s going to primarily be used for learning?

Is the unique sound of a dulcimer worth the cost of buying any version of a dulcimer?

Questions like those are really hard at first, because they often feel like attacks on the things you want. Over time, though, you begin to see them for what they really are. They are tools that dig through your short-term impulses and desires to expose your long-term values.

The “alternative list” is just a powerful tool for digging through all of the questionable impulses and ideas you build up in your head. It forces you to step back and look at a potential purchase through the lens of what’s really important to you and, quite often, it shows you how needless the purchase is.

I go through this process for any purchase costing more than about $40. The vast majority of the time, I end up never buying anything at all. I consider that a huge victory.