Spending money isn't always a bad thing, but most of us do it without giving it much thought. Here's a framework to help you spend more mindfully.

One of my biggest financial pet peeves is when people judge your spending habits according to their own priorities.

You know what I’m talking about: the fuddy-duddy who shames you for buying avocado toast. The out-of-touch miser who never uses a smartphone and thinks you shouldn’t, either. Translation: You’re spending money all wrong and should be doing it according to what works for me, not what works for you. Also, get off my lawn.

People love to tell you how to spend your money without knowing: 1) how much you earn, and 2) what your priorities are. Maybe you’re super frugal but avocado toast is your one splurge. Maybe you’re a freelancer who travels a lot and you rely on a smartphone to run your business.

I hate this kind of judgment because it turns people off of personal finance altogether. It’s also why money remains so taboo. Who wants to talk about their personal finances when they’re just going to be judged harshly for it?

In reality, money is not a virtue, it’s a tool. It’s meant to be spent.  That said, most of us have a limited supply of it, so we want to use the tool wisely. 

Spending Isn’t Always Bad, But…

Spending money is not inherently a bad thing. It’s just that it’s usually our default  — we do it without giving it much thought at all. We want to work out more, we buy some expensive workout gear to motivate ourselves. We don’t know what to do with our lives, we spend $100k on grad school to figure it out.

We’re so quick to throw money at our habits, hobbies, and goals in the hopes that buying stuff will make us healthier or more decisive. Sometimes, it works. But there are so many other options to consider before we default to spending.

And that’s why I love the Buyerarchy of Needs, from author and designer Sarah Lazarovic.  It’s loosely based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for human motivation. The idea is: when you want something new, explore your other options for consumption before you default to spending money.

…Consider the Alternatives to Spending Money

Here’s a detailed explanation of each level of consumption Lazarovic illustrates in the Buyerarchy.

Use What You Have

This is the most obvious question you should ask when you want to buy something: do I already have it? Yes, it’s painfully obvious. But often enough, the answer is still yes. Case in point, I wanted to buy a new blush palette recently. Then I realized: I have like five compacts of leftover blush that haven’t been completely used. How about I use those up before I buy more?

Single-use kitchen tools are another good example of “just use what you have.” For example, Instead of using a regular frying pan for cooking eggs, I bought a small, single egg cooking pan. It took up space in my already small kitchen for weeks before I got tired of moving it around to make room for other stuff.

Whatever your potential purchase, the question “do I already have something that will work?” can save you cash (and precious kitchen space).


Libraries are an often overlooked alternative to spending money. And it’s not just books. Some libraries let you borrow tools, video equipment, or even museum passes.  Beyond libraries, you can borrow stuff from friends or neighbors. When we throw parties, my husband and I borrow an extra table from my brother and law, for example. That said, we also have a rule: if we have to ask to borrow something three times, we consider buying it. (After all, my brother-in-law probably gets tired of hauling that table to our house every time we have a party.) Borrowing is a good way to make sure you’re actually going to use something before you spend money on it.


A friend occasionally hosts clothing swap parties. As someone who spends way too much on clothes (yet still dresses like a college student who just pulled an all-nighter), I can attest that swapping is a great way to get your consumer fix without actually spending money. It doesn’t just have to be clothes, though. Plenty of people use Craigslist to swap goods, but there are sites dedicated to swapping, like the Freecycle Network. You could swap gift cards on Cardpool or even swap vacation housing on HomeExchange.


Okay, so you’re still spending money when you thrift, but depending on the item, you’ll spend considerably less when you buy something second-hand. My favorite second hand purchase? Cars that are 1-2 years old and have already taken the depreciation hit but still run like new. Of course, you can thrift clothing, and places like Crossroads often carry quality brands, too. I once found a $20 Armani cardigan and, years later, I still wear it all the time. Other things I’ve thrifted: bikes, furniture, books, games, movies  — even cookware.


Depending on what you want to buy, this one is often a little more work than simply borrowing or buying second hand. But making stuff can also be really fun. In college, for example, I really wanted a new scarf (those Houston winters are colder than you’d think). Like most college kids, I didn’t have much discretionary income to spend on a new scarf, though, so I bought some yarn and borrowed my mom’s crochet needle and made a scarf for myself. Inspired, my mom started making scarves, too, and then we became so obsessed with scarf making that we actually turned it into a side hustle. We sold scarves on eBay for $10 a pop. I mean, we weren’t living large, but we had a legit side hustle. For the first time, I saw the value in being a producer over a consumer.

Finally, at the top of the hierarchy is “buy.” Because sometimes, it’s just worth spending the money. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with spending. Money is just a tool, after all. It’s meant to be spent; that’s why it exists. But again, most of us have a limited supply of it, so you want to be strategic about how you use that tool. In other words, you want to think twice about how you spend your money, which is why I love the Buyerarchy of Needs. It reminds you to at least explore your other options before giving away your cash.

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Kristin writes about money, travel, and human behavior at Lifehacker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, and Mentalfloss. She's also written for NBC News, Fox Digital, and Scripps Network Interactive. Her book GET MONEY will be available on 3/27/18 with Hachette Books.