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How Long Should You Wait to Buy Something You Really Want?

Finding spontaneous joy on a carefully planned budget

Most all financial advice in the known universe centers around two common pitfalls: You don’t budget your money well, and you buy too much shit you don’t need. We’re all familiar with impulse buying — thoughtless, unconsidered spending on stuff you could just as easily go without that adds up over time and derails the best-laid plans for saving money. A recent essay on Thought Catalog offers one way to curb impulse buying: Wait three days before buying any non-necessity, and then, and only then, allow yourself to buy if you really want it.

In the essay, “I Was Broke All The Time And Deep In Debt Until I Started Following The ‘Three Day’ Rule,” Jamie Rappaport writes that after staring down a maxed out delinquent credit card and asking her mom for money to fix her car (again), that she realized she had to stop buying so many $5 coffees and $8 sandwiches.

Her mom told her that to stop spending so much, she should always wait a day before buying anything. If she still wanted something a day later, she could go back and buy it then. So after her next paycheck, Rappaport gave herself a mere $20 for impulse purchases to last the entire pay period. She drove right past McDonald’s and fought the temptation to pull in. Rappaport writes:

Two Fridays later, I got paid. I didn’t even know my direct deposit hit because I still had some cash left over. I checked my bank account and I still had $200 in my checking account. $200! That’s when I knew I could do it….and that’s when it became a game seeing how fast I could save my money.

I gave myself a couple of rules to follow. I told myself I wouldn’t buy it if I could only use it one time (coffee, fast food, shots at the bar) but if I really wanted it three days later, then I could go back and buy it.

Adding two days to her mother’s initial advice, Rappaport devised the “Three Day Rule” for dodging her usual purchases. She bought groceries rather than fast food, since she could make multiple meals out of them. She bought toilet paper in bulk; she bought coffee to make at home. She found that she saved both money and time — and she even lost weight in the process.

“I am not a good enough writer to explain how good it feels to not be harassed by debt collectors at all hours of the waking day or how relieving it is to actually have money in case of emergency,” Rappaport writes. “A lot of my stress for the past few years could have been prevented if I started saving my money sooner.”

The art of dodging the impulse buy is never as easy as it sounds. Most of the existing advice out there argues for few common approaches that vary only by degree. First, you have to differentiate between a want and a need, which is easy enough to do — intellectually, at least. Second, you have to avoid going to the sorts of places you’re most likely to spend recklessly — the mall, the bar, the grocery store when you’re hungry — which are usually designed precisely with impulse buying in mind. Third, you have to put some kind of stopgap in place to make yourself think the choice over — a self-imposed time restraint that prevents you from leaping before you’ve even looked.

Some experts say to wait a week before you swipe your card for that new stainless steel refrigerator. Others suggest a 30-day wait for everything you feel compelled to get your grubby little hands on. If, after 30 days, the urge to own, say, a virtual reality headset passes, you just cross it off the list. If it’s still calling your name, consider your budget and whether you can actually afford it. Others suggest a $100-a-day rule, which dictates that you wait one day for every $100 you want to spend on something — a $400 gadget means a four-day waiting period, for instance. Others offer a more low-key take: Just sleep on it. And people argue all this delayed gratification works.

While it’s hard to argue against such reasonable advice — you don’t need easily 80 percent of what you buy, I bet — it’s important to note the fatal flaw of these waiting systems for purchases. Even the most stringent financial planning has to account for the realities of navigating life on earth: If you take away every good, frivolous and fun thing you’ve got while trying to pay off debt or get your financial life in order, it will be near impossible to remain sane or succeed. Even financial guru Dave Ramsey advocates for “fun money” — budgeted pocket money you can spend entirely on gummy bears if the urge strikes.

One fundamental truth in life is that humans need a little walking-around money and the occasional $16 burger to feel like life is worth living. Are those impulse buys, or are they simply a demonstration of your ability to live in the moment, within reason? I guess that depends how much you make — and how often you crave a $16 burger.

Regardless, part of the art of balancing the now with the later involves regulating spontaneity: No, you don’t “need” a $13 shot of fancy bourbon tonight while celebrating your friend’s job promotion, but three days, a week, or one month from now, none of your friends will be at that bar celebrating this job promotion. You gotta know when to hold ’em, but also when to spend ’em. In other words, be impulsive, sometimes. Treat yourself enough to feel good, but not so good you’ll feel horrible — and broke — later.