3 Questions to Ask Before You Buy Anything

If your toaster oven or works, don't be so quick to replace it. Waraporn Kraitavin/Shutterstock

In my office sits an archaic (by most standards) desktop computer. It's more than a decade old and is often slow and fussy. My son is a computer engineering student, so that old machine frustrates him. He always urges me to get something newer and faster, shinier and less cranky, but I resist.

That was until yesterday, when my computer made a series of ominous clicking noises — and then died. While my son mused over a possible replacement, I came up with a simpler plan. He's getting a new laptop, so I'm going to take his old one. No computer shopping for me and no unused technology sitting under his bed. It's a win-win.

And it's a reminder to think about your impact on the environment before you buy something and to consider if you truly need it.

"We seem to be focused on how quickly we can get things, how cheap they are or how fashionable and trendy," said Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California, told The New York Times. "We buy too much stuff because there is an endorphin rush from acquiring new things."

But what if we all stopped and asked ourselves a couple of questions before each purchase? The results could be impressive.

Do you need it?

woman shopping online
A lot of the people who shop on Thanksgiving and Black Friday do their shopping online. (Photo: My Life Graphic/Shutterstock)

Before you head to the store or online to buy something new, decide how necessary your purchase is.

If something necessary is broken — like a can opener, hair dryer or computer — then you no doubt need to replace it. But if something is just aging or doesn't fit your decor anymore, can you live with it?

Some people attempt to take part in a no-buy year where they try to go 12 months without buying certain items like clothing, knickknacks or electronics. Some do this to save money or to pay off debt, but others do it so they won't accumulate more stuff.

Whether you want to go a year or just want to be more deliberate in your spending, before you go shopping, think about spending intentionally. When you see something you want, ask yourself if it's truly a necessity or something you're buying on a whim. Will another cute T-shirt just sit in a drawer or a frame just gather dust on a shelf? Think about it overnight and if your eagerness for the item isn't quite so strong, save the money for something else.

Is it made to last?

Photo: Keith McDuffee [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

If you decide you truly need to purchase something, then opt for long-lasting quality when you can. Making smart purchases saves money, time and resources.

Shop around and do your research to find products that last a lifetime. Many items come with guarantees while others just have rave reviews from legions of fans.

If you're tired of replacing things, head to Buy Me Once, a website that's dedicated to finding items that last forever. There's everything from clothing and cookware to toys and luggage.

Founder Tara Button started the site after working in advertising and realizing a client, Le Creuset, had a lifetime guarantee on its ceramic cookware. She wondered why more products didn't follow the same approach and decided to find out what was available.

"It's frustrating, and I feel it's immoral to make something that breaks and ends up in a landfill, and it's really short-sighted," Button told MNN. "If you're not a wealthy family, having to replace these items is not cheap ... People really do want stuff that's built to last."

Can I recycle the old item? What about the new one?

donation box with clothes, toys, sports equipment
From toys and clothes to sports equipment, bring donations to a thrift store. Victoria 1/Shutterstock

In 2015, Americans generated nearly 262 million tons of trash. Of that, about 34% was recycled or composted, but more than 137 million tons of that trash — a whopping 52.5% — was sent to landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

If you decide to buy something new and it's replacing something old, what happens to the old item?

If it still works, you can donate it to a thrift store, give it to a friend or a family member, sell it online or offer it through a sharing website like Freecycle.

If it doesn't work (or no one wants it), don't be so quick to toss it into the trash. You'd be surprised at the items you can recycle. From bras to eyeglasses, there's a place for many things other than the landfill.

"Sustainably managing materials requires thinking beyond waste and instead focusing on the life cycle of a product, from the time it is produced, used, reused and ultimately recycled or discarded," says the EPA.

So when you eye that aging toaster oven or computer, think hard before you replace it, considering where it will end up and whether it has a next life beyond your home.