I spent 45 minutes in Target last week staring at a pair of $29.99 ballet flats (that’s shoes, for my male readers), asking myself, “Can I afford these?”

45 minutes of my life. Wasted. On shoes. (Cute shoes, but shoes nonetheless.)

Dollars and cents-wise, I could have purchased them and not batted an eye. But when it boiled down to the dollars and sense part of the equation, my ultimate answer had to be no.

When you live on a budget – even a budget with built-in wiggle room to accommodate the occasional splurge on cute shoes – each purchase can feel like an agonizing decision. That’s why I try to place all my potential purchases into one of two categories: a good value or a quality buy.

A Good Value

If something is a good value – meaning I’ve done the research, know how much I should pay and, more importantly, how much I want to pay – then I don’t let myself feel guilty about buying it. Those $29.99 shoes from Target, for example: they weren’t really a good deal. Sure, they were cute; sure, they were affordable. But just because something is affordable doesn’t mean it’s a good value. Had those shoes been on clearance – say, half price – then they would have been a good value. If they’d been a $29.99 pair of Christian Louboutins, then they would have been the deal of the century.

A Quality Buy

Sometimes, the finer things in life are worth it. For instance, take my obsession with designer jeans. Sure, I could buy the $10 jeans on sale at Walmart; instead, I pay roughly 20 times that price for a single pair of Rock ‘n Republic jeans. They fit me like a glove and, unlike the cheaply made jeans you’ll find at many mass retailers, they won’t fall apart the first time I wash them. Since I work from home, my jeans are my professional wardrobe – I wear them several times a week. To me, they are the epitome of buying quality. To you, quality may be marble coffee tables that last forever or the top of the line in toothbrushes.

Where A Good Value Meets A Quality Buy

Then, there are those Haley’s Comets of the retail world: purchases that are both a good value and a quality buy. Take my hair conditioner. When the stylist at my local salon suggested I buy the eight ounce tub of condition for $28, I threw up in my mouth. Didn’t she know I could buy 20 ounces of Suave at the grocery store for $2.99 a bottle? Maybe I was delusional, but I bought the condition anyway – it made my hair so silky! A year later, I’m just now scraping the bottom of its proverbial barrel. That’s right, I’m still using the same $28 tub I bought 12 months ago. Turns out, this is the perfect intersection of buying quality and getting a great deal at the same time, as my math proves:

  • I have really thick hair, so I only wash and condition my hair every other day, or roughly 180 times a year
  • With the cheap conditioner, I was using a healthy dollop every time I applied it, going through a bottle a month. At $3.20 a bottle (the $2.99 retail price plus 6.75% sales tax), it would have cost me $38.40 for a year’s worth.
  • With the pricy conditioner, the instructions told me to just dip two fingers in the tub, using whatever came out on my fingers in my hair. At first, I was dubious such a small amount could do the trick, but it did. This two-finger approach meant I was using barely any conditioner with each application. The result? It cost me under $30, including tax, to condition my hair in luxury for an entire year
  • The bottom line? I actually saved more than $8 while using a better quality product

One Caveat

Now, just because something is a good deal – heck, even if something is a great deal – doesn’t mean you should buy it. This is the fallacy of extreme couponing. Sure, you may come across a sale for Alpo dog food, where you can scoop up 50 cans of the stuff for just $0.02 each. But you don’t own a dog… is that a good value? Is it a good use of your money? Of course not. And while not every “bad deal in sheep’s clothing” will be as obvious, you still need to ask yourself one simple question: how will I use this? If you can’t answer that question clearly, effectively, and immediately, step away from the dog food. You do not need to buy it.

So the next time you find yourself asking, “Can I afford (insert splurge-worthy purchase)?” stop and evaluate whether it’s a good value, a quality purchase, or both. The payoff for following this rule of smart shopping? A product you’ll love, a price you won’t regret, and one less trip to the return counter.

Libby Balke

Libby Balke