Impulse Purchases and the Benefits of Retroactive Intentionality

If you buy a thing, use the thing

Words by Shawn Mihalik

A month ago, I bought an expensive camera. I’m not going to lie: it was an impulsive purchase. I hadn’t planned for it. I hadn’t budgeted for it. A model-and-photographer friend of mine was in town, and after using her camera on a hike one afternoon, I just had to have my own.

It’s easy to make impulsive purchases like this; that’s why they’re called impulsive. We see people do it all the time: smartphone upgrades, televisions, other gadgets, even food—we often buy things like these mindlessly, without intentionally considering the purchase before we make it. But after a few weeks, days, or even hours, the excitement wears off, and we forget all about our shiny new toy.

But what if we didn’t forget? What if, after recognizing and acknowledging the impulsiveness of our purchase, we made a commitment to extracting maximum value from our new thing? Just because we weren’t intentional before we bought a thing doesn’t mean we can’t be intentional with that thing at all.

Ever since purchasing that camera, I’ve been deep in the rabbit hole of photography. I did a professional photo shoot with my model friend the very day I bought it. I began to build a photography portfolio on my website. I read the camera’s manual cover to cover. I read Susan Sontag’s On Photography. In the last month, I’ve watched dozens of video essays about photography on YouTube. And, most importantly, I’ve been taking photos. _A lot _of photos. Photos of people, of places. I shot engagement photos for my father-in-law and his fiancée. I’ve taken the camera with me to the coast, to the rainforest. I’ve started approaching people on the street asking to take their portrait—a big deal for me as a socially awkward introvert. I’ve committed to using my impulse purchase as a means of professional and personal growth.

Next time you make an impulsive purchase, after you’ve acknowledged the impulsivity, ask yourself: Now that I have this thing I might otherwise not have bought, how can I extract maximal value from it?

If you impulse-buy a computer, commit to creating something brilliant with it—write a novel, or learn to edit videos for that YouTube channel you’ve been thinking about creating. 

If you impulse-buy a giant high-definition television, commit to watching great films with your family on that television.

If you impulse-buy a muffin, decide you’re going to enjoy the muffin. Savor the hell out of that muffin.

If you impulse-buy a book, read the book. Better yet, take notes on what you read, and put any lessons you identify into practice in your own life. I impulse-purchase books a lot. In fact, if there’s any item I’d come close to actually recommending you impulse-buy, it’s books—as long as you read the damn book.

Even the most perfect minimalist is going to make impulsive purchases every once in a while. By committing to the purchase after you’ve made it, you’re ensuring that your money—and the time you spent earning that money—is not going to waste. You’re also practicing—because retroactive intentionally is still intentionality, and over time, that intentionality will begin to happen before you make a purchase. You’ll start to recognize the value of a purchase before you make it, and the purchases that don’t have value, you might eventually not make at all.

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