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What Would You Buy If You Had an Extra $50? $500? $5,000?

06/10/2015 06:10 EDT | Updated 06/10/2016 05:59 EDT
Mary E. Smyth via Getty Images
Senior Man Holding Canadian Paper Currency

When I first started reading personal finance blogs, there was a chain letter-like post I saw many of my favourite bloggers copy -- it answered the popular question: what would you buy if you won the lottery? Back then, I couldn't bring myself to copy the post because $1 million seemed like a number I'd never be able to touch. Why bother thinking about something that would never happen?

Two weeks ago, however, I saw a post on Pinterest that asked a much simpler version of the same question: what would you buy if you had an extra $50? $500? $5,000? Obviously, those numbers are a lot more tangible; you don't need to win the lottery for it to happen. You could get an extra $50 by selling something, $500 through picking up some side work or $5,000 via a large tax refund. And these smaller windfalls come at us many times throughout our lives. The problem is that most of us find out the money is coming and decide how we are going to spend it, before it's even in our hands.

This is a habit I established before I got my very first paycheque. As soon as I landed a job in high school, I estimated how much money I would bring home on payday (~$175). After that, I did what most 16-year-olds would do: I made a plan to spend it -- and it was gone within just a few days. By the time I got my next paycheque, I was broke and had another plan for how I was going to spend the next $175; this is a cycle that continued until just a few years ago, and it is one that shaped my entire mindset around money for all the years in-between.

Things got worse whenever I switched jobs, got various raises, and saw larger and larger paycheques come in. Rather than save any of it, I always found things to spend the extra money on: things for my apartment, newer cell phones, my first computer, etc. The minute I knew I'd get an extra $100/cheque or $200/month, all I could think about was how I could spend it. The absolute worst was whenever I got large tax refunds. Rather than save or invest any of it, I immediately saw it as free extra money and blew right through it.

I've essentially always walked around with this running list in my head of things I could spend money on. My guess is, the minute you read the title of this post, some of you wanted to comment and tell me how you would spend that extra money, too. I'm not saying that's necessarily wrong... but what you should ask yourself now is: how did you decide what you would spend the money on?

Do you have a list of savings goals you're currently working towards? A running list of things you actually need to buy? Or were your answers impulsive -- full of wants that would satisfy you in this moment rather than needs that could help you for awhile? The question posed by Apartment Therapy sounds innocent enough. But the question is everything that's wrong with the money mindsets being instilled in us.

Don't Buy "Extras" with Extra Money

When I started the shopping ban last year, I had no idea what kind of challenge I was putting myself up against. The goal, if you don't remember, was to save more and become a conscious consumer. I still feel like that was pretty naive of me to say, though, because I didn't know what that would look like.

For my entire life, up to that point, I'd bought everything on a whim but attached some meaning to it. So I'd buy this particular piece of furniture so everything finally matched, or a decor item I knew would "finish a room." If I could give it a purpose, I had no problem buying it. The problem is I didn't actually need any of it; they were all extra items, above and beyond what I needed to survive and be happy. I spent my extra money on extras -- and it was a complete and utter waste.

As of today, I'm in my final month of the shopping ban and the number one question people have started asking me is: are you excited for it to be over? The truth is, I don't really care. From the beginning, I assumed that by now I'd have a long list of all the things I wanted to buy when it was over -- but I don't. The shopping ban has forced me to stop and think about every purchase I consider making, and now I'm at the point where I can't justify most purchases. If you were to ask me right now what I would buy if I had an extra $50, $500 or $5,000, the answer would be nothing.

"Virtually every day of our lives, we're trained to lean towards something we don't have, which essentially trains us to be dissatisfied with where we already are." That's a quote that has always stuck out for me from You Are Here by my friend David Cain, and it could be relevant to many areas of our lives, but I often link it back to personal finance. We're programmed (mostly through advertising) to believe we need more more more, in order to have all our problems solved and be happy. For that reason, we consume consume consume and buy everything we could possibly need, and yet we're surprisingly always dissatisfied with what we have -- so the cycle for more continues.

Rather than asking what you would buy if you had extra money, maybe we should all be asking ourselves what's missing in our lives. My guess is, the answer isn't something you can buy at a store; think about that the next time you get a little extra money.

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