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When a Bargain Is Not a Bargain



One of the reasons we got into and stayed in debt so long was because of “bargains.” Jim and I were almost always shopping, meaning that if we saw something that seemed like a good deal, we bought it. It didn’t matter if we needed it or if we had cash on hand to pay for it. That’s what credit cards were for. I bet 95% of the stuff we bought back in the day was on sale, sometimes at a great discount, but if you don’t need it and can’t afford it, a bargain is not a bargain.

I’ve had two experiences over the past few weeks that have really tested my money resolve. I think bargains can approach from many directions, often when you aren’t looking. Sometimes the presentation can seem like such a good thing that all your frugal and money smart tendencies just don’t have time to register.

But It’s My Family

When a so called bargain comes from your family or friends, it’s an even greater temptation. If someone you know and love has it and loves it, it can’t be all bad, right?

I love my sister. She would never try to steer me wrong. Β I was really surprised when she asked us to join a buying group that sounded remarkably similar to a pyramid scheme. This is not something my sister would normally promote, but she was so astounded by the amazing discounts she has been getting. My sister and her husband are building a house and are buying all kinds of furniture and house decorations. Her quote to me was “We got a $2900 rug for $400!” Crap that’s a bargain!

Well, it might be, but my sister and I have very different goals and values in life. She has no interest in travel, investment property, owning a business, or retiring early. At the moment, she values making her house look a certain way, and designer furniture and decor is part of the package. More power to her. Girl knows what she wants and is smart enough not go to into debt to get it.

While getting a $2900 rug for $400 is certainly a savings, I had to remind myself that most of my rugs came from Target or TJ Maxx. My bath rugs are from a yard sale. My most expensive area rug cost $40. Getting a rug for $400 would not be a bargain to me, no matter what it’s retail price was. I had to say thanks but no thanks to joining the bargain club. Sorry sis.

We Almost Got a “New” Car

My parents have always worked hard. They have no debt, a good retirement savings, long term care insurance, and don’t want for a whole lot. They don’t like to travel. They don’t really have hobbies. What they do like to do is get a new car about every 4 years. They always trade in the old one and pay the balance in cash.

Their taste in cars has expanded over the years. Their last two have been Cadillacs, not your granny’s type of Caddy, but the really nice, sporty ones. Right now, they have the SRX Crossover. It is a sweet ride with climate controlled seats and a heated steering wheel, XM radio, automatic seat controls that remember how you like your seat adjusted, and one of those little screens that rises out of the dash to help you back up without hitting anything.

When they got their current car, I made sort of a half joke that I’d buy it for the trade in value when they were ready to get a new one. I kind of forgot about that remark until last week when I found out they were about to trade the Caddy because it had almost 60,000 miles on the odometer. Did I still want it?

That was a tough one. The trade in was about $15,000. These vehicles retail at around $40k. Knowing it has probably never been driven over the speed limit and has been immaculately cared for made the decision even harder. This would be a huge bargain for a luxury car!

In reality, our car is running just fine. At 122,000 miles, we had planned on keeping Β it until at least 200K. While it would be nice to have a new to us Caddy, it just isn’t the right time. Plus, I have no idea how much maintenance would be for a fancy car with all those gadgets. It is cool to be able to back up without looking out the back window and my hands could get used to a heated steering wheel, but do I really need that?

What To Do When A Bargain Comes Along?

It’s hard to know when to jump on a bargain and when to let one pass. I think if you always ask these three questions, you can’t go wrong.

1) Is this something I need or will it add value to my life?

2)Do I need it right now or in the near future?

3)Is this the best possible price?

If you can’t answer yes to all three of those questions, it probably means the bargain is not really a bargain. The Eyes on the Dollar household will not be driving a Caddy anytime soon, but maybe we’ll jump when my parents want to trade on the next cycle!

What bargains have you passed on? Was that smart or did you regret it?

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. Right after the 2007 housing crash, my mother for the longest time tried to convince me to buy a house.

    “Now it’s the time to buy!” “Interest rates are at record lows!”

    She sounded like a commercial.

    And I knew in part she was right. Real estate was SO CHEAP right after the crash, but I was just going into college and the little savings I had needed to go to my immediate needs.

    “Just do a 5% down and pay off the PMI after you graduate!” she said.

    But I knew it just wasn’t the right time for me to do so and, really, my life situation made it really easy not to succumb to that sort of peer pressure.

    • That was very smart. I think lots of people jumped at that time and regretted it later. Generally real estate is a good thing to invest in, but not if you aren’t 100% ready.

  2. This is a really important distinction to make–do I NEED it vs. it’s a good deal. I’ve definitely fallen victim to this in the past (but, it’s only $10 πŸ™‚ ) and have tried to break the habit! It’s such a fallacy that just because something is on sale, or a great bargain, you should buy it. No! I completely agree with you–it’s only a good deal if it’s something you truly need.

    • I used to have way too many strange colored shirts or oddly styled sweaters in my closet that exactly proved that point. Getting a name brand on clearance is not a reason to buy it!

  3. It’s so hard to discern sometimes whether an item is a need or just a good deal. I couponed a lot when I first got hooked on it, but I was actually spending more than I would normally, just buying 10 of an item rather than one. it didn’t help our overall budget. I have to remember that it’s not a race to save the most, but to spend the least πŸ™‚

    • I have been tempted to buy things just because I have a coupon. Now I load up my cart and then look through the coupons to see if I have one for anything already in the basket.

  4. I only get excited about bargains if it’s something I’ve been waiting a long time for. I figure if I haven’t, then I don’t really need or want it. I’m totally with you lady on the $400 rug! Although I was disappointed recently when I bought a rug at home goods, and the red dye from the rug was literally seeping into the air and on all the surfaces of my kitchen. That can’t be healthy, so I got rid of it. It was probably $20, but that’s $20 down the drain. πŸ™

  5. I’m impressed with your resolve on the car. I know that would’ve been a hard one for me, but really good point about the upkeep of a fancy-pants car.

    • My big question was if something computerized goes out, does the whole car shut down? Also, I could see the auto seat adjust thing go haywire and smack me up against the dash!

  6. I have fallen into the trap of thinking bargains are bargains when they are not. Now I stop and ask my self if it’s either life or death or part of my money plan for the year. If it doesn’t fall into either category than I stop myself. If you don’t need it then it is not 20% cheaper, it’s 80% expensive.

  7. I think the car would have been a tough one for me. Like you said, great price and you know how well you parents maintained their vehicle, which is always the biggest risk when you buy used. At the same time, it sounds like you made the right choice for your priorities. And I do agree – that a bargain, no matter how great of discount or steal it is, is not much of bargain if you don’t really need it. All it does is rob money for your more important priorities. Have a great weekend!

    • Long term goals are really much more important to me at this point. I’d probably regret even spending $15K for a car we really don’t need at the moment.

  8. This happens whenever I decide to brave the mall to buy an item I had planned for. Often they’ll have a discount on a second purchase or something in that line of marketing and for a second I may be tempted. But as you wrote, stop and question yourself and the purchase. So I won’t buy the second item even if the sales rep thinks I’m an idiot for not taking the deal. The Caddies are looking nice these days I must say but good on you for realizing that you just don’t need to have one at the moment.

    • When my parents first bought a Cadillac, I was thinking it would be one of those cars that look like a boat, but I was blown away by how cool it was. I still don’t need it though.

  9. I love the questions – I always try and ask myself those before I buy anything. I agree that the car would have been difficult to pass over, but I’m sure the maintenance is a pretty penny! While my grandma is pretty frugal in her own right, she can’t resist a bargain, and it kills me! If she thinks something is a good price, she’ll usually get it without consideration. I think she is finally realizing how much of a waste it is as she was cleaning out her attic the other day, saying it was filled with a bunch of stuff she doesn’t need.

    • We certainly realized that when we decided to get out of debt and sell a lot of the stuff we bought on sale. When you are selling a $300 item for $10 or $20, it really is painful and I wish we’d just kept our money in the first place.

  10. Ouch. I’m sure the $400 rug is nice, but there are so many things I’d rather spend my money on! Reminds me of when the Property Brothers on HGTV convinced a couple to buy a $1,000 lamp. The couple was like “ummm I seriously think that money could work better elsewhere…”

    • Right! My mindset now is how much will that $400 rug set me back from meeting my retirement, savings, and travel goals. After I look at that, Target rugs seem pretty darn nice.

  11. Kim, it is SO easy to fall into debt by taking “advantage” of those bargains. We used to do it all the time, and I still find myself fighting temptation once in a while when a good Groupon comes along. I usually manage to say “no” now, though. πŸ™‚

    • Bargains can get you in debt just as much as anything else. I think you buy more sale items and don’t think about it as much. Paying full price makes you stop and think. Sales are certainly tricky.

  12. A few years ago a family friend went through some financial trouble and had to put her house on short-sale to avoid foreclosure. She told me she would sell it to me for a pretty good deal, which was a bargain for the house in question. Even though I could technically afford the house, I was still in debt and didn’t have that much savings.

    I’m now glad that I didn’t get the house because it was too much house for me and not the house that I wanted. It was a good deal, but I would have been struggling to pay it off.

    • I can see how that would be tempting. Good for your for having the foresight to know it wasn’t the house for you, even if it was a good deal.

  13. I was like in that mindset before. I used to ask my mom buy everything I wanted. Then, one day she shared that she was in great debt because of impulsive buying. After that, now that I am grown up and have my own credit cards. I use it frugally and can think for my own good. That’s what I’ve learned from my mom.

  14. Add this to your list of questions:

    “Would I have bought it anyway?”

    My very wise and financially savvy mom always tells me that it isn’t a good sale if you weren’t going to buy it anyway…..

  15. I bought my latest Jeep from my brother because I got it at a bargain. I didn’t need it, but I had wanted another one after I sold my last one. I know my brother took care of it as he is an awesome mechanic and did all of the extra work on it himself. I would trust him with every car. Plus, he only trailer-ed the Jeep around and rarely ever drove it on the road. He put 73 miles on it in one year. Was it a bargain, to me yes, but maybe not to others.

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