Checkbox Syndrome: Why We Spend Money On Things We Don’t Need

Checkbox Syndrome: Why We Spend Money On Things We Don’t Need

Ever been overwhelmed by the temptation to buy the latest shiny thing because it’s got another checkbox in the features column? We call this “checkbox syndrome”: jumping at a new gadget or product just because it’s an upgrade from the last one, not because it’s better. Before you fall for a list of tech specs designed to impress an audience at a big flashy announcement, stop and think about whether it’s really an upgrade for you.

Title image remixed from PSDGraphics and Gwoeii (Shutterstock).

What Is “Checkbox Syndrome?”

When I worked with the folks at PC Mag, we saw hundreds of gadgets, all of which sold themselves based on some specific way they would transform your life. PC Mag‘s Lead Analyst for Mobile Sascha Segan took specific issue with some of this — especially when it came to phones. He explained that smartphone makers had succumbed to “checkbox syndrome”, or the habit of putting a feature in a product because everyone else had it and it was easy to market, not because it was actually useful to anyone. Photo by Christian Van Der Henst S..

The worst part of checkbox syndrome is that it extends to us, the buyers. We make buying decisions based on these fantasy uses. We buy Android phones with powerful front-side cameras even though we never use them for video chat, or we buy a new Macbook Pro with Thunderbolt even though we have no plans to buy Thunderbolt peripherals. We buy new cameras because they’re marginal upgrades over the previous model, but hey — it’s new, so it must be better, right? Here’s how to think twice about that marketing hype, push through the fog of checkbox syndrome, and save some money when you consider your next upgrade.

Ask Yourself: Is My Current Gear Good Enough?

Apple’s latest iPad is a significant upgrade over the previous two models — the new retina display is beautiful, and the updated graphics processor really does make 3D gaming on it a joy. Most gadget blogs wholeheartedly suggest you upgrade, especially if you have an original iPad, or no iPad at all. Many of us at Lifehacker HQ pre-ordered the new iPad, and editor-in-chief Adam Pash planned to, but he waited a day or two. He explained to me that at the end of the day, he realised he had an original iPad that he rarely used, and while the graphics boost and gorgeous display were huge upgrades, the only thing he did use his iPad for was light Instapaper and Kindle reading. Was the new iPad a huge upgrade? Definitely. Were those feature worth the money to Adam — or even useful for him? Not at all.

Asking yourself whether your current gear serves your purpose, and whether an upgrade will actually improve the way you currently use your gear, is the first step towards seeing through the marketing fog. It may do awesome new things, but if those features don’t apply to you now, they probably won’t apply to you when you’ve parted with your money.

Make Your Own Checklist of Essential Features

Hands-on reviews and lists of specs are definitely useful, but they shouldn’t influence your buying decisions. We’re not saying gadget reviews aren’t helpful, but when you’re given a massive list of impressive new components and features, put them all down on a checklist of your own. Then note or circle those features that actually apply to you and the way you would use the item. Photo by Like_the_Grand_Canyon.

For example, if you’re shopping for a smartphone, every review you read will make note of essential features like the processor, screen size, on-board memory, storage, camera quality, size, weight and so on. Take those features and highlight the ones that matter to you. If you’re looking for a phone to make and take calls, grab your email and maybe do a little social networking, the processor probably isn’t important to you. If you’re a shutterbug, the camera probably is important, and you should highlight it. Take some time to distill those massive feature lists into the ones that matter to you — you may catch yourself about to pay a premium for a device that’s heavily promoted but just as good as a cheaper model where it matters to you.

Think About How You’ll Use The Upgrade

One way we often rationalise upgrading or buying new when we could get away with buying a refurb or a previous model is by looking at the marketing for the new version and convincing ourselves we’ll need that new feature someday. We already mentioned you should look at your current gear and determine whether you already own something that can pull double-duty, but over at The Simple Dollar, Trent puts it this way:

When a new product appears, we’re often shown an ideal case of how someone might use the product. It seems pretty impressive, but when you start digging into the details of it, things start to break down. Is it really doing anything you’d need to do? Is it really doing anything new?

…Once you start evaluating products like this, a lot of things start falling apart. Their new features really aren’t all that amazing or useful to you. Sure, you might be able to invent a rare situation where you would use it, but is it worth paying a lot more just for that special case?

In his example, he describes an iPod Touch he received as a gift. He was all set to start buying and downloading apps to use with his phone, but he came to the realisation that all he ever really did with the iPod Touch — even if the commercials showed happy people shooting video and playing games on theirs — was listen to music. He already had a smartphone for that, and he had enough space on his phone for music, so he put down his iPod Touch and reacquainted himself with his phone. In short, an upgrade isn’t an upgrade if you don’t need the feature in the first place, and it’s not worth your money, especially when there’s a cheaper or free alternative available.

Stop Obsessing Over Stats, Specs and Upgrades

Hopefully these tips will help you break free of checkbox syndrome and stop obsessing over spec lists that are irrelevant to the way you use your tech. Don’t get us wrong; it’s fun to watch technology evolve — new gadgets hitting the market every month that are more powerful than the last. But when it comes to your hard-earned money, you owe it to yourself and your wallet to take a more sceptical eye to those reviews and determine if they’re worth it for you. Photo by Alan_D.

How do you resist the siren song of a new gadget, whether it’s a new iDevice, Android phone or powerful new DSLR? Do you buy refurbs to save money, or do you hone in on the specs that matter to you before you buy? Share your money-saving techniques in the comments below.

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