Dear New Frugal You, 

We're trying to reduce spending this year, so I'm looking for some tools that will work for my whole family. I'd like to take the emotion out of it and find a way to ask a series of questions before a purchase. The answers would tell us whether we're allowed to buy the item or not. Is there such a system? Or could one be developed? 

- Emily the Emotional Buyer

Dear Emily,

You've put your finger on why many people have problems with spending. It's much too easy to make decisions based on emotions and feelings. It's much harder to look at potential purchases purely on a factual basis.

You don't need to watch TV's "Mad Men" to know that advertisers often play with your emotions to create demand for a product. It must be working or companies wouldn't be buying 15 minutes of advertising on every hour-long TV show. So let's see if we can't build a system to beat all the professional marketers.

You've already taken the first step: recognizing what's happening. Most people jump from "I want it" to "How can I afford it?" When they do, they've already made a decision to buy without realizing it. Advertising-created feelings ruled. Score one for the professionals!

Creating your step-by-step decision tree for purchases is a little harder than recognizing the problem. It requires us to think about the mental process we go through before deciding to buy. Let's see if we can't break it down into different questions to ask before we hit the checkout counter.

Question 1:  "Why do I want this?" What would the purchase accomplish? You may be feeding your body with healthy foods. Or you may be feeding your ego with an overly expensive watch. Being honest with yourself is crucial here. If you struggle, you might want to ask a friend or loved one to check your answer.

Question 2: "Is this something I need or just want?" There's a big difference between needs and wants. This is the place to separate the two.

Question 3: "Is this something I've planned to buy?" Most impulse buys are based on emotions, not on hard facts, so if this is something you've suddenly fixated on, it's time to pause and reconsider.

Question 4: "Can I delay the purchase?" Just one day could give you a different perspective on things. You might think of other less expensive places to buy it or realize that you already have something similar. Most deals will survive a one-day delay.

Question 5: "What would happen if I didn't buy it?" Some items, such as food and housing, are necessary for our well-being. Other things are just nice to have. Most of us can't afford all the "nice to have" stuff.

Question 6: "Is there an alternative to buying it?" Often you can rent or borrow an item, especially things that you only use once or twice a year. Some neighbors share purchases such as snow blowers, pressure washers, carpet cleaners and extension ladders. If you're reluctant to ask a neighbor to borrow a tool, ask if you can rent it.

Question 7: "Must I purchase a new one?" Would a used model work just as well? A 2-year-old car, for instance, could cost only two-thirds of what a new one does.

Question 8: "Is there a cheaper model?" Most of us like the different options and features available on premium models. But maybe I don't need the smartest phone available. Often, lower level models offer significant savings.

Admittedly, that's a lot of questions to ask before you pull out your wallet. But, Emily, you're right. If you can get your family to think logically about purchases you'll probably find your expenses dropping each month.

See related: Dealing with a Spending Addiction