Publish date:

Do You Need a Better Mousetrap?

Taking these simple steps can save you from the burden of an impulse purchase.

In the 1970s, hi-fi stereo wasn't enough, so you went quadraphonic.

In the early 1980s, a simple VCR wasn't enough. You wanted portable and you wanted stereo, so you went and spent a thousand bucks.

In the early 1990s, you dropped $500 on a brick-sized cell phone. In the late '90s, you dropped another $800 on a first-generation PDA. Now you want to drop $500 on a new Apple iPhone.

I'm not going to say whether that's a good idea or not. That's for you to decide. But I do think -- and this one's from experience -- that you should call time out, take a deep breath, and think clearly about such technology acquisitions before you make them.

Truth is, we've all been burned before. We buy upgraded features on PCs but never need them. We fall for enhanced features in all our technologies: VCRs, camcorders, cell phones, PDAs, microwave ovens -- you name it. The features we buy sound good but never get put to use. For instance, how often did you use the meat probe that came with your first microwave?

In the wake of the Consumer Electronics Show, the semiannual Las Vegas gadget bash at which hundreds of tempting, feature-encrusted devices are paraded in front of us, I think we should reflect on when it does -- and when it doesn't - make sense to partake.

Click here for the video version of this story from Jennifer Openshaw.

Here are my five signs of new gadget overkill:

1) You didn't use what you bought last time. What was that advanced red-eye-image-stabilization dual-light-modulating close-up control, anyway? Did you ever use it? Did you understand it? If by the time you learn how to use a feature it's been replaced by something else, that's trouble.

2) You can't explain how it's better. You know your new gadget is better. But you can't explain why in short, sensible phrases, that, say, your mother-in-law would understand, without lobbing buzzwords or acronyms like "HDMI" or alphanumeric complexes like "1080p." If your answer to "Why is 1080p better?" is "Because it's 1080p," think again.

TheStreet Recommends

3) You can't pay it off in a month. This may seem obvious, but a gadget, especially a handheld one, shouldn't gobble up your spending money. Especially if you're going to be tempted to buy the next version before you've paid for this one.

4) The gadget consumes more time than it saves. Some products require big allotments of your scarce time and energy to read, learn, enter, set, fix and reset. Then you have to do it all again when it breaks or gets lost. When the manual is so big it comes on a CD or requires downloading, watch out. Don't let the promise of convenience turn into a beast of burden.

5) The gadget will cost half as much next year. Technology curves are an old story. But to refresh, you can save a bundle by simply waiting or by buying one stop short of the latest and greatest. Buy the 1080i instead of the 1080pTV and you'll save about a third. And you won't notice the difference -- programming taking advantage of the enhanced resolution remains scarce.

I'm not saying that buying gadgets is a bad idea, but I always say buy what you need. If you're not sure what you need, tap the knowledge and experience of friends in your LifeNet network (see

my book

) before pushing the "buy" button.

You'll save a lot of cash in the long run.

Jennifer Openshaw, a passionate advocate for helping Americans improve their finances and build their personal fortunes, is CEO of

The Millionaire Zone and America Online's personal finance editor. In addition to appearing regularly on TV shows such as "Oprah" and "Good Morning America" and on CNN, Openshaw is host of ABC Radio's "Winning Advice" and serves as an adviser to some of America's top corporations. Her new book,

"The Millionaire Zone," will hit bookstores in April 2007.