25 Things You Never Need to Buy
Easy ways to save money, be kinder to the environment, and be a smarter consumer all year long.
Illustration by Camilo Medina
Every day we’re bombarded by ads egging us on to buy stuff we really don’t need—from makeup to gadgets to gym memberships. The hidden message is always that your life will be immeasurably better once you get that shiny new thing. But the truth is that you probably don’t need more stuff, and the more you acquire, the more time you will spend with your stuff instead of enjoying a clutter-free life and time with friends.
Much of what we waste money on doesn’t even take up any space—from ATM fees to extra trip insurance for your next vacation. We also buy into false messages about things like when we need to throw food out or that the only way to get an effective workout is by paying a personal trainer week in and week out.
To help you separate out what is truly useful to spend money on from what’s not, we’ve compiled a list of 25 things you never need to buy. While some items are ecologically harmful or simply a waste of money, others are things you can get for free with a little creativity. From avoiding baggage fees when you fly to slashing your bill at the grocery store, these tips will save you thousands of dollars each year.
1. Tropical fish caught in the wild
Those adorable brightly-colored fish you see in the pet store are often procured using the deadly poison cyanide, which makes them easier to capture. In addition to being a cruel practice, the fish arrive at the pet store sick and weak, often dying quickly after you buy them. So instead of buying just based on looks, check the Tank Watch app, which helps you discern fish bred in captivity ("good fish") from wild fish captured using cyanide ("bad fish"). “Fish that are raised to be pets will likely be healthier and live longer, and their purchase supports sustainable practices," according to the American Veterinary Medical Association
2. “Certified” used cars
Vehicle owners pay $850 to $3,000 more for a certified pre-owned car (CPO), which typically means it’s sold by a dealer, comes with an extended warranty, and has a detailed repair history. “If you are looking at a notoriously reliable vehicle like a two year [old] Toyota, there’s no need to buy the CPO,” said Brian Moody, executive editor for Autotrader. Instead base your purchases on price and reliability ratings—and always get a full inspection by an independent mechanic before you buy. The use any needed repairs they spot to negotiate the price.
3. Annual gym memberships
Most people with gym memberships don’t actually go to the gym. You can save an estimated $720 a year and with a smarter strategy to stay fit. Cheaper options include stringing together free gym trials, finding free classes in your area through Meetup or online searches, or even using free exercise videos on YouTube. Not sure where to start? "I started by just walking,” says says Erika Nicole Kendall, a certified personal trainer and nutritionist, who lost 160 pounds though a combination of diet and exercise.
4. Travel insurance
Many credit cards come with free trip protection, so dropping up to 10 percent of the trip price on insurance is a total waste of cash. “Travel insurance will often include many different protections: trip cancellation coverage when you must cancel a trip before departure for a covered reason, trip delay protection if a flight is delayed by a certain number of hours, baggage coverage if your luggage is delayed, lost or damaged; and so on,” says Nick Ewen, editor-at-large at The Points Guy. If you’re not sure what coverage your card offers, call and ask, then make sure to pay for your trip with that card.
5. Store-bought cleaning products
Make homemade cleaning products for a buck instead of spending $5 or more on brand-name products. You can save $4 on DIY Drano (by pouring some baking soda down the drain, followed by vinegar and hot water), a few bucks on multi-purpose cleaner by mixing up some baking soda, vinegar, and water in a spray bottle), and even more money by washing delicate clothing with dish soap and water instead of paying to have it dry cleaned. Because you know exactly which chemicals you are using, you can better assess the health risks too.
6. Online shipping fees
Shopping in your pajamas can get expensive when you factor in the cost of online shipping fees, which can double the price of your purchase. Save money when you shop online by shopping at retailers that offer free online shipping like Billabong, Crate and Barrel, Smashbox , Tory Burch and many more. And remember, Amazon Prime does not offer free shipping: You pay the $119 annual membership fee plus the additional, hidden cost that comes from not comparing prices at other retailers since you get “free shipping” from Amazon.
7. Fancy bottled water
Americans spent $18.5 billion on bottled water in 2017. While some people need to drink bottled water due to contamination, most Americans can get clean drinking water right from the tap. Instead of spending hundreds of dollars a year on Core Hydrogen electrolyte water or Essentia ionized alkaline water, install a simple carbon filter to make tap water taste better. “The industry is all about marketing and people are being suckered into thinking there are actual health benefits,” said Josh Bloom, senior director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at the American Council on Science and Health.
8. Designer makeup
Americans spent $8.1 billion on pricey makeup in 2017 alone, according to NPD Group , but drugstore brands can be just as good or better than high-end cosmetics. “Plenty of drugstore makeup can achieve a similar look as expensive products,” makeup artist Cynthia Paredes says. For example, a single tube of Fenty lip gloss by Rihanna sells for $18 versus just $8 for one by drugstore brand NYX in nearly identical hues.
9. Designer dogs
Not only will you pay more for a purebred or designer dog from a breeder, the vet bills to cover health issues add up too. “I have new patients who paid $3,000 to $5,000 for a purebred puppy who are in shock when they discover they’ll need to spend far more to cover the multiple medical costs throughout the dog’s life,” said Dr. E’Lise Christensen, a veterinary behaviorist in New York City. Instead, consider adopting from a shelter or a rescue for $100 or less.
10. Fancy credit cards with big annual fees
Those extra-heavy cards from American Express and Chase look impressive when you whip them out, but they’re only worth if you spend enough to cover the annual fees of up to $550 a year. Instead, look for rewards with plenty of perks and no annual fee. Cards worth looking into include American Express Blue Cash Everyday, Capital One VentureOne, Citi Double Cash, and Discover It Cash Back. Rewards include cash back, travel miles and late payment forgiveness.
11. Summertime FOMO
Summertime fun splashed all over social media can drive anyone to blow $140 on a big-ass pool flamingo that will probably pop a week later. Instead of overspending on a blow-out vacation, get some real relaxation by only spending what you can afford--whether that means a low-key camping trip or a staycation where your only big expenses are eating out at your favorite restaurants, driving to the beach or treating a friend to a pedicure.
12. Rental car insurance
Instead of paying an additional $30 or more a day for rental car insurance, first check with your credit card company to find out what coverage they offer. Most include a loss-damage or collision damage waiver, which means you don’t have to pay if something happens to the car. "If you decline the rental company's supplemental insurance, and charge the rental cost on your credit card, you're automatically covered by the credit card rental car insurance policy,” said Jill Gonzalez, a WalletHub analyst. The waiver does not cover the cost of damage to someone else's car, however.
13. Buying food in bulk
Considering most Americans toss a pound of food a day, buying food in bulk is not only wasteful but also expensive. And if you think you’ll just eat the entire thirty-pack of Oreos before they go bad, consider the fact that the average bulk food shopper eats 3,000 more calories for storable foods and 450 more calories for perishables each month, “Try to avoid buying perishable items or items you just don’t need in bulk, because this can also be a financial drain,” said Jamie Hopkins, associate professor of taxation at the American College of Financial Services.
14. ATM fees
A single ATM transaction at an out-of-network ATM can cost $5 on top of the funds you withdraw. That explains why the three biggest US banks pocketed $6.4 billion just in ATM and overdraft fees in 2016. Avoid unnecessary bank fees by withdrawing cash at your own bank, getting cash back when you shop at the register or taking out extra funds in advance so you don’t have to run to the ATM every time you meet up with friends for a beer.
15. Hidden investment fees
Fees on mutual funds and electronically-traded funds (ETF) can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars lost to fees over a lifetime. You may think these investment fees are unavoidable, but they’re not. “If you are going to be in a passive index fund you shouldn’t pay a lot for it and every dollar you save in fees goes down to the bottom line,” said certified financial planner Jill Schlesinger. Instead look for funds with low or even no fees, including fee-free index funds from Fidelity and commission-free funds from Vanguard, Schwab, and TD Ameritrade. As a rule of thumb, ETFs have lower fees than mutual funds, and you should never pay more than one percent in annual fees on any investment.
16. Misleading food expiration dates
Food expiration dates often prompt consumers to toss food that is still good to eat. Indeed, consumers throw away about half of the $218 billion worth of food purchased each year in the US, which shakes out to about $375 per person. “Most consumers think you shouldn’t eat food past the expiration date,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union. “But that’s not true because the best by dates just address food taste or quality, not safety.” For instance, cereal is safe to eat indefinitely and canned food is good for up to five years.
17. Fancy body scrubs
Luxurious body scrubs can cost as much as $100 for a small container, but you can actually make delicious scrubs at home. Most scrubs can be created for as little as $2 using ingredients like brown sugar, salt, and honey. For example, an brown sugar scrub costs about $3 to make at home versus $67 for a store-bought version.
18. Storage units
Instead of hanging onto crap from college and stuffing it into a storage unit, save $91 a month, which is the average rent for a storage unit. Take that money and invest it instead and you could end up with $25,000 in 15 years, assuming a six percent annual earnings rate. Purge your stuff by selling it online, having a garage sale, or donating it to charity. “We’ll accept almost anything with few exceptions such as hazardous material, weapons, recalled items,” said Kyle Stewart, senior director of donated goods retail from Goodwill.
19. Personal trainers
You can pay anywhere from $60 to $160 per session for a personal trainer at a major fitness chain. Instead, work out at home using one of many online video options like Fitness Blender. If you need help on your form, take just one training session or watch videos that focus specifically on that before building up to a longer class, to reduce the chance of injuries. Get a used fitness tracker off eBay for $50 or less. If being around others helps motivate you, look for free group classes in your area.
20. Pre-chopped fruit and vegetables
You’ll spend up to eight times as much money for pre-chopped fruits and vegetables instead of buying them whole. When we shopped at Walmart.com, for example, chopped red onion was $4 a pound versus whole ones for 49 cents a pound. If cutting your own vegetables and fruit sounds exhausting, make the process easier by keeping your knives sharp or even investing in a vegetable dicer. (For more ideas on handy kitchenware, check out this guide from Munchies. )
21. Checked baggage fees
Many airlines charge about $30 per flight for a single checked bag, with Southwest being the most notable exception. Avoid those ludicrous checked bag fees by maxxing out your free carry-on bags and avoiding overpacking in the first place. The key is to be brutally realistic about your fashion needs. “If you don’t wear it at home, you’re probably not going to wear it on vacation either,” says travel writer Melissa Locker. If you want your bag checked for free, just overstuff a carry on to the point of bulging and the gate agents may very well insist you check it at no cost.
22. Flight cancelation fees
Canceling your flight can cost you as much as $200 depending upon your airline. You can get around paying a flight cancellation fee by cancelling within the first 24 hours, taking advantage of a flight delay or cancellation, or having a valid medical reason. Aside from the 24-hour rule, which is mandated by the Department of Transportation, there is no guarantee that you will get a full refund, but it’s always worth trying.
23. Fancy face masks
You could pay as much as $250 for a face mask to “brighten” your skin or get the same result for less than $3. A clay and apple cider vinegar mask costs just 14 cents per mask versus Charlotte Tilbury’s clay mask that’s closer to two dollars per mask, for instance. You can make most face masks using just a couple ingredients you may already have on hand like honey, oatmeal, yogurt, lemon, and apple cider vinegar.
24. Wrapping paper
As you wrap those holiday gifts, consider this: Americans spend about $3.2 billion annually on gift wrap. Which means you could be more eco-friendly (and save a boatload of cash) with some creative alternatives. Some ideas include using a paper bag, newspaper, or even an old map as wrapping paper, then adding a pretty bow or attaching a pine cone on top. You can also upcycle empty paper towel rolls, mayonnaise jars,or cookie tines into containers. If you prefer the look of fabric, use a pretty hand towel or extra piece of fabric for the most unique-looking gift under the tree.
25. Christmas trees
A real Christmas tree can cost about $75, while an artificial one goes for $107 on average. Whether you are trying to save money or are concerned about the environmental impacts of getting a tree, DIY options abound, from a tree made from a ladder, a garland (shown above), or even a string of lights. You could also stack a bunch of books to create a tree (add lights) or arrange a bunch of Post Its on the wall in the shape of a tree for a surprisingly impressive effect.
Follow Gina Ragusa on Twitter.