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Expensive aspects can sneak past the “research” flip in your brain. Wherein I share my recent big money mistakes, how to avoid them, and the three best questions to ask when you don’t know where to start.
I’ve had an interesting (and expensive) learning experience I thought I’d share.
I would consider myself a fairly research-oriented person. If I’m buying a car, I want to read about what to look for. If I’m making an investment, I like to get my hands dirty in the data and financials. But there are some aspects in life we assume don’t require prep beforehand which actually do. Miraculously free of acronyms and technical lingo, we think “this isn’t rocket science.” Letting this instinct take over has expensive consequences.
My Most Recent Mistake
I’ve been spending the last two months furnishing our new home. Not rocket science, right?
Despite the fact that all this furniture and paint racks up to thousands of dollars, this didn’t trigger for me a need to research. After all, I thought, it’s all about personal taste. Sure, I spent time flipping through pictures and reading reviews of the items, but there was no prep beforehand. No macro “how to approach design” work.
100 hours and a couple thousands dollars later I am here to tell you that, uh… that would have been helpful.
I had a very simple decorating scheme in mind. Armed with an inspiration picture of a gray and beige rustic living room, I figured I’d just buy stuff that looked similar and be done in a flash. How could I go wrong with a bunch of neutrals? I bought items that were very similar. In isolation, each piece was great. Lovely, competitively priced, and good solid quality.
But when I put them all together, they looked all wrong.
How is that possible? I had picked all shades of gray so I wouldn’t have bizarre color clashes. Like the strange, absent-minded uncle at a family reunion, I’d somehow managed to put my elbow in the pudding despite my best efforts to be careful. I thought it would finally pull together once I had painted over the yellow walls with a lovely gray paint. That actually made it worse, and I descended into paint hell which involved 15 (yes, I counted) gray paint samples and five consecutive trips to Home Depot. Here’s an example of the paint saga that befell me (from a similar user’s Houzz post).
“Hey, this gray looks pretty. I put it on a poster board to sample and hung it on the wall. Yep, looks good.”
“Wtf? Where did this blue tint come from?? And what do I do with the three gallons I bought of this paint?”
Two shades of gray can both look good in the store and even on the same wall, but then look completely different when taking the furniture into account. Like this:
Source: Home Glow Design
Our paint experiment turned out to look a lot like the image on the left. There was something…off about it. The color seemed cold, and it didn’t go with the furniture even though it was supposed to be a neutral gray.
It turns out I only needed one basic piece of information to avoid design disaster.
What matters in getting a room to harmonize is to look at the undertone of each piece and select pieces that have similar undertones. Same for wall paint colors. They should be in the same undertone family as your furniture.
Each color has a mass tone – the tone you can immediately recognize and say ‘that’s a red’ or ‘that’s a blue – but it also has an undertone. That undertone can be either warm or cool. I needed to match my wall color to the undertones of my furniture to create a more harmonious feel, like the image on the right. But my issue is worse than this family’s. Not only had I bought paint that didn’t match all my furniture in undertone. I had bought furniture which didn’t even match amongst themselves. Although all neutral, some pieces had cool undertones and some had warm undertones. Oh, and all those pieces were expensive.
The Financial Damage
I now have about $2,500 in brand new, non-returnable pieces (couch, settee) which are neutrals with warm undertones, and $650 of equally new furniture (chairs, table) which have distinctly cool undertones, all sitting in the same room. There’s a chance I can smooth out the transition between all these undertones with accessories, but it’s unlikely. We will either have to live with a slightly weird looking room or toss hundreds out the door. Literally.
That’s only the first half of the equation.
I thought we did everything right with the paint. We bought color samples. We painted them on the wall in a square. Seemed pretty good. We pulled the trigger on the decision. What looked like a true gray with our sample looked blue once it surrounded all the warm pieces in the room, which accentuated the opposite undertone found in the cool paint. Instead of a gray living room, we had a sickly powder blue colored room.
We had actually planned to hire someone to paint since I’m pregnant. The average quote was $850 for the room. Can you imagine the pain of walking in after the job was finished and realizing you’d have to redo all of it, with all that money down the drain? What we actually spent in paint supplies and samples was about $150. My husband’s labor was probably another $200-$300 for four to six hours of work which we now have to scrap. Still bad, but at least it wasn’t $850.
All told, that one piece of information about undertones would probably have saved us $1000 – $1,550 if we had ended up hiring painters – between both the furniture and paint purchases we will have to rectify.
Could This Have Been Avoided?
At first I chalked this up as just the cost of being a total newbie at something. After all, how was I supposed to know to research the idea of undertones? But on a whim, I googled a basic phrase, “how to choose a paint color.” And sure enough, within the first five results there was a mention of this key fact. If I had skimmed the top 10 articles I would have reached a more comprehensive discussion.
Those articles were super light and fluffy, and probably would have taken me less than 20-25 minutes to skim them. 20-25 minutes for a savings of $1000 plus probably 50 wasted hours of shopping with the wrong criteria would be totally worth it.
The experience made me realize that being a newbie is not a good excuse for making expensive mistakes. Yes, there will probably be things you truly can’t avoid due to your inexperience, but there are a few techniques you can put in your back pocket that will probably cut those circumstances in half.
So how does one rectify the problem of “I don’t know what I don’t know”?
Three Questions To Ask When You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
1) How To Choose ( )
As I mentioned above, “How to Choose a Paint Color” would have helped us avoid our mistake. We are all used to looking up something mechanical like “How to Install An Air Conditioner”, but decision “how-to’s” can be immensely helpful.
2) Biggest ( ) Mistakes / Biggest Mistakes When ( )
Running something like “biggest paint color mistakes” or “biggest mistakes when choosing a paint color”
3) Problem ( )
You will notice with the first two search queries that you will get lots of fluffy, bullet articles that really skim the surface. If you use this third, you will likely get more substantive blog posts and articles. That’s because a lot of the content farms have cottoned onto the earlier two phrases as high volume search strings.
“Problem choosing paint” yielded me the best results of all three of these strings. The third hit was incredibly substantive and – you guessed it – had a detailed treatment of the exact problem that has cost us at least a thousand dollars. Try using a couple of slightly modified strigns. “Problem choosing paint”, “problem choosing a gray paint”, and “problem choosing a paint color” all yield different top search results.
I hope to be more consistent about researching any purchase that costs more than $500. Electronics and other items with specs are easy to remember to research, but there are plenty of “not rocket science” purchases that slip under the radar.
For example, instead of researching specific activities for a trip to Japan, you can change your macro view to “how to build a vacation plan” or “how to build a food-focused vacation” rather than just jumping in and stacking reservations (I learned this one the hard way, too, by putting three Michelin-star restaurant visits in the same week of a trip…you get tired of 3-hour tastings so close together but you still pay the same bill whether you enjoyed it a lot or a little).
As another example, rather than jumping onto your favorite price comparison site for your next purchase, you might take a minute or two to brush up on the macro topic of best practices in comparison shopping and see if there are new sites or ideas you’re missing. We get into autopilot very quickly, and we don’t get out of it without a deliberate effort.
There’s always so much to learn, and it will reap immediate results to our financial and personal well-being when we do. And as for my “situation,” I’ve decided there’s nothing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s can’t fix. Or maybe two. It’s been a hard week.
Any recent mistakes that could have been avoided with a little more research? Do you have favorite methods to figure out what to do when “you don’t know what you don’t know”?