The 2-week “Do I Really Need an iPad” Test

Warning sign: "Caution: contains math. Mature Readers only."

Relax, just use the calculator on your phone.

I frequently have a conversation with buyers and renters about looking for a place that works with their life right now, as opposed to the life they want to live. Many people think that buying a new home (or car, or frying pan, or self-help book) will be the magic turning point that changes their life for the better. Sometimes the change they want is very specific, although regular readers will know my thoughts on why using a major purchase to solve a short-term problem can be a bad idea. Unfortunately, psychological studies show us that it takes us several months at the least to form or break new habits, unless those habits involve addictive substances. So, it's generally far more practical to expect change to occur slowly and only through deliberate focus on the element of your life that needs to change.

Meanwhile, iPads are really shiny and very expensive, and people will come up with all kinds of excuses to justify buying them, most of them involving something along the lines of "it will make me more productive." Some type-A people will definitely hold true to those self-made promises. Most of us will wind up with a very expensive toy that we use for playing "Words with Friends" and mucking about with Instagram. If you're trying to save for a down payment or just barely making your monthly mortgage, you cannot afford to be wasting money on toys, especially if you're already pretty close to your peak of productivity as things are now.

Studies show that new technologies must penetrate at least half of the population before they make us noticeably more efficient. (Source: [1])

In my other life as a tech support consultant, I explain gadgets like tablets and smartphones to my clients as pseudo-computers. They cannot run all software. They often cannot run more than one piece of software simultaneously. In most cases, you cannot expand the storage capacity, install your own programs that you made yourself, or even take them to a new wireless provider without a major amount of hassle. That being said, for a small subset of the population they can be very useful. If you think you're in that subset who should purchase an iPad, here's a 2-week test to see if you might be right.

  1. Carry a notepad and pen with you for the next 2 weeks. (Or you can use Evernote on your phone, if that's more your style.) All that matters is that you have some means of writing stuff down with you everywhere you go.
  2. Set up your notes with the following columns: Date, Task, Time Saved.
  3. Every time you have a moment when you think "if I had an iPad, I would be able to do this task much faster/better" jot it down in your notepad. The purpose of the first two columns is self-explanatory. For the third column, estimate the amount of time (in minutes) you really think you would save by having the tablet to help you.
  4. Continue doing this for the next two weeks. At the end, sit down and do some calculations.
  5. First we want to be sure we're being realistic. Go to the iTunes app store and make sure there really is an app for each task that you wanted to do. Jot down their costs while you're at it.
  6. Calculate cost per use.
    • The new iPad released this month costs between $500 and $850 plus $20-80 per month for 4G LTE service. So let's split the difference and say you purchased an average iPad ($675) and average service ($50/mo) - you will spend $1275 on that iPad this year.
    • Add up the cost of the apps you'd have to purchase, and add that to your $1275. We will call this our First Year Cost.
    • Count up the number of entries that you made in your notebook. Subtract any entries that you can't actually do on an Ipad, based on your results from step 5.
    • Multiply the number of real entries by 24 to get a reasonable idea of how many times you might use the tablet over the course of the year. We will call this our Usage Per Year.
    • Divide your First Year Cost by your Usage Per Year. Your result is how much it will cost you every time you use the tablet - the Cost Per Use. In my case, I came up with 10 uses over the course of 2 weeks, which came out to $3.10 per use.
    Here are some other things I could buy for less than $3.10 in Chicago: Pack of chicken breasts, box of cereal, gallon of spring water, 2 rolls of TP, a ride on the El, or half a gallon of gas.
  7. Figure out actual time saved.
    • Count up the total minutes in the "time saved" column. Multiply by 24 to get the Gross Minutes Saved per year.
    • Next, we're going to deduct a bit of time from the Gross Minutes Saved for the time that you will waste in learning how to use the new technology and all of those apps. Subtract 30 minutes for every app, and about 360 minutes (6 hours) for learning how to use the tablet itself.
    • We should give some thought to how many games you're thinking about loading onto the tablet. Deduct 360 minutes from your total for each game, plus an extra 720 minutes (12 hours) for "Angry Birds." We will call the resulting number our Net Minutes Saved per year.
    • If your result is less than zero at this point, just move on to step 9. You will actually lose productivity time with this purchase.
    • If your Net Minutes Saved is still above zero, then divide it by 3500. Your result will be the approximate Percentage of Time Saved out of your waking hours in the course of a year.
    In my case, I'd save about 15 minutes every two weeks when all is said and done. This comes out to saving 0.1% of my year due to having an iPad. To me, this was not worth spending an amount equal to my entire monthly mortgage payment plus property tax escrow.
  8. Now we're going to calculate the wages we'd be paying our tablet for saving us all this time.
    • If your Net Minutes Saved from step 7 was positive, divide it by 60 to get the Net Hours it will spend working for you over the course of the year.
    • Divide your First Year Cost from step 6 by your Net Hours. Your result will be the hourly wage that you would be paying your tablet to work for you if it were your employee. In my case this came out to $212.50. The only people I know who are making that kind of an hourly rate are CEOs and attorneys.
  9. Now we're going to figure out if there's any other alternative to buying a new iPad.
    • Take a look at the tasks on your list and group them together by type. Now try and find some other, less expensive types of technology that will accomplish those types of tasks.
    • If you have a lot of groups, maybe a netbook or a cheaper Android-based tablet could work for you instead of an iPad.
    • If you have very few groups, maybe you could handle it by adding a couple of apps to your cell phone.
    • If you've come to like having a little notepad with you all the time, maybe you could go hipster-chic and just use the notepad.
  10. Let's wrap this up. If at the end of all of these steps you've got a result with very low cost per use (less than 50 cents), a decent amount of time saved (at least 5-10%), and a reasonable hourly wage, plus no other cheaper alternatives, then yes, by all means go out and purchase an iPad. If you only want an iPad for games and entertainment, only buy it if it's still worth it to you now that you know the cost per use. Otherwise, keep those numbers handy and look at them every time you pass by an Apple store. They will help you to remain in the right frame of mind and stay true to your longer-term goals of saving money for more important and useful things.

Be sure to share your results in the comments! I'll be interested to see if this is as effective for you guys as it has been for me and my friends. (Oh, and by the way, it also works for weighing other major purchases, too!)

"Contains Math" sign adapted by me from multiple sources.

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