The 10 Best Things I Ever Bought

The other day my son Matthew was extolling the virtues of the laptop computer that he recently bought with his own money. “This is the best thing I ever bought, Dad!”

Of course, after hearing that, the first thought that came to mind was: Well of course it is, son — you’re only 14-years-old! But instead, I just nodded my head and smiled.

The truth is, if I took a moment to count up all the things Matthew has bought with his very own money during the relatively short amount of time he’s been around, his laptop really doesn’t have a lot of competition. Let’s see: there’s a used skateboard or two, some video games, lots of pop rocks, and a handful of other baubles. Oh yes — how could I forget? — there’s also the remote controlled mini-helicopter that, soon after he bought it, disintegrated in a violent confrontation with the living room wall, rotor blades whirring at near-hypersonic speed. But that’s about it.

Anyway, that got me thinking about the best thing I’ve ever bought during my lifetime. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was impossible to settle on just one thing — so I put together a top ten list instead. Here it is, in no particular order. How does it compare to your list?

1. Our current house

Purchase Date: 1997
Purchase Price: $198,000
Why it’s in my top ten: Our home is situated on a small and extremely quiet cul de sac in a relatively rural area, far away from the usual noises you hear in most parts of Southern California. At barely 2000 square feet, our home is roomy yet still small enough to be cost efficient. By being patient, we have been able to slowly make numerous improvements and upgrades over the years, including remodeling the kitchen and our master bathroom.

2. Window shutters

Purchase Date: 2005
Purchase Price: $7211.68
Why it’s in my top ten: I love our window shutters! They not only give the house a refined look that blinds can’t match, they also help reduce the energy bill by keeping our home warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

3. Hewlett Packard 15C scientific calculator

Purchase Date: 1983
Purchase Price: $135
Why it’s in my top ten: Just as car aficionados get weak-kneed around classic automobiles, engineers like me who began plying their trade prior to 1990 appreciate old calculators. The 15C is a real class act; it’s programmable, and uses Reverse Polish Notation designed for making multiple complex calculations in rapid succession. Sadly, HP discontinued making these beauties in 1989 — another victim of the personal computer. Even so, when I’m at work I still like to take my 15C “out of the garage” for an occasional spin.

4. My dog, Major

Purchase Date: 2003
Purchase Price: $1500
Why it’s in my top ten: I’ve had a lot of dogs over the years, but none as terrific as our Rhodesian Ridegback, Major, who recently passed away, just a few months short of his 12th birthday. Major was an amazing pup with an absolutely perfect disposition. He was a fantastic family dog, not to mention one of my trusty taste test challenge panelists. Simply put, Major was the greatest dog I’ve ever owned — and I miss him terribly.

5. 1997 Honda Civic

Purchase Date: 1997
Purchase Price: $14,592.56
Why it’s in my top ten: I recently wrote a piece explaining why both dogs and old cars are worthy of being man’s best friend. With respect to old cars, an older properly maintained automobile saves its owner significant cash over time. I figure my trusty Civic has saved me roughly $50,000 in car payments since we paid off the loan over a decade ago.

6. 2001 Honda Odyssey

Purchase Date: 2001
Purchase Price: $26,400
Why it’s in my top ten: Aside from the cost benefits described above, over the past 11 years our Odyssey has been our family’s transportation workhorse. Powerful, reliable and well-designed — it’s the most comfortable minivan I’ve ever been in — the Odyssey has handled everything from countless local grocery store trips to multiple coast-to-coast summer road trips. Best of all, it still has less than 100,000 miles on it.

7. 1974 Fender Stratocaster guitar

Purchase Date: 1994
Purchase Price: $400
Why it’s in my top ten: I used to play in a rock and roll band in my younger days. I know. I bought this beautiful vintage guitar with a gorgeous sunburst finish from a work colleague who found it hiding in his mother’s basement after she passed away. He didn’t play and just wanted to get rid of it — so he sold it to me for $400. The guitar is still in excellent condition and has served me well over the years. It turns out it was a good investment too; depending on their condition, 1974 Stratocasters are now commanding thousands of dollars in the marketplace.

8. My college education

Purchase Date: 1983 – 1988
Purchase Price: $15,000 (approximate)
Why it’s in my top ten: Talk about getting a bargain! The listed purchase price includes the cost of my tuition … plus books, room and board for the entire five-plus years I spent earning my engineering degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo back in the 1980s. Today, the cost of a public college education in California is an astounding 17 times higher than it was in 1980, which begs the question: is a college degree still worth it?

9. A t-shirt and matching capris from Custer State Park

Purchase Date: 2008
Purchase Price: $56
Why it’s in my top ten: No they’re not mine. But, in retrospect, I was absurdly apoplectic when the Honeybee bought this simple cotton ensemble from the little gift shop at the historic State Game Lodge in beautiful Custer State Park, South Dakota. As if to prove a point, she faithfully wore that outfit at least one day each week until it finally gave up the ghost in 2012. That’s more than 210 times by my count — and only $0.27 per use.

10. My wife’s wedding ring

Purchase Date: 1995
Purchase Price: $4400
Why it’s in my top ten: Speaking of the Honeybee, I know I said these were in no particular order but, the truth is, asking my wife to marry me was the best decision I ever made in life, bar none. I’m just glad she said yes.


Coming next: The 10 worst things I ever bought.

Photo Credit: dvs

(This is an updated version of an article that was originally posted on August 22, 2011.)


  1. 1

    Cemlyn Jones says

    ooooh I thought you were going to make the biggest mistake of your life then by not including a reference to ‘honeybee’!!!!

    I’m a big believer in Ying and Yang. I am the sum of everything that has happened to me since I was born ( and if you really go nuts on the idea …..even before then) I have favorite buys and some I wish I had never been tempted to complete but they all got me where I am now and I am really happy where I am. I’d be a lot happier with a few more reddies (another slang for cash) but that is another topic altogether !!!

    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      Nah, I couldn’t possible forget the Honeybee, Cemlyn! :-)

      And I’m with you — aside from health issues that are beyond our control — I big believer that everyone’s station in life is the result of all the decisions that we make over time. I try to preach that to my kids as often as I can. Hopefully my words will stick with them before they start making more life-critical decisions in the future.

  2. 3

    Auntjenny7 says

    My favorite is a print of a beautiful watercolor painting that I bought at an art fair. My Hubs and I were newly married (23 years ago!) and couldn’t afford the original, so we bought a print of it. I have that print hanging on our wall, right by the front door. It colorful and gorgeous and still gives me joy every single time I look at it.

    How nice that you listed your wifes wedding ring! You are obviously a sweet and romatic guy Len Penzo :)

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      I know what you mean. We have a wall hanging that we bought at the Orange County fair about seven years ago that I absolutely love. It’s not a painting, but it is one of those metal works of art that I adore.

      As for your kind words, I’m really not as romantic as I probably should be, Aunt Jenny. But I do let the Honeybee know that I appreciate her as often as I can.

      • 7

        Mike says

        Even better you can download the 15c app from HP and your iPhone is now your 15c for about $10. This is the calculator that they issued us as plebes at West Point in 1985. We lived with those every day for the entire experience. I use it again now and love it. MG
        PS just found your blog and love it

        • 8

          Len Penzo says

          Glad you enjoy the blog, Mike!

          Somehow, I don’t think having the functions of my 15c on my phone would be quite the same.

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      I’ve heard of Chicago style pizza; what is St. Louis style? Does it use barbecue sauce instead of tomato sauce?

  3. 11


    The HP calculator is really dating you! I remember learning to use a slide rule in school! Where do all the slide rules go? One of my top ten would be my dream on the hill bought in 1976 for just under $100K in the Los Angeles area. I guess these date me, huh!

    • 12

      Len Penzo says

      Ooo. Slide rules are a bit before my time, but I remember being amazed watching the old engineers who did use them crank out complex calculations almost as fast as I could with a calculator.

  4. 13


    I certainly agree that my dog, Chey, is also one of my best decisions / investments. You really can’t measure the value of a pet…but it’s worth it.

      • 15

        Libby says

        We only “paid” $110 (to the Humane Society) for our Retriever mix named D.O.G. (pronounced dee-oh-gee) but he has quickly become our best purchase. He is 85 pounds of love and goofiness and we wouldn’t trade him for all the tea in China!

  5. 16

    Spedie says

    Len: I’ve been carrying around my HP32S RPN Scientific calculator now for over 20 years. It is always in my purse and gets much use. It looks as good as the day I bought it.

    They are wonderful is one of my top ten also.

  6. 18

    Donna says

    I was surprised to find that the first three things I thought of for my top ten were also on your list – a house, an old Honda car and a ’70’s Stratocaster! You sound like a very sensible person. I look forward to reading more of your writing.

  7. 20

    kayumochi says

    Been stressed about getting lost and being on time while driving all my life but my purchase of a Garmin GPS has done more for my peace and well-being than any pharmaceutical.

    • 21

      Len Penzo says

      Those are pretty handy, kayumochi! I have one that was given to me — so it doesn’t qualify for my list — but it is terrific!

    • 23

      Len Penzo says

      Ha! So it is. I see it will offer 100 times the processing speed and cost only $99 too — that’s roughly one-third the cost, after taking inflation into account! Thanks for the info, Matt.

  8. 24

    John says

    Love that HP-15C. I’ve had mine since 1987 and still use it almost every day! I think I’ve replaced the batteries once since then.

    • 25

      Len Penzo says

      I’ve only replaced the batteries once in mine as well, John. The first set lasted through about 17 or 18 years of very frequent use.

  9. 26

    Sam says

    OK, just read this article & I have a question for you – since you name your 97 Civic.
    How do you know when to stop fixing your reliable old car?

    I have an 02 Prism(Corolla core), bought it below market value when it was 6 months old with cash.
    It has a slipped ring from a blotched oil chnage 7yrs ago ~ has started burning a qt of oil a week and needs new struts due to poorly maintained roads & the increase in speed bumps around our town. The car has started to show rust spots & has back end body damage. It has always started – even at 10 below. It has been there while my family has gone through horrible times. It has been to two oceans & Canada. I’ve discovered I love it as much as my dog.
    How do you know when it’s time to let her go? I ran the math last night & that car has cost me $.80 a day without taxes/insurance figured in, it’d probably be about 1.30 with those.

    I start a new job very soon that requires interstate travel and my other half wants me to get something that looks better & that he feels is more reliable…

    My dog is on my list too but he was free. I’d pay double for a dog as good as him though… every cent I’ve spent in toys, feed & care has been worth it. He’s saved my life twice, cleans the kitchen floor well and is constantly by my side in a good way…

    • 27

      Len Penzo says

      Good question, Sam. I think I’ll finally get rid of my Civic if/when:

      1) the annual cost of maintaining the old girl approaches 50 percent (or thereabouts) of the cost to replace it with a newer used Civic in excellent condition.


      2) the maintenance issues become so frequent that the car becomes completely unreliable (or at least is in the shop so often that it becomes a real inconvenience).

      I suspect 2) won’t ever happen, since I keep the car well-maintained.

  10. 28

    J.D. says

    Nice list, but a number of non-fiscally sound purchases. By “best” it seems you mean the things you’ve bought that you have enjoyed in your life the most. For me, a best purchase is one you enjoy having in your life that is a great value, items 7-9 qualify.

    Buying a new car? Twice? It is you got your money out of it by now, but if you’d bought a car 3-6 years old of the same make with low mileage, or even a year old, you could have saved a lot of money. I bought a 2001 Chevy Venture minivan in 2002 that was a year old with 24k miles on it, and my purchase price went from $22.5k new to $16k. That’s a savings of $6500 and I still have it ten years later, so I saved money up front and through owning a vehicle that has been a family warhorse that we have put 120k miles. In that time my only issue was when the AC failed in 2007 and cost $1500 to repair. A good reference for this is the Dave Ramsey, “Drive free, die rich” video on why buying used can have a major impact on your life.

    I appreciate you love your dog, but spending $1500 for a dog while there are a million waiting to be put down in facilities across America doesn’t seem like a great deal. you’re also at 10 years for your dog, which means the dog is getting up there in age. When it is time for a new one, check your local shelter or if you love that breed now: Frequently you can get a dog of your preferred breed for a $100 to $400 adoption fee, and you’re giving an animal that might get put down a forever home.

    Last up is again one that emotion rules over reason and that’s your wife’s ring. Instead of spending $4400 in 1995, you could have had a ring that looks JUST like that ring and is CZ or synthetic diamond and then taken a $4000 honeymoon to Europe. I gave my wife the choice between real and fake with a better honeymoon and she chose the latter. It also hurt a whole lot less when she lost the ring in 2003 and we replaced it easily within our budget. That would not be the case with a very expensive, “I’ve bought into diamond industry (let’s not even get into blood diamonds) marketing and spent two months of salary on a rock that will have no purpose.”

    Good stuff and I love reading your tips and thoughts.

    • 29

      Len Penzo says

      By “best” it seems you mean the things you’ve bought that you have enjoyed in your life the most.

      Value is still a consideration, but you pretty much got it, J.D.

      I fully understand the financial wisdom behind buying a car that is one year — or even better, two or three years — old; I’ve written about it on a couple of occasions, including this post:

      I also know all about the CZ rings, and Rhodesian ridgeback (and other breed) rescue organizations.

      Those were my preferred options in all instances. However, they were not the wife’s — and as you probably know, an unhappy one can lead to an unhappy household, which, in turn, ultimately leads to divorce, which is extremely expensive too.

    • 30

      KJH says

      JD, I can take this a step further:
      The money well spent (in regards to his marriage) was not the $4400 for the ring but the $50-100 for the marriage license.
      And JD it seems you missed your own point: $4k for a honeymoon + $400 for a CZ ring vs. $4400 for a diamond ring. They are all money down the drain (in fact the $4400 is a better financial choice when you consider pawn value – which I hope is never realized for Len’s sake).

      When my better half and I got engaged I told him forget the ring and instead we had a cheap (BBQ in a public park) wedding and put a down payment on a retirement home.

      And don’t mean to one up you all, but at 47 yo I’m tired of hearing that and engagement ring, big blowout of a wedding, and exotic honeymoon are necessities. They are not (I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here).

  11. 31

    KJH says

    I started engineering school in 1983 and my father gave me a brand new HP 15C for Christmas that year (he is also an engineer). I still have it; I don’t use it much but I refuse to give it up (I always make sure it has operating batteries).
    My husband (also an engineer but a TI guy) doesn’t understand my attachment. I’m going to send him your article.

    • 32

      Len Penzo says

      We seem to have followed a similar path, KJH. I too started engineering school in 1983 and that calculator helped me through a lot of engineering exams back then.

      Believe it or not, despite all the use my 15C got, its first set of batteries lasted about a dozen years. I rarely use it anymore, so I suspect the second set will last long after I finally retire.

      If your hubby is a TI guy, I suspect he’ll never understand our attachment. 😉 lol

  12. 33

    Brie says

    OMG, I laughed when I saw the 15C listed. My dad worked for HP for a long time and those things littered our house, along with other models. It seemed like there was one in every drawer. I still use one of the business calculators…13B II…or something like that. They were good calculators that just don’t stop working.

  13. 34

    Laura says

    I bought the new 15C just last year. It has 10 memory slots and lots of other fun features. I bought my first one in 1982 and the only problem I ever had with it was that there were only the four postions. By the way, I paid less than $100 for the new one. It was on sale, but I think the original price (at Office Depot) was $119.00. I also LOVE the reverse Polish notation; now if I could just find a scientific calculator (affordable) with it!

    • 35

      Laura says

      I lied – I bought the 12C, which explains why I got one and you didn’t. Sounds like I should have bought a 15C while they were available!

  14. 36

    Port says

    Well, it was a nice run and I was enjoying your site… until I saw the praise of the HP calculator. Now I can’t possibly take you seriously anymore.

  15. 38

    Jermo says

    I bought my HP11C in 1983 from Service Merchandise.
    I was was on my way to Purdue for some higher education (BSIE 1987). I still use it everyday. My 11C has been with be for over half my lifetime and predates my meeting my wife. Long live RPN!

  16. 39

    Tawney says

    I just found your blog, but I feel right at home: my dad has that same calculator, and yes, he still uses it regularly and will wax poetic if anyone asks about it. Also, I live in SoCal with my aerospace engineer husband. And, I own a ’97 Civic. Unfortunately, the A/C just went out and my frugal brain is fighting battles to the death with my easily over-heated body, so, we’ll see how long I can sweat out keeping my faithful Civic. Anyway, love your blog, and isn’t it a small world?!

  17. 40

    tommyboy says

    The HP 15C used to be standard issue at West Point back in the day when I was there. A couple years ago I found out they were still valuable and sold mine on ebay for around $150. I’m not an engineer, so don’t have the connection to it. I remember it was fun to program and use back then though. (of course that’s assuming one thinks math is fun)

  18. 44


    Very impressive! Congrats especially on having bought a house, which is very tedious and stressful, considering the mortgage or the stress it can give to us. By the way, Major looked so adorable! I wanna have that Rhodesian Ridgeback this year! Happy New Year!

  19. 45


    Well, let’s say that being 14 and buying your own laptop is already a great thing. Kudos to you for inspiring your son to buy his gadgets and not just rely on his parents.

    My first laptop was also one of the best things I ever bought, I was able to grow my web design business and make it a full time thing.

  20. 46


    Great list! Sometimes, acknowledging the best purchases/decisions in your life can put you in a good mood. We oftentimes want for more, but we fail to recognize that we already have the best we’ll ever need.

    It also seems like your son already knows how to depend on himself, which is a great trait.


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