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Capping Your Collection

There has been some discussion in the community recently by a few bloggers who have been reflecting on the time and expense of buying new pens, and deciding to try and spend more time enjoying what they have instead of accumulating more. It’s an interesting topic, one which most FP users experience at some point, and so it’s something well worth exploring in today’s post. 

Matt Armstrong expressed his feelings in a recent review, echoing some comments that he has previously made offline about the satisfaction of new pens not being worth all of the time and effort he puts into researching new purchases. Others, including bloggers and forum commenters, have expressed similar sentiments, and they mostly seem to have pursued the same solution: buying less, enjoying more. 

This approach might work for them but, for many of us, it’s probably only going to hold until something new and shiny comes along that breaks our willpower, and we’ll embark on the same process of desire, anticipation, dissatisfaction, and sometimes even regret. And with Pelikan busy cranking out some hotly-desired limited edition pieces, that means we might not hold anywhere near as long as we’d like to. 

The underlying problem seems to be a classic case of what economists call diminishing marginal utility. That’s a technical name for something we all experience, and it’s so common that it’s baked right into our most fundamental tools. It refers to how we find ourselves less and less satisfied with each additional purchase of something. The very first unit of what we buy or consume — whether it’s the first FP we ever owned or the first beer on a Friday night — can be amazing, even revelatory. For a period after that, we can keep buying more and finding ourselves more and more satisfied: the Pilot Metropolitan is a great starter pen, but the Lamy 2000 or Pilot VP is even more pleasing and exciting. But, at least for those of us who are pen users rather than pen collectors, we reach a point where each new purchase isn’t any more exciting than the last one. They’re still great pens, still pleasant to use, but that level of excitement and pleasure has diminished somewhat. And once you’re past that point, it becomes something of a downhill road. There might be a few peaks — getting your first custom-made pen, or finding a new brand or nib that really suits you — but it’s getting harder and harder for you to get excited about something new. 

If the products were free, we would keep acquiring new ones until the satisfaction of getting something new was equal to zero. But of course, pens aren’t free, they have prices. So — to return to my model of the Purchase Decision — the value that we experience from new pens declines. At some point, that value has declined so much that most new pens are simply not worth buying, and it takes something truly special to get us excitement. 

Now, if my argument here is true and we’re experiencing diminishing returns, I’m not sure the proposed solution really works. A blanket ban on buying new pens doesn’t kill that lust for a new shiny, it only prevents us from indulging that feeling. And let’s be honest: that’s really hard. Assuming we have the money and there’s a pen of fairly strong appeal, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll end up in our pen trays before long, rules or no rules. 

I’ve been in this situation myself and, like some of you have probably experienced for yourselves, it can cause some tension in a relationship. Even when the finances are healthy, the fact one partner is likely to indulge in spontaneous and somewhat large transactions can be challenging. It can create a sense of unease. It’s not quite an issue of trust, but partners can feel themselves asking questions about how certain they are the other partner isn’t going overboard. Having a rule (or even a principle) like the one above, and then violating it, is only going to enhance that sense of unease. What is needed here is some kind of solution that reduces the buying (so as to maintain the satisfaction) and reduces the tension. 

My own solution was to introduce a constraint into my decision-making, one which has proved to be surprisingly effective. It was a simple rule, too: I capped my collection at 10 nice pens. It meant that instead of asking myself, ‘Is this pen worth the price?’, I’m now asking myself ‘Is this pen in the top 10 pens I could own? Would I sell something else in order to own this?’

I never had a large collection of pens but I started off over the limit. This was intentional: most pens in the collection were not used regularly, and this would force a sell-off. So the first few months on this system involved a lot of selling and only a few purchases. With time, the collection was reduced and the average satisfaction of each increased dramatically. Gone too was the guilt from owning good pens which never made it into the rotation. 

The changes to the collection were dramatic. Mine was never a large collection but it was well over the limit; this was an intentional decision to force a sell-off of the pens which were decent but not great and good ones which never really made it into the rotation. (Selling them also eliminated the guilt of owning but not using them.) Mentally, this involved a lot of tough choices but paring back was also quite satisfying. It also had the happy consequence of building a large war chest, enabling the purchase of some high-end pens without having to put in any new money. 

(I want to note here that my collection wasn’t particularly unusual or impressive before making this shift. I had a couple dozen nice pens that sold for an average of about US$100 each — easily bringing in enough money to cover a couple of Montblancs, Nakayas, Viscontis, or whatever else floats your boat. A lot of people who complain about not being able to afford premium pens could easily afford it if they sold off some of their unused mid-tier pens.)

From then on, purchases became less frequent and more expensive, but overall expenditure went way down as each purchase was offset by the sale of something else. It became easier to justify the expense of peripherals (like a nice pen box) and nib work — if you only have 10 pens, you may as well make each one work as best it can. 

So the number of pens was reduced but satisfaction from each increased quite a lot, as did satisfaction with the collection as a whole. These were no longer a random assortment of pens I liked (or had once liked): they were the 10 I had chosen as the best for me and my purposes. The process made me more alert to the particulars of what I liked and disliked — reliable workhorse pens with large ink capacities, fun pens with interesting nibs — and that helped me to better understand my preferences, and better predict which pens would be suitable. 

No less dramatic was the change in attitude. I stopped reading pens with the goal of determining whether a certain pen was worth buying, and started enjoying reviews as lessons about different pens and the experience of using them. I also found myself asking different questions when considering purchases: Why is this appealing? How would it be used? Is it better for that purpose than another pen in the collection?

A case-in-point is the Pelikan M1000 I tried at a pen meet last week, with an oblique broad nib. It was wet, juicy, and a lot of fun — in the past, that would’ve been enough to make me buy the pen on the spot. But now, there’s more of a sense that it’s a nice pen but it’s not for me: the nib was fun, but not as fun as the Omas pens in the collection. The same goes for the Delta Dolcevita, a pen with a beautiful barrel design — but one with a poor size for me, a brand with poor QC, and an unenviable record with its retailers. As much as it would be nice to own these, it’s not worth sacrificing another for them. 

Although it’s not quite there yet (and may never get there), the collection is approaching optimality. In economics, this is a state where no change can occur without making things worse off — in other words, a state where swapping in any new pen would make me less satisfied with the collection as a whole. I can tell I’m getting close because it’s getting hard to find pens that I could swap out without missing them too much: the decision is taking longer and longer, and seems increasingly risky that I’ll make a mistake and end up with a pen that isn’t as satisfying. 

Overall, this solution has been hugely effective for me. I’m able to own nicer pens, I’m enjoying the hobby more, I don’t feel overly constrained, and it’s eased some of the tension around the pen habit. I’m buying less often and spending (much) less, but I’m definitely more satisfied with the hobby. 

This solution isn’t going to be for everyone: if you enjoy the novelty of new pens all the time, or you’re not at a stage where you know your preferences reasonably well, have a capped number of pens probably won’t suit your needs. But if you’ve been around for a while, know what you like, and have more pens that you can use regularly, you might like to consider capping your collection and trying to increase the enjoyment you take in the hobby. It worked for me. Hopefully it will work for you too. 

The Collection (as of 15/1)

  1. Montblanc 1912 (BB)
  2. Montblanc 149 (M)
  3. Montblanc 146P (B)
  4. Montblanc 146B (F)
  5. Omas Arte Italiana (Stub)
  6. Omas Ogiva (F)
  7. Visconti Opera Master (BB)
  8. Visconti Divina (Stub)
  9. Visconti Homo Sapiens (F)
  10. GvFC Classic (Stub)