Stop Buying Features. Start Buying Benefits.


The other day I was listening to a podcast on the Smart Passive Income blog that really got me thinking. The guest was a guy named Dane Maxwell, and he was basically on the show to talk about and promote his approach to building a software business.

The core concept behind the approach was to FIRST spend the time and effort to identify an important problem in your potential customer’s life. Only after you’ve identified a very specific problem that a number of people really want solved and are willing to pay for do you start developing a product. A cool product isn’t enough. You have to solve a painful problem.

A similar theme came up in a recent meeting within my company. We were talking about our competitors and reading through some of their sales materials to get an understanding of how they were selling and how we could differentiate. What really struck me was that there sales pitches were essentially a long list of FEATURES. As in: these are all the cool things we can do. Nowhere was there any concrete mention of BENEFITS, the real value the customer would actually stand to receive.

All of this is interesting for a variety of reasons, but it got me thinking about how we as individuals make our spending decisions in our everyday lives. Are we buying features or are we buying benefits? The answer to that question can make all the difference in the world when it comes to managing our money well.

What’s the difference between a feature and a benefit?

If you didn’t know you wanted something until you heard about it, that thing is probably a feature. If instead you’ve identified something you want in your life, that’s a benefit and you can then look for a product that provides it.

As an example, my wife and I just recently went through our first car-buying experience. This was like a PhD crash course in features vs. benefits.

When you first start doing your research, you’re inundated with a huge list of features that the different types of cars offer. Just to give you a small taste, here are some of the different features you can choose from, just when it comes to the seats in the car:

  • Leather seats
  • Heated seats
  • Power seats
  • Reclining seats
  • Height-adjustable seats
  • Bucket seats
  • Removable seats
  • Folding seats
  • Seats that drive, brew you coffee and get your kids to be quiet all while you catch up on the latest game of Angry Birds

I only made one of those up. See if you can guess which one.

Seriously though, all of those different feature options just to do with seats! It’s crazy!

Here’s the thing. If you go into this process without a clear focus, it’s very easy to get caught up in all of the different features being offered and to lose sight of the real benefits that you’re looking for. You start evaluating one car vs. another based on things like height-adjustable seating without first having decided whether you actually had a problem that required height-adjustable seating as a solution. If you never had that problem in the first place, why would you all of a sudden need the solution?

In contrast to the focus on features, you can approach your car buying experience by first defining the benefits you’re looking for. For my wife and I, with our expanding family in mind, the short list of benefits we wanted looked like this:

  1. Seating space for our kids and eventually their friends.
  2. Cargo space for all of the “stuff” kids require.
  3. Ease of getting all of those people and that stuff in and out.
  4. Low lifetime cost of ownership.
  5. Adequate safety features.

All of the other features that cars offer these days were 100% irrelevant. They might be cool, but they weren’t benefits to us. They weren’t solving any specific problem that we had identified, and therefore they weren’t anything we needed to care about. They simply didn’t matter. Our evaluation solely came down to how well the vehicle could meet this short list of desired benefits.

How you can thrive by focusing on benefits

When we focus on features, we trap ourselves in the never-ending cycle of wasting money on things we don’t need. We get lost in a quest to have all of the latest and greatest features without ever taking a moment to step back and evaluate the actual problems we have in our lives that need to be solved. This is the kind of mentality that sends us into debt and prevents us from ever achieving any kind of financial freedom.

If we instead flip our mindset and first identify our real problems or the real things we want out of life, and use those as a guide to specify the benefits we’re looking for from a product, we start living a life where our money is spent carefully and purposefully only on things that enrich our lives in a meaningful way.

Money is simply a tool. If we use it well we can free ourselves to live a life of meaning and fulfillment. If we waste it, we make ourselves prisoners to the need to earn more. The choice is ours.

So the next time you’re making a financial decision, ask yourself whether you’re buying a feature or a benefit. The more we can focus solely on the benefits and spend our money on the things that truly matter to us, the better our lives will become.

Image courtesy of Photokanok /

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41 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Mrs PoP @ PlantingOurPennies November 7, 2013

    In our work, you virtually never hear the word “feature” in a sales pitch. It’s “solution”. You have this problem, and here is this complete solution that addresses it.

    The plethora of features in consumer products always brings to mind the book Paradox of Choice, so I try to take those lessons to heart and ignore most of them.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 7, 2013

      Nice reference. More choices does not always mean better choices. So when the word “solution” is used in your business, is that always what it actually means or is it sometimes just a feature with a different name?

  • DC @ Young Adult Money November 7, 2013

    This is a cool way to think about purchases and whether you are getting your money’s worth. In my business (health insurance) it pretty much entirely is a benefit and just recently are we adding different features that make our plans more attractive.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 7, 2013

      Hmm, it’s interesting because everything in health insurance is explicitly called a “benefit”, but I would argue that some of the things that are included aren’t really benefits at all. I think health insurance might be much more effective if people had some more choice as to which “benefits” they actually wanted.

  • Holly Johnson November 7, 2013

    I like it, Matt!
    I’ve never thought of sales in terms of features and benefits but I will from now on =)

  • AvgJoeMoney November 7, 2013

    There was a great line I heard at FinCon: Rather than trying to “be interesting,” try to “be interested.” Discussing features is trying to be interesting. Talking benefits is being interested (and customer focused).

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer November 7, 2013

    Love this, Matt! Another new way to think about our money before we spend it. These types of tips always help me to do better budget-wise – thank you!

  • Kali @ Common Sense Millennial November 7, 2013

    Great way to think about what you’re spending your money on, and to make sure you’re buying something that’s truly valuable and not just an unnecessary luxury. Definitely going to keep this in mind the next time I’m out to make a large purchase.

  • John S @ Frugal Rules November 7, 2013

    I heard this all the time in my old job and it’s right on. Interestingly enough, in our business now we’re always dealing with our clients wanting to pitch the features – it’s because so many buy things based off the features. That said, a feature will do very little to solve any problem you have, which is why it’s so important to look at the benefits.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 7, 2013

      There are definitely a lot of people who want to buy based on the features. I think that’s the main reason things like the ipad are so popular. Did the ipad really make most people’s lives easier? No. But it had a bunch of cool features.

  • Tonya November 7, 2013

    I love the concept behind this. I just wrote a comment on DC’s blog about asking whether or not he should buy a tablet. To me a tablet, for almost everyone just has really cool features. Whereas my laptop and mac tower are benefits because I need them for work. yes, need. Without them I could not do my job. I have a tablet anyway because it was a gift, but I never would have purchased one on my own. Have that benefits/features thing in the back of your mind for every purchase, especially big ones is a great idea!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 7, 2013

      Nice example! I basically said the same thing about the tablet, that I thought that were interesting but just didn’t see when I would ever actually want to use one. The best example I could think of was to watch movies on an airplane, but come one, if that’s it then it’s really not worth it.

  • E.M. November 7, 2013

    This is a great way to frame spending. I do try and consider the benefits more than the features. It does help to make purchases more meaningful. The benefits will outlast the features making it the smarter decision, too.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 7, 2013

      Thanks E.M. I think you’re right on that in many cases the benefits will last you longer. Or at least you’ll be happy with them for longer.

  • Done by Forty November 7, 2013

    That’s a pretty cool dichotomy, Matt. I am reading the $100 Startup (thanks to Emily at Fork in the Freeway) and the author’s recommendation is the same: find a real problem of your customer, and offer a solution. They call it giving them the fish (rather than teaching them to fish). They want the service provider to actually solve the problem…

    That said, I do think there are times when features really do sell a product. I mean, what problem do granite countertops or stainless steel appliances solve? Still, they do sell houses. You know?

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 7, 2013

      I’ve heard of the $100 startup. I need to give it a read. And I definitely think there are many many times when the features sell a product. I think cars are a prime example. I just think we should strive to be better than that.

  • Adam Kamerer November 8, 2013

    I was thinking about this the other day while comparing our latest rental car (a 2013 Chevy Cruze) and to my day-to-day car (a 1996 Honda Accord). The Chevy is chock full of features. It has a button that will calculate your gas mileage and another that will tell you the temperature outside. It has a touch screen you can use to control the radio! It has lights that turn themselves off if you forget them. It’s got a remote key lock and car alarm and all sorts of entertainment features like Sirius XM radio and the ability to hook up your MP3 player.

    It does have a few benefits over my car, I suppose — it’s got better gas mileage, mainly because modern standards are better at that sort of thing. It has a few more airbags and probably some other safety features that my car doesn’t have.

    But the majority of the differences are features, not benefits. The Chevy doesn’t get me to my destination any faster than my Honda (although because it’s newer, it’s less likely to break down, which is major benefit of renting). They’re roughly the same size. What’s funny, though, is that a good many of the Chevy’s features come standard on today’s cars, but to me, they seem like extras.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 8, 2013

      That’s definitely what happens over time. Yesterday’s brand new features are today’s run-of-the-mill standards. That’s one of the reason why it’s so costly to chase the features. You might get them today, but pretty soon there will just be something else. If you can focus only on the true benefit something provides, that will likely last you much longer.

      But I will agree with you. Some of the new cars do have some very cool features. They’re not necessarily all that helpful, but they can be pretty fun.

  • Andrew November 8, 2013

    I’ve never thought of it this way, but it makes a lot of sense. It’s crazy how many “features” companies come up with and market to consumers as something that they really “need.” I see that especially with tech gadgets where they come out with a new model every year with new “features” and everybody rushes to upgrade. If you just look for benefits…might just realize that the features are really not that necessary.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 8, 2013

      Yep the tech industry is probably the best example of this benefit. Do we really need a new phone every 2 years? Did the old one stop doing the things we need it to do? Of course not. But in two years time the features have completely changed. The benefits are still the same, but nevertheless the old one feels obsolete.

  • Stefanie @ brokeandbeau November 8, 2013

    Your analysis of “features” vs “benefits” are a great analogy for “wants” vs “needs”.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 8, 2013

      They’re definitely very similar. Although I would say that something you “want” could still be viewed as a “benefit”. There’s room in life to live above the necessities. You just want to make sure that you’re actually buying things that bring you happiness and not just buying because it’s shiny and bright.

  • Grayson @ Debt Roundup November 8, 2013

    Another good one Matt. Sadly, in our society, we focus on the features and they are pulled out in sales material for us to focus on. We rarely see the benefits or even think of them.

  • Pauline @RFIndependence November 8, 2013

    Most of the big businesses have made money solving a problem people had. Saving them time, effort, giving them convenience… then some businesses have made money creating a need people didn’t have before. I wish I was that resourceful to create a problem then sell a solution haha.

  • Shannon Ryan November 8, 2013

    So true, Matt. Sometimes we get so caught up in all the features we overlook the benefits, which are generally far more important. It’s one of those odd things. We want choices, potentially unlimited choices (love all the seat options there were!) but too many choices also paralyzes people. When I first meet with someone they want all the options in the world. No limitations! But then they become overwhelmed and can’t make a choice. They got caught up in the features – unlimited investments, rather than the benefits I offer – focus. Great post!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 8, 2013

      Great point, and it’s one that Mrs. Pop made as well. More choices does not always equate to better choices. In fact it’s often the cause of subpar decision-making. People can’t be that different that we need 50 different versions of the same thing just to satisfy everyone’s “needs”.

  • Demaish @ Borrowed Cents November 8, 2013

    That’s a good way to think about it. I think we get carried away by the features because they are cool and forget the benefits. The features make us spend money we do not have. I will be trying to concentrate more on benefits.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 8, 2013

      They can definitely be pretty cool. The key is remembering what we actually wanted in the first place and not letting ourselves get sucked into the vacuum of neverending features.

  • Kim@Eyesonthedollar November 8, 2013

    I think you can do Facebook updates through some cars now. Crazy right? Although, I do think heated seats are a benefit! Many people buy for coolness these days and don’t really consider if things really do benefit them or not. Sometimes it’s hard to see past all the bells and whistles to see if we are getting the thing we needed.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 8, 2013

      Oh wow. I didn’t see the facebook thing but I wouldn’t be surprised at all. I don’t think we made it to that end of the lot, haha. And there’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with heated seats or any of the other seating options. As long as it’s solving a previously identified problem or desire, then I think it can count as a benefit.

  • Ree Klein November 8, 2013

    Wow, Matt, another phenomenal post! I spent years in the training development department for financial services company. Sales training focused on explaining the difference between a feature and a benefit and how you use that to assist in making the sale. But heck, that was back in the day when you could pair each feature with a list of benefits. The feature list is extraordinarily long now, which supports your claim that we don’t need the seat that makes coffee 🙂

    I absolutely love how you’ve turned the table and are using reverse psychology to help people avoid needless spending or stop them from buying more than they need. Truthfully, I still get caught by shiny objects from time-to-time and usually end up regretting those purchases.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 8, 2013

      Thanks Ree! I think we all still get caught up in admiring the features a little too much from time to time. We just bought a Roku and I ended up getting the newer one because it has “5x faster processing speed!”. Now, it was only $20 more, so not a big deal, but still, I didn’t even know what the processing speed was like before. How could I know what 5x even meant, or if an improvement was even necessary? The lure of the newest improvement can be very strong indeed.

  • Finance Triggers November 10, 2013

    This is actually not just for consumers but is also a great sales and marketing exercise. Awesome post by the way!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney November 11, 2013

      Very true. Just about everyone could stand to benefit from focusing a little more on benefits (HA!)

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