Updated on 02.09.17

The ‘Buy It For Life’ Compendium, Volume 2

Trent Hamm

About two years ago, I published a lengthy compendium of “buy it for life” product suggestions, because I’m regularly asked such in the reader mailbag.

What this article contains are updated entries about most of the items in the original article, as well as my notes about new “buy it for life” items that I’ve been asked about in the last few years. If you have the original article saved somewhere, you can completely replace it with this one.

What’s ‘Buy It for Life’?

Before we dive in, it makes sense to define what exactly “buy it for life” means. In its simplest form, it means that you’re buying an item where reliability and lifespan are the most important factors. These items just work and they keep working.

Why do this? For starters, it’s not wasteful. You’re not going to be throwing away items constantly because they failed for some reason. It also means you’ll have very reliable items, so you can place a lot of trust on those items always working. You’ll also avoid having to go through many replacement cycles for your items, meaning that the more expensive purchase now will save you multiple purchases – and the time spent on each purchase – down the line.

However, price is also a factor here, too. It’s usually expected that a truly “buy it for life” item will be more expensive than a random item off the shelf. After all, you should find yourself using this item for a very long time, whereas if you bought a cheaper version, you would have to replace it frequently. However, there are times where truly “buy it for life” items are so expensive that they don’t make sense. In that case, the best low-cost solution is usually the superior option, because even if you buy several replacements for that item over the rest of your life, it’s still going to be drastically cheaper than the ultra-expensive “buy it for life” option.

It’s also worth noting that these suggestions here are my recommendations, made up of a mix of my own experience and the experience of people that I trust who may have expertise with that specific item. There may be better recommendations, but I stand by these as very good recommendations at the very least.

One final note: this isn’t intended as an encouragement to go out and spend a lot of money right now. Instead, this is a reference article, intended to be turned to when you need to buy one of the items listed and you’re interested in buying a long lasting version of the item.

The Big List

Here are the items covered in this article. You can click on each one to visit the individual section about that item.

Baby Items
Backpacks
Belts
Blenders
Boots
Duffel Bags
Electronics
Gloves
Holiday Lights
Jeans
Kitchen Knives
Microwave Ovens
Multitools
Pens
Pocket Knives
Pots and Pans
Skillets
Slow Cookers
Socks
Spatulas
Thermos
Underwear
Watches
Water Bottles
Winter Clothing

Baby Items

Baby items generally aren’t considered a “buy it for life” item because, frankly, children don’t remain babies for very long. They rapidly outgrow clothes and other items that they use in the first year or two of life and then don’t need them again. The closest thing to a “buy it for life” item for a baby would be something you purchase for use with your first child with the intent of reusing it with future children. Also, buy it for life baby items tend to make very nice baby shower gifts and baby shower requests, too.

One of the biggest expenses you’ll have with a baby is diapers. We used cloth diapers with all three of our children (our third was almost exclusively cloth diapered – we were figuring out a system with the first two) and we found that once you had a routine down, they were actually pretty easy to deal with and very inexpensive.

Finding a good cloth diaper that will last through three children is a trick, but we found that BumGenius diapers were up to the task. We used them on all three of our kids and discovered that they worked very well from just after birth to up to about 12 to 15 months depending on the baby size. Considering we used them three times a week on our babies over the course of a year and they lasted through three children, this means we got roughly 450 uses out of each one, meaning that the cost per use was less than a nickel. That utterly blows away disposable diapers, but you have to commit to doing it. We found that simply having a closed hamper exclusively for the cloth diapers was the best solution and we alternated the responsibility of washing them (it wasn’t bad at all until they were eating mostly solid foods).

My wife was committed to breastfeeding from day one and we found that the Medela Pump-In-Style worked wonderfully through all three kids. For bottles, we used Playtex VentAire BPA-Free bottles and they also lasted through three children without any problems. Our baby clothes and blankets and such were mostly gifted, handed down, or purchased secondhand.

Backpacks

I have used a North Face Recon backpack as a “portable office” for a little more than 10 years now and it’s still practically new. I use it to tote a laptop, a water bottle, multiple notebooks and pens, several books, a magazine or two, a tablet computer, and lots of little odds and ends with me whenever I work outside the house, which is usually a few times a week, and it’s lasted perfectly for more than 10 years. I can’t really offer any more high praise than that. I feel like this is the best “bang for the buck” backpack that will last for a very long time.

Two additional strong recommendations from friends:

1. A friend of mine has used a Tom Bihn Brain Bag as a daily portable office (much like I use mine) for “close to 20 years now” and he reports that it is still in very good shape and he believes it will last for at least another 10 years. He is a college professor and has used this to take many, many, many books to many, many, many places and reports using it close to daily. I have seen this bag up close and I would say that it is a better bag than my own, but you’re definitely paying for that extra cost.

2. For a bag suited more for a “day hike,” another friend recommends the GoRuck GR1 (be aware, their site auto-plays a video with some instrumental rock music on my browser). He goes on lots of day hikes – far more than I do – and carries meals, water, and first aid supplies in this thing. It’s gone through what must be many thousands of national park trails and forests over the last several years and he reports that it looks essentially new. He also reports that he’s used it for weekend trips as a mini-suitcase and also taken his laptop and other materials when working outside of his office, so it works as a briefcase/portable office, too.

Belts

I addressed long lasting belts in a recent reader mailbag, so I’ll just share here what I wrote there:

“The belts that cost hundreds […] are usually crafted to look incredible but aren’t necessarily long lasting, either. […] I’ve only really found three belt companies that build good long-lasting belts that didn’t charge hundreds, as you mention.

Anson Belt makes a belt that’s microadjustable and doesn’t have the holes in it like other belts. I’ve personally used these and found that there’s a lot less wear and tear on the leather without the fastening and unfastening mechanism on most belts, which accounts for their relatively long lifespan.

Orion belts are made with absurdly thick leather and also reduce the force applied to the fastener and to the belt hole by having dual holes and fasteners on most models.

Saddleback makes a more traditional single hole leather belt, but they treat their leather in such a way that it’s very tough. My experience has been that the belt is so tough that it’s almost rigid for a long while after you first start wearing it, but it really lasts.

All of these belts do a great job of being much more long lasting than a typical department store belt for different reasons and all clock in at or below the $100 threshold.”

I should also add that Anson also makes a very nice canvas belt for those who would prefer not to purchase a leather belt.

Blenders

Blenders typically fail in one of two ways. Either the blender jar breaks – in which case, you can just replace the jar if the jar model is still available – or the motor fails. Thus, in my eyes, there are two things to look for in a long-lasting blender: a very sturdy blender jar and a warranty on the motor. (Blending items together well is a bonus, too, but I find that most blenders do a reasonable job once you’re out of the lowest-of-the-low-end models).

For those factors, two blender manufacturers stand out: Blendtec and Vitamix. Both make very well constructed blenders with very strong jars and both companies issue a long-lasting and thorough warranty with their product.

I personally own a Blendtec Total Blender and have used it for six years now with absolutely no problems and it looks practically new. I’ve used it somewhere around 1,000 times by my estimation and it still blends through anything I throw in there without any problems or challenges. I’ve dropped the jar on the floor multiple times and there isn’t a scratch on it, either. That would be my recommendation for a “buy it for life” blender.

Boots

Several friends and readers have suggested that boots tend to wear out very rapidly and that if you wear them with any frequency for work, you should get inexpensive boots, wear them until they fall apart, and replace them, because higher-end boots won’t last enough longer to be worth the additional cost.

Two friends and two readers do have a consensus on a better boot model, however. They all recommend Red Wing boots. One friend specifically recommended the Men’s DynaForce Six Inch with a steel toe, claiming to have used it in construction for several years of near-daily wear on construction sites and is now on his second pair of them. That’s a good enough recommendation for me.

Duffel Bags

I used to travel a great deal and often relied on duffel bags for those trips. My complaint about less expensive duffel bags was always the same: the zippers would fail. Cheap plastic zippers means that your bag will almost always fail in short order.

That being said, I have owned a large duffel bag from Best American Duffel for several years now and used it for many road trips and other travel purposes and, as with many other items, it functions and looks like it did when it was new. The zipper is metal, large, and incredibly sturdy and the bag is made out of very strong material and shows no danger of coming apart at all at any of the seams.

Electronics

I’m going to repeat what I said in the earlier article, because it still holds up as completely true:

“It is basically impossible to buy electronics for life. It’s not a matter of having the “newest and greatest” thing all the time. The issue is actually complexity.

Electronics are complex devices. There are many, many points of potential failure in an electronic device. Even if you buy a very expensive device, if even one resistor or capacitor fails unexpectedly (out of many inside a device), it can cause your device to fail.

I try to buy electronics with a seven- to 10-year lifespan. If I can get seven full years out of an electronic item, I’m pretty happy with that. Naturally, I’ll keep using it until it ceases to function.

That’s far, far from “buy it for life,” but it reflects the reality of home electronics.”

Gloves

Here, I’m talking about gloves that are used for regular outdoor work and for long stretches in the outdoors in very cold temperatures, not gloves a person who rarely works outside or is primarily an indoor worker might use in the winter months. For those situations, most inexpensive gloves are fine.

For a person who frequently uses gloves for work, particularly in cold weather, Ringer Roughneck gloves come extremely highly recommended from many different sources. A close friend of mine who spends a lot of time chopping firewood for his home and his business in very cold conditions swears by them.

Another option, of course, is to just buy mass quantities of cheap gloves from a farm supply store, where you can buy adequate gloves that will last for a surprisingly long time at a very low price.

Holiday Lights

Unfortunately, residential-grade winter holiday lights are not meant to last. They’re typically used for a few seasons and then the bulbs begin to fail. You can replace them with a few replacements that often come with strands, but often some of the internal wiring begins to fail as well and you need to replace them entirely. If you’re lucky, a strand will last you for five to 10 years. We’ve had strands fail in as little as two years.

There are commercial grade outdoor strand lights that will last for many, many years, but the cost is prohibitive for home use. They will last and last and last, but they require careful use and will still likely be far more expensive than a homeowner will want to invest in their holiday lighting patterns.

Your best bet is to buy low-energy LED lights at your local store and replace them as needed.

Jeans

Most jeans that you buy at the store have already been pre-treated for appearance. That treatment sadly also has another side effect – it reduces the lifespan of the denim, making the material weaker and more prone to tears and long-term wear.

My recommendation is to buy jeans with minimum pre-treatment. Don’t buy faded or worn or stonewashed jeans as those treatments damage the denim and reduce the lifespan.

As for a specific brand, I trust Consumer Reports, which runs tests on denim jeans regularly and usually concludes that Levi’s have the longest-lasting material, but they’re often sold at a premium. I would buy Levi’s if you consistently wear the same waist size, but I’d mostly just look for minimally treated jeans otherwise.

Kitchen Knives

Many people are tempted to buy large sets of knives for their kitchen and invest in very expensive knives. My alternative suggestion is to instead buy just a couple of good “bang for the buck” knives, which will last for a very long time if you treat the blade well at all, and only upgrade those knives if you find a need for exceptional sharpness.

For your kitchen, then, I’d suggest buying just a Victorinox 3.25″ paring knife, a Victorinox Fibrox 8″ chef’s knife, and a Victorinox 8″ bread knife. Those three knives will handle almost any task you’ll throw at them in a home kitchen and will last for years and years. They are constantly recommended as great “bang for the buck” kitchen knives in almost every food magazine and blog out there and I can personally vouch for these knives having very long lifespans.

There are better knives that hold an edge for a bit longer because of their metal composition, but they won’t necessarily last longer – they’ll just last a bit longer between honings and sharpenings. For that benefit, you’ll find yourself paying several times as much. The biggest difference between the sharpness of blades in the home kitchen, honestly, is how well the person in the kitchen hones the knife, which is a great skill for everyone to learn.

Microwave Ovens

Consumer microwaves – the kind that you’d buy at your local department store or on Amazon – are designed for only occasional use. The models tend to vary frequently and you can find a wide spectrum of reports on various models of consumer microwaves. Basically, if you’re buying one for home use, I’d generally just suggest getting a lower-end one or follow the “bang for the buck” suggestion in the most recent issue of Consumer Reports.

If you really want a “buy it for life” microwave, however, look into commercial microwaves, the kind that they have in restaurant kitchens. They tend to cook at a very high wattage, much higher than typical consumer microwaves, and you’re probably going to have to learn how to use it and how to time things down to the second with it. However, it will last you a very long time. Commercial microwaves, like this Sharp microwave which I’ve actually used before, tend to be relatively low on feature count and often feature analog dials, but they’ll last for 30 years before failing and they’ll cook your food quickly. They’re reliable beasts. You’ll just be paying several times more for it and it’ll come with what seems like a relatively small feature set.

Multitools

In general, the products from Leatherman are excellent multitools. I’ve owned a Leatherman Wave for about 15 years now and it still works wonderfully; it has all of the tools I need. I have friends that swear by their Leatherman Wingman, too. Honestly, which model you choose comes down to the tool assortment you want on it. I generally recommend a small one if you plan to carry it in your pocket and a bigger one if it’s destined for your drawer.

Many people recommend Swiss Army items by Victorinox as well. They’re solid items, but I generally find the tools in a comparable Leatherman to be a bit higher quality for a bit higher price.

Pens

If you’re looking at a pen as an aesthetic object, then you really should purchase a refillable pen that matches your aesthetic. Almost every quality pen company makes a lot of great pens that will last for a very long time with reliable and high quality cartridges or ink filling mechanisms.

That being said, I’m assuming that people who are looking for pens that will be reliable and last are looking for inexpensive, borderline disposable pens that won’t clog up, won’t leak, and will work consistently until the ink is gone at a low price. There are a lot of very cheap pens out there that fail in a variety of ways, from Bics to Papermates, so what’s a reliable inexpensive pen?

My two choices are the Uniball Signo 207, which will set you back about $0.75 per pen, or the Pilot G2, which will set you back about the same amount. Both write exquisitely well, both come in a variety of line widths, both never seem to leak on me, and both never seem to clog up on me, either. I usually get every little last bit of ink out of both types of pens without any problems, they write as soon as I put pen on the page without clogging or requiring scribbling to get it started, and there’s never an issue with a pen exploding in a pocket or something.

Pocket Knives

This is a difficult category because people tend to look for different things in pocket knives. My primary interest here isn’t aesthetics, but reliability and craftsmanship. What kind of pocketknife is going to hold a blade for a long time, require minimal care to still be a quality knife, and last for a very long time in your pocket?

I asked some of my friends about this and they came back with a variety of answers, many of them going into the thousands of dollars. So, instead, I asked them whether they could point to a less expensive pocketknife that would have those traits, ideally under $100. The most popular recommendation by far was the Spyderco Manix 2.

It’s not flashy, but it’s extremely well regarded as being a spectacularly well-made and reliable knife for its price.

Pots and Pans

If I’m combining my own personal experiences along with the input I received from friends and others on reliable pots and pans, there’s really only one thing I would suggest, and that’s to avoid anything with a Teflon coating. Almost universally, people suggested that Teflon coating means that it will eventually get a nick in it and then it will start peeling and then you have an unusable pan. It works well for a little while, and then it really, really doesn’t.

The best pots and pans, in my experience, are made with enameled cast iron. The Lodge enameled cast iron items have worked wonderfully in my experience and have a very good reputation. They’ll work wonderfully for making soups, casseroles, and things along those lines. I personally own a couple Le Creuset enameled cast iron items that were bought at a “going out of business” sale. They’re very similar to the Lodge ones but feel even more sturdy (if that’s possible) and come with a 101-year warranty… but they’re far more expensive.

Skillets

My advice here is very similar to my advice for pots and pans: cast iron. However, in this case, your best approach is to buy non-enameled cast iron and thoroughly season it yourself.

By default, I recommend the Lodge brand of cast iron skillets, like this one. Find one that’s the right size for you – a smaller one if you’re single or don’t have any kids, a larger one for a family – and then take the time to season it properly. It takes some time, but when a cast iron skillet forms a good patina, the surface is basically as good as Teflon and you don’t have to worry about the surface chipping off and poisoning you.

Slow Cookers

I have never met a manual slow cooker that didn’t basically have an endless lifespan. By manual, of course, I mean one with a manual dial on the front and not a digital touchpad – I’ve seen one with touchscreens go bad before, as that seems to be the component that fails the most often.

My honest suggestion for someone looking for a reliable slow cooker is to go to a thrift store, look for one with just a manual dial, and buy that one. Take it home, test it out while you’re around the house a few times to make sure it works right, and you’re god to go.

If you’re looking to buy one, I’d suggest this three-quart manual dial Crock Pot. Again, I suggest one without a touchscreen or an LED panel because those are the parts that tend to fail the most often.

Socks

This is a tough category for me to make personal recommendations in, as I have very large feet (size 16ish) and sock options are a bit tough when you get to large sizes. So, for this category, I largely trust what my friends have to say, and my friends almost universally recommend Darn Tough Socks in terms of socks that are comfortable and last for a very long time.

Their socks offer a lifetime guarantee and according to my friends they remain comfortable over a very long period. I have tried pairs of their socks but they were all just a bit small for my feet and were very tight so I was really unable to give them a fair shake. I usually just buy loads of socks of an inexpensive brand that actually fit my giant wide feet and wear them until they fall apart.

Spatulas

This might seem like an odd category, but it’s been asked of me before!

I’ve tried several different spatulas over the years and the best one I’ve ever used in terms of being long lasting is a bamboo one that I purchased for a dollar at a dollar store. I later found a very similar one for about $4 at a cooking supply store and bought it immediately.

It’s a very simple spatula made from bamboo, but it seems to be practically indestructible. It absorbs a beating, stirs and scrapes things incredibly well, and just lasts and lasts and lasts.

This bamboo spatula is very similar to the one I have, except this one is almost $5. Only big time wealthy spatula buyers might consider spending as much as $4.75 on a spatula, but if you’re willing to fork over a whole Lincoln for one, that’s my “buy it for life” recommendation.

Thermos

I will hands-down recommend this Zojirushi stainless mug for taking out a hot beverage or a hot soup on a cold day. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I took this out about eight years ago full of hot chocolate on an extremely cold day – about -20 F when I left the house. I left this in the front seat of my truck for about two and a half hours. I came back to my truck, opened the Zojirushi, and the hot chocolate was still so hot that I almost burnt my lip.

It has survived being dropped several feet, tumbling around in the back of a truck many times, tumbling around in the back of a SUV many times, being forgotten for what must have been weeks, being dropped down an elevated trail and rolling down a hillside, and it still looks practically new and keeps things ludicrously hot. I swear by this thing.

Underwear

Underwear, by their nature, are not a “buy it for life” item. No matter how well made they are, they eventually wear out. It’s inevitable. They’re stretched and pulled on and off and beat around constantly and washed frequently. So, for underwear, I tend to just shoot for a comfortable pair that’s going to last for at least a while, offering some thickness and reliable construction.

My preferred brand of “bang for the buck” men’s underwear is the C9 brand sold at Target, often labeled as “C9 by Champion.” They’re comfortable, they seem to last a long while, and the price is definitely right.

Watches

Almost any analog watch that you buy will last for many, many years. I have a cheap analog watch that I bought in a pinch in college for $15 or so that’s still going just fine today, for example. It’s rare that a watch just gives out on you.

The reality is that watches are like jewelry – you’re generally paying for aesthetics or you’re paying for features that aren’t necessarily compatible with extreme long-lasting resilience.

If you’re buying a watch from a “bang for the buck” in terms of lifespan, buy one from your local department store. If you’re buying a watch for aesthetics… that’s your own call.

Water Bottles

There are a number of extremely reliable water bottle manufacturers, all of which make bottles that will last for a very long time. Bottles made by Nalgene, Camelbak, and Klean Kanteen will all last you for a lot of years and I’ve personally witnessed bottles from all three companies survive some very rough bumps without a scratch. They all come with great warranties, too.

I’d suggest going to an outdoor supply store, such as your local REI, and inspecting a number of bottles by those companies yourself.

Winter Clothing

In the past, I’ve recommended visiting your local Carhartt store. I have a Carhartt arctic winter coat that has lasted for 15 years, including many trips out into the woods and into rough situations, and it’s still going strong. I have not heard any stories of quality dropoff, but I personally haven’t purchased a winter coat in 15 years.

I have several friends who swear by winter garments from Land’s End and Duluth Trading, in terms of long lasting apparel, though I do not have any experience with either brand. My wife, in particular, likes Land’s End items.

In general, however, my recommendation for winter clothing is to simply wear lots of layers of ordinary stuff rather than buying a lot of special winter clothes. I often just wear a t-shirt under a long-sleeved t-shirt under a sweatshirt under a winter coat when I know I’m going to be outside for a while, with underwear under sweatpants under jeans on my bottom. Layers keep you warm and then you really only have to worry about the aesthetics of the outer layer.

Do You Want to Know More?

If you have a specific item that doesn’t appear here for which you’d like a “buy it for life” recommendation, send it to me! Visit my Facebook page and send me a message there. I’ll get to the item in a future reader mailbag and it may also show up in a future volume of this “buy it for life” compendium.

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