Buying It for Life Versus Buying Ultra-Cheap

I’m a big believer in a “buy it for life” philosophy. If you can buy a single item and it will last you for a very, very long time, then you have no need to buy replacements. I’d like to think that many of the household items I own – cast iron pots, well-made knives, and so on – will last through the rest of my natural life and perhaps the lives of my children, too.

However, there’s a pretty good counterargument from the “ultra-cheap” crowd. If a person can buy fifty cheap versions of an item for the cost of a single high-quality version and they do the same job, who cares if the cheap one only lasts a year or two?

Here’s an example of what I mean: paring knives. A Victorinox paring knife will do a great job for a few years until the metal starts to wear, but it only costs $10. On the other hand, this Wusthof paring knife has been known to work well for decades, but it costs $40.

How do you know when to “buy it for life” and when to “buy it cheap”? Here are five factors I consider when I’m making that decision.

What’s the Actual Cost Over the Course of My Life?

Obviously, if I buy an item for life, the assumption is that I’m buying it either for a very long time or (ideally) for the rest of my life. Other items don’t carry that assumption – I’m going to be replacing that item.

Let’s say I’m comparing a knife that will last five years versus a knife that will last the rest of my life (say, 80 years). The cheap knife costs $10. The expensive knife costs $100. Which should I buy?

Well, assuming I have forty years of life left (putting me in my mid-to-late 70s when I pass away), I’ll be buying eight of the cheap knives at $10 each (totaling $80) versus one expensive knife at $100. Theoretically, the cheap knives will cost less (but we’ll get back to that in a minute).

How do you estimate how long the item will last? My usual strategy is to take the length of the full warranty and double it. So, if a knife has a three year warranty, I’ll assume it will last six years before being too dull to use regularly. On the other hand, my Le Creuset enameled cast iron pans have a 101 year warranty (seriously), so I figure my great-great-grandchildren may very well be using it.

Most of the time, this simple test gives a clear indication as to whether I should go “cheap” or whether I should buy it for life. However, when the numbers are close, as is the case with the knife example, I look at the rest of the factors.

Do I Use This Item Regularly?

The first factor that shifts the equation is how often I use the item. The more I use it, the more likely I am to approach the item from a “buy it for life” perspective.

To put that into numbers, if I use an item every day (or at least a few times a week), I assume it won’t last as long. If a normal lifespan for a product is ten years, but I use it daily, I’ll cut half off of that lifespan.

So, let’s look at that knife example. In that example, if I were a heavy user of that type of knife, I would have to buy sixteen cheap knives at $10 each to match a single knife bought at $100. In that situation, the “buy it for life” item becomes cheaper.

On the other hand, let’s say I would only use that knife once a month. In that case, I’d probably get ten years out of each cheap knife, meaning I only have to buy four of them. The “buy it cheap” is clearly the far less expensive option.

The more you use something, the better it is to jump on the “buy it for life” option. The less often you use something, the better it is to jump on the “cheap” option.

What Waste Is Produced By Each Item?

This is a factor that always pushes me a bit toward the “buy it for life,” particularly if the dollars and cents are close. How much waste is produced by each item?

I’ll use a pen example here. You might initially think that a quality ballpoint pen would produce far less waste than a cheaper one. However, those quality pens rely on cartridges, which often produce almost as much waste as the cheap pens. You have to deal with the old cartridge and the packaging of the new cartridge, just like you have to deal with the used-up cheap pen and the packaging of the new pen.

On the other hand, a “buy it for life” knife produces no waste after the initial purchase, whereas every knife replacement produces more waste.

This is a minor factor for many people, but for environmentally-conscious folk, it can definitely be a deciding factor.

Which Version Requires More Maintenance?

Sometimes, the buy-it-for-life item will require significantly more maintenance than the “cheap” item – and vice versa.

One example where buy-it-for-life items might merit reconsideration is with non-enameled cast iron cookwear. We have tried using cast iron skillets (which are often a great “buy it for life” item) in our kitchen, but we’ve found that they require additional maintenance. We can’t simply put them in the dishwasher to get them clean or else the patina is removed. (We use our non-enameled cast iron for camping now.)

On the other hand, a cheap knife tends to need its edge touched up almost every time you use it, whereas a good knife only needs touched up every once in a while. Here, the advantage is with the buy-it-for-life item.

How do you know which is which? Research the maintenance factor. If you buy an item that you intend to use for the rest of your life, only to find that it’s a high-maintenance item (like a butcher-block cutting board), you may find that the time invested isn’t worth it.

Does It Make a Sensible Gift?

Many of my “buy it for life” items were gifts from family members and friends who wanted to give me a memorable item. For me, few things are better than items that work well and are reliable, particularly when I use them regularly.

Some of those family members often want a good “hint” when giving gifts, so I’ll sometimes put “buy it for life” items on my Amazon wishlist. If they need an idea as to what to purchase, they can look there.

I would far rather receive a small “buy it for life” item that I use regularly than almost anything else I could receive as a gift. The chef’s knife we use was a gift, as was our buy-it-for-life blender. We likely would have went the “cheap” route on both items.

Does The Cheap One Work Well?

Just because an item is cheap doesn’t mean it’s not going to do the job. Sometimes, sure, the cheap version doesn’t work as well, but often the big difference between the two is lifespan.

Cheap paring knives, for example, usually work quite well at first. It’s only near the end of their lifespan that they become difficult to use. On the other hand, a cheap blender simply doesn’t blend things as well as a quality blender, leaving large chunks in the bowl or only allowing you to deal with small amounts at once.

If a cheap version works well, I tend to go with the cheap version almost every time while adding the “buy it for life” version to a wishlist, as described in the gifting section above.

An Example of This Thought Process: Umbrellas

A few years ago, one of our umbrellas failed. It’s not too hard to find an inexpensive umbrella for $10 or so, but I wanted to find one that would work for a very long time, so I started doing the research.

I found that the Davek Solo umbrella (which you can see here) has a lifetime warranty and a lot of recommendations for how well it works. The catch? It costs $99. I would have to buy ten $10 umbrellas to make this worthwhile.

How long does a $10 umbrella last? In our house, I’d say that they last two or three years before becoming unusable and being replaced. So, this Davek Solo would need to last about thirty years to make it worthwhile.

Does a cheap umbrella do the job well enough? Sure. So, my plan was to buy a $10 umbrella for now, add the Davek Solo to my wish list, and then wait until the new one fails and reassess.

A Final Thought: Research Is King

If you are considering a “buy it for life” purchase, you owe it to yourself to do some real research before you buy it. Never, ever trust a salesperson’s word on it. Never, ever trust a brochure. Instead, head to impartial sources like Consumer Reports or guidebooks from the library that discuss this kind of equipment. Look for impartial publications that focus on these items and see what they say (I trust Cooks Illustrated for kitchenware, for example).

The factors I always look for are comparative price between the cheap and the “buy-it-for-life” version, the maintenance needed for the expensive version, how well the cheap version actually works, and whether or not the expensive version needs a lot of additional products to keep going (a very bad thing).

Sometimes, these factors push me clearly toward buying a cheap version when I need a replacement; at other times, the factors push me toward a “buy it for life” version. There isn’t one answer that always works, but there are always a handful of factors worth considering when making the choice.

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