Updated on 02.26.15

Expensive Items and Buying for Life

Trent Hamm

One common question I get in the reader mailbags concerns buying items for life. Given the prevalence of these questions – and many of the comments I’ve seen about my responses to them and the suggestions from readers – I thought it might make sense to dig further into the “buy it for life” idea.

First of all, the idea of “buying it for life” means that you’re focusing on reliability above all else when making a purchase. You want an item that will do a job well and keep doing it for a very long time, ideally through the end of your life.

The biggest benefit of an item that’s truly “buy it for life” is that you never have to deal with replacing it – or at least not for a very long time. That saves you money and time down the road. Plus, with a reliable item like this, you’re going to learn how to use it and it’s going to keep working the same way for a very long time. It’s just reliable – you’ll pick it up and know how to use it just fine in five or ten or more years.

The drawback of a “buy it for life” item is that it’s usually quite expensive. Almost every example I can think of where you might choose a “buy it for life” item over a “bang for the buck” item, you’re going to spend more for the “buy it for life” item.

One great example is cooking pots for your kitchen. I’d usually suggest enameled cast iron for this, as enameled cast iron pots will last practically forever and are incredibly versatile. However, even a relatively inexpensive (though still good) enameled cast iron pot – say, one made by Lodge – will set you back $60. One with a long warranty, like the one offered by Le Creuset that comes with a 101 year warranty, will set you back $200 or more. Compare that to a cheap pot that you can buy at the local dollar store that sells for $5 or $10 and it’s easy to see that the “buy it for life” version is substantially more expensive.

Another example is a belt. You can buy a belt from a department store for $10 that will last you for a few years. Or you can buy one from a leatherworker that will last for decades, but it will probably cost you $100. The leatherworker belt will last you as long as several of the department store belts – but more than that, you’ll never even have to think about it. It will just work. You won’t have to go buy a new belt every few years.

A third example is a kitchen knife. You can get a cheap chef’s knife at any department store for $10 or $15, but it will often not hold an edge for very long. You’ll have to hone it constantly in order to be able to cut things without mangling them and it will require actual sharpening before you know it – and before long, the blade is truly shot, no matter how much you sharpen it. I owned a cheap chef’s knife for just a couple of years before it required so much sharpening and honing and upkeep to even cut vegetables that it just wasn’t worth it. Replacing that $10 chef’s knife with a $100 Global was a great decision. That Global barely even needs honed; in fact, it stays so sharp all the time that I actually had to improve my techniques a little. I have never had to sharpen it; I just hone it every once in a while and in a few minutes it’s ready to cut again.

I can list dozens of examples like this, but they all point to one fundamental truth: a “buy it for life” item will often cost you several times what a low end version of that item will cost. The question is whether or not such a premium is truly “worth it” for you. I’ll walk you through my thinking on the subject.

Three Reasons to “Buy It for Life”

For me, the most important factor is how often I’ll actually use that item. This trumps almost everything else. If I use an item daily or a few times a week, I am far more likely to spend more to “buy it for life” than an item that I use once a month or once a year.

Why? Remember, the reason for buying something that will last is that you can use it again and again and again without replacing it. If an item is something that you use every day, it’s probably quite important to you that such an item is reliable.

On the other hand, if I don’t use an item on such a frequent basis, perfect reliability becomes less and less important because, frankly, the purchase becomes less important. Something that you use once in a great while is not something you rely on, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t want to invest as many resources into it.

Personally, I tend to want things that I use more than weekly to be in the “buy it for life” category. That’s my cutoff between “buy it for life” and “bang for the buck” purchasing. If I use it more than weekly, I want it to be super reliable.

Under this criteria, things like belts and kitchen pots are definitely in the “buy it for life” category, while things like pipe wrenches definitely are not in that category (at least not for me).

The next most important factor is the “upkeep cost” and waste (or lack thereof). Some items require consistent upkeep, which has both a money and time cost, while others do not.

The example I like to use here is pens. A nice professional pen can be a beautiful thing, but you’re still replacing ink cartridges from it constantly, which means that it has the upkeep of opening the thing up, replacing the ink cartridge, throwing away the old one, and closing it back up again. It’s cheaper and easier to just buy a box of good disposable pens, which end up producing only a bit more waste than the cartridges.

This actually ties strongly into the third factor, which is simplicity. A good “buy it for life” item simply performs the function that you want from it with minimal difficulty. The more difficult an item is to use and the more functions that it has, the more prone it is to failure.

Electronics are a good example here. I never consider an electronic item to be a “buy it for life” purchase. They’re designed to be multifunctional and that inherently means that there are many more points of failure on your typical desktop computer than, say, your typical kitchen knife.

Should I Spend a Lot to “Buy It for Life”?

So, given these factors, when do you know whether or not it’s a good idea to actually spend the money to buy an item that will last you for a very long time? Those three rules above can help you filter a lot of things, but they still leave a lot of grey area.

I have a simple rule that usually guides me. If I am replacing an item that has actually worn out from repeated use and the item isn’t electronic and isn’t consumable, I’m very likely to try to buy a lifelong replacement. Clothing. Knives. Kitchenware. Items like that are things that I use all the time.

Consumable items fail the “buy it for life” test because they eventually run out. If you’re using part of the item up with every use, it’s not a “buy it for life” question. Instead, you’re simply looking for “bang for the buck” – how can I get a high quality version of whatever it is that I’m consuming here for the best price?

Electronics fail the “buy it for life” test because, as I mentioned earlier, they feature many points of failure. The more components and points of failure an item has, the less likely I am to consider “buying it for life.” Instead, I look for the “best buy” purchase on such items, looking for any good version at a cheap price

It’s worth noting that many items don’t appear to be consumable, but actually are. A high quality pen is actually just a pen barrel. The ink cartridges themselves are just as consumable as disposable pens, so a high quality disposable pen that uses the same kind of ink cartridge will write just as well as that expensive pen.

Also, I rarely buy something for life if it’s a first time purchase. If I’ve never owned something like this and I’m buying it to fulfill a perceived need in my life, I won’t invest the money to buy it for life. I want to make sure that I’m actually going to use the item enough to warrant a real investment first. If I eventually do wear out the item, then I am much more confident about a “buy it for life” purchase. The only time it makes sense to “buy it for life” is if it is an item that you’re going to use and use and use – and the only way to really know that is if you’ve already used and used and used an item much like it.

For all purchases that don’t fall into the “buy it for life” camp, I follow the simple philosophy of looking for what’s considered a good version at a cheap price. I hold a pretty wide definition of “good” most of the time, as I’ll often buy generics or used items if the price is cheap enough. Honestly, the vast majority of the items I own fall into this category.

Final Thoughts

“Buying it for life” doesn’t make sense for all things that you buy, or even for most things. Instead, it’s a philosophy you should use on the things that you rely on over and over again. If you have a heavy use item that fails you from time to time and isn’t designed with a lot of potential points of failure, you’re looking at a great candidate for buying it for life. However, most things in life don’t fall into that category, so for the rest of your purchases, focus on getting a good item that solves your problems for now for the lowest price you can find.

Good luck!

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