Buying the Best, or Just Good Enough?

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re going to the store to buy a new washing machine because your old one died. The store has a ton of options available, and as you’re looking on your phone at reviews, it’s pretty clear that there are a couple of mid-priced models with some good reviews and a couple of more expensive models with great reviews. Which one do you choose?

On the other hand, let’s imagine that you’re moving into your first apartment and you need some items for your kitchen. You have a reasonable budget to work with. Do you buy a small number of really high-quality items that will last for a long time, or do you buy a lot of inexpensive items that will work for now but will need to be replaced when they break?

It’s that constant dilemma of buying new things or replacing things. Do you get something that’s just minimally good enough to meet your needs for the moment, or do you spend a lot more to buy something that will do a great job both now and for a long time?

Do you buy the best, or just good enough?

It’s not an easy question to answer, and practices will definitely differ from person to person depending on things like their current financial situation. Here’s how I make that decision for myself.

Establish what you mean by “good enough” and “best.”

For me, this is usually settled by a look at Consumer Reports, which I rely on for comparative reviews of all kinds of things, big and small.

In general, for me, the “good enough” option is whichever one Consumer Reports identifies as a “Best Buy.” That’s usually the item that offers a lot of bang for the buck, though it might not be the best in class.

On the other hand, the “best” option is usually their top-ranked option, usually designated with a “Recommended” checkmark. These usually are the best in class and are substantially more reliable and better made than the “Best Buy” option.

I’ll usually try to list a few options in each of those two categories. For example, if I’m buying a washing machine, I’ll usually list off three washers that are marked as “Best Buy” options and three washers that are marked with “Recommended.” This gives me a much greater ability to shop around and look for discounts, regardless of what I decide on.

Can you easily afford the “best” option without causing financial difficulty?

If you can’t afford the “best” option without incurring noticeable short term financial problems, then you shouldn’t be considering that option. It’s that simple.

Going into debt — particularly high-interest debt, the kind you’ll usually fall into if you’re buying consumer products — to buy a more expensive item when you can afford a “good enough” version without going into debt makes that choice easy.

What is the drawback of failure?

For a lot of items, there are not many drawbacks to a failure. It might mean that you toss a meal or something like that, but it’s not a crisis.

For some items, however, a failure at the wrong time can be very problematic, and in those cases, spending more, particularly for reliability, is well worth it.

For example, I’m much more concerned about reliability when I’m looking at a refrigerator or a deep freezer than I am if I’m looking at a skillet. I’m more concerned about reliability with a large appliance than a small item because the replacement process is easier, and I’m more concerned about something that is keeping lots of food safe than something that, at worst, might ruin one meal.

Distinguish between features that you truly need and which ones are “cool.”

It is tempting to start paying more for “cool” features that seem like something you would use, but I’d argue against that, particularly with expensive items that you’re going to rely on.

Generally, “cool” features mean more points of failure, and it also means a higher sticker price. A washing machine that can start running loads over wi-fi seems pretty amazing, but now there’s an onboard computer that can fail, (likely) a display that can fail and that comes on top of all of the normal washing machine components.

It’s fine for a purchase to have features that you will genuinely find useful, but are those features you’re looking at really meaningful or useful to you, or are they just “cool”? Don’t pay for the cool features unless you’re buying something you’re not relying on at all.

Is this something you’ve used before and have worn out?

If you have used this type of item before, you should have a good sense of how much you use it and how you use it, which should give you a much better indication of future use. In general, the more frequently I have used an item in the past, the more likely I am to invest in a higher quality, more reliable version of it.

On the other hand, if this item is new to me, I’m probably not even aiming for the “just good enough” version (unless I’ve used some kind of precursor and I know this item will be useful). I’m likely to look for a secondhand version of the “just good enough” item or anything that will meet my basic needs for a while as I figure out how I’m going to use this item.

Then, when I need to replace it — or, more accurately, if I ever need to replace it because I actually used it that much — then I can go back to the “good enough” or “the best” question with my replacement purchase.

If I’m buying a type of item I’ve never bought before, I’m usually buying it used and, if I can’t, I’m buying the absolute least expensive “good enough” version I can find, so I can establish how much I use it and how often I use it before investing a lot of money. The investment comes when I replace that “first” item.

If I’m buying an item that I use and rely on daily or near-daily, or an item that causes a lot of problems if it fails, I’m probably going for the “buying the best” option. I’m going to research it like crazy, usually starting with Consumer Reports but delving into trusted publications that are more specific to the item if needed, and then buy something that’s going to absolutely nail my needs.

Otherwise, I’m buying a “just good enough” item. I usually just look for the “best buy” or “bang for the buck” recommendations in comparative reviews from sources I trust, like Consumer Reports. If the item isn’t something I strongly rely on, I may even choose to save a lot of money and buy a used model.

In short, there isn’t an answer to the “buy the best, or just good enough” question that’s perfect for all situations. Rather, your answer should depend on your specific buying situation and a lot of other factors.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.