Updated on 06.05.14

Reliability Is the Most Important Feature (12/365)

Trent Hamm

Reliability Is the Most Important Feature (12/365)

Far and away, reliability is the most important feature when buying a product you’re actually going to depend on regularly in your life. From washing machines to televisions, from kitchen knives to media players, reliability is an incredibly valuable feature. To be honest, I put reliability first with almost everything that I buy.

The catch is that reliability is boring. It’s not a gee-whiz feature. It doesn’t walk your dog or make you an omelet for breakfast. It doesn’t manage your music library or allow you to watch content from seventeen different streaming services.

It just sits there and keeps working, day after day.

It means far fewer trips to the repairman. Every single time you have to have an item repaired, you start off by finding yourself in a situation where you’re doing without an item. This itself can cause a hassle, often causing you to spend time, energy, and money just to make do without the item.

It means far fewer repair costs. You also have to invest time and energy into the repairs themselves. It takes time to take an item in for repair or to contact someone to come to your house to repair the item. It takes money to pay for the repair service.

It means a longer product cycle. If the product is highly reliable, you’re not going to be replacing it for a long time. It will last longer than other products, which means that you have many more years before you need to replace it than with less reliable products.

Each of these things saves you money, time, and effort, and they’re all thanks to the most important element, reliability.

I’ll give you an example from my own kitchen. I’ve mentioned before that I’m slowly replacing all of my kitchenware with enameled cast iron pots from a reliable manufacturer (Le Creuset) and cast iron skillets from Lodge.

These items cost more than the pots and pans I used to buy, which were mostly Teflon-coated low-end pots and pans from the local department store.

Let’s say that I would spend $25 on a six quart pot from the local store versus $200 (!) for an enameled cast iron 5.5 quart pot from Le Creuset. The six quart pot comes with a three year warranty, while the enameled cast iron pot comes with a 101 year warranty.

I’ve owned two of the low-end pots over the years. With one of them, the handle snapped off at about the six year mark, and with the other, the coating began to come off at about the five year mark.

So, I had to buy two of those pots over an 11 year period. That cost me $50 in pots alone. The unreliability of the pots caused two meals to be ruined, easily $10 per meal. There’s also the time and energy lost to the two failed meals (cleaning up the mess and preparing something else – an hour each, let’s say), plus the time invested in buying new pots, plus a small amount of money spent buying the new pots. Let’s say $65 and two and a half hours lost over eleven years.

With the enameled cast iron, if it manages to fail within 101 years, I just call the manufacturer, read off the number on the bottom, and it’s replaced quickly. Because it’s made so well, it’s likely not going to have a catastrophic failure. So, assuming I paid for a 100 year lifetme for the pot, that’s $2 per year. Over 11 years, I will have essentially incurred a cost of just $22 (and no hours lost) on that enameled pot.

By paying more for reliability, I’m actually saving a lot of money over time.

You can go through countless different items in your home and repeat this type of calculation. You’ll find that, time and time again, reliability saves you significant money, even if it means a bigger sticker price up front. Reliability is boring, but it’s a money saver over and over again.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book 365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. Jackowick says:

    Consumers have lost a sense of reliable investments in durable goods. People have fallen for the TV upgrade cycle and now I see people updating their appliances after 5 years! IT’S AN OVEN NOT A SWEATER!

    I bought a new dryer when mine broke. I did NOT buy the matching washer because I DIDN’T NEED IT. The sales rep also tipped me off that my washer/dryer mates go in 3-5 year body cycles, so I had about 2-3 years if I wanted to buy the matching one. I won’t. I will wait until it breaks.

    I’m sure some people “need” the matching one, but I laugh at them. Laugh laugh laugh.

  2. lurker carl says:

    Reliability is irrevelant if the product doesn’t meet your needs or is outrageously expensive.

  3. Riki says:

    I am definitely a believer in buying quality merchandise that lasts. Not for everything, only in the areas that matter to me. Furniture is one (although I buy it all second hand), and computers are another. Sure, I paid more up front for a macbook but 4.5 years later that computer is still a pleasure to use every day and I expect to get at least 6 years of heavy use from it (in fact, my photography business relies on it). It was worth every penny and then some.

    There is a line where the upfront cost isn’t worth it, of course. It’s no good to buy high quality stuff because it’s more “reliable” if you don’t use it very often, don’t use it properly, or just want it for the prestige of owning something fancy. And Trent, you really don’t have to justify spending $200 on a pot with questionable calculations that prove its worth. It’s ok to buy something that makes your life easier and that you enjoy, even if it is expensive.

    (I will confess my deepest secret: I really, really want the fanciest, prettiest washer and dryer money can buy. I stroke them fondly when out shopping and dream about how pretty my laundry room could be. I imagine how much fun laundry would be in a sleek red front-loader. But alas, I will stick with my base model, plain white, your-mother-had-the-same-one-15-years-ago washer and dryer until they finally wear out. But a girl can dream, can’t she?)

  4. Matt says:

    “So, assuming I paid for a 100 year lifetime for the pot, that’s $2 per year.”

    I don’t think you can count years beyond your own expected lifespan into the equation…

    Lodge also makes enameled cast iron, btw. It costs about 1/4 the price of Le Creuset and gets very good reviews.

  5. valleycat1 says:

    Comparing cheaply made nonstick pans to a Le Creuset is apples to oranges. There are less expensive brands of enameled ironware that in our experience have performed and held up just as well as our one LC piece.

  6. Michelle says:

    I think it’s about maximizing value vs reliability. Take the enamel cast iron, maybe my Le Creuset will last for 101 years, but it costs $200. My Lodge enamel cast iron will last 50 years, and only costs $80. I’m going to go for the Lodge, because for me, over my lifetime, the reliability is going to be about the same. Will I be able to pass my cast iron pot down to my children? Maybe not, but I’m OK with that.

  7. Genny says:

    Why is it that people think they need insanely expensive cookware to produce decent food for their families? I think this actually turns more people off to home cooking. I have been cooking for 30 plus years using aluminum pots and Pyrex dishes and my grandmother’s cast iron skillets. Although I do not produce gourmet meals, my family and friends enjoy my food. I like to try out new recipes and cooking techniques instead of new cookware. I have produced tons of cookies, cakes, and brownies with my trusty old Sunbeam hand mixer as well. I’m sure I could get better results with higher quality cookware, but I would rather spend the money on groceries and trips to Hawaii :)

  8. Genny says:

    Rant part 2-I have been really struggling with conflicting desires over a new refrigerator. Ours is more than seventeen years old. However, it still works. Every time I walk into Home Depot (our date night destination) I embrace the lovely stainless steel model with french doors and the in the door ice and water dispenser. I really want it but don’t want to buy a new one until our old one dies. I am concerned that given our track record with new appliances, any new refrigerator I buy may not last seventeen plus years.

  9. Jane says:

    I agree with Genny about the expensive cookware. How many $200 mixers sit around collecting dust? I have a 1980s hand mixer my mother gave me that works just fine. Of course, I don’t really mix things that much. If you did, it would certainly make sense to buy a big one. But when people get married, they often register for one even if they don’t bake that much.

    My husband wanted some All-Clad pots, so for our wedding I humored him and registered for a few ridiculously expensive pots. I will say they are lovely and indestructible, but I still don’t necessarily see the difference between how they perform compared to our cheap pots. If anything, they are harder to clean because they are so blasted heavy.

    I can’t bring myself to pay for an expensive washer and dryer featured in the photo. I just can’t justify the expense. I don’t care how efficient they are. My Kenmore uprights bought used for $300 work just fine.

    High quality furniture and carpets are hard to want to “invest” in when you have young kids or pets. We buy the cheapest that looks decent to us.

  10. Johanna says:

    If your $200 pot breaks and you have to get it replaced under the 101-year warranty, you’ve still ruined your meal, haven’t you? So you still have that time cost and the cost for the wasted ingredients.

    I agree with the others who point out that reliable cookware doesn’t have to cost a fortune. I have some pots and pans (some pyrex, some stainless steel) that are probably older than I am, I’m sure they didn’t cost anywhere near $200 new, and they work just fine.

  11. Gretchen says:

    You are really complaining about a $25 lasting 6 years?

    I don’t like cast iron. Glad I figured that out with the cheapy Target stock pot Cook’s illustrated loved (I believe no longer in production) then the $200 pot.

    How does one check appliance relabilty? CR isn’t what it used to be.

  12. Des says:

    I have the same cheap “starter” pot I bought when I left home at 18. Less than $20, and 10 years later it is still fine. It has even seen many a dishwasher cycle (would you dare put a $200 pot in the dishwasher? What is your time hand-washing over those 101 years worth?)

    Anecdotes do not statistics make. You had bad pots, I got a good one. OTOH, I blew out three blenders in 4 years before buying a Vitamix. It may of may not have been the best financial decision, but I love it and I use it every day, so it was worth it to me. YMMV.

  13. Jackie says:

    A 17 year old fridge is horribly inefficient compared to a new one. Check out the energy star website for some comparisons of expected electricity savings. Also note that many utilities offer refrigerator recycling rebates (in addition to rebates on new fridges) where they give you $50 at take away and destroy old fridges to get the power hogs out of circulation.

  14. Jules says:

    OK, here’s the thing: having cooked with enameled, cast iron, and stainless steel pots, I have to say that I really don’t see what the big deal is with Le Creuset’s line of enameled cast-iron pots. You can kid yourself that it’s a great warranty, etc, but come on–unless you’re as clumsy as I am, I don’t think you’ll be dropping the pots so that they’ll shatter. And if you do drop the pot, the pot will probably be the least of your worries (fixing the dent in the floor is going to take up a lot more time). And I haven’t dropped a pot yet. What really matters most is cleaning and knowing how to maintain your pots and pans.

    You buy cookware so that you can cook, but like an amateur photographer who thinks the latest camera will turn him into Ansel Adams, cookware doesn’t make the cook.

  15. Melanie says:

    I have Le Creuset and Staub pans and I have T-Fal. I bought the T-Fal as a starter set and really haven’t used it since getting my cast iron pots. I bought the first Le Creuset pot on a whim and love it, I use it everyday. I haven’t used the T-Fal since and it has been about 3 years but my husband won’t let me get rid of it. When I was looking to add to my cast iron collection (which totals 3 pans and a frying pan) I looked at cheaper options but they mostly had bad user reviews and had inferior enamel coatings. I looked at discount stores and many of the cheaper pans had chips in the coating or coating that was peeling off the pan. Sure cheaper pots and pans work just fine but I prefer enameled cast iron. The warranty is great but I seriously doubt I will ever need to use it.

  16. deRuiter says:

    If you’re looking for cheap, great cast iron pans, hunt yard, estate and garage sales for old cast iorn pans which were American made. It doesn’t have to be a Griswold, although you will find many of them for next to nothing. AnY OLD American made cast iron pan will have a superb, smooth cooking surface because at one time this mattered to manufacturers. Don’t buy one of the souvenir pans from Cracker Barrel, modern cast iron, or any pan made in China, they are not old enough that the manufacturers cared about the surface. Even a pan caked with decades of rust and fossilized grease can generally be brought back to be a finer piece of cookware than any modern pan including Lodge. If the pan has minimal rust, then a Brillo pad with elbow grease will clean it. If the gunk is caked on (old hardened cooking grease) you can use a drill with wire brush to remove the gunk. Then 1. Wash pan with hot soapy water and dry thoroughly with a towel. 2. Coat the pan lightly with a bit of cooking oil rubbed on with on a paper towel, covering all the surfaces, and bake in oven for an hour or several hours. Do this when you’re already baking a meatloaf or oven casserole, to use heat that you’re already generating and bake the pan at no extra cost. After an hour or a couple of hours (better) you turn off oven, remove casserole or meatloaf, and leave the empty cast iron in the oven to gradually cool down to room temperature. Voila! You’ve got a cast iron pan with a super silky cooking surface. We’ve got a whole collection of superb cast iron cook ware for a couple of dollars each. Modern cast iron pans have a pebbly cooking surface which nothing will ever fixed, the factories don’t bother to make the cooking area super smooth. On the other hand, I know a lot of fine country cooks including my sainted Grandmother who turned out three meals a day for large numbers of people with some cast iron and a conglomeration of cheap, dented pots for decades with no problems. If you have $200. for a pot and you want it, buy the thing!

  17. ChrisD says:

    But how do you figure out reliability!

    Price is not, in itself, a guide, especially as people know that if you whack on a high price people will ASSUME it is high quality, regardless of the reality.

    I think this is the main point. I believe everyone would buy reliable if they could, perhaps there needs to be a publicly available checklist for people to print out and take to stores to go over as they shop (going for the demographic that doesn’t have time/doesn’t make time to research purchases in advance). (in the UK ‘which’ is not free and therefore not something everyone will look up).

    A friend at work made a mistake that I thought would be a no-brainer, the washing machine drum was not one piece of metal but the sticking in bits were plastic added to the metal drum. Of course the plastic part broke off. Then they called out a repair man and her husband paid a call out fee even though the machine was within warranty. Then they had difficulty getting the money back. In hindsight ‘don’t buy a drum with stuck on plastic parts’ seems obvious, but evidently enough people are falling for it for the manufacturer to be able to sell the machine.

    Re price, see Priceless by Poundstone which argues that though we have a good sense of relative values, our brains are just not capable of figuring out absolute values and anybody can be made to think any price is reasonable. E.g. I guess La Cruset is genuinely good quality and is beautifully designed, but I would think the sale price of the pot should be related to the cost of manufacturing the pot, and I am sure that they had a hefty premium to this that makes La Cruset a status symbol that then justifies it’s high price for those people wanting status (status symbols don’t work if they are reasonable priced) also those people who want a pot in any colour that is not metal. Pricing is crazy.

  18. MP3 says:

    Where to start…I have a Le Creuset, which I bought used on ebay for a fraction of the cost and it’s amazing for stews, braising, and risottos. I love to cook, and I am working towards going to culinary school for a change in careers.

    Teflon – the non-stick coating is toxic at high temperatures and I’m not so certain I want teflon flakes (when the pans start flaking) in my food. The sooner we all ditch teflon the better.

    I currently am building my core knife set (chef’s knife, paring knife, carving knife). Good sharp knives make all the difference in the kitchen and people will likely scoff at how much I paid for my Mac chef’s knife ($275) but I won’t trade back to my cheap $50 knife after using this one. Slicing through a potato is like slicing through butter. Cutting vegs is unbelievably fast, and you can get them so thin. It comes with an amazing warrantee. I’m in love with my Mac knife…but then it brings value to something I love to do – cook.

  19. Angie unduplicated says:

    @deRuiter-Wirebrushing a vintage iron skillet will roughen the surface. Use a lye solution to remove rust, neutralize with vinegar, and reseason the surface. A Lodge should last an easy hundred years. I’ve seen vintage iron skillets worn thin as cheap Teflon, but still used daily. Nix the overseas junk-your cornbread and fried okra will stick like they’re glued on.

  20. Jane says:

    I don’t know anything about cleaning cast iron, but for regular cookware and stainless, Bar Keeper’s Friend is incredible. If your cookware or bakeware is at all looking tired or has caked on grease, you’ll be amazed what Bar Keeper’s friend can do for it. I buy it at Home Depot.

  21. SLCCOM says:

    Re: fancy schmancy refrigerators. Yes, a newer one will be more energy efficient, but how much more? The increase in efficiency is flattening over time. Trading in your 1978 unit for a 1999 one will be a huge increase in efficiency. Trading in your 1999 for your 2012, not so much.

    Those door dispensers are a royal pain. They have filters that need changing, and lots of moving parts so they break easier. The ice dispenser eats a huge volume of the freezer. Do some research on various issues as side-by-side, top freezer vs bottom freezer, and that kind of thing. Stainless steel will be “old-fashioned” in five years or so; buying for the “in” style is an endless chase that you’ll never win. And honestly, the newer the appliance, the less reliable it generally is. Our stove repairperson told us that we would have a much, much higher-quality stove by fixing the old one we had over getting a new piece of junk. Our 1957 GE oven, which was original with our house, is still going strong. It needed a new heating element and some rewiring, but that is easy enough.

  22. Jeremy says:

    My wife and I just received a Le Creuset as a gift. We cannot believe the quality and the usefulness of their products. Well worth the money if you cook frequently.

    Highly recommend!

  23. AnnJo says:

    LeCreuset’s life-time warranty does not cover damage caused by misuse, as I discovered when a houseguest destroyed the enamel coating on one of mine with a Brillo pad. The chances that a product in daily use will not be misused over the course of 50 or 100 years is small.

    I have both Le Creuset and Lodge enameled cast iron, and although there is some difference in quality, it’s not a 500% difference, as is the price difference.

  24. Katie says:

    LeCreuset’s life-time warranty does not cover damage caused by misuse, as I discovered when a houseguest destroyed the enamel coating on one of mine with a Brillo pad. The chances that a product in daily use will not be misused over the course of 50 or 100 years is small.

    This is why I’m reluctant to splash out for really quality expensive items most of the time. E.g., that expensive cashmere sweater might last long enough to be worth it in an ideal world, but what are the chances that I’m not going to ruin it at the wash at about the same time I’d ruin a normal sweater in the wash?

  25. Steve says:

    Unless you plan on living 101 years, you can’t amortize your fancy pan over that time period.

  26. Genny says:

    Re: #21-thanks for your input-my husband and I talked about it, and we are definitely holding off on the new refrigerator for now.

    P.S. Our wall oven circa 1962 works like a charm too. :)

  27. lee says:

    I thoroughly agree with trent on this post, reliability is everything.
    I bought some very expensive stainless steel pans with a lifetime guarantee when I got married 34 years ago and I am still using them now.
    I don’t need all the pans, now there are just the two of us at home, so my daughter will be having two of them when she gets her own place and we will buy some more to make up the set for her.Yes they are still making them.
    Also we had a fridge when we first got married that we only replaced 10 years ago – it was 14 years old when we got it. We gave it to our local church hall and they used it for a further 4 years. We only got a new one because we needed a bigger one.
    I dont know how old my microwave is I can’t remember but we have certainly had it more than 12 years
    We have only had our dryer 10 years but my mum had it for 8 years before that!
    I could go on -the car we had for 22 years etc
    and no our house does not look old and uncared for , quite the opposite- my kids said their friends said our house is “posh”.

  28. Skrpune says:

    I try to invest in quality pieces if I intend to use them for a considerable amount of time. Classic, timeless pieces of clothing unlikely to go out of style are worth the investment. I spend a good chunk of time researching any major expenditures, and when possible/reasonable, go with something that’s used over new. For example, I got a killer deal on a full length wool coat by being patient & trolling thrift stores – less than $30, and I have a classic piece that will last me a long time.

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