A Tale of Five Lamps

A few weeks ago, the desk lamp I use at my standing desk went on the fritz. I thought at first that it was just a bad light bulb, but I quickly figured out that there was something fundamentally wrong with the lamp.

At that point, I had some decisions to make. I could spend some time taking the lamp apart, figuring out what was wrong with it internally, and attempting to fix it. This actually wouldn’t be too bad of a task. I could probably fix the issue with an hour, a small set of tools, some solder, and maybe a brief trip to a hardware store.

On the other hand, I could simply buy a new lamp for my desk. The lamp I was using was purchased for a dollar or two at a yard sale and served its purpose well for a few years. Is another used lamp the right solution? Or, since I rely on it every day, should I look for a better model?

My instinct in this situation is to repair it if I have a spare hour or so and the lamp itself is decent other than the malfunction. If that’s not true, I’ll check a few places for used lamps, then head to a store and buy a new cheap lamp. In other words, repair if it’s reasonable, otherwise look quickly for a $1 lamp and, if none are available, buy a $10 lamp.

Ordinarily, I would just operate by this instinct, but I wanted to stop and dig a little deeper into this decision. Which of these branching paths should I choose? Which is the one that makes the most sense for a financially thoughtful person? Perhaps most important, what underlying principles really guide this decision and can thus be applied to lots of financial choices?

Let’s work through some of the options.

The (Likely) $0 Lamp – Repairing It

Let’s say I decide to repair the lamp. A lamp is not a complex item to repair. I have the tools I would need to repair the lamp in my garage and within half an hour or so of procedural experimentation to figure out what the problem is. Even if I didn’t know the first thing about a lamp, it would only take a few Youtube viewings to get the idea (though I might not have the tools on hand to fix it).

Most likely, I can repair it with the items we have on hand. If not, a trip to a hardware store and a very minimal expense will give me what I need to fix it.

This approach is one that kind of feeds on itself. The more adept you get at repairing small things like lamps, the easier and less intimidating it becomes. I can easily repair things like frayed or cut power cords, toilets, and all manner of small items at home.

There are a few drawbacks, though. For starters, this is almost always going to be the most time-intensive solution. I’ll need some time to carefully take the lamp apart, safely figure out what the problem is, and then repair it. Half an hour is a decent guess, but it might take longer (or it might take less time). Of course, the time investment goes down with more experience. There may also be extra costs, especially if I’m new at this type of repair and don’t have adequate tools. In other words, the time investment and the cost of this approach drops significantly the more I’ve chosen this route in the past.

The $1 Lamp – Buying It Used

Let’s say I don’t want to (or can’t) repair the lamp. One option is to simply buy a used lamp to replace it.

I can check local secondhand shops for lamps, ask around on social media, or hit yard sales during the right season. Estate sales often have lamps for a pittance.

The problem with this approach is that selection is really limited. It’s all about what happens to be available in the secondary market at that exact moment. What have people dropped off at Goodwill or the Salvation Army recently?

If I don’t mind having a strange-looking desk lamp, I’ll probably find something that fits the bill. If I’m more specific in terms of the exact style of desk lamp I want, I’m much less likely to find success.

In other words, this solution works well for more flexible people. People who aren’t married to one exact option – a specific style of desk lamp, or a very specific model of bread maker, or whatever it is they’re looking for – will probably find something that works.

Another matter to consider is that while a used item will likely have most of the same lifetime of a new lamp, it will probably have somewhat less of a lifespan and have a higher chance of having a problem and not working well. Lamps usually wind up in secondhand stores because someone wants a new lamp for aesthetic reasons or other specific need-based reasons, but sometimes someone will take a lamp with a functionality problem to a secondhand store. This usually just means there’s a chance of winding up with a lamp that doesn’t work, which is fine if you’re willing to repair it. The thing is, you’re spending $1 for a lamp, so even if it works well for just a little while, you probably got value out of it.

As I mentioned, this is my default path for replacing things in my house that I don’t rely on every day, but that I do find useful to have around or if I’m giving something a trial run. I’ll just look for a used version in those cases, which is why I have things like a used bread maker and a used electric tea kettle and a used bookshelf, just among the things I can see at a glance while writing this article.

The $10 Lamp – Buying It Cheap

The next option is to buy a new but cheap entry level lamp, the kind that you’ll find in ample abundance at big box retailers like Wal-Mart. These usually range around $10-20 and aren’t anything fancy, but they’ll get the job done for years.

Lamps in this category are usually aesthetically plain and functionally simple. They do the basic job you ask of them and do it well, at least for a while. They’re usually made in the most inexpensive way possible, both inside and out, and that usually means that their lifespan will be relatively short, though in the case of a really simple item like a lamp, it should still have a reasonable lifespan. The more complex the item, the faster it will run into issues if you buy a cheap version; thankfully, a lamp is a very simple item.

If I were buying a lamp in a room that I were showing off to guests and was highly concerned about keeping up appearances, I probably wouldn’t go for this lamp. However, this is a lamp for my work desk in an out-of-the-way spot in my home. It’s not going to be shown off to guests on any regular basis and, well, it’s just a functional desk lamp. A $10 lamp would work just fine here and solve the problem for the foreseeable future.

I’m also likely giving up some functionality and some reliability with this purchase. The lamp is probably going to be stationary and not easy to adjust and move around. It has a chance of having some internal flaws that will reduce its lifespan, and fat chance of being able to return it after a week or two of use. Still, it should perform the basic job well.

The $100 Lamp – Buying a Mid-Grade Lamp

Recognize that at this point, I’m talking about lamps that are somewhere in the $20 to $200 range, not strictly $100.

At this point, you’re buying a high end version of a cheap lamp or a low end version of a truly well made lamp. This is the price range for an end table lamp that looks quite elegant and is decently made, or a desk lamp with several new features, but if you look close at the end table lamp you’ll notice some flaws and the desk table lamp might have swinging arm joints that require a lot of fiddling.

These tend to do the job better and more reliably than the cheap lamps, but they tend to have smaller flaws that you’ll really only notice if you’re looking closely or if you use them every single day.

I’ll use an example of this. I had a swinging arm lamp at my old desk job, one that was definitely in this price range. It was a great lamp, good enough that I wanted to take it with me when I left, but it did have a few little niggling issues. I had to constantly tighten and oil and adjust all of the joints on it to keep it from either sticking or from swinging so loosely that it wouldn’t stay in place. I loved the long arms and the huge range of positions… but sometimes it just wouldn’t stay in those positions without some fiddling.

This is the type of lamp you buy when you want a (likely) permanent solution but your budget isn’t enormous and you’re willing to accept a minor flaw or two. Generally, you buy these lamps from specialty stores (office supply, furniture) and these make up the lower end of what they sell.

Again, if you’re lucky, you might be able to stumble upon one of these types of lamps used on a great day at a Goodwill store (or other secondhand store) or a yard sale. They often pop up at estate sales, but will often cost more than a dollar or two.

I will very rarely buy anything in this range new. For me, there’s little point in buying a midrange item – it’s either something essential that I want to work extremely well and last forever, or it’s something I’ll buy used or low end. I’ll take a mid-range item like this used if I can find it for a few bucks, though.

The $1,000 Lamp – Buying the Best Lamp

I’m referring to lamps above the $200 mark (or so) here.

This is where you get into things like architect swivel lamps or exquisitely made table or floor lamps. They look elegant, function wonderfully, and hold up under close inspection and frequent use.

For a short period (perhaps a month), I worked at a table with a very high end swivel lamp. It swiveled to any position I wanted like silk, held that position for hours, never needed any adjusting or oiling during the entire month I used it, directed light perfectly to where I wanted it… it was just everything I could ever possibly want in a desk lamp. When I asked him about getting one for myself, I don’t remember the exact figure, but I know it had four numbers, which I know immediately led to a “nope” in my mind.

This is the type of item I’ll invest in if it’s something I use and rely on every day and the lower end versions have specific flaws that make them very frustrating to use. I’ll buy this high end item if execution of specific things and very high reliability is really important to me above all else and it’s an item that I literally use every single day. If those things aren’t true, I don’t buy high end items. In fact, it is very rare that I ever do.

These types of items do show up sometimes in estate sales, particularly in the estates of moderately wealthy people. It can be an opportunity to find things like very high end versions of kitchen tools, lamps, and so on at those estates, particularly if there are no descendants or if the descendants are wealthy.

What’s the Right Path To Take?

So, what’s my thought process when trying to decide what item to buy? Do I fix a broken item? Do I buy it used? Do I buy a low end item? A mid range item? A high end item? How do I decide?

This is all about quickly figuring out what’s actually important to you about the item and how frequently you’re going to use it. The most important step here is eliminating the question of the high end item. If you are sure that you’re not investing in a high end item, then the decision becomes a much smaller impact financial decision and it’s okay to make it quickly.

So, how do you know when you should be considering the high end item? My rules for that are simple.

One, a high end item is only ever a replacement for a lower-end item I already have. I don’t buy a high end version of an item if I’m not replacing a lower end version of it. I use the lower end version to determine whether it’s worth my time to invest in the high end version.

Two, a high end item must be something I use very, very frequently. Do I use this every day? Do I truly admire it every day? If I make a list of the things I use every day (or at least several times a week), it’s a surprisingly short list. I find that it is overlooking this factor that causes a lot of buying mistakes, as people overemphasize how much they use an item and talk themselves into buying a high end version of an item that they don’t rely on or use frequently, which I consider to be a misuse of money. I would far rather buy security or freedom through investing my money than buying a high end version of an item that I rarely use.

Three, a high end item must solve some problem that the lower end item doesn’t solve or correct some important flaw in the lower end item. A high end item needs to either correct a fatal flaw in a lower end item or offer some truly vital feature that the lower end item doesn’t offer. For example, with a swivel lamp, having long arms and a lamp head that stays in precise place with minimal maintenance and oiling would be this kind of feature.

Four, a high end item must be something that I rely on for great functionality. It must be an item that I need or very strongly desire to have good functionality. It has to do the job as reliably as possible.

Very, very few items pass these four tests, and if they don’t, I simply don’t buy the high end version of that item.

Another factor I consider is the Diderot effect. The Diderot effect is simply the desire one has to upgrade and replace a full set of items when you upgrade one item in that set, thus making the other ones look shabby in comparison. If you buy a couple of nice shirts, it can make the others look shabby and soon you desire to upgrade and replace all of them. You buy a new phone and suddenly you desire a new case, a new screen protector, possibly new charging devices, a new pop socket… it goes on and on. If something is going to trigger the Diderot effect, I’m suddenly extremely wary of buying a higher end version of that item.

What if I don’t replace the item at all? How bad is the downside if I don’t have that item any more? I would find life mildly frustrating without some sort of desk lamp, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. If I’m not sure, I’ll usually go for a while without the item and see how life goes without it. If things are fine without it, I won’t replace it.

If this experience shows me that I do in fact need the item but I can survive for a little while without it, I use that window to spend time shopping around for a bargain. In truth, most items fall into this class – I do want to have that item around, but there aren’t serious problems in my life if I don’t have the item for a few days or for a week. This gives me time to shop for a replacement.

Final Thoughts

So, what happened with the desk lamp? I ended up following my instincts. I took the thing apart carefully, found a loose connection, properly reconnected things with needle nose pliers and a bit of solder, and the lamp works perfectly. It took about fifteen minutes with items I already had on hand.

If that had not been the case, I would have went for a few days without a desk lamp and either figured out that I could live without it, relying on the ambient light in the room or else doing handwritten things or reading of paper documents at another table, and decided whether I really needed to replace the lamp or not.

If I did feel like a lamp replacement was needed and I decided it was absolutely crucial and that my old lamp had some critical flaws that were bothering me that I needed to replace, I would have looked for a high end lamp.

If I did feel like a lamp replacement was needed, but there wasn’t any critical flaw with the lower-end lamp I already had, I would have shopped for a used lamp for several days until I started to get really frustrated without a desk lamp, then shopped for a lower-end new one.

The thing is, most of these decisions happen instinctually. I barely actively think about them in this way, but by piecing out my thoughts on them, I’m improving my own instincts for buying decisions so that I’m spending less money on things I don’t strictly need so that I have more money for the things that really matter to me.

Often, our instincts for buying are honed at a period in our life where we’re free with our spending, and when we try to establish better financial patterns for ourselves, we view those instincts as missteps. It’s well worth the time to break down things like our buying decisions so we can really understand why we’re buying things and under what conditions so that we can work on eliminating specific mis-steps.

For me, the biggest shopping mis-steps I tend to make when replacing items is convincing myself to upgrade without a real reason to do so. I have a lamp, I use it daily, it works fine, but when it breaks, my tendency is to buy a nicer and more reliable lamp, which usually means spending more money. The truth is that for something like a lamp, which I can honestly live without, I don’t need to do this. I need to preserve my tendency to upgrade for the items that I truly rely on.

Spend some time breaking down your own shopping choices like this, both on ordinary items like laundry soap and bigger items like cell phones. How are you actually making that decision? Do each of your assumptions make sense? It might seem silly and trivial at first, but when you break down that decision, you might find that you’re making some assumptions based on your thinking from ten or twenty years ago or based upon the influence of others and that’s causing you to make poor buying decisions based on who you are right now. Finding and fixing those bad assumptions will save you a lot of money and a lot of subtle frustration and stress.

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.