Breaking Out of the ‘Cheap’ Cycle

For the longest time, Sarah and I bickered about my socks.

I’m pretty hard on socks for some reason. Maybe it’s just my tendency to keep wearing them too long. Whatever the reason, I had quite a collection of socks with little holes by the toes that I kept wearing, and Sarah loathed them.

The thing is, it seemed like I barely wore them at all before the toes would start to wear out, and then the heels. I’d always buy a bag of pretty cheap socks, wear them to oblivion, toss them in the rag bag when Sarah would complain about toe holes, and then buy more.

As a result, I was buying a bag of cheap socks on a pretty frequent basis, more frequent than I realized. I couldn’t really justify spending much on socks when they’d just wear out.

Finally, one day, after hearing Sarah complain about my beat-up socks, I simply suggested that if she wanted me to wear socks without holes, she should get me some well made socks.

For Christmas that year, she did just that. I received a few pairs of Darn Tough merino wool Hike/Trek socks (here are the specific ones that I have). They’re $18 MSRP per pair, which seemed absolutely crazy to me when I could buy a bag of 10 white ankle socks at the store for roughly the same price.

However, I’m still wearing those socks, several years later. I don’t even want to guess how many times I’ve washed and worn those first couple of pairs of Darn Tough socks and they still look basically new. Previously, when I would buy bags of socks, they would be showing major wear after 10 or 15 washings, likely have toe holes shortly thereafter, and then wind up in the rag bag, only to be replaced. The higher quality socks I have now have lasted for literally years – dozens and dozens of washings and wearings – and have saved me at least as much as the pair originally cost by simply eliminating my need to buy new socks.

Of course, the core issue is that many people can’t really afford to drop almost $20 on a single pair of socks. That’s something that seems crazy in a person’s monthly budget – it’s just outside the realm of what seems affordable. If a person on a tight budget starts to run low on socks, are they going to buy a single pair for $18, even though it might last and last, or are they going to buy 10 functional pairs for a similar price (or probably less) that will work well for a year or so?

This isn’t just about socks. It’s about things like food containers and light bulbs and dress shirts and kitchen knives and shoes and pillows and on and on and on. The reliable versions of these items – the ones that do the job well while lasting and lasting and lasting – are expensive compared to the cheap version that will get the job done for a little while before being junked out.

When money is tight, you’re often shoehorned into buying the cheap version of the item. While this solves the problem in the short term, what you’re usually doing is just kicking the can down the road six months or a year or two years or whatever until that version you just bought wears out and then you’re back to where you started.

On the other hand, if you spent a lot and bought a reliable version up front, that cycle gets much, much longer. It becomes a matter of five years or 10 years or a lifetime before you have to even consider replacing the item, and it does the job well, too.

Yet, when you’re on a tight budget, that high-quality, reliable version of an everyday item is just out of reach, or else it just seems like a frivolous purchase, even though the total cost of ownership is lower over the time you’re using the product and it’ll save you time and headache dealing with a failing item and replacing it down the road.

I’ve been there, and it’s rough. You’re trying to keep your spending low, but when you do that, you end up buying cheap items that end up costing you more down the road. Sometimes, you’re basically forced into that situation.

I like to put it like this: Sometimes, people can’t afford the low cost of ownership items. That seems strange, but the issue is that items that have a low cost of ownership are often items with a big upfront cost, and people often can’t afford that upfront cost. An $18 pair of socks might last for years and years and years and it’s very likely that such a pair will end up costing you less than buying bags of cheap socks, but it’s $18 for a pair of socks. 

There is a road out, however. Here are several things you can do to help break out of the cycle of buying cheap versions of the items you rely on so that you can get reliable ones that won’t fail constantly.

Ask for reliable items you’ll actually use as gifts.

Simply mention to anyone who’s buying gifts for you to give you something really practical this year: a well-made and highly reliable version of an item you use all the time. A pair or two of well-made socks is a perfect example, but it can be anything. Maybe you’ll want some sturdy food storage containers. Maybe you’ll want a really well made shirt from Land’s End.

The point is that you’ll wind up with an item you’ll actually use that will last for as long as several “cheap” versions of the same item.

So, what happens over time? You’re no longer having to buy regular replacements for that specific cheap item. Instead, you can save up that money you’re not spending and buy another good reliable item. Over time, you can do it again, and again, and again. At that point, you’re far less likely to have to regularly replace things and when you do need to do so, you can buy something that’s of high quality and reliable.

Put aside a few spare dollars here and there for high-quality replacements.

Here’s another strategy to consider. Just put one or two dollars a week aside somewhere and then use it to buy a high quality item that won’t be replaced frequently.

Put aside two bucks a week, then buy a high-quality pair of socks after two months. Do that for a year and you have six pairs of socks that you basically won’t have to replace for years and years. The need to buy a big sack of socks on a regular basis more or less vanishes, which is a long-term savings.

Do the same thing for things like LED lightbulbs, high quality food containers, cast iron pans, truly well made shoes, and other items that will last and last and won’t have to be replaced for a very long time. Doing this eliminates the ongoing cost of replacing those items in your life, making it easier to save going forward, and when you run out of items to replace in your life, you’ll have a lot of money each week that you can easily put toward other financial goals (like saving for a new car or paying off debt).

‘Upgrade’ slowly, not all at once.

You don’t need to run out and replace all of your socks with expensive ones. Just replace one pair at a time and put the new socks in your normal rotation. Eventually, your full rotation will be high quality.

You don’t need to run out and replace all of your light bulbs at once. Just buy a single LED when you can afford it and replace a normal incandescent or CFL bulb with one. Keep doing this and eventually all of your bulbs are LEDs.

You don’t need to run out and replace all of your food containers at once. Just buy a really well made food container and start using it regularly, and slowly replace all of the others and toss the old beat up ones that don’t seal well. Keep doing this and you’ll eventually have a full repertoire of food containers that will last for many years.

Tackle the low-hanging fruit first.

Focus on buying well-made replacements for inexpensive items first, because even the well-made versions of things like socks or light bulbs are still relatively inexpensive. Then, as you find yourself rarely having to replace those inexpensive items any more, it will gradually become easier to save up for replacements for more expensive items, like pots and pans.

If you start with the less expensive stuff and use the “dollar a week” technique, you’ll soon break out of the regular replacement cycle with those things and can slowly move into buying well made clothing, well made shoes, a really great pillow, and so on. Over time, you’ll find yourself moving out of the old replacement cycle for those things as well, and that ends up cutting significantly into your regular spending.

Overall, the strategy is simple. Start small, a step at a time, even if you’re just putting a dollar a week toward the plan. Focus on the inexpensive things you use constantly and have to replace frequently. Find high quality reliable versions of those items and buy them gradually, integrating them into your life. As your regular expenses decline a little, use that savings to start gradually replacing more and more expensive things with high quality reliable versions that you won’t have to replace for a very long time. Eventually, you’ve cut a whole bunch of regular replacement spending out of your budget, just like magic.

Good luck.

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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.