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10 Lessons from My Well-Worn Winter Coat
This past weekend, I put my winter coat away until next November or so. It’s a hardy winter coat, a green Carhartt arctic coat, one that gets me through an Iowa winter where you can have entire weeks where the temperature doesn’t peek above 0 F. I keep a nice spring jacket around that will serve me well for temperatures down in the thirties, but the winter coat is now in “overkill” territory.
I’ve had this coat since 2003. That means this is the seventeenth time I’ve put the coat into storage for the warmer months. It’s a little worn in a few places, but it’s still as sturdy as can be and incredibly warm on a cold winter’s day.
This wonderful winter coat is kind of a living embodiment of a lot of the financial principles I live by.
Lesson #1: Paying More for a Well Made and Reliable Item Is Worth It, Because You Won’t Have to Replace It
As I said, I’ve owned this coat for 17 years. During that period, I’ve owned at least four spring jackets that I can remember. They were all somewhat less expensive than this thick winter coat, but each and every one of them has had split seams or tears or other major problems. I repaired some of those issues; other issues just weren’t worth it.
In the end, I’ve spent quite a bit more on those four (at least) lighter spring jackets than I spent on this well made winter coat, even though each of those lighter spring jackets was individually much less expensive than my winter coat.
The winter coat was well made from the start. I paid more to get a well made one, one that would last for many, many winters.
The other coats were less expensive, but they weren’t well made. I knew with some certainty that they would probably not last nearly as long as my winter coat.
What’s the lesson here? It’s worth your money to pay for something that’s genuinely well made and reliable because you’ll be able to use it for years and years and years. If you go cheap, you’re probably replacing that item before too long, and it won’t take too many replacements before that pile of cheap items was more expensive than that one well made item.
The lesson has been learned. My next spring jacket is going to last me until I’m 70.
Lesson #2: There’s No Reason Not to Use an Item Until It’s Truly Worn Out
This winter coat of mine has some signs of wear on it, don’t get me wrong. It’s clearly not a new coat any more, especially if you look closely at it. There are some spots where the fabric has worn to a very smooth patch, but it’s still strong. This coat has quite a few years of use left in it.
It’s not unsightly, though; it’s just not new.
I am reminded of an old martial arts instructor that I know. He achieved a very high level black belt, a level at which it takes an incredible amount of discipline and work and time and effort to earn another level. His belt was extremely worn, almost in tatters around him, as he approached the time to get a new belt. Yet, there was something deeply impressive about his worn belt.
“Worn” doesn’t mean bad. The idea that something being “worn” is a bad thing is a curious construct of our modern society. Something being “worn” but not broken is a sign of strength, of durability, of resilience. It’s something to be lauded.
There was a time in my life where I didn’t see it that way. Something worn meant something that needed to be replaced. Sometimes, that might be true, particularly if that wear indicates a functional problem, but often, wear simply means that an item is very well made and reliable. Much of our lives rest on a backbone of well made items that have shown a little wear.
At this point in my life, I like things that have some wear on them. That shows they’re well made. That shows they’re reliable. That shows that they’ve put in the work. I’d rather have a lot of items that have a little wear but have done the job reliably for a long time and will very likely keep doing that job reliably for a long time to come. My winter coat falls into that category, as do many of my favorite possessions.
Lesson #3: Buying a Used Car or a Smaller House or a Sensible Insurance Package (and So On) Means You Can Afford to Buy Many Other Well-Made and Reliable Items
One of the big knocks against buying a more expensive but well made and reliable items is that the upfront cost is usually pretty high. If you’re on a tight budget, a well-made $200 coat might be wonderful, but your budget only accounts for a $60 coat, so which one are you going to buy? Sure, the well made coat might outlast four of the cheap coats, but the expensive one just isn’t an option.
That’s the point at which you have to stand back and look at the big picture.
Obviously, over the long haul, a well made and reliable and highly regarded item that’s still reasonably priced is going to be the item that gives you the most bang for your buck. Over the course of 20 years, a $200 coat is going to give more value than four or five $60 coats that fall apart or look like they’re about to.
However, to get on that bandwagon, you need the resources upfront to invest in those things, plus the willpower to make good financial choices now and later.
In the short term, the best thing you can do is cut back on the big things. Rather than replacing that car, keep driving it until it’s ready to give up the ghost and is facing a big repair bill to stay on the road. Rather than having a bigger house or apartment than you need, get a smaller one – all you’re really losing is extra space to pile up stuff you don’t really need.
Those kinds of moves save hundreds of dollars a month. Then, rather than spending that money frivolously, start putting it towards stuff that returns value.
Pay off credit cards. Put it into your retirement savings. Spend a little more to get well-made reliable items like a $200 winter coat that will last for many years rather than a $60 one that will be trash in three winters.
Not only that, driving a well made car for a very long time is basically the same idea behind wearing a well made coat for a very long time. You might pay a little more up front for it, but it’s going to last and last and last until the total cost of ownership is lower (and it’s a lot less headache, too).
Lesson #4: Worrying What Other People Think Is a Trap
One of the big motivations for many people to replace things like winter coats when they show the slightest bit of wear is an over-concern with what other people think. The reality is that other people rarely think of you nearly as much as you think they do. They just don’t. Rather, people spend a lot of time thinking about themselves, and their spare thoughts about others are spread across so many other people that you rarely get a deep thought from others.
It’s called the “spotlight effect.” We think others think about us as much as we think about ourselves, which is simply impossible. We obsess over our own flaws and think others are similarly concerned – they’re not. Even if they notice the flaws, they often don’t care. Often, when someone criticizes you and is cruel, it’s because they’re grinding an axe about something completely unrelated to you.
The truth is no one is going to care about a little wear on your coat, and very few are even going to notice. People are almost never looking for those kinds of things at all because they’re just not relevant. It makes no difference in my life whether a person on the street has mild wear on their coat, so why would it even enter my mental radar? The truth is, it doesn’t.
That doesn’t mean you should give up on all hygiene and start dressing in rags. The best maxim to apply when interacting with others is to treat others as you would like to be treated, which for me means being clean, wearing clean clothes, and being friendly but not overly intrusive. Does anything really change for you if you interact with someone in a brand new coat versus someone in a coat that has mild wear that you would really only notice if you were looking for it?
Lesson #5: A New Coat When My Old One Still Works Doesn’t Bring Me Real Value or Joy
For some people, buying a new coat might bring them a burst of joy that fades quickly. For others, it may even bring some degree of lasting joy, though I would suspect that it fades as the coat’s newness does.
For me, though, my coat is not a source of joy. It’s a functional item. As long as it keeps me warm in the winter and doesn’t cause me to look too out of place, I’m happy because it’s serving its purpose. (If anything, I feel slightly good about the wear, as I noted earlier.)
If you’re buying something you don’t need, it should bring you at least some measure of real joy, ideally a lasting joy. This isn’t just about coats or about articles of clothing. It’s about everything you buy, from electronic devices to cutlery, from a cup of coffee at Starbucks to a can of black beans.
Is this something I need? If not, is it bringing me significant joy or lasting joy that I can’t easily get elsewhere? If not, I shouldn’t be buying it.
I don’t need a new coat. Getting a new coat would not bring me any significant or lasting joy, at least not any that I couldn’t get elsewhere (like the joy of grabbing that warm coat on the first cold day of the year, which I can get from my current coat).
This is a valuable perspective to apply to everything you might spend money on. That worn coat of mine is just an embodiment of the idea.
Lesson #6: Reliable and Reusable Are Earth-Friendly Concepts
Remember those four worn out and falling apart spring coats that I talked about earlier? Those things were sadly trashed, to my regret. I’m not sure where they all wound up, but wherever it was, it was likely not a positive thing for the environment.
However, this winter coat of mine has been in my home for almost two decades. It has outlasted all of those other coats. It has never taken up space in a trash bin. It has never taken up space in a landfill. And it won’t for quite a while yet.
That’s an Earth-friendly move. Yeah, it’s a small one, but let’s say everyone in America had a winter coat that they didn’t replace for two decades rather than a winter coat replaced every five years. That’s 900 million coats over the course of 20 years. That’s a landfill full of coats (at least).
“Yeah, but what difference does it make?” This goes back to that old analogy of a beach full of starfish. You can’t save all of the starfish – no one can – but you can certainly grab a few and toss them back in the ocean. Buying a long lasting item that won’t need to be replaced soon is the equivalent of tossing a starfish back into the ocean. Thus, you can certainly toss back quite a few starfish in your life.
Lesson #7: The Coat Has Memories
This might seem strange, but when I pull the coat out of the closet, I often think about the many different adventures I’ve had with this coat. I think about sledding down a hill with my kids, especially when they were small. I think about my misadventures with skiing. I think about our trip to Yellowstone when it was unseasonably cold and my choice to bring my winter coat turned out to be a great one.
A new coat wouldn’t have those memories and pleasant thoughts associated with them. A coat that gets replaced every three or four years never has the chance to build up those kinds of associations.
It’s similar to how I feel about our kitchen table. There are a few notable scuffs and scratches on it, and I remember what was happening when almost all of those things happened. There’s a huge scuff that came from a heavy crock that we were using to make a jumbo batch of sauerkraut. There’s a big scratch that my son made with his fork when he was two or three.
Those things have meaning and value to me, and those things go away if we just replace the item as soon as possible. Not only is such a replacement expensive, there’s something of value that’s lost and can ever really be replaced. There’s something special in a worn item.
Lesson #8: The Savings Is Building Toward Greater Things
I’ve made the case that a reliable and long lasting item at a reasonable price saves money compared to buying cheap items that wear out quickly. The financial implications of this are numerous.
First of all, the expense of replacing an item comes up much less frequently. I haven’t bought a new winter coat in almost two decades. It’s just not an expense in my life. Sure, if I replace it with something durable in a decade or so, it might be expensive, but it’s simply a long way down the road.
Second, I’ll see that replacement coming a mile away. The nice thing about having a durable well-made item is that it’s usually pretty clear when it’s getting close to replacement time, but you’re not usually facing an emergency replacement. You have some time to save, to research, and to shop around for another reliable and reasonably-priced replacement. This process won’t be an emergency replacement. I’ll have time to find the right thing and to look for sales.
Third, I can use the money in the interim to build the future I want. Because I know these two things about my coat, I know that the money I might have to throw at a regular coat replacement cycle can go to other purposes in life, namely building the future that I want. It’s a lot easier to save for retirement when you’re not replacing a lot of the regular use items in your life with any sort of frequency.
Obviously, my coat alone isn’t making that kind of difference, but when you add up lots of things that are well made and reliable and don’t have to be replaced, it does make a difference. My goal is to eventually have all of my frequent-use items be well made and reliable so I never have to worry about replacing them, ever, and I’m not too far away from that right now.
Because of that philosophy, I recognize that my worn winter coat and other items like that in my life are contributing to my early retirement goal. There are so many things that I simply don’t have to replace with any frequency, and because of that, my regular expenses are lower, and because of that, I can contribute more to retirement, which is the big financial goal that matters to me.
Lesson #9: I’m Setting an Example
Another thing I value about this worn coat is the example it sets for my children when it comes to practical frugality. You don’t need a new coat every year. You don’t need a new coat every five years. This one keeps doing the job and, yes, real people use items until they’re truly worn out.
I’ve noticed that my children take after this idea. None of them are ashamed to shop for clothes at a secondhand store. They don’t mind used items a bit as long as they work. They appreciate the value in getting something that’s of high quality at a reasonable price rather than the cheapest thing they can find, a phase they seemed to outgrow well before their friends.
It’s also in line with my core social circle. Most of my closest friends apply the same principles to their possessions. Get something that’s good quality, even if it’s used. Use it until it’s genuinely worn out before replacing it. Repeat. The coat is a symbol of that, in a subtle way, and it very subtly reinforces that idea within my social circle.
Although I’m aware of the spotlight effect, I’d like to think that if anyone does really notice my coat, it nudges them in this direction as well. They see a coat with a little wear on it and they think that it’s a good thing, not something to just be replaced immediately.
Lesson #10: The Homework Matters
The final lesson I’m reminded of is how the homework matters with these kinds of purchases.
Finding a well-made and reliable item that does what you want it to for a reasonable price isn’t easy. There are a lot of companies out there selling badly made items, or items that look good at first glance but will fall apart quickly with regular use. Taking the time to sift through the options and find the item that’s actually of high quality does take some time and effort.
However, buying a well made item should be a pretty irregular purchase, so you should have time to do the homework for each one. Let’s say it takes 30 minutes to buy a coat as an off-the-cuff decision, but it’s likely a poorly made coat that will be replaced in five years. If I spend an hour right now researching coats and find a really good one that lasts, then I spend 30 minutes shopping for a good price on that coat, and that coat lasts me for twenty years, I’m still saving time.
The homework pays off, in terms of both money and time. Finding the right item might take some effort, and finding it at the right price might take some diligence, but if you don’t have to replace that item for twenty years, that effort and diligence reap real financial rewards.
My well worn winter coat is emblematic of the kind of life I want to live. I don’t want to spend my time buying poorly made things that won’t last. I don’t want the expense of that, either. Instead, I want items that provide lasting value and perhaps build up a little character as well.
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