Updated on 12.14.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Reliable Items

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Marie writes in: My grandfather was not a wealthy man, but he always told me to buy the best quality I could afford, it will last longer. When I was in my early 20’s I purchased a professional hair dryer for about $250.00. This was in the mid 90’s. So that’s about $20 a year so far. I feel like I am already ahead considering a $20 hairdryer never worked for a year. What products are worth spending money on…and I find when possible buying industrial or professional grade products last longer.

Marie makes a great point, albeit one that’s hard to quantify exactly. I’ll try to dig into it with a few examples, but suffice it to say, it’s really only worth paying significantly more for reliability if you use the item all the time. Of course, if you’re rarely using the item, why buy it to begin with?

Take my kitchen knives, for example. Sarah and I received a good (but not great) kitchen knife set as a wedding gift in 2003. The primary knife I used from that set was the chef’s knife. After about two years of steady use (steady meaning roughly every other day), the chef’s knife was nearly unusable. I could get it moderately sharp immediately after a sharpening, but the blade would lose what little edge it had by the time I was finished chopping a single carrot. The end result was that I was burning significant time sharpening and honing this poor knife, not to mention the extra time spent actually chopping the food plus the mangled food that resulted from this.

I then invested in a single high-end chef’s knife, an $80 Global knife. I still use it every other day, but now I hone it perhaps once a month and haven’t sharpened it in three years. I’d estimate this knife saves me five minutes over the other knife every single day.

Here’s the thing: most people would simply shrug their shoulders at five minutes compared to the $80 cost of a knife. However, over the course of three years, five minutes every other day adds up to 2,738 minutes. That’s about forty five and a half hours I saved not having to deal with the knife. That means my cost per hour saved by that knife is about $1.75.

Now, let’s say I only used a chef’s knife once a month, but I still saved five minutes each use from a better knife. Over three years, that’s 36 uses, which at five minutes each adds up to three hours. My cost per hour in this case is about $27.

Clearly, in the first case, the knife was worth it, but in the second case… not so much. The difference between the two is one thing and one thing alone: frequency of use.

So, take Marie’s case. Let’s say she uses her hair dryer daily. She finds that after 350 daily uses, her $20 cheap hair dryers fail. On the other hand, her industrial dryer has withstood 7,000 daily uses (roughly) and is still going. For her, the industrial dryer is worth it.

Now, let’s look at me. I dry my hair maybe once a month. My hair is short and most of the time, a vigorous towel drying and a comb gets me where I want to be.

For me to burn out a $20 hair dryer, I would have to use it 350 times, as per Marie’s estimation. If I use it once a month, that means I would have to use the dryer for 28 years before it would reach that 350 use level.

For me to reach Marie’s use level on an industrial hair dryer, I would have to use that hair dryer, at my current pace, for 583 years.

Simply put, it’s not cost efficient for me to buy an industrial hair dryer. It probably is for Marie, but it’s not for me. What’s the difference? Frequency of use.

It is absolutely worth your while to own a quality, reliable version of an item you use every day (or close to that). You’ll save a lot of dollars (and/or a lot of time) over the long run in such cases. However, when you start looking at less frequent usage, the math is going to start working against you.

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  1. Kai says:

    If the difference is merely about durability, then your point makes sense.

    But if there is ALSO a difference in performance each time you use it, then it will become worthwhile much more quickly.
    If the two knives worked identically, then it makes sense to just judge the time factor. But given the safety issue of a constantly-dull knife, and the ease and encouragement to cook that come with a good knife, one might still consider it well worthwhile even if it were used only once per month.

    The consequences of a failure in reliability also matter. If my hair dryer fails, I am going to go to work with wet hair. It might be financially worthwhile for me to go for a cheaper one if I don’t use it a lot.
    If I use a car very rarely, I might be able to get by with something that has higher per-kilometre maintenance costs, but if the rare use is for long trips in the mountains, it’s worthwhile for me to pay more for reliability, even on such infrequent use, since the consequence is higher.

  2. lurker carl says:

    Good quality doesn’t mean trouble-free forever. The knee-jerk reaction is to throw stuff away and buy new. Just because something breaks doesn’t mean it can’t be easily repaired. At home. Yourself.

    Junk knives are crappy from day one, not getting progressively worse over the course of two years. Perhaps the knife sharpening skills need honing.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    I’d add a disclaimer that quality is not inherently more expensive.

  4. Claudia says:

    I would like to second valleycat1’s comment – *Quality doesn’t necessarily equal expensive!*

    My favorite quilt, put together from scraps from leftover sewing projects, was essentially free and is by far better than anything I could have bought – at a high price, or a low one.

  5. Mister E says:

    I sincerely hope that the knife not holding its edge through a single carrot is exaggeration.

    Otherwise you did not have a “good, not great” knife, you had a piece of trash.

  6. kristine says:

    I replace my 15 dollar hair dryer once every 6-7 years. My thick hair is down to my hips, and I thoroughly dry it every other day, and use it for artwork as well. A small travel one. Maybe she just needed to use Consumer reports before purchasing!

    I third *Quality doesn’t necessarily equal expensive!*

    Le Crueset, 350 dollar blender, 80 dollar knives… my grandma, and great grandma, cooked huge meals every day, without trouble, with no such expensive implements. They had arguably the highest frequency of use I will ever see from kitchen implements.

    Unless you are a chef, the mercedes benz of kitchen implements are a luxury, and the few minutes you save is paying for the convenience. You can get comparable quality in the middle range. You get to the point of diminishing return on your buck- it’s a parabolic arch of cost-effectiveness, and either end is not an efficient use of money.

  7. Becca says:

    This topic to me almost seems like a justification for buying better quality than is really needed. Sometimes an item is 5% better quality but costs five times as much. Sometimes the quality/cost ratio is not justified. This is especially true when opting for secondhand versus new items, because secondhand is very often a fraction of the cost of a new item.

    I too sew a lot, and I had been making do with secondhand irons. When my latest iron died, and I couldn’t come up with another secondhand $1 iron, I bought a new one for about $35. One day I knocked it to the floor and it quit working. During the time I was using this new iron, I found another cheapie $1 iron. It works perfectly well. I see no major advantage for buying the highest quality iron I can afford. I just keep a stash of yard-sale purchased appliances, as back up in the event my current one dies.

    I have also been using a $5 yard-sale purchased sewing machine. It has a quirk that makes it less than ideal, but I can work with it. I can afford a $500 machine, but for my needs this used one works just fine. I watch for older model (mainly metal) machines at yard sales.

  8. kc says:

    I am a firm believer in buying quality gear, but only when it’s justified.

    Buying a $240 Le Crueset cast iron pot so you can make tuna noodle casserole in it is a waste of money.

  9. Steven says:

    I’m more of a middle man…not cheap, and not expensive. I look for quality and value. I’ve found that cheap isn’t always the best deal over the long term, and that I don’t have a need for top of the line as I’m not sure I could really appreciate the difference.

  10. Rachel says:

    Judgments on the necessity of certain high-end items aside, I would have thought that a better basis for this calculation would have been the number of cheap knives you would have to replace and at what cost, in the time it would take to wear out the $80 knife.

    Clearly you are not going to keep a knife when it reaches a stage where it can’t keep an edge long enough to chop a carrot (and the fact is that you did find yourself in the market for a new knife), so the real variable in this question is where your tipping point is for needing a new knife, whether this is from the perspective of time wasted, food mangled or safety issues.

    A clearer example would be of an appliance that would either work or not work (like a hairdryer), rather than discussing the nuances of how many minutes you are losing every other day to getting the item to a state where it temporarily does more or less what you need it to. The focus on minutes lost and attempt to justify the issue by discussing how they accumulate to a lot over the course of three years detracts, in my opinion, from the perceived relevance of what is actually a good point – quality for things you use frequently can often be worth the price, and even save money in the long run.

  11. getagrip says:

    I agree that frequancy of use and type of use really can be important. I also agree on checking with more independent reviews on quality because sometimes the most expensive isn’t the best. I had bought a more expensive cordless drill a few years back and while putting up drywall recently it died. I picked up a low range replacement (go Consumer Reports) and found it to be a much better value and workhorse.

    One other consideration though is the aging of the item and upgrades in technology. Some “industrial” items become inefficient energy sucking behemoths after so many years. Sure, they might still work, but using them can become more a chore than getting a newer, lighter, more energy efficient and well made model.

  12. But how do you *know* if the more expensive item is higher quality? You don’t always. Sometimes the high-end product can be less reliable: it might have more bells and whistles, each of which could be potential failure points.

    I agree with Steven that it usually works to stay in the middle. Protect yourself from the low-end junk, but avoid ultra-high end. That way you avoid the possible financial risk of an expensive item that doesn’t have the durability or quality that the high price supposedly implies.

  13. Riki says:

    The trick, though, is to know when you’ll even recognize the difference between a high quality and lower quality item.

    A few recent examples from my own life:
    I own a professional camera, but I didn’t buy it until my non-professional camera body was limiting. I’m glad I waited because now I can articulate the subtle differences that really make this camera spectacular. Two years ago? I wouldn’t have appreciated it properly.

    I’m slowly painting every room in my house. I spent some money ($20 each) on very good paintbrushes that make cutting-in as painless as possible. I did NOT go out and get every painting accessory advertised. Nor did I get dollar store paintbrushes . . . well, I confess, I started out with a dollar store paintbrush but it took all of 15 minutes for me to want to burn it.

    I have decent cookware but nothing of very high quality. I love to cook but I don’t have much time for it, so I don’t feel I would get value from spending more money. What I own (including my blackened and oft-scrubbed cookie sheets) works fine for me.

  14. Beth says:

    I get $3 hair dryers at the thrift shop that last about two-five years. I’m WAY ahead of the $250 hair dryer! Price does not equal durability! Somebody saw this sucker a mile away!

  15. Katie says:

    Reliability aside, there’s definitely a quality difference with more expensive hair dryers. I don’t blowdry my hair very often and have a cheapo one, but I was floored by how much better the one I used recently at a nice hotel I stayed at for work was. It probably took a fifth of the time and left my hair smooth instead of frizzy. I still don’t use them often enough to make it worth buying, but durability isn’t the only consideration here.

  16. Kai says:

    For some people, there’s more to it than just money.
    Personally, even if financially cheaper, I could not justify throwing a hair dryer into a landfill every 2-5 years if I could get one that would live for 15-20.

  17. Peggy says:

    I use to buy 5-15 dollar sunglasses. Would lose several pairs a year, and replace them. One day, I decided to purchase a pair that cost me $85, which is a lot of money to me. I have had these sunglasses for 8 years. So in all actuality, they are the cheapest I have ever bought.

    Thanks for the post. I get your point.

  18. CathyG says:

    Just another data point about cheap hairdryers – I bought a used travel-size hair dryer at a garage sale for $1 in 1981 to take to college. I’m still using it as my everyday hair dryer. It works great.

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