Updated on 02.09.07

When Frugal Ideas Clash: Quality Consumer Goods Are Worth The Price

Trent Hamm

Every regular reader of this site knows I can be one cheap person. Just earlier today, for instance, I advocated making your own shampoo and Tabasco sauce to save a few bucks. However, there are limits to the cheapness, as one reader of mine so astutely brought out with a single question:

Is it ever a good idea to choose a more expensive option, based on a percieved, but intangible quality or value?

I thought long and hard about this question and I came to a simple conclusion: yes, it usually is worth it. My more frugal readers will probably believe I’ve lost my mind on this one, but hear me out.

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have much money at all, and while they were pretty good at frugality, they weren’t financial geniuses, either. Thus, when it came time to buy a washing machine, my parents went to Sears and bought the second least expensive washing machine in the whole place. My father actually made the selection after carefully studying an issue of Consumer Reports; he bought their highest ranking washing machine that cost less than $200.

We got the machine home and it performed admirably for a while, but there were several significant problems with it. First, it was louder than a freight train. You could be in the next room and when the washing machine kicked on, you had to shout to continue the conversation. Second, the loads took an incredibly long time to finish, and this basically meant that the machine was always on, from the time I woke up in the morning until the time I went to sleep. With seven people living in the house and a single load spending better than an hour in the machine, that poor washing machine was on more than it was off. Third, it eventually somewhat broke (probably due to heavy use plus the relative cheapness of the thing), causing it to be even louder and also rattle ominously whenever a load was spinning.

The washing machine did its job (it did a solid if not great job of getting clothes clean), but the experience was miserable. Every single person in the house hated that washing machine with a passion, especially my poor mother. By the time it finally died (a few years earlier than a good machine would have), it was almost a celebration when my parents went out to get a new machine.

Here’s the thing. When we bought that washing machine, both of my parents would rather have purchased the number one washer from Consumer Reports. Not only did it rank better in their standardized categorization, just seeing that machine, opening the lid, and examining it told you that it was simply better constructed. Even worse, they could have had it for just another $200.

Now, the cheapskate in me says they could have used that $200 for a lot of things, and the purchase they made did in fact do the job that they wanted. However, if they had simply bought the nicer washing machine, our lives would have been quieter, more sedate, and less stressful for years.

To put it simply, if you’re going to invest in a consumer item, especially one that you’re sure you’re going to use, you’re better off buying a quality model than the cheapest model. That doesn’t mean you should discount price as a factor – it simply means that a consumer item that is going to be a regular part of your life should be a reliable, sturdy piece of equipment, one that you can use again and again without concern – and preferably with a bit of that intangible feeling you get from using something well made.

How does that match up with a frugal lifestyle? It’s pretty simple, actually. While I may make my own shampoo with eggs and rosemary, I also recognize the items that make my life more simple and enjoyable, and if that means spending more on an item with both strong tangible and intangible qualities, and my frugal choices elsewhere have made it possible for me to buy it without damaging my other financial goals, I’ll buy that quality item. To me, that’s what frugality really is all about.

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  1. samerwriter says:

    I completely agree.

    But make sure not to make the mistake of confusing expensive with better quality.

    For example, expensive washers and dryers will generally have extra sensors, extra speeds, extra settings, etc.. All those “extras” are generally things you’ll never use. But they will decrease the reliability of the machine.

    All things equal, simpler is better than more complex.

  2. Mrs L says:

    To use another example, I am extremely brand loyal about my underwear. I could buy cheaper underpants, but the discomfort of something that doesn’t quite fit (wedgies, anyone?) that I’m going to be experiencing all day long is not worth the savings. See also: shoes, pillows, feminine protection. Basically the more time you are going to spend dealing with something, the more care you need to take in choosing it.

  3. Chris says:

    I agree with Mrs L. I am very brand loyal to socks. Surprisingly, wearing a bad pair of socks can ruin my day. The perfect pair sits snug in my shoes and doesn’t shift around during the day. IT provides a cushion for my foot while absorbing all of the sweat it finds.

    Socks are the unsung heroes of the clothing world.

  4. consumer_q says:

    I too consider myself frugal, but I also do my best to purchase goods that are the least harmful to myself, to others, and to the environment around me. This often means that I pay a premium for my organic and Free Trade goods, but in the end I also buy and consume less junk.

  5. Aussie says:

    I totally agree and my husband would probably give you a run for your money in the cheapskate arena =)

    As much as he tries to live by his motto of “Never Pay Full Price” – he will definitely fork over some good cash for items we know we will use constantly.

    Thanks also for the insights into Consumer Report. My husband uses it to research significant purchases were are considering but from reading some of the articles here, it looks like a good tool in general. I am strongly considering a subscription to CR!

  6. William says:

    Finding good deals, quantifying quality, and not simply differing to price is the difference between being frugal and cheap.

    Frugality is the act of making responsible decisions and living a minimalistic lifestyle.

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